Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Partisan Bishops Castigated Poverty Nuns

In April 2012, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization of women’s religious communities, of having members with “serious doctrinal problems.” Specifically, the Congregation alleged that members of the group had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” The Vatican’s use of “radical” to describe the “feminist themes” belies the neutrality of the Holy See on the matter (for the adjective is both unnecessary and pejorative). In other words, if you want to discredit someone’s point of view with which you disagree, simply label it as radical. The labeling says more about the labeler than the actual target. Specifically, the labeling indicates anger and resentment as well as prejudice. The white supremacists in Alabama in the 1960s, for example, labeled the Freedom Riders as radicals. In going after the group of nuns, the Vatican too was being partisan.

According to the New York Times, the Vatican accused the group of “focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping ‘silent’ on abortion” and gay marriage. The traditionalists then firmly in control of the Roman Catholic Church did not attempt to distance the realm of eternity from partisan political issues. In fact, that certain issues were being played over others was itself partisan in nature. The traditionalists had a political reductionism going, wherein abortion had to be regarded as the political issue (with gay marriage playing a distant second). The reductionism is highly dogmatic in the sense of being arbitrary. For one thing, Jesus says nothing in the Gospels on the topic. In fact, that he is represented as making statements on the poor suggests that the bishops’ reductionism is misplaced—that any reductionism would have to go the other way. That the bishops undoubtedly believed that they could not be wrong only compounded their error (and false-humble pride).

Furthermore, to treat an emphasis on non-favorited political issues as a doctrinal problem and disagreement on specific pieces of a legislation as a “serious doctrinal problem” is to commit a category mistake: treating political partisanship as religious doctrine. Ultimately, the fallacy (and reductionism discussed above) stems from self-idolatry—the making of oneself (or one’s politics) into a god. The fallacy also involves over-extending the purview of a religious office.

The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” This does not include being teachers of public policy or political science. The statements at issue here were most likely those made in support of President Obama’s health-insurance law of 2010, which the U.S. Council of Bishops opposed. Opposing a partisan position on a bill is not necessarily to disagree with religious teachers of faith and morals because one could appeal to elements of the faith and morals to support either side of the specific bill.

“I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell, the executive director of the conference, said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.” A political interpretation is not the same as a moral or religious teaching. In the case of Obama’s health-care legislation, one could apply moral and religious teachings to either partisan side. It is telling that Campbell pointed to the bishops of being mad—a quality that is all too human. Out of anger, the instinct of a bishop is to go to whatever is the basis of his authority, even if it does not apply. The bishops’ effort to reduce a politically partisan difference to one on doctrine is meant to get the adversary on the familiar grounds on which they are used to rendering judgments and using their power. In other words, it is a power-grab to render a particular politically-partisan position as a “doctrinal problem.” We know how to deal with such problems, whereas we are more out on a limb in our ventures into lobbying for particular public policies.

Ultimately, the “investigation” was a front for anger seeking to vanquish a political adversary under the subterfuge of religion and order. Writing a letter to the U.S. Government in support of the president’s health-insurance bill did not violate or challenge the bishops’ doctrinal teaching even if the letter differed politically from the political stance of the bishops. Besides human nature itself, the root of the problem is sourced in the forays (i.e., over-reaching) of religious functionaries into the partisan politics of a government and the further instance that particular partisan stances be adopted by others in the religious organization.

To be sure, being a religious organization does not bar one from politics in so far as one is a citizen of a state. However, to regard particular partisan positions as somehow religious in nature, important, and thus highly obligatory for other officials and members of the organization is dogmatic (i.e., arbitrary) and over-reaching as well as indicative of a category mistake concerning domains (i.e., confusing religious with political). It is self-idolatrous to regard one’s ideological partisan position as theological. To force it on others as if it were theirs too just points to the aggression that is used as an agent of self-idolatry. That all of this has come to enjoy the trappings of religious authority that is viewed as legitimate in society speaks to a certain decadence in us all.


Laurie Goodstein, “Vatican Reprimands a Group of U.S. Nuns and Plans Changes,” The New York Times, April 19, 2012.