Lisa Miller: Catholic Church's 'Authoritarian Meddling' Against Dissident Nuns

Lisa Miller, Newsweek Religion Editor | NewsBusters.orgNewsweek's Lisa Miller again lashed out against the Catholic Church in her column on Thursday, defending an excommunicated Catholic nun in Arizona for her "compassionate and impossible decision" in supporting a hospital patient's abortion. Miller also condemned a Vatican cardinal's investigation into American nuns as a whole as "authoritarian meddling."

The religion editor for the dwindling magazine began her column, "Female Troubles," by sympathizing with Sister Margaret McBride, an administrator at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, who ruled with her hospital's ethics committee that a first-trimester abortion which took place in late 2009 was medically necessary:
Earlier this month, in something of a surprise, a nun at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix was excommunicated for approving a first-trimester abortion last year at that hospital to save the life of a critically ill patient....The irony here is thick: it has taken years, sometimes decades, to bring sex-abusing priests to justice, but this observant sister, Margaret McBride, was excommunicated in a matter of months for making a compassionate and impossible decision for one of her parishioners.
Bishop Thomas Olmsted of the Phoenix Diocese condemned the hospital's support of the abortion in a May 14, 2010 statement. In a separate statement a few days later, his diocese made it clear that "since she [Sister McBride] gave her consent and encouraged an abortion she automatically excommunicated herself from the church." So Miller is misrepresenting the circumstances of the case. It didn't take "a matter of months" for Sister McBride to be excommunicated. That took place in 2009 as soon as she approved the abortion, and Bishop Olmsted and his diocese merely acknowledged that status in May. Also, if any of the members of the hospital's ethics committee are Catholic, they also automatically excommunicated themselves at the time of the approval.

Miller then used the Phoenix case as a jumping off point to lament the wider investigation into all American nuns by the Vatican:
This decisive action against one nun in one ethically murky case comes as an "apostolic visitation," or investigation, of all of America's 60,000 religious sisters is underway. Its purpose is unclear, though the man who ordered it, Cardinal Franc Rode, is well known for his views about 'irregularities' in post–Vatican II religious life....Anxious observers and commentators worry that, as a result of the inquiry, nuns will be forced to take steps backwardinto the head coverings and habits, for example, that were made optional after the Second Vatican Council in 1965. They worry further that sisters who have worked more or less independently for decades will have their independence curtailed....At a time when the male leadership can be blamed for leading the church to a state of crisis—a time when the voices of women are needed more than ever—even the modest roles accorded to female clerics have come under attack. The specific reasons for the investigation are unclear (or, more probably, not public), but the suspicion, clearly, can be put in the crassest terms: too many American nuns have gone off the reservation.
There can be little doubt the "anxious observers and commentators" that she has in mind are dissenting Catholics and their liberal allies. Miller's subsequent concern, that "nuns will be forced to take steps backward—into the head coverings and habits...that were made optional after the Second Vatican Council," is misleading, because up to this day, nuns are supposed to "wear the habit of their institute," according to the Church's Code of Canon Law. Also, in the strictest sense, the Newsweek editor is wrong to label nuns "female clerics" as they aren't deacons, priests, or bishops. But, then again, she is on the record as supporting the ordination of women, so we could chalk that up as a Freudian slip.

Miller actually cited her pro-women's ordination column from April later in her column. According to her own account, an unnamed nun wrote the editor two days after its publication and bemoaned the apostolic visitation and agreed with her: "The apostolic visit, 'punitive by definition, demonstrates…that male church leaders are seeking to keep modernity at bay, keep women in a secondary place…It is so true that if women had any influence at all in our Church, the Church would be so much more whole and healthy.'"

The religion writer, who also raged against the American bishops for daring to stand against the pro-abortion aspects of ObamaCare and labeled the practice of celibacy by priests and bishops a "whiff of freakishness" earlier in 2010, spent the rest of her column expanding on some of her earlier anti-Catholic arguments and citing notorious dissenters from the Church, such as Sister Joan Chittister:
Many religions, including and especially Catholicism, consider obedience—to God and to religious authorities—a crucial value. The life of a Catholic is explicitly a kind of human sacrifice, an extraordinary act of submission. When a nun takes vows, she promises to God that she will remain chaste, that she will relinquish worldly things (that’s the vow of poverty), and that she will submit to her abbess, to the church, and to God. But modern democratic society puts such vows to the test, for in our world, blind submission to authority is not a virtue but a vice. Just as modernity doesn’t want to accommodate insular groups of men who live behind guarded walls and make decisions that affect the domestic lives of half a billion people, it will also eventually reject what amounts to a kind of patriarchal apartheid, in which female clerics are given no voice in the power structure and yet are expected to submit to it.

"Churches that cling to sexism in the name of God will find themselves ignored on other issues," wrote Sister Joan Chittister, a popular Catholic spiritual writer and advocate for women’s ordination, in The Huffington Post earlier this year. "Young women will begin to wonder how it is that churches that teach equality are the last bastions of sexism in the modern world. People of faith will be hard pressed to explain how it is that the question of equality of the sexes is being led by secular institutions rather than by ministers who proclaim the Good News and then stop it from coming." Indeed, Chittister may represent just the kind of "feminist spirit" that Cardinal Rode derides. When Chittister speaks, the Vatican rebukes her, yet she remains as popular as ever, selling books, drawing standing ovations, opining in print and online.

Similarly, the thousands of American nuns who recently voiced their support for the health-care-reform bill—in defiance of the bishops’ position against it—may be just the kind of thing Cardinal Rode hopes to suppress. "When I’m drafting right-to-life language, I don’t call up the nuns," Rep. Bart Stupak said dismissively of the sisters' activism. Their point, in short: that granting health care to the nation's poor and needy—especially children—dramatically outweighed the abortion controversy and, further, was in keeping with the church's broad theology of respecting life. The sisters, it turned out, had the upper hand: they rode the wave of support for reform right to the president's desk.

For more than a thousand years, becoming a nun was the best—and often the only—way for a young woman to get an education and to earn a modicum of independence. In the modern West, though, women have other options. In the United States, the number of religious sisters has shrunk by two thirds since 1965, to 59,600. (Worldwide, the collapse is not as dramatic: the number of sisters has dwindled by just one third over the same period, to 750,000.) And while sisters still outnumber priests across the globe, women's desire to become nuns is plummeting. Less than 4 percent of American Catholic women have ever "seriously" considered becoming a nun, according to 2008 data by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, compared with 9 percent in 2003. And those numbers have been in decline since Vatican II. It's no wonder, really. When men have all the power, and they "investigate" women who seem to disrespect their authority, why not become a doctor, or a lawyer, or a stay-at-home mom, and submit to God without the authoritarian meddling?

It seems, however, that the nuns who are faithful to the Church are having the last laugh. An August 2009 article by none other than the New York Times cited another study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (which is at the infamously heterodox Georgetown University) which noted that the "more modernized religious orders are attracting the fewest new members. 'We've heard anecdotally that the youngest people coming to religious life are distinctive, and they really are,' said Sister Mary Bendyna, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. 'They’re more attracted to a traditional style of religious life, where there is community living, common prayer, having Mass together, praying the Liturgy of the Hours together. They are much more likely to say fidelity to the Church is important to them. And they really are looking for communities where members wear habits.'" Right now, Miller and Sister Joan must be shuddering at the thought.
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center