When I wrote a teen column for my local paper, I used to try to limit myself to writing on stuff I actually knew stuff about. It kept me from sounding like an idiot, even though I was one.
So when someone like Nicholas Kristof doesn’t follow that simple maxim and tries to write on Vatican insider stuff, the result is a terrible, awful mess, such as his column dealing with the Vatican’s work to reform the largest organization of U.S. nuns, the LCWR. In fact, it’s actually hard to address his column, a combination of half-truths, misreadings, rhetorical questions, and cheap shots. But I’m going to try anyway, because people are, sadly, taking this column seriously.
1. Kristof writes, “In effect, the Vatican accused the nuns of worrying too much about the poor and not enough about abortion and gay marriage.” Why does he write “in effect?” Because the Vatican … wait for it … doesn’t do that at all. Go ahead, go read the document. I’ll wait, while you read damning statements such as:
The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years.
And it’s not like the Church is only focusing on their silence on certain issues. Kristof entirely ignores that the nuns’ theology was also problematic, in which certain basic Christian and Catholic beliefs were being called into question. Says the document:
Addresses given during LCWR annual Assemblies manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors. The Cardinal offered as an example specific passages of Sr. Laurie Brink’s address about some Religious “moving beyond the Church” or even beyond Jesus.
The speech was an acknowledgement by Brink that some nuns were moving beyond their Christian/Catholic roots. That’s a problem if you publicly identify as a Catholic nun. So if you’re in charge of a major religion, say, Catholicism, and you notice that prominent Catholics are denying an aspect of Catholicism, why wouldn’t you step in?
2. Kristof writes, “If you look at who has more closely emulated Jesus’s life, Pope Benedict or your average nun, it’s the nun hands down.” Why does Kristof write this? Because he doesn’t like the Vatican, and he likes what he sees as social justice. He also tolerates or approves of abortion and birth control, and the Vatican doesn’t. Confirmation bias at work? You bet. Really, this is a cheap shot, not an argument.
There’s more beyond the column that’s causing trouble for Kristof’s argument.
1. Orthodox religious orders are growing, slowly but surely, though there is, most assuredly, a long way to go. The LCWR is not. Orthodox orders are also getting younger. The LCWR is not — in fact, the LCWR could be effectively gone in 20 or 30 years, as their average age is 70+. The Vatican sees this as a problem, because of the valuable work these women have done. They would prefer these women to continue in the U.S. and flourish once again. And the Vatican’s not asking nuns to choose between orthodoxy and service. They have done both, faithfully, for hundreds and hundreds of years. I’m fortunate enough to know a sister, Alicia Torres, who serves her community on the West Side of Chicago as a member of the Franciscans of the Eucharist but was a pro-life and chastity speaker before she entered religious life. And, of course, there was Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (better known as Mother Teresa), who famously spoke out against abortion at a national prayer breakfast with President Clinton in attendance.
2. There’s a conservative group going through a similar (though not exactly the same) experience. Say hello to the Society of St. Pius X, which largely broke with the Church and whose current status (a few members have been officially considered excommunicated, if my understanding is correct) is unclear. The SSPX members expressed beliefs that also weren’t consistent with Catholic teaching, and many got the boot. (The nuns, we should note, have not gotten the boot.) But, slowly but surely, the Vatican has worked with the SSPX, and it appears that in the near future, the SSPX will be reconciled to the Church. My point here? It’s not like the Vatican’s just picking on the nuns or the liberals.
In the end, the Vatican argues that if you’re going to be Catholic — and identify as Catholic — you should do your best to act Catholic in word and deed. The nuns clearly carry out actions that do the Catholic Church proud. But in other ways, they blur their identities with statements (and occasionally, actions) that don’t identify well with Catholicism. The nuns, and liberal critics such as Kristof, seem to think that the Vatican is insisting on an either/or: Either be orthodox or carry out your service, butcha can’t do both. Baloneysnot. The Vatican’s asking for a “both/and.” The sisters can do both, even if it’s difficult. With any luck, they will — as long as they don’t listen to Kristof.