Thursday, April 26, 2012

The current inquisition and the North American nuns

by Ivone Gebara (English translation by Rebel Girl)
April 26, 2012

Once again we have been horrified to see the "doctrinal assessment" -- or scolding or punishment -- directed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to whoever, according to it, is out of compliance with the correct Catholic doctrine. Except that this time the finger isn't pointing only to one person but to an institution that brings together and represents more than 55,000 U.S. women religious. It is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, known by its acronym LCWR. Throughout their history, these nuns have carried out and still carry out a broad educational mission for the dignity of many individuals and groups within and outside the United States.

Most of these women, who belong to various national and international congregations, besides their Christian liberal education, are intellectuals and professionals in different fields of knowledge. They are writers, philosophers, biologists, theologians, sociologists, and lawyers. They have broad resumes and nationally and internationally recognized competence. They are also educators and catechists, and they promote the  practice of human rights.

In many situations they have been capable of risking their lives for the victims of injustice and have opposed gravely unjust and oppressive behavior by the United States government. I was honored to meet some of them who have been arrested because they put themselves in front in demonstrations demanding the closure of the School of the Americas, the U.S. government institution that prepares Latin American soldiers to act cruelly and repressively in their respective countries. These nuns are women of thought and action with a long history of service not only in their country but in many others.

They are currently under the Vatican's suspicion and tutelage. They are criticized for disagreeing with the bishops who are considered to be "the true masters of faith and morals." And besides, they are being accused of being supporters of radical feminism, of deviations from Roman Catholic doctrine, of complicity in the approval of homosexual unions and other charges that are frightening to us because of their anachronism.

What might radical feminism be? What might be its real manifestations in the life of women's religious orders? What theological deviations might the nuns be experiencing? Might we women be being monitored and punished for failing to be true to ourselves and to the Gospel tradition, through blind submission to the male hierarchy? Might the heads of the Vatican congregations be unaware of the great world feminist revolution that has touched every continent and even the religious orders?

Many women religious in the United States and other countries are heirs, teachers, and disciples of one of the most interesting expressions of world feminism, particularly theological feminism which has been developing in the United States since the late 1970s. Its original ideas, critiques and libertarian stands have led to a new theological understanding which has enabled them to accompany the movements for women's emancipation. Thus they have been able to contribute to rethinking our Christian religious tradition in the course of overcoming the invisibilization and oppression of women. They have also created alternative spaces for training, and theological and liturgical texts so that the tradition of Jesus' movement would not be abandoned by thousands of people tired of the weight of patriarchal religious structures and rules.
What attitude should we take towards this anachronism and symbolic violence from the curial and administrative organs of the Roman Catholic Church? What to make of its rigid philosophical framework that associates the best of the human being with what is masculine? What to say about their unilateral and misogynist anthropological vision from which they interpret Jesus' tradition?

What to make of this punitive administrative treatment based on which an archbishop is appointed to review, guide and approve the decisions of the Conference of Women Religious as if we were incapable of discernment and lucidity? Might we perhaps be a capitalist multinational corporation where our "products" should abide by the dictates of a single production line? And to maintain it, should we be controlled like robots by those who consider themselves the owners and guardians of the institution? Where is the freedom, the charity, the historical creativity, the sisterly and brotherly love?

At the same time as indignation, we are invaded by a sense of loyalty to our dignity as women, and the Gospel proclaimed to the poor and marginalized invites us to react to this repugnant act of injustice.

It's not new for the bishops and church officials to use a double standard. On the one hand, the upper echelons of the Catholic Church have been able to welcome again into their midst far-right groups whose harmful history, especially towards youth and children, is widely known. I'm thinking especially of the Legionaries of Christ, of Marcial Maciel (Mexico), and the male religious of Monsignor Lefebvre (Switzerland) whose disobedience to the pope and coercive methods to win disciples are attested to by many.

