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Jul 20 2012

A nun speaks up

The president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sister Pat Farrell, was interviewed on Fresh Air the other day. It was pretty interesting. She had kind of a religious voice and way of speaking – very even and gentle – maybe because it’s her nature but (it seems to me) more likely because she was trained to. She never sounded angry. That was a little bit frustrating, in a way – I’m used to secular people, who do sometimes sound irritated or angry. The unchanging mildness of her tone sounded a little alien and pious.

But some of the content of what she said was pretty frank. That was especially the case when Terry Gross asked her about the way the church treats child-raping priests compared with the way it treats the Leadership Conference of Women Religious – protective lenience on the one hand versus harsh public scolding and interference on the other. Farrell said it was totally unacceptable.

She didn’t sound the least bit overawed by the Vatican. She wasn’t as compliant as I’d expected. She basically said they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they shouldn’t be excluding women from leadership roles and then bossing them around. She clearly thought the stuff about “radical feminism” was absurd.

Sincerely, what I hear in the phrasing … is fear — a fear of women’s positions in the church. Now, that’s just my interpretation. I have no idea what was in the mind of the congregation, of the doctrine of the faith, when they wrote that. But women theologians around the world have been seriously looking at the question of: How have the church’s interpretations of how we talk about God, interpret Scripture, organize life in the church — how have they been tainted by a culture that minimizes the value and the place of women?

Shall we make a list?

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Jasper of Maine

    Shall we make a list?

    All we have to do is start in 1 (or 2) Corinthians – or are these people just going to go ahead and ignore Paul’s misogynistic ranting?

  2. 2
    Steve

    >”congregation of the doctrine of the faith”

    Better known as the Inquisition

  3. 3
    Fredric Martin

    “blah blah open and honest dialogue, blah blah.”

  4. 4
    'Tis Himself

    I’ve been particularly impressed with how John Paul the Two Eyes and his heir Benny Ratzi, penis owners both, have decided that owning a penis is the most important qualification to enter the Catholic hierarchy.

  5. 5
    Shplane, Spess Alium

    The one thing I don’t like about this is it seems to imply, as people who want to pretend that God isn’t an asshole always do, that one needs to “interpret” the Bible a certain way to find the misogyny. You don’t. The misogyny is right there in the open, and any form of Christianity that doesn’t blatantly hate women is reinterpreting “scripture”. This isn’t a matter of someone asspulling some “literary analysis”, it’s a matter of the Bible stating outright in multiple places that women are worth less than men, and should not be given power over men.

    Not that Sister Farrel isn’t doing a good thing. She’s just deluded if she thinks that hating women isn’t explicitly one of the tenets of the religion she’s decided to follow.

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes.

    She talked about it in terms of the bishops and priests having to do their jobs, which kept them away from the kind of work she and her colleagues do, which is working with “throwaway” people. I gathered she thinks of her views of women as being based in experience and knowledge (secular things, but of course she didn’t say that) rather than the bible. But then the Catholic church has never been bible-based in the way Protestantism is.

  7. 7
    kevinalexander

    From a human perspective the celibacy rule in the church is its greatest disaster. It acts as a filter by blocking any candidate for the priesthood who’s heart is big enough to care about women.

  8. 8
    mildlymagnificent

    She never sounded angry. ……. The unchanging mildness of her tone sounded a little alien and pious.

    I think the word that generally covers all these nun-type activities ‘working with “throwaway” people’ would be relentless.

    Several years ago I had to deal with a few of these women. A couple were psychologists, but mostly they were simply nuns doing what nuns do – with abused women, prostitutes, prisoners, drug addicts. They just did what needed doing in that ever-so-calm, never give up, I’ll always be here for you way.

    And then of course, they’d go fund-raising to support their less than glamorous clientele. Any priest, parish council or other organisation that thought they could resist the steady, patient, I’ll be back next week, never say die onslaught of polite requests learned it was better to say yes sooner rather than later. Because they *always* came back next week.

  9. 9
    Mara

    I didn’t get to hear the entire interview but what I heard was much more interesting than I was expecting. I really found myself cheering for her and hollering “Go get ‘em!” at the radio, when I expected to do a lot more eyerolling.

    I may disagree completely with Sister Farrell on the existence of a deity, but it sounds to me like her folks are the ones going out there and getting things done. I feel like I could work with them.

  10. 10
    ImaginesABeach

    This is long, feel free to ignore it.

    My parents have been atheists all my life, but both were raised Catholic. My dad’s mother belonged to a church in Minneapolis that was always getting in trouble with the archdiocese because of a focus on service, and because women and gay people were welcomed and valued. The archdiocese has managed to crack down on that church, and many members have left and worship together without a priest.

    I listed to the broadcast and was impressed at how much passion Sister Pat managed to convey in such a soft-spoken way.

    Sister Pat seemed (to me) pretty convinced that the bishops were upset because the nuns were giving their attention to the wrong things, like serving people on the margins of life, and not giving enough attention to abortion and sex.

    FARRELL: You know, I would say really the mandate is more critical of positions we haven’t taken.

    GROSS: Meaning you haven’t stood against gay rights, you haven’t stood against contraception?

    FARRELL: And if those issues become points of conflict, it’s because women religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives. That is our gift to the church.

    I would say that all of us have a limited repertoire of what we’re capable of talking about, and I think it’s absolutely valid that we choose to emphasize certain things over another. The bishop’s conference itself selects certain issues to talk about and, understandably, would have to not be talking about everything.

    She seemed to be holding out hope that it’s all a big misunderstanding, and once the bishops and the Inquisition understand that there are not enough hours in the day to do both, everything will be fine.

    And of course we all – within the church there are different roles. And a bishop, for instance, can’t be on the streets working with the homeless. He has other tasks. But we can be. So if there is a climate of open and adequate and trusting dialogue among us, we can bring together some of those conversations.

    And that’s what I hope we can help develop in a deeper way, the kind of relationships and climate of dialogue that will make it possible for the different perspectives and roles and positions in the church to be in greater interaction and dialogue with one another, really for the good of the whole church.

    There were moments, though, when she seemed resigned to the fact that the bishops really just want to control these women’s messages.

    And certainly, this mandate coming from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, putting us in a position of being under the control of certain bishops, that is not an invitation to dialogue. I can’t see anyone who would interpret it that way. If anything, it’s – it appears to be shutting down dialogue.

    She also seems to think the catholic church is wrong about human sexuality, including homosexuality, and I was impressed with what she said about abortion – that she questions any policy that is more pro-fetus than pro-life.

    And I would say that we are – we have been, in good faith, raising concerns about some of the church’s teaching on sexuality, human sexuality, the problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought, in light of the world we live in and new questions, new realities as they arise.

    FARRELL: …

    So I think the criticism of what we’re not talking about seems to me, again, unfair, because religious have clearly given our lives to supporting life, to supporting the dignity of human persons. Our works are very much pro-life. We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. You know, if the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born, that is a distortion too, if there’s such an emphasis on that.

    I don’t understand how Sister Pat can remain in the catholic church, and her answer to this question was not compelling. Of course, given that I’ve been an atheist for 45 years, I don’t really understand how ANYONE can stay in ANY church.

    GROSS: I want to ask you a question that I’ve asked many women of different faiths – many women religious of different faiths – and that is why would you want to stay in an institution that doesn’t think of women as equal? That doesn’t think of you as worthy of being equal?

    FARRELL: I have faith that the church can respond and change, but I would answer that in the same way I would say why would you stay in a country in which you severely disagree with the leadership of a president? I’m an American, and I am the church. I’m a Catholic. I am the church.

    Next week, Terry Gross will be interviewing the bishop of Toledo, Ohio, Leonard Blair, the Vatican’s delegate to oversee the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR and work with the group to bring it into conformity with the church’s teachings.

    I really doubt he will come across as well as Sister Pat did.

  11. 11
    Jen

    “I don’t understand how Sister Pat can remain in the catholic church, and her answer to this question was not compelling. Of course, given that I’ve been an atheist for 45 years, I don’t really understand how ANYONE can stay in ANY church.”

    Her answers and comments are very similar to those I had just before realizing that social/cultural expectations be damned, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I kept attending for so long because I had grown up as a Catholic, the Mass was calming and soothing (good associations, since it was the only place in Catholic grade school where I could escape bullying), and I enjoyed working with the truly excellent fellow musicians and members of the St. Vincent de Paul- all despite my increasing agnosticism and disgust of the right-wing takeover. But there came a point when I realized that, since I no longer believed in most of the doctrines, there was no point in putting on a public show of support for an institution that disgusted me.

    I had the advantage of being laity. Leaving, for me, involved a brief meeting with the parish priest to tell him exactly why I was leaving, followed by a quick email to the parish office to have my name removed from the register. And then I simply stopped showing up. For someone like Sister Farrell (and the parish priest, who expressed the same doubts and concerns), it would not be so easy. If you’ve invested your entire adult life in something, it is harder to step back and see a way out. I suspect a lot of nuns and parish priests feel this way.

  12. 12
    Corvus illustris

    It is not difficult to understand the nuns’ mindset if one considers the selection process on the way to taking the veil. From postulancy to novitiate to final profession–many rites of passage, “spiritual” assessments, and all sorts of opportunities to bail out. You see that sweet patient bulldog tenacity in the survivors because they were selected for it. Unfortunately, they’re also selected to have tunnel vision–they don’t see alternatives to the methods they employ or the doctrines they affirm, and so they neither change their tactics nor leave. I have a second-cousin who could serve as a remarkable example.

  13. 13
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Kevin Alexander:

    From a human perspective the celibacy rule in the church is its greatest disaster. It acts as a filter by blocking any candidate for the priesthood who’s heart is big enough to care about women.

    Wanting to fuck women != “having a big-enough heart” to care about women.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    @ 9 and 10 – yes – I too found her more…I’m not sure what the word is…I guess I’ll go with the insipid “congenial” – than I expected. I expected to find her interesting almost no matter what, but I also expected to be annoyed (by some level of polite conformist loyalty to the church and via that to the Vatican), and I wasn’t. I found her pretty simpatica (there, that’s a better word). The dogged loyalty was to the throwaway people, not to the church. It was also, apparently, to helping people as opposed to shoving dogma on them.

  15. 15
    David Hart

    “John Paul the Two Eyes and his heir Benny Ratzi, penis owners both, have decided that owning a penis is the most important qualification to enter the Catholic hierarchy.”

    At the risk of lowering the tone enormously, does it have to be attached to the owner? Because if not, then there’s a macabre amulet the nuns could wield in an argument with the hierarchy. Hey, Catholicism has a reputation for being enthusiastic about severed bodyparts; might as well live up to it:-)

  16. 16
    earwig

    David, don’t be silly. We’re talking real flesh and blood here, like Mass for example. Not something superstitious that people carry round their neck.

  17. 17
    Martha

    I used to think that refusing to allow women to be priests was morally wrong, but that celibacy was just a weird quirk of the Catholic Church– silly, but not morally wrong. Over the years, I’ve come to see that fear of sex and fear of women are so inextricably linked, both historically and in modern times, that the association of celibacy and “purity” is fundamentally misogynistic. That’s the main problem I have with sex-negative feminism. Perhaps in a completely egalitarian world, sex-negativity and fear of women would not coalesce, but they certainly do in any patriarchal society.

    As for the Catholic Church, they’ll certainly get rid of the celibacy requirement before they ordain women.

  18. 18
    Marie-Thérèse O'Loughlin

    ImaginesABeach quotes FARRELL:

    “And of course we all – within the church know there are different roles. And a bishop, for instance, can’t be on the streets working with the homeless. He has other tasks. But we can be. So if there is a climate of open and adequate and trusting dialogue among us, we can bring together some of those conversations.”

    I would like to ask why can’t a bishop be on the streets working for the homeless? What’s so special about a bishop? I know for a fact that the late Cardinal Basil Hume – who was the founder of The Passage for the homeless in London – sometimes went around with holes in the elbows of his sleeves and gave time to working with the marginalised. However, in saying that, the church tries to keep religious women in their place by giving them subservient roles, and woe-betide any of them, if they ever try to rise above the patriarchal bishops’ role. The bishops ‘other tasks’ are albeit way above those of mere nuns. The climate should be of equality amongst religious of both genders. This nun doesn’t sound as progressive as she appears when she wants to put the bishops on a pedestal.

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