Most of us have a preconceived image of what a “radical” looks like, especially when used within the spectrum of political discourse. If you’re employed by Roger Ailes, what comes to mind is probably something like the protest scene in Forrest Gump: thousands of unkempt, godless hippies cloaked in a force field of patchouli and feral animal stink, holding up Mao’s Little Red Book and threatening to use the Constitution to roll a giant joint. However, unlike Forrest, they are not sorry to break up your Black Panther party and actually support warrantless wiretaps to infiltrate it and every other pocket of Che Guevara t-shirt wearing freaks north of the Rio Grande. On the other side of the coin, us communist heathens see radicalism in the form of Klan rallies and those sad old folks who spend their days holding up placards with dead fetuses on them outside of Planned Parenthood clinics. For liberals, a radical is someone who might, I don’t know, accuse government employees of being secret spies for the Muslim Brotherhood because they worship at a mosque. But, regardless of your political leanings, there are certain groups that are more or less exempt from the label of radicalism. Nuns, according to the Catholic Church, have not been granted such an exemption.
Apparently, under the guise of religious devotion and piety, nuns in America have been undermining the Vatican and failing to adhere to it’s doctrines. A recent survey done by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, unearthed what was described by Vatican officials as “radical-feminist themes” in American convents and has ordered a 5 year oversight committee to monitor the nuns’ activities and make sure they aren’t straying too far off message. What, pray tell, were these egregious acts of rebellion perpetrated by these rogue nuns? According to the Pope and his minions, the nuns were guilty of being silent on issues relating to abortion and homosexuality, and for this they must be punished. The nuns didn’t come out and support pro-choice groups or advocate for gay marriage. All they did was let these hyper-political topics fall by the wayside so that they could focus on what the Vatican acknowledges are “great contributions…in schools, hospitals & institutions for the poor.”1 In short, they gave as much attention to the issues of abortion and homosexuality as Christ himself did and went about the business of ministering to the needy.
For their troubles, American nuns have become reluctantly embroiled in what amounts to a referendum on the doctrinal responsibilities of the Roman Catholic Church and, perhaps more importantly, a heated discussion on the patriarchal hierarchy at the center of it. The rift between the Vatican and the majority of American sisters has grown steadily over the past half century after the Vatican II council opened the doors for the easing of many of the traditional practices and restrictions placed on nuns. While it hasn’t really caught on in the popular imagination, most nuns in the US are not clad in the traditional black and white habits we expect to see them in, nor do many modern US nuns cloister themselves away in convents far away from the prying eyes of society. The Leadership Council of Women Religious, a body that represents around 80% of all nuns nationwide, instead places renewed emphasis on ministering to the poor and keeping with the traditions of Catholic social justice from a place within the community. In essence, this conflict boils down to a question of autonomy and obedience. The Vatican doesn’t like the nuns expressing their own opinions on doctrinal issues, even if those opinions take the form of respectful neutrality. The Vatican report stated that since all nuns took a vow of obedience, they essentially gave up their right to free thought. As they see it, “the teaching of the church calls for the religious submission of intellect and will.”2 Put another way, the nuns see themselves are responsible to God and their ministry while The Vatican sees the nuns as being responsible to them.
Given the historic myopathy of the Papacy, it should come as no surprise that the higher-ups in The Vatican were shocked at the backlash they received from American Catholics for chastising the nuns. The Vatican apparently never considered the fact that a bunch of crusty old men living in a golden city demanding that a group of chaste, revered holy women submit to their will might provoke some strong reactions. Then again, the Catholic Church has never been one for forethought…or progress. Given their nearly two millennium long track record of being consistently behind whatever times they were in, it should come as no surprise that the Vatican has yet to jump on that, “holy crap, women are people too,” bandwagon yet. However, I do find it fascinating that they have let their beyond antiquated views on the role of women in society jeopardize their future as a major player in 21st century American religious life.
Let’s face it. Catholicism is an old religion for old people. Well, let me revise that. Catholicism is an old religion for old people and Hispanics/Latinos. The percentage of Americans who self-identify as Catholic has remained the same over the past half century at roughly 25%, but their demographic makeup has changed dramatically. The Conference of Catholic Bishops say that 39% of all American Catholics today are Hispanic/Latino, and that group has been responsible for 71% of all growth within the church since the 1960s. On the flip side, no religion in the nation has come close to matching Catholicism’s dismal retention rate. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Faith in Flux report, 32% of Americans who were raised Catholic no longer identify with the faith3. Of that 32% about half converted to Protestant faiths, while the remaining half are either unaffiliated with any church or belong to a non-Christian faith. To make matters worse, while Catholics are leaving in droves, they are not joining as quickly. Catholics who have left the church now outnumber those who have joined the church by a 4-to-1 margin in this country.
Even more alarming for Catholic dioceses around the country is the aging and dying off of hundreds of thousands of priests and nuns. In 1965 there were nearly 59,000 priests and 180,000 nuns in this country. Today, those numbers have shrunk to around 39,000 priests and 54,000 nuns4. Not only that, but the average age for members of the two groups is 63 and 65 years old respectively. The reasons for this graying of the clergy are fairly obvious and they lie in the overbearing, taskmasterly approach of Catholic leadership. Is it any wonder why young American women aren’t turning out in droves to join the sisterhood when they see nuns who are doing good works rebuked by their Vatican masters for thinking for themselves? Hell, it’s already bad enough that you can’t sleep with anyone for the rest of your natural born life. Now you have to stay under the thumb of your Catholic dad too? That sounds like a pretty raw deal when you could be an Episcopal bishop as a woman and sleep with whoever your pious heart desired, be they man or woman, provided it was done within the context of a loving monogamous relationship. It’s a really tough choice. Have freedom, religious autonomy and get laid or be hemmed in by two millennia of doctrinal constraints, be chastised regularly while remaining celibate? Let’s check back in a decade or two and see how they answered.