This same institutional church welcomes and receives men who interest it because of their power and repudiates women whom it wants to keep submissive. With its attitude, it exposes them to ridiculous criticism spread even by Catholic media acting in bad faith. The prelates seem to formally acknowledge that these women have a certain merit when their actions are focused on those tasks traditionally performed by nuns in schools and hospitals. But is that all we are?

We are aware that at no time in the United States has the least possibility emerged that these nuns might have abused youth, adolescents, children or the elderly. No public denunciation stains their image. It isn't said that they allied themselves with the big international banks for their own benefit. No complaint of influence peddling, trading favors for the silence of impunity. And even with all that history, none of them has been canonized or beatified by church authorities as was done in the case of men of power [Translator's note: I have to disagree with my sister Ivone Gebara on this point. Saint Katharine Drexel, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament nun who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000 is one name that comes immediately to mind.] The recognition of these women comes from the many Christian and non-Christian communities and groups with whome they share their life and work. And these groups will certainly not keep silent before this unjust "doctrinal assessment" which also directly affects them.

Plagiarizing Jesus in his Gospel I dare to say, "I feel pity for these men" who do not know about the contradictions and beautiful things of life, who do not allow their hearts to vibrate openly with the joys and sufferings of the people, who do not love the present, preferring the strict law to the fiesta of life. They have only learned the inflexible rules of a doctrine locked in an already obsolete rationale and they judge the faith of others, especially women, on its basis. Maybe they think God approves and submits to them and their speculations that are so far from those who hunger for bread and justice, from the hungry, the abandoned, the prostitutes, the abused and neglected.

How long will we have to suffer under their yoke? What position will "the Spirit that blows where it wills" inspire in us so that we remain faithful to the LIFE that is present within us?

To the dear U.S. sisters in the LWRC I offer my gratitude, love and solidarity. If you are being persecuted for the good you are doing, your work will probably produce abundant good fruit. Know that, united with you, we women religious of other continents will not let them silence your voice. But if you would be silenced by a paper decree, we will make that decree one more reason to keep on struggling for the human dignity and freedom of which we are made. We will go on in many ways proclaiming the love of neighbor as the key to human and cosmic communion present in the tradition of Jesus of Nazareth and in many other ones, though in different forms. We will continue to weave together in our historic moment one more piece of the vast history of affirmation of liberty, the right to be different and think differently and we will do this while trying to not be afraid of being happy.


  1. Magnificent.
    Bless you for the translation.

  2. I am awed by Ivone Gebara and thank you so much for giving her a voice here through your translation.
    I will echo Phil and say bless you, as well :-)

  3. Thanks for the translation.
    There are two very interesting recently canonized women who suffered at the hands of hierarchy: Saint Mother Theodore Guerrin of the Sisters of Providence and Saint Mary McKillopp of Australia. I find it hard to believe that the Vatican canonized them despite the injustice they suffered at the hands of the church authorities, but God sometimes (most often) works behind the scenes. IT is a shame that the same ones who canonized these women are treating LCWR so poorly.

  4. Thank you Claire, and thank you Hermano Juancito for more names of canonized nuns. I also thought of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the American foundress of the Sisters of Charity. These are the kinds of shoulders LCWR stands on. I tend to agree with those who see this as an attempt to create distraction from the areas where the hierarchy is drawing fire: the ongoing abuse scandal and legal proceedings, the unpopular attempt to mask their fight against Obama's health policy as "religious liberty" and the recent Vatican scandals which should provide Dan Brown with enough material for a sequel to "The DaVinci Code"...

  5. Wow - simply wow. Thank you.

  6. Is this the Church that Jesus Christ intended it to be?

  7. I appreciate Ivone's critique from the perspective of a woman religious from the south. I do believe that this is a defining moment in religious life in the US. The LCWR, as always will ponder, reflect, dialogue, listen to God's Spirit in the many voices they encounter. These women are the prophets, poets, social justice activists, healers, educators, contemplatives, and mystics of our Catholic Church. You are in my prayers good sisters. Thank you!

  8. this is so courageous, just and inspiring