Bishops Versus Nuns

Much of the discussion of the recent Vatican crackdown on American nuns for failure to follow the moral and political priorities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has quite naturally focused on the immediate controversies that likely precipitated the action. Most notable has been the conspicuous disinclination of groups representing the nuns to join in the USCCB’s joint campaign with conservative evangelicals to attack the Obama administration as a menace to “religious liberty.”

But in a characteristically angry and erudite post at the New York Review of Books site, Catholic scholar and papal critic Garry Wills suggested that the crackdown may raise some more fundamental symbolic issues that could pose a serious credibility problem for the hierarchy. Basically, Catholic lay people tend to respect nuns more than bishops:

The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops’ thinking. That statement is profoundly true. Thank God, they don’t. Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility.

Wills goes on to discuss his own experience with nuns over the course of his life, which has reinforced his impression that the sisters are closely associated with everything that makes Catholics proud of the faith. He doesn’t even have to mention that the Bishops and the all-male priesthood have not exactly been inspiring a lot of pride in recent years. So if the battle between bishops and nuns escalates, or if the latter are vengefully humiliated, there may be some serious collateral damage to the credibility of the hierachy that could outweigh whatever they gain from “restoring discipline.”

Like many other observers, Wills also notes that the Vatican chose to pair its actions against the nuns with a vastly more charitable new posture towards a group of right-wing schismatics whose defiance of Church discipline has been a lot more spectacular than anything displayed by the “radical feminists” of the religious orders:

It is typical of the pope’s sense of priorities that, at the very time when he is quashing an independent spirit in the church’s women, he is negotiating a welcome back to priests who left the church in protest at the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. These men, with their own dissident bishop, Marcel Lefebvre, formed the Society of Saint Pius X—the Pius whose Secretariat of State had a monsignor (Umberto Benigni) who promoted the Protocols of the Elder of Zion. Pope Benedict has already lifted the excommunication of four bishops in the Society of Saint Pius X, including that of Richard Williamson, who is a holocaust denier. Now a return of the whole body is being negotiated.

The whole manuever suggests a bit of an internal counter-reformation in the Church that comes perilously close to validating the views of hyper-traditionalists who think Vatican II went “too far,” and that it’s time to rein in not just nuns but all those “liberal Catholics” who believe they can remain in good standing while practicing contraception or voting for pro-choice political candidates. Indeed, you don’t have to read too deeply in “traditionalist” literature to find a strong sentiment that American Catholics as a whole need to be “disciplined.” If that’s where the Vatican and the Bishops are headed, they may discover the laity will not be as humble as the nuns in taking their medicine.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.