Pope orders doctrinal investigation of nuns' leadership organization

arrivalofursulines1928Here’s a story that could have been written pretty much at any point in Western history from the tenth or eleventh century on*:  According to the Toledo Blade, Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair’s investigation “will look at adherence to Catholic doctrine by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization based in Silver Springs, Md., with 1,500 nuns in leadership positions representing 95 percent of the nation’s 67,000 Catholic sisters.”  The inquiry will focus on three areas of concern:  “promoting the ordination of women, salvation through Christ alone, and ‘the problem of homosexuality.'”  Amazonianism!  Antinomianism!  Unnatural disobedience!  (What, no investigation of Holocaust denial among women religious?  Thanks to plugged-in, Toledo Blade-reading, Ursuline-educated reader “Mother of ALL” for the tip.)  By the way–S.N.A.P. (Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests) doesn’t like or trust Bishop Blair because of what they see as his “terrible track record on child sex abuse and cover-up.” 

The National Catholic Reporter story on which this article seems to be based says that this investigation appears to be related to another investigation of the apostolic women’s orders:  “The Visitation, which will collect and assimilate data and observations about religious life, will be limited to apostolic institutes, those actively engaged in service to Church and society. Cloistered, contemplative sisters, who have distinctly different lifestyles, are excluded from the study.”  (Emphasis mine.) 

Women religious, no matter how poor or small in numbers, just can’t be trusted!  They must be brought to heel and put more directly under a Bishop’s control!  We’ve been saying this for at least a full millennium now–but this time we’ll make it stickUnfortunately, I fear that moves like this could be the final nails in the coffin for Catholic women’s communities in North America and Europe.  (Or is predicting the end of women religious just as short-sighted and futile as Papal and Diocesan efforts to control nuns?  After all, the nuns have persisted, just as they’ve been continuously innovative in finding ways of doing whatever it is they want to do, regardless of what Popes or Bishops have said.)  Modern affluent societies offer women so many options now that joining a religious order isn’t our only choice outside of marriage, motherhood, and/or prostitution.  I think the youngest sisters in the convent where I’ve been doing research for the past few years are in their 70s, and the girls’ school there has only lay teachers now.  Within a few years, my guess is that it will become another Quebec heritage site–after nearly 400 years, it will likely cease to be a living religious community.  (Then again, environmental collapse or global disaster on an unprecedented scale could potentially return survivors to the safety of walled cities and claustration–so I should look on the bright side, right?)

*a modern historian’s ballpark guess–maybe Another Damned Medievalist or another early medievalist will correct me and point out that it could have been written as early as the eighth century?

0 thoughts on “Pope orders doctrinal investigation of nuns' leadership organization

  1. My paw said if you read it in the Peach, it’s so. Was this in the Peach section by any chance? Not clear what the jurisdictional basis is that would give the Toledo prelate authority over goings on in Silver Spring, but there must be something. I just referred this Q. to my colleague in the Early Republic, whose research is on women religious, and he may offer an advisory view. The 300 or so nuns who stormed the last day of an American Studies conference I was at in Sydney, Au, last summer–well, it was winter down there–didn’t seem as though you could corral them with a writ emanating out of Toledo, Ohio, or Toledo, Spain, for that matter.


  2. Indyanna, sadly this wasn’t in the Peach. I guess when the Pope decides, it doesn’t matter where your jurisdiction is. The article said that the Vatican is looking kindly upon Bishop Blair. God only knows why!


  3. Hmmmm…I wonder if that means I should convert? No, I guess I can wait & see if civilization does collapse. BTW I enjoyed the Jan/09 post, too. Thanks for the link. Trois Rivieres is a pretty area.


  4. Sigh. How appalling. Whatever “assessment” means, it is pretty clear that the women religious will not be getting the same treatment as the Society of St. Pius X or Opus Dei.

    “Deny the Holocaust, fine… just don’t say anything about it on Swedish Television the week before we bring you back into the fold.” But, “Women taking leadership initiative in the Church!?! Call the Inquisition!”

