It’s never been particularly easy for strong women to use their gifts within the Roman Catholic church’s hierarchical structure and their understanding of the separate roles prescribed for men and women. These days, though, it’s getting even harder — and the debate is not something that affects solely Roman Catholics.
Look at the ongoing health care battle.
At the height of the debate over health insurance reform last Spring, the Catholic Health Association chair, Sister Carol Keehan, came out in support of the Senate bill, much to the chagrin and anger of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who were demanding that only the Stupak House version was morally acceptable. Back in March, I described the CHA statement defending the acceptability of the Senate bill like this:
After noting what they [the CHA] see as the positives of the Senate bill, they took a very direct swipe at the bishops:
And despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments – $250 million – in support of pregnant women. This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.
They said it politely, but the message is clear: the bishops are either liars or dupes, neither of which is terribly attractive.
As you might imagine, telling the political world that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is wrong about something didn’t go down well with the members of the USCCB.
The USCCB and CHA both had major meetings last week (separately), and the tensions between the two groups are clear. Despite the efforts to put on a nice public face, they are increasingly nasty behind closed doors. In a piece on Wednesday of last week in the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen noted that neither side is backing down:
"We would not have supported the legislation if it were inconsistent with our values as a ministry of the church," said Colleen Scanlon, a lay medical professional and chair of the CHA Board of Trustees, in remarks opening the [CHA] assembly. . . .
At roughly the same time, the U.S. bishops gathered in St. Petersburg, Fla., for their June 14-18 spring assembly. Though designed as a spiritual retreat, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the conference, added a discussion of health care reform at the beginning. Speaking by telephone, George told NCR on June 16 that it was an informational session, and that no decisions were made.
George, too, stuck to his guns, arguing that the dispute with the CHA involves a core ecclesiological principle "about the nature of the church itself, one that has to concern the bishops" – namely, who speaks for the church on faith and morals?
It takes a lot of guts for Catholic women religious to stand up to the USCCB under any circumstances, but the various women’s religious orders in the US are in the midst of a Vatican-ordered "visitation" — an inquiry into their theological soundness and the quality of life in each order. As Tom Fox of NCR wrote in April 2009:
The Vatican assessment has become necessary, according to [Cardinal William] Levada, because at the 2001 meeting between the women’s leadership conference and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [headed by Levada], which took place in Rome, the women were invited “to report on the initiatives taken or planned” to promote the reception of three areas of Vatican doctrinal concern: the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis [which reinforced the restriction of the priesthood to men only], the 2000 declaration Dominus Jesus from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [which declares non-Catholic Christians to be "gravely deficient" and their communities to suffer "defects"], and “the problem of homosexuality.” . . .
Regarding the investigation of the women’s leadership conference, Levada informed conference leaders: “Given both the tenor and the doctrinal content of various addresses given at the annual assemblies of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the intervening years, this Dicastery can only conclude that the problems which had motivated its request in 2001 continue to be present.”
As a result, Levada said, the Vatican had decided “a doctrinal assessment” of the “activities and initiatives of the LCWR would be helpful.”
(There’s a long history of tension between the women religious and some in the Vatican. See more of NCR’s reporting on the visitation here.)
But back to Wednesday of last week . . .
On the same day as Allen’s story came out, the much more conservative Catholic News Agency released a story that went much farther, with some rather inflammatory quotes from USCCB chair, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, at a closed door meeting (emphasis added):
According to the Archbishop of Chicago, when the Stupak Amendment was defeated in the Senate in December 2009, “everything went south.”
That is when “the Catholic Health Association and other so-called Catholic groups provided cover for those on the fence to support Obama and the administration.”
Cardinal George clearly remarked that “Sr. Carol and her colleagues are to blame” for the passage of the health care bill. He continued by revealing that the bishops repeatedly tried to reach out to Sr. Keehan both before and after the vote. “I personally met with her in March to no avail,” the cardinal reported.
In April, three bishops of the USCCB ad hoc Health Care Concerns Committee, Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Kevin Vann of Fort Worth and Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, also met with Sr. Keehan to try to make her understand the bishop’s concerns and thus bring CHA back in line with Church teachings, however the meeting concluded with “the same frustrating results.”
The president of the USCCB reiterated the bishop’s fundamental opposition to the health care reform. “The bill which was passed is fundamentally flawed. The Executive Order is meaningless. Sr. Carol is mistaken in thinking that this is pro-life legislation,” Cardinal George emphatically said.
The cardinal also expressed disappointment with CHA “and other so-called Catholic groups” because, “in the end, they have weakened the moral voice of the bishops in the U.S.”
"So-called" Catholics? Take that, you uppity women. Note especially that last section: what matters most, George is saying, is that the power of bishops be preserved.
On Monday, Helen Osman, the media person at the USCCB, pushed back, claiming that the quotes were fabricated: "I was in the room, as a member of the USCCB staff, for the presentation. And the official audio file that recorded the session for USCCB archives confirms my memory."
What’s that? Something about "the official audio file?" Says Osman, don’t even think about it:
To honor the bishops’ privacy and confidentiality, we will not be releasing the transcript. It’s unfortunate if someone breached that confidentiality; also unfortunate if CNA tried to take an educated guess at what the cardinal might have said and cobbled together its own fabrication of the session.
But CNA stands by their story, saying that several bishops had confirmed the quotes to them, and they called on the USCCB to release not a transcript, but the actual audio recording of the session.
On Tuesday, back at NCR, John Allen noted that because NCR has gotten pulled into the story with CNA and the USCCB, he was releasing a full transcript of his interview with Cardinal George (which was not confidential) which was part of his earlier story. In that interview, the cardinal’s general viewpoint fits quite well with what CNA reported in their initial story. Cardinal George and others in the USCCB are quite put out that anyone would dare to disagree with them and have the temerity to call themselves Catholic, because it is the bishops who have the role of speaking for the church.
Had Cardinal George left it there, it would have been a pretty benign response, but he then opened himself up to charges of violating Godwin’s law by invoking Nazis. He didn’t directly call Sister Keehan and the CHA folks Nazis, but compared the US bishops today to a WWII era cardinal who was recently beafied for his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis because of his opposition to euthanasia and the laws that allowed it, implicitly putting CNA on the side of those who made him a martyr.
For those of us on the outside, it would be easy to write this all off as an in-house spat within the Roman Catholic Church. But we’re talking about the same folks that recently strengthened the rules by which Catholic health care providers must operate [pdf here], demanding that such institutions and the medical people associated with them override the expressed wishes of a patient and/or patient’s family if those wishes conflict with what the bishops believe about end of life decisions, abortion, and other health care issues. We’re talking about the same folks who recently backed the automatic excommunication of the senior administrator at a Roman Catholic hospital in Phoenix for approving a life-saving abortion. (Just yesterday, the USCCB reiterated their position again.)
I’ll give you two guesses as to that senior administrator’s gender.
These battles in the Catholic Church affect everyone who enters an emergency room at a Catholic hospital, and everyone who deals with a medical practitioner who works at a facility that receives funds from the Catholic church. The political world got a glimpse of the force that the bishops can bring to bear in the recent health care debates, and from what I’m seeing in the Catholic media, the bishops aren’t done trying to throw their weight around.
It’s the sisters who are taking the first hit, but stay tuned, because the bishops aren’t done in DC. Not by a long shot. If the bishops have their way, they’ll be writing the rules for the entire US health care system, not simply those institution with "Catholic" in their charters. They’re coming back to fix the flaws in health care reform, and going after emergency contraception while they’re at it.
I may not be a nun, but I’m speaking up for them now, before it’s too late.