Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Nun Story Redux

Growing up Jewish in the 1960’s  my understanding of nuns was shaped by Sally Field as Sister Betrille, the Flying Nun, and Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in The Nun Story. They were both passionate, courageous and authority defying, as well as loving, caring, and dedicated to the poor.

I didn’t actually know any nuns until I began my seminary studies, when I had the privilege of taking a class with Sister Mary Boys at Union Theological Seminary, spending time at the Peace Council with Sister Joan Chittister, and being guided in an independent study by Sister Margaret Farley at Yale Divinity School (YDS). These Roman Catholic theologians inspired me with their brilliance, their deep understanding of ethics, and their unending compassion for their students and the world.

Two weeks ago, my adviser at YDS, Sister Margaret Farley was publicly condemned by the Vatican for her 2006 book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Ethics. They said it could cause “grave harm” to the faithful, in presenting a sexual ethic based in justice.  My denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, actually encourages our candidates for ministry to read this book for grounding in sexual ethics. Ironically, the Vatican’s action means that Farley’s book now has an audience much larger than ever before: it’s gone from being a somewhat obscure read for seminary students to apparently selling out its print run on Amazon.
The statement against Farley follows the Vatican’s public crackdown on the Leadership Conference on Women Religious, an organization that, according to their website, includes 80% of American nuns and whose mission is to “further the mission of the Gospel in today’s world.” The Vatican has called for a full-scale overhaul of the LCRW, because they have not done enough to speak out against abortion and same sex marriage—an accusation that could be leveled at the Gospels as well since neither issue is ever mentioned in them. The Board of the LCRW went to Rome earlier this week to speak directly to the Vatican officials, calling the charges “unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed practice that lacked transparency.”

This attack on American nuns is nothing short of incongruous by the all-male, celibate Roman Catholic hierarchy. On the one hand, they are censuring Farley because of her public stance on sexuality; on the other hand, they are trying to take over the LCRW because of their lack of a public stance on sexuality. This should come as no surprise after the U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops declared earlier this spring that removing contraception from health care reform would be their number one public policy priority, even though overwhelming numbers of American Catholics find birth control morally acceptable. As Roman Catholic theologian Mary Hunt notes, “The Roman men are hell-bent on reining in American nuns, if only to prove that they can rein in somebody in a world that pays them increasingly little heed.” There seems to be no end to the Roman Catholic hierarchy wanting to prioritize sexuality issues.

Except perhaps among their own ranks. Ironically, just as the news of Farley’s censure was being reported, so was a news story that the Milwaukee Archbishop had paid sex-abusing priests to leave the priesthood, rather than holding them accountable for their actions. The U.S. Roman Catholic Church has spent millions of dollars settling cases of priest sexual misconduct with children and adolescents. No other religious denomination has been tainted by such widespread abuse of children, cover up of cases, or moving abusing clergy to other parishes.

Meanwhile, the Sisters are speaking truth to power and standing for the full inclusion of women in religious life.  I am hopeful that the Sisters who went to Rome let the Vatican know that it is way past time for the male hierarchy to cease seeking to control Roman Catholic women, either secular or religious.

I noted in my Huffington Post piece that the LCRW posted a prayer on their website that ends with these words:

May we continue to faithfully live the
questions of our time and witness to
the people of God that we are women
at home with mystery and filled with
fierce hope for our shared future.

So may it be during these upcoming days. The prayers of the Religious Institute are with these Sisters.   

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