The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) received a harsh condemnation from the Vatican after a three-year study into its practices and stances. The critique expresses concerns that women religious have been too tolerant in their views about sexuality, too supportive of universal health care despite its long history within official Catholic social teaching, and too silent in opposition to abortion. As we have watched the U.S. bishops become completely identified with right wing Christian politics in recent years, we now see the Vatican join the current "war on women" that is dominating the presidential race on the Republican side.
But this is not a new war for the Vatican. This is old time religion. The Catholic Church has been a repressive place for women for its entire history. We could easily point to the exclusion of women as priests, a role which presides over the Sacraments which bind the church community to each other and to the divine source of life. Finally, at Vatican II in the 1960s, women were allowed to have more participation in the Catholic liturgy by reading from the Scripture, serving at the altar and providing the Sacrament of the Eucharist to parishioners. Under the current Pope, all reforms of Vatican II are being questioned with the inclusion of women in specific ministerial roles in jeopardy.
But a more telling statistic about the importance of women's voices in the Catholic Church is found in its official teaching. Despite the hard work of nuns and lay women who are often the heart of local parishes and schools, no single document ever published by the Catholic Church has ever been written by a woman or a group of women. For 2,000 years, each and every teaching of the Catholic Church has been the viewpoint of men. And, more than not, women were not even consultant about the content. This includes church documents written about women and their role in society and the church. And, of course, it includes official teaching on sexuality and motherhood.
The LCWR represents 45,000 U.S. nuns who provide ministry within hospitals, prisons, schools and the poorest of neighborhoods. These are the hands and hearts of the Catholic Church's social ministry in our country that embrace the Gospel values through their work and their personal sacrifice. When government funds go away, it has often been the Catholic Church that remains fully present and beautifully tied to serving the poor. And, most of the time, it is represented by the very women who are now being condemned.
The Catholic Church under Pope Benedict has been on a tear when it comes to orthodoxy. The move toward papal fundamentalism is a move toward a small church, an incredibly shrinking church where only those in complete agreement with every facet of church teaching really belong. The word "catholic" is by its definition is about universality and a broad scope. It is an oxymoron for the Catholic Church to see itself as a small place based on a cult of papal orthodoxy.
Also, the Catholic Church has a core teaching about the primacy of the conscience. This notion means that a person is obliged to follow their inner core or sanctuary in order to remain a moral person. While Catholics are called to inform their conscience with biblical and church teaching, they cannot authentically go against the conclusion of their conscience. This teaching has been in the church for hundreds of years and allows for the possibility of doubt, debate and division when it comes to living as a Catholic. The new call to orthodoxy is attempting to end the primacy of the conscience within Catholic teaching by asking every Catholic to follow every aspect of teaching without question. This is not your father's Catholicism.
And so a Pope presiding over a church that is deeply connected to a terrifying, insidious and utterly distasteful cover up of pedophilia, a church which has less than 10 percent of its members attending church in his home country of Germany, and much of the rest of Europe for that matter, and a church which is becoming more connected to global and local financial scandals, decides to turn its focus on good women who act as servants of the weak in society. Root out progressive thinkers and the church will be more pure, more orthodox and more absolute. But the scandals will keep going on.
The subservient place of women in the Catholic Church has already put enormous pressure on religious communities which are aging fast without next generation sisters to replace those who are retiring or dying. A new war on women will not help. Yes, the good women who received this condemnation did not deserve to feel the pain of this rebuke. But as time goes on, it is the poor, the afflicted and the needy who will suffer most.