Friday, April 20, 2012

Nuns Sent to the Office

The current mess in the American Catholic Church has definite parallels to the general American political mess, with its sudden and violent moves to the farthest right and the reaction to the reactionaries.  But by its nature, and by my experience, it suggests dimensions that aren't always clear in the larger political culture.

By its nature it reminds us of moral dimensions and moral stakes involved in politics.  It reminds us of the moral --I think you can call it moral--call of the American founding documents, and of the practical conflicts this sometimes creates for American Catholics when their church leaders conflict with the moral basis of the country.

By experience, I see it with the education of twelve years in Catholic schools and my own involvement then in the Church, as well as reflecting on it all today.  And today, reading about some of the current--very current--controversies involving the Church, I reflected on the halls of high school, and how at a certain point there, imagining the Inquisition was not difficult.

The controversies involve: the Vatican coming down strong on the umbrella organization of U.S. Catholic nuns for insufficient zeal in attacking gay rights, abortion etc. in favor of too much progressive talk, particularly in listening to discussions at their convention that question and run counter to their orthodoxy. 

Believe me, it's a little hard for me to conceptualize nuns as champions of free speech and free thought, in the vanguard of progressive values and advocacy, but it is apparently so. (Apparently one change is that the nuns are more in control of the institutions they used to serve, for free.)  The response however is familiar.  It is also part of a pattern, some believe, in the current Pope being who many thought he was going to be when he became Pope in 2005, this century's Grand Inquistor.  It is happening when a far rightist Holocaust denier and his organization separated from the Church are apparently being welcomed back.   

Part of the trouble the nuns are in may well be their support of universal healthcare (something about healing the sick) and specifically the Affordable Care Act. (Operative graphs of the USA Today story: "(Many bishops were angered when LCWR and Network, along with the Catholic Health Association, endorsed President Obama's health care reform over the bishops' objections. LCWR and Network recently endorsed Obama's compromise with the bishop over a mandate to provide insurance coverage for birth control for employees at religious institutions, even as the bishops continue to fight it.")

  That refers to the U.S. Catholic bishops, and they have been all over the place on this, with some condemning especially the legal inclusion of the same health care provisions for employees of Catholic institutions serving the public as everybody else in the USA.  But the Bishops have also (as a group) condemned the rightist Paul Ryan budget for cutting food stamps and other provisions for the poor as "unjustified and wrong."

Ryan pushed back, saying this wasn't the view of all the Bishops.  He was probably thinking of the Bishop of Peoria, who distinguished himself this week by preaching from the pulpit at halftime of the Mass, likening President Obama to Hitler and Stalin for following an extremist path in oppressing the Church.  He should be--but probably won't be--getting another object lesson in the American Way, because making political statements in favor of or opposed to a candidate is a violation of the statutes granting the Church tax exempt status. 

So, ever since the kerfluffle over the contraception coverage, and viewing the disease of partisan religion imposing itself on the electoral process, I've been sent back in memory to my high school days, when our teachers (nuns and priests) kept repeating that you can't legislate morality.  Our President when my my h.s. sentence started (but not for long) was Kennedy, and the separation of Church and State was a principle it was impolitic to dispute.  It was also the time of Pope John XXIII (also not for long) and the Vatican Council, representing something of a liberalizing trend--bringing the Church into the 20th century--but also reemphasizing the moral need to address world hunger, disease and suffering caused by economic conditions, and the beginning of a moral case for concern over the world's natural environment. 

The current Pope represents movement in the opposite direction, but upon reflection there is one thing the two eras have in common: things are changing, and positive change--because there is a lot of it in the world--roils up the reactionaries, threatens the comfortable, and they in turn strengthen the most dogmatic.  There was strong conflict just in that strange high school building, not only among the nuns and priests and students there, but I'd bet within the nuns and priests themselves.  They contradicted themselves all the time.  Some of it was hypocrisy, some of it was probably confusion.  But that's where I learned the terrible energy and unrelenting force of righteous persecution.

It was happening when they couldn't quite keep the historical facts of the Inquisition hidden anymore.  What was in the textbooks was bad enough, but I was daring enough to read more about it at the public library, though only in the Catholic Encyclopedia, because I didn't want to fall into Error promoted by some agnostic intellectuals or, maybe worse, Protestants.  And what I read there was truly hair-raising.

As those nuns are learning now, the Catholic Church's official doctrine on the final supremacy of individual conscience, and the individual responsibility for his or her own soul, can become secondary, irrelevant or worse when the fervid fury of the Inquisition takes hold.  Then everything dark and treacherous about the uncontrolled unconscious, the nature of institutions and the panic of crowds is unleashed.

The Church has always been in conflict with itself.  There may be more like the Bishop of Peoria, but there was Dorothy Day, and the nuns and priests (more nuns than priests probably) who have sacrificed to make compassion and service their guiding principles.  I'm not a member anymore, but I know whose side I'm on.       

  Photo: Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Day           

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