    I remember being taught in Catholic High School that marriage was a vocation too. At the last wedding I attended, my godparents noted that not a single cousin had gotten married in the Catholic Church. A generation ago (you know during the culture wars of the 1960s, Vatican II, when everything was liberal and permissive, blah, blah,) my dad converted to marry my mom. They raised their three kids (me and my two sisters) in the church, we all got confirmed, etc. Its funny how nowadays, when the neo-trads are large and in charge, that doesn’t happen so much anymore.

    Speaking of neo-Traditionalists and double standards, do you think Mel Gibson is going to get an annulment? Does he have enough chits in with Pope Benny and LA archdiocese to get one? Or will he have to just lump it and settle for a divorce? How many times do you have to go to Latin Mass to get enough tokens in the Church’s treasury merit to earn an annulment anyway?


  5. Thanks, Lilian! You know, Matt–I’ve been thinking about Mel this weekend, and his 24-year old new girlfriend and how he reconciles her with his faith and all of his public blather about marriage and the gift of children blah blah blah. I guess it’s a lesson not to get on one’s high horse about marriage. Oh, and maybe don’t cheat on your wife with a woman young enough to be your child? I’m glad for Mel’s wife that they didn’t have a prenup.

    I wonder if he will seek annulment? I suppose that’s only important if he wants to remarry. Most people only seek annulment when they want to remarry–understandably in my view. But I’ve had more than one child of a newly annuled marriage tell me that they were irritated by the annulment’s presumed erasure of their own existence.


  6. Hey Historiann! I kinda wondered how the whole annulment thing worked when there were children involved. That has to be pretty irksome… “OK…So none of this marriage really happened and now, none of you kids are really here!” Annulment is sort of a theological “Ctr-Z”/Undo.


  7. Not erased, just bastardized. Only “not really,” despite that being the logical conclusion of the marriage never having existed in the first place. At least, “no, not really” was what I was told when my parents’ marriage suddenly no longer had ever happened… yeah, I kind of put it in quotes then, too.

    Thanks for the links to the Ursulines; the museum in Quebec City is really quite amazing to visit.


  8. It is time to stop worshiping the past, and time to start discerning what God really desires about the ordination of women (and other issues of human sexuality) here and now. According to St Cyprian (3rd Century CE), “A custom without truth is ancient error.” But the attachment to old customs without truth will continue until popes and bishops are hit in their pocketbook, and this will not happen until a critical mass of Roman Catholics stop giving money to the church, and this will take a long time. It is so much easier to keep going to church, to keep giving money so as to remain in good terms with the pastor and parish friends, and then go out and (never mind what the Vatican says) “enjoy” human sexuality – the gift of love and the gift of life – either responsibly or irresponsibly.


  9. I don’t want this to be read as an anti-Catholic post (or to become an anti-Catholic thread), but rather as a bemused post at the ways in which women religious have been subjected to attempts to control them and their work for 1100 years or so.

    I understand why millions of women are Catholic–it’s what they believe. I just wish that the church leadership for the past 1100+ years were more respectful of women’s work and women’s contributions. Many will argue that 1100+ years is a long enough time to wait for change–and I agree. But, it’s what people believe, and what I admire about the Roman Catholic church is its ability to embrace everyone from Dorothy Day to members of Opus Dei. Who gets to say what the Church is? Of course, there’s only one orthodox answer to that (the Pope) but I think most people will recognize that it’s more complicated than that in terms of how human institutions and faith communities work.


  10. I think you can pretty much track the attitude towards women in the church (not just women religious) to the beginning of the Church. Let’s face it, many of the early Church Fathers were heavily influenced by neoplatonic thought. Some of them doubted women even had souls. They saw women as weak and needing strict control to prevent them being used by the devil in his attempt to sway man away from the righteous path. And so to this day, the Church is still trying to control women, especially any who are publicly Catholic women, like women religious.

