The war between the Vatican and American nuns is about bad theology, not gender oppression
Will no one rid the Catholic Church of these turbulent American nuns? Earlier this month, the Vatican rebuked the liberal Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for its unorthodox positions on female priests, contraception and homosexuality. Refusing to back down, one Catholic group has hit the road on a tour called Nuns on the Bus, which aims to show what the modern nun is all about. Apparently, it’s not prayer or charity. Instead, it’s lobbying against federal budget cuts and, by implication, re-electing Barack Obama. So far, there hasn’t been a wimple in sight.
It’s tempting to see the nuns vs Vatican story through the prism of gender politics. Given the American Church’s history of covering up child abuse by priests, it must be galling that the male leadership is taking such a public stance against a group of religious women who are simply fighting for what they regard as equality. From the nuns’ perspective, it’s frustrating that the Church’s teachings on social justice are being subordinated to an obsession with patriarchal orthodoxy.
But this row is about theology, not identity politics. The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions left in the West that simply cannot change. Its theology is like a delicate spider’s web: remove one strand and the entire structure would collapse. It can’t be done.
If, for example, the Church permitted female priests, two possible conclusions would be drawn. First, that God can change his mind. That’s patently absurd, as it undermines faith in the Almighty – God can’t make mistakes. Alternatively, if an exclusively male priesthood was never really part of God’s plan, then perhaps the Church got God wrong? If so, what else has it messed up? Might it be wrong about the resurrection or the virgin birth? How can we trust any doctrinal statement that the Church makes in the future? And without any doctrinal yardstick to measure things by, might female priesthood be an error, too? Is it time for a mature debate about ordaining parrots?
For the Catholic Church, the integrity of its catechism is all. Without it, it really is a bunch of paradoxes that can easily be undone by science or cultural change. That the nuns stop at critiquing its views on sexual identity is oddly arbitrary. Surely reason and empiricism make transubstantiation a nonsense, too?
But, say the sisters’ supporters, the Church has changed its mind on other stuff – so why not this? On that point they are totally wrong, at least when it comes to matters of religious doctrine. Take slavery, which is regularly invoked as an example of something that civil society compelled the Church to reconsider. In fact, Catholicism has always regarded it as immoral. In the 1300s, Saint Thomas Aquinas concluded that slavery was a sin (he made the same judgement of serfdom) and the Vatican upheld this position, culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537. It was Paul III who stated that the natives of the Spanish American Empire were humans and thus could not be enslaved. It is true that several popes traded in slaves. But never confuse the moral failings of individual Catholics with their theological doctrine. Those men erred – just as the modern priests who abused children erred.
In short, the Catholic Church cannot change and it cannot indulge rumours of past error. Arguably, it doesn’t have to because it has never been proven theologically wrong.
If this is obvious to a layman, then why do the American nuns persist with their theological innovation? Alas, the answer is that some of them simply aren’t very Catholic. Or, at least, their Catholicity takes a second place to their political liberalism. [More]
Tim Stanley/The Telegraph