By Min-Ah Cho, Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN
On June 4th, the Vatican censured Sister Margaret A. Farley, because, according to the church hierarchy, her books are out of step with official church teaching on human sexuality. On April 18th, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith issued a report declaring that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (the LCWR), an umbrella group representing eighty percent of American nuns had strayed from church doctrine and adopted “radical feminist themes.” The announcement also accused the LCWR’s leaders of focusing too much on poverty and economic injustice while keeping “silent” on abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Last year, U.S. Catholic bishops rebuked another nun and theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, accusing her writings of misrepresenting the reality of God within traditional Catholic understanding.
Although the Vatican is denying a connection between these series of reprimands against American nuns, it seems obvious that the church hierarchy feels very uncomfortable about the nuns’ leadership and the impact that they would make on the church now and in the future. Admittedly, there is nothing new about the church’s fear of women. Throughout history, the church has struggled to keep women under control. Particularly, when women gathered together to form a community, whether monastic or secular, male church leaders went to scrutinize them and implement intervention in their works. The tragedy is that the Vatican is completely consistent with its two thousand years of misogynist history and calls it “the tradition,” while naming the sisters’ works being “strayed from” the tradition. The Vatican is ignoring the importance of dialogue, which is one of the critical theological methods favored and enriched by many doctors of the church.
As a Roman Catholic convert, I have been asked many times why I became a Catholic. I sense that the real curiosity behind that question is ‘why have you, as a feminist, submitted yourself to an archaic, patriarchal hierarchy.’ My answer has been always the same: I did not come to the church to be part of that ugly side. I came to the church to be part of its strong female bonds and the community built by great women leaders throughout history—such as, to name just a few, Catherine of Siena, who courageously challenged the church leaders to accept the authentic teaching of the gospel; the Beguines, who deeply influenced the lives of lay Christians with their faithful commitment to the body of Christ in and outside of the institutional church; Teresa of Avila, who is remembered both for her reform movement and for her life of contemplative prayer; Dorothy Day, who tirelessly worked for the poor and fought against war and violence; and most of all, the nuns, who give me a living connection to these great women leaders by their humble work in schools, charities, prisons, and impoverished neighborhoods. For me, the women have been and are the heart of the church tradition and the very reason I joined Catholicism. The Vatican fails to recognize great theological richness constituted by its own tradition. If the church tries to cut such a noble part of tradition and keep women’s voices under control, the tradition will remain only defective and aggrandize its ugly side which is already overwhelmingly judgmental, overprotective, unfriendly, and exclusive towards differing views. And so, I ask church leaders, “Why do you not appreciate your own tradition?”