Nuns on the run

Why is the Vatican cracking down on dissident American nuns?

Nuns aren't what they used to be.  Go to the website of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organisation that represents around 80 per cent of American convents and religious sisterhoods, and there isn't a wimple or a rosary in sight.  Instead you'll find a group of women who could be members of the WI: greying, wearing sensible sweaters, full of purpose.  

Probe further and you may detect a whiff of New Agery along with the calls to social activism.  The organisation hosts conferences with titles like "Women of spirit: creating in chaos", "Embracing the dream" and "Religious life on the edge of tomorrow".   "We welcome new ideas and new ways of living religious life into the future," proclaims the LCWR mission statement.  

A section entitled "Resolutions to Action" gives some insight into where they think their priorities lie.  The latest is entitled "We are the 99 per cent -- the Occupy Movement".  The one before that proclaims "Economic Justice Advocacy Critically Needed." There are calls to reduce the world's carbon footprint and to eliminate global hunger.  One is highly critical of WalMart.  There's a resolution calling for an end to capital punishment in the USA , but you look in vain for the kind of campaigns most closely associated with organised Catholicism; against abortion, contraception or gay marriage.

While no-one would claim that campaigns against global poverty are contrary to Catholic teaching -- Pope Benedict's major encyclical Caritas in Veritate was after all devoted to the subject -- the LCWR's emphasis stands in stark contrast to that of the male church leadership in the United States, currently waging war on the Obama administration's contraception mandate in the name of religious freedom.  Their campaign has won significant political concessions (though not enough to satisfy them), but left many ordinary Catholics cold. (It's no coincidence, surely, that most of Rick Santorum's support during his recently aborted campaign for the Republican nomination came from Protestant Evangelicals rather than from his fellow Roman Catholics.)

The LCWR, which recently infuriated the US bishops by publicly supporting the health reforms, has long been seen by conservative American Catholics as a swamp of unreconstructed liberalism stuck in a 1970s timewarp.  For the past few years it has been under investigation by the Vatican 's theological watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal Ratzinger's fiefdom for more than twenty years) and on Wednesday they dropped their bombshell. The LCWR is to be put under the control of the Archbishop of Seattle for the next five years, its constitution rewritten, its activities scrutinised, its liturgies reformed, its erroneous thought-processes set right. The report didn't quite demand that these nuns put their wimples back on; but it might as well have done.

The CDF describes the situation as "grave and a matter of serious concern". Among the theological and institutional errors it identified are "radical feminism", "corporate dissent" (for example, questioning official church positions on women's ordination and homosexuality) and  being "silent on the right to life from conception to natural death."  Heretical opinions, it complained, have been expressed at CLWR conferences and gone uncensured.

The organisation's leadership professed themselves "stunned" by the findings, asking supporters for prayers while they considered their response.  Sister Joan Chittister, a former LCWR president, was more outspoken, calling the report's conclusions "immoral" and the prospect of oversight "demeaning the ability of women to make distinctions." She accused the Vatican of "attempting to control people for one thing and one thing only -- and that is for thinking, for being willing to discuss the issues of the age."

Church sources have stressed that the move against LCWR is motivated by doctrinal concerns rather than politics.  But in Benedict's Vatican the theological is political.  Take for example a speech delivered at the LCWR conference in 2007 by Sister Laurie Brink, which was singled out for criticism in the report.  The authors complain that she had spoken of some nuns "moving beyond the church" or even beyond Jesus, words that CDF chief Cardinal Levada interpreted as "a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs" but "a serious source of scandal [which] is incompatible with religious life."  Such "unacceptable positions routinely go unchallenged by the LCWR," the report continued.

Sister Laurie did indeed appear to praise progressive nuns whose views she described as  "post-Christian", who went beyond the institutional church to find "a wholly new way of being holy that is integrative, non-dominating, and inclusive."  But even more explosive may have been her comments about the institutional church, which she accused of "reneging on the promises of Vatican II".  

For Brink it was "painfully clear" that there was a rift between the leadership of the Catholic Church in the USA and ordinary Catholics, and that "the more theologically educated the laity become, the more edgy the hierarchy".  She mentioned "theologians denied academic freedom", women who felt "scrutinized simply because of their biology", gays and lesbians who desired  "to participate as fully human, fully sexual Catholics within their parishes" and young people who felt increasingly alienated.  She accused the church of "abuse, oppression, neglect and domination."

In its present mindset, the Vatican is unable to hear such complaints, let alone act on them.  It's no doubt convenient that Brink spoke warmly of groups who had given up on the church entirely and embraced religious pluralism.  Such language enables the CDF to present the crackdown as little more than a defence of core Catholic beliefs such as the divinity of Christ.  

The reality may be subtly different.  Must LCRW-affiliated nuns are not "post-Christian", but the organisation as a whole has developed a tone that doesn't fit well with the Vatican 's current  highly traditionalist agenda, which sees efforts to embrace change as a sell-out to secular modernity.  They're not singing from the same hymn-sheet, so to speak.  Without being reductive, it may partly be that a group of women, meeting together without male supervision, comes up with a different set of priorities than the US Bishops Conference.  Let alone the Vatican.
 

Two nuns walk towards Ground Zero in New York. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder