A scandalous hunt for the 'snark'
Church perceptions of 'radical feminism' are overblown and proving a distraction
At the end of the 19th century, Europeans in the Vatican convinced Pope Leo XIII to condemn the so-called Americanism heresy. Apart from lamenting the fact that Catholicism did not enjoy a privileged legal status over other faiths in the United States because the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights mandates that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," the condemnation was rather vague. The main reason it was vague was that there was actually no such heresy to condemn. It was a figment of fevered Roman imaginations that did little more than provide ammunition to anti-Catholic bigotry in America. The recently announced plan by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to take over the organization that represents 80 percent of Sisters in the US has given scandal to Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, including in Asia, where many Sisters engage in the same sorts of active apostolic activity that seem to be attracting the Vatican’s negative attention. The charges as presented are vague, so it is difficult to know what real problems there are, if any, outside the imaginings of Roman hierarchs. The chief charge is "radical feminism," a phrase that has been bandied about in the Church for several years. No one has ever said what "radical feminism" actually means in Church jargon, though the reaction to it seems to refer to a delusion that Sisters want to be ordained to the priesthood. It appears that hierarchical imaginations have created a mythical beast and have now set out to hunt it. Frankly, Sisters I know have too much sense to aspire to the priesthood. They have exciting, challenging and spiritually fulfilling apostolates already and ordination would not add anything to them. In fact, the constraints on priests mean that most of the work that excites admiration for the Church throughout the world is done by Sisters rather than the ordained. Among the tens of thousands of Sisters in the US and the hundreds of thousands in the world, statistically speaking there probably are some who want to be clergy, though presumably most of them would have left the Catholic Church by now. But, if such women exist they are a small, small number; I have not met even one. The possibility of their existence certainly does not justify treating all Sisters as the Vatican has done, any more than such treatment would be justifiable from the fact that some Sisters (more than those who want to be priests) have some bizarre devotions and pious practices that could not survive examination from the point of view of Scripture, tradition or common sense. On the other hand, the number of spiritually, intellectually, physically, psychologically and emotionally healthy men who are interested in ordination is infinitesimally small when compared to the Church’s needs. That is true whether they are on the left, the right or the fanatically centrist wings of the Church. (And let’s not forget or deny that there are spiritually, intellectually, physically, psychologically and emotionally healthy men all along the spectrum of theological opinion.) Would not our energies be better directed at finding out why actual men are in fact not interested in being priests instead of "hunting the snark" of fictional women who supposedly are interested? Instead of monitoring Sisters, the leaders of the Church should be studying why a "new evangelization" is needed in those parts of the world where Christianity has failed to hold the loyalty of men and women. Clearly, we have failed when more than a millennium of Catholicism in such historically Catholic countries as Ireland and Austria or the rest of the West cannot provide a credibly attractive image of God and humanity in the face of modern reality. Such a study will probably show that the most credibly attractive image is being provided by women of faith who walk through the world as dedicated servants of Christ with their sisters and brothers.