Bringing you the issues since 1986

View Online Print Edition


The Vatican continues its move to the right

December, 2009

This has been a year when the signs from Rome suggest the Vatican is moving steadily to the right.

One of those signs is Rome’s investigation into American nuns. This inquiry is concerned with the lifestyle of the nuns and their attitudes toward such issues as female priests, gay marriage and the relationship of the Catholic church to non-Christian religions.

It is curious indeed that Rome should launch a full-scale investigation into American nuns. After all, nuns had virtually nothing to do with the paramount problem in the American church – the child abuse scandal perpetrated by Catholic priests and brothers and aided and abetted by Catholic bishops.

Rome has launched no investigation into either the priests or the bishops. In fact, Cardinal Law, one of the main culprits, was summoned to Rome and promoted. Yet it is the nuns who are under the gun. One reason is the precipitous drop in the number of American nuns. Forty years ago there were 180,000 vowed sisters in the United States. Today there are fewer than 60,000. Yet the number of priests has also dropped sharply during the same period, leaving more than 10 per cent of parishes without resident priests. Why isn’t the priest shortage the subject of an investigation?

During this same period U.S. bishops presided over a sexual abuse scandal that has cost the Catholic community more than $2 billion and the episcopacy much of its moral credibility. So why no visitation for the bishops? One might also ask why virtually no bishops have resigned.

The religious women that Rome is targeting are members of congregations that have taught in Catholic grade schools and high schools, academies and colleges. They are the sisters who have staffed hospitals and worked to relieve homelessness and to develop low-cost housing.

Naturally, American nuns are extremely upset at Rome’s vote of non-confidence in their lifestyles and ministries.

One of them has expressed her disappointment: “There is simply no way of getting away from the fact that in the Catholic Church it is men who tell women how they should understand themselves as women. Rome wants women religious to accept such understandings, not merely without dissent, but without comment. The Vatican does not want independent-minded women theologians or biblical scholars and seemingly won’t read or quote them unless the women mimic the Vatican’s – and that means men’s – voices and views. But we are not ‘men’ or ‘mankind.’ We are persons with minds and hearts and voices who have lived lives of integrity and loyalty and who remain loyal to this church even when it treats us as second-class citizens.”

It will be interesting to see whether this crackdown on nuns will manage to force the toothpaste back in the tube and develop a more docile, conservative sisterhood. The Vatican’s attempt to entice more Anglicans to cross the Tibre also seems to be a move to the right. Those Anglicans who oppose gay marriage and female priests and bishops are the ones most likely to accept the pope’s invitation. This means the most conservative elements of the Anglican church would become Catholics. This development will make the Catholic church more conservative and the Anglican church more liberal.

At the same time, an influx of married Anglican priests into the Catholic church will raise in a dramatic way Rome’s insistence on celibacy for its own priests. It is also interesting to note that on its initiative to reach out to Anglicans, particularly in England, the pope made no effort to consult his English bishops or, for that matter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. This is just one more instance of a further conservative trend in the church – to centralize all authority in Rome.

At the same time, Rome is in discussions with the bishops and priests in the Society of St. Pius X, which rejects the liberalizing teachings of the Second Vatican Council. It was one of those bishops – who denied the Holocaust – that the pope welcomed back into the church.

It is difficult to understand how Rome could sit down and negotiate with a group that rejects most of the teachings of Vatican II, including the Council’s reaching out to the Jewish faith. A former head of the International Council of Christians and Jews, Professor John Pawlikowski, has warned that the pope may be confronted with the negative consequences of his efforts to try to reconcile the ultra-conservative Pius X Society when he goes to the synagogue in Rome on January 17 because many rabbis intend to boycott the visit. He added that Christian-Jewish dialogue is now “in a serious crisis.”

However, this move to more conservatism in the church has just sustained a major setback in Ireland, one of the most conservative Catholic countries in the world.

After a three-year investigation and a 700-page report into the crimes of priestly sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin, the conservative Irish church is reeling. The report on priestly sex abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese reveals that for almost half a century about 50 Irish priests have sexually abused hundreds of innocent children. What’s more, a series of bishops in Dublin aided and abetted this abuse.

Some senior political leaders in Ireland are demanding that these bishops resign. This sexual crisis marks the end of the authoritarian church in Ireland, an authoritarianism that has held sway for centuries and is comparable in some ways to the Quebec church in the times of Maurice Duplessis. Of course, the suffocating grip of the Catholic church in Quebec has long since collapsed. It will be interesting indeed to see if church authority and practice collapse in Ireland.

It will be also interesting to see whether in the coming year the Vatican continues its move to the right. I should think so. Rome seems prepared to live with a smaller conservative church as long as the adherents who remain are docile and obedient.



Post a Comment