New Internationalist

The Vatican shows its true colours

They run hospitals, schools, and social programs. They are stalwart leaders in many spiritual communities. And they are contributing vital insights to the Christian theological discussion. If nuns went on strike, many of the institutions of the Catholic Church would grind to a standstill.

Sure, a work stoppage of this sort is a long shot. But I’d love to see it. Having witnessed both priests and nuns in action, there’s no doubt in my mind which group dominates in the getting-shit-done department. It would be a fine show watching the bishops try to scramble and pick up the slack if the sisters said ‘enough.’

Certainly, the nuns would have good reason to do so. A storm has been brewing since April, when the Vatican released a statement condemning American nuns for showing too much independence of thought and not adequately deferring to the bishops, who, Rome tells us, ‘are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.’ A remarkable June 1 story in the New York Times recounted how the Vatican criticized the sisters for ‘focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping ‘silent’ on abortion and same-sex marriage.’

Then there’s this transgression: ‘During the debate over the health care overhaul in 2010, American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference [of Women Religious], signed a statement supporting it—support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care.’

For such grave sins as spending too much time with the poor, the Vatican has put a bishop (needless to say, a man) in charge of restructuring the nuns’ conference, picking through its handbooks, and approving any speakers it has at its public events – a process scheduled to take up to five years.

In short, the Vatican has made a parody of itself, pulling out its most retrograde positions and doubling down on them. That the Pope is accusing nuns of promoting ‘radical feminist themes’ only shows how out of touch he is with radical feminism.

Earlier this month, just after the nuns decided to publicly speak up in protest, calling their censure ‘unsubstantiated’ and ‘flawed,’ Rome went further by condemning a book by seventy-seven-year-old theologian Sister Margaret Farley. Even though the text in question did not claim to represent official Church teachings, it was dubbed heretical because of its defence of remarriage by divorcees and masturbation (the horror!), not to mention same-sex relationships. Pro-choice advocates have long contended that the attack on reproductive rights doesn’t stop at abortion; it’s a crusade against contraception, sexual freedom, and women’s rights as a whole. Rome has gone far in proving their point.

In a sharp response, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote:

‘The denunciation of Sister Farley’s book is based on the fact that she deals with the modern world as it is. She refuses to fall in line with a Vatican rigidly clinging to an inbred, illusory world where men rule with no backtalk from women, gays are deviants, the divorced can’t remarry, men and women can’t use contraception, masturbation is a grave disorder and celibacy is enshrined, even as a global paedophilia scandal rages.’

Of course, the sisters are amply able to speak for themselves. On June 18, a group of them will embark on a bus tour crossing nine states, in which they will visit food pantries, homeless shelters, and charity ministries. It is a striking and unusual form of civil disobedience within the institution of the Church.’

Last Monday, Sister Simone Campbell went on the Colbert Report to promote the bus tour, stating her case well and giving the satirist some choice opportunities to send up the Vatican.

Since he became Pope, Benedict XVI’s gambit has been to create a Catholic Church that is smaller but, in his view, more devout and obedient. That means deciding that certain Catholics are expendable. Little did we know that women would be one of the groups he would be willing to purge in his misguided quest for purification.

This article originally appeared in Dissent magazine.

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  1. #1 spanners 18 Jun 12

    It could have been a good story up until you quoted the New York Times, it lost all credibility after that.
    Why don't you just try and find out the real reason for the censure and the particular religious orders the censure is aimed at instead of trying to generalise?
    Your story is very poorly researched and has too much conjecture.

  2. #2 Philander P Phiphenheimer 26 Jun 12

    Perhaps the Vatican should be thankful that the nuns are merely silent on the subjects of abortion and gay marriage.

  3. #3 Ms Lee 27 Jun 12

    All of which is why I never became a nun and am no longer a practising Catholic ...

  4. #4 james caulfield 27 Jun 12

    The Vatican's doctrine, ’Life begins at conception’ is erroneous, because conception could not take place if life was not already present in the man and the woman. Therefore, any premeditated sexual act which deliberately destroys the stuff of life, violates the commandment 'you shall not kill'. Each individual must decide whether it is a mortal or a venial sin, but a sin it is and there is nothing any of us can do to change it.

  5. #5 mike mason 28 Jun 12

    the clerics should not stand up say how horrible this sexual abuse tragedy of human suffering is, when they have allowed the tragedy to occur again & again over decades and longer…the clerics wring their hands about injustice in the secular world and at the same time practice blatant injustice toward our children…but now, the Philadelphia jurors who found Msgr. Lynn guilty have done more than any Vatican cleric (in the last 2,000 years) to stop this systemic injustice to our children…give thanks for the Holy Spirit…

  6. #6 Briang 10 Jul 12

    The ’good old boy’ network that runs the Rome Catholic Church, which is one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, uses its control to keep the people in line. It is more profitable to uphold the status quo. The nuns and priests who help the poor will always be second harp.

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About the author

Mark Engler a New Internationalist contributor

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). 

He can be reached via the website

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