The battle that the women religious are now facing has been brewing for a long time.
First, the reforms of Vatican II never really got off the ground in an institutional sense. It’s hard to reform an institution as old, large, and powerful (read, hierarchical) as the Catholic Church. After the unveiling of Vatican II in the late sixties, a lot of reforms cropped up.
Notable was the liberation theology movement that emerged in Latin America and other countries. Prior to this time, the Catholic Church was a dominant power in Mexico as well as Central and South America. It was hierarchical power. In many places and times it was benevolent, but in times of political discord, this power worked to preserve the status of the church over the well-being of the people it served. Liberation theology gave a preferential option to the poor and served that mission rather than preservation of priestly power. Remember that during the decades following Vatican II, many Latino countries were involved in revolutionary wars.
In the late 80s and into the 90s, the hierarchy in Rome dismantled the liberation theology movement. The Catholic Church became much more conservative.
Here in the states, Vatican II brought forth other forms of liberation theologies and progressive ways of being church. But in the past couple of decades, the liberalization of parishes and dioceses has been squashed. Now the bishops are very conservative and more conservative priests have replaced liberal priests. Numbers of Catholics have diminished here and in Western Europe, while new growth has taken place in places like Africa and Asia where people are more used to hierarchical ways of being.
Being women, the nuns here in the US have flown under the radar screen. They have championed social justice issues and have not participated in the pro-life or marriage equality wars. This is their biggest sin, according to the charges against them as promulgated by the Catholic bishops. They are not staying close to the stated teachings of the church (though they are most certainly staying with the teachings of Jesus).
More than decade ago, I made a retreat at a women’s Catholic monastery. It was here where I first became aware of the issues that were beginning to surface pitting the Vatican against the US nuns. This monastery had an excellent library that held many progressive theological books. For instance, they had probably the best collection on feminist theology that I’ve ever seen.
On one display table, there was a letter from then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict): it instructed all libraries to destroy the books of the late priest Anthony DeMello, a beloved retreat leader and author who lived and worked in India (he had an Indian heritage). He was one who was informed by many faiths, including his native Hinduism. So on this table at that monastery, behind the letter, was a display of DeMello’s books. Remember that Cardinal Ratzinger was nicknamed the Pope’s Bulldog.
My point is, the ‘war’ against the nuns is of longer standing than Pope Benedict’s term. And his very election was a calculated move towards growing conservatism and preserving an old hierarchy in Rome.
The last time I was at the Desert House of Prayer in Tucson, we were discussing this issue at one of our non-silent meals. Sister Dorothy, an 80-something year old retreatant who used to be on the staff at the Desert House, was passionate about these issues. We all laughed when she said that her opinion of Cardinal Ratzinger all along was, ‘I smell a rat!’.
I asked Father Tom, a very liberal priest who directs the Desert House, if Rome was ready to write off the United States: his quick response was, Yes.
So the women religious are expendable. Purity of doctrine trumps social justice. I shudder when I think of the numbers of aged nuns who have no assets of their own, though I believe that local parishes will not put them on the streets.
This is a cause that I think we need to pay attention to, not only for its inherent justice issues, but because this is yet another canary in the greater environment of religious institutions in this day and age. This issue is not just about ‘them’, it’s about us and the changes in the religious landscape as well.