    When I was discerning religious life, I heard so many stories from various religious about how the history of their religious order was controlled and directed by whatever Bishop was displeased with them at the time. And yet, for all their attempts to control religious, they certainly took advantage of their work and certainly never attempted to help them make ends meet while they did the work of the Church.

    As much as things change, they just stay the same.


  11. Historiann, I wasn’t being rude or flippant. Honest. It was more one of those overly blunt cries from the heart. I mean, I know it’s what they believe. But why? How can anyone go through life accepting a framework for the whole universe that tells them they’re subhumans?

    Nuns do incredible work, and they do it in the name of a religion that tells them they’re not fit to be priests. Hell, they’re not fit to hold any “leadership positions” and some guy, who’s probably not doing anything useful for his fellow human beings, needs to investigate them for being organized enough to run a soup kitchen. Why don’t the nuns resign in mass? Or at least get offended and tell him to go soak his head?

    I don’t know if there’s an answer to my question that I could understand (for Catholicism or any other religion). And you do point in the same direction when you note that “this could be the final nails in the coffin for Catholic women’s communities in North America and Europe.” I would think so! My bogglement is that there are any left at all.


  12. quixote–I don’t think you were rude–I just didn’t want people to think this thread was veering in the direction of ranting about Catholicism in general. It’s clear to me from your further comments that this is a Church leadership issue, and it’s certainly not anti-Catholicism to criticize leaders and leadership.

    I share your frustration with moves by leadership like the one described above, but I think there is a logic to women’s continued faith in Catholicism and the church. It’s what they believe, and many uppity women aren’t going to let this or that bishop or Pope tell them what the church is or isn’t. Women religious will continue to nod, and then turn away to do whatever they like.

    Most of us are members of corrupt organizations: the organizations that employ us, or marriage, or holding a passport/being a citizen of a nation. But they’re not corrupt everywhere for all time–most of us find communities or corners of these organizations that suit our needs and that work for us, right? I think that’s how many women and men feel about the Church.


  13. And Maritzia–thanks for stopping by to comment. Yes, the men of the Church have relied on women’s volunteer or even free labor as much as heteropatriarchy (marriage) and advanced capitalism. Underpaying or refusing to pay women at all for their labor is what makes the world go ’round, right?


  14. At the risk of furthering a tangent, a note on the annulment/legitimacy of children issue.

    People really need to get this straight, since failing to obviously does great damage. In Latin Rite Catholic canon law, a marriage is presumed valid until proven otherwise. If a couple believe, in good faith, that they are legitimately married when they have kids, the kids ARE LEGITIMATE, even if the marriage is later declared canonically null (which means that it did not meet the conditions for a sacramental, non-dissoluble relationship). It’s sad that people needlessly suffer (and often resent the Church), from not understanding this. If I were teaching seminarians, I would drill this into their heads; any parish priest should be able to explain it clearly.

    This was sorted out In the Middle Ages. For example: Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine had two daughters before their marriage was declared null. Those daughters were never considered illegitimate, or ‘erased’. The Church also considered kids canonically legitimate if the parents were not married when they had them, but legally could have been (ie neither was married to someone else, or had vows of chastity) and subsequently did get married. This was WAY more lenient than English secular law, which considered such kids bastards, while their younger born-in-wedlock siblings were legitimate.

    Incidentally, I think the two investigations of women religious are quite different from each other, and I have a much less sinister view of both than I see expressed here. But it’s late and I have papers to grade …


  15. This issue will undoubtedly bring seperation. Seperation between Catholics and the Vatican Empire. It is very easy for all to see the truth behind this move; the Vatican has nothing else to do but flex their so called spiritual muscle. They are dealing with a powerful intellectual force, Women. Did the Pope ever watch Oprah?


  16. All through its history the church has demonized women, including doing its share during the 1500s – 1700 to burn witches at the stake, most of whom were women.

    Who else does this type of attitude remind us of


    its the old story – tyrants all think alike.

    Hopefully the nuns will all soon quit, and no new ones will join the orders.

    And then more will sing out in joy – Free at last, free at last.

    As hte whole western world needs to be able to do re our owwn version of islam


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