Mark Silk: Why Go After the Nuns?

I’ve been trying to decide what to post about the Vatican’s most recent attack on American Catholic women. “Hat tip” to Heidi Thompson who pointed out the Religion News Service blog post by Mark Silk, a professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Program on Public Values. I think he sums it up nicely.–RMB

Why Go After the Nuns? by Mark Silk

The denunciation of the Leadship Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, formerly known as the Roman Inquisition) puts this medievalist in mind of the Church’s 15th Ecumenical Council, which wrapped up its business in Vienne exactly 700 years ago next week.

It was not a happy time for the papacy. In 1305, the tumultuous politics of the Italian peninsula had forced Pope Clement V to relocate the curia to the north, ushering in the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” in Avignon that lasted for most of the century. The move put Clement under the thumb of King Philip the Fair of France, who was vigorously consolidating administrative control of the monarchy. To that end, Philip arrested the Knights Templars, seized their property, and got them to confess to heresy and sodomy by torture and burning at the stake. The main business of the Council of Vienne was the suppression of the venerable crusading order, which Clement seems to have agreed to do in exchange for Philip dropping heresy charges against a previous pope, Boniface VIII.

While they were at it, the Council also suppressed a movement of pious lay women who wore a distinctive habit and lived together in hospices, impressing many by their teaching and the sanctity of their lives. To the men who ran the church, they were dangerously out of line. As the Council put it:

The women commonly known as Beguines, since they promise obedience to nobody, nor renounce possessions, nor profess any approved rule are not religious at all, although they wear the special dress of Beguines and attach themselves to certain religious to whom they have a special attraction. We have heard from trustworthy sources that there are some Beguines who seem to be led by a particular insanity. They argue and preach on the holy Trinity and the divine essence, and express opinions contrary to the catholic faith with regard to the articles of faith and the sacraments of the church. These Beguines thus ensnare many simple people, leading them into various errors. They generate numerous other dangers to souls under the cloak of sanctity. We have frequently received unfavourable reports of their teaching and justly regard them with suspicion. With the approval of the sacred council, we perpetually forbid their mode of life and remove it completely from the church of God.

So: Pressed hard by the secular power, the Council asserted its own shrunken authority by bringing the hammer down on a bunch of powerless women whose moral standing with ordinary folk was unsettling to ecclesiastical authority. Sound familiar?

For a decade now, the rolling sexual abuse scandal has brought the church hierarchy increasingly under the criticism and legal scrutiny of secular authorities around the world. In “faithful Ireland,” the Vatican itself has been denounced by the pious Catholic prime minister. In America, hierarchs are for the first time being charged with crimes for covering up sexual abuse by priests. Why not compensate by bringing the hammer down on the women religious–that part of the church which retains the greatest moral standing with the laity?

Here’s a bit of the Inquisi…er, CDF’s letter of condemnation:

The Cardinal noted a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world. Moreover, some commentaries on “patriarchy” distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture.

Just say yes to patriarchy, girls! It’s with “solid catechesis” and “sound doctrinal formation” that “secularized contemporary culture…can be more readily overcome.” Good luck with that.

Perhaps this too shall pass. It took only six years, after all, for the Council of Vienne’s suppression of the Beguines to be lifted by Pope John XXII. But just as that episode did not enhance the standing of the late medieval papacy, so, one suspects, this assault on the American nuns will do nothing for the postmodern one.–Mark Silk

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