Mary Gordon on "Francis and the Nuns" in Harper's

In my column last month, I asked, "Why hasn’t Pope Francis stepped in to get the Vatican off the nuns’ backs" and revoke the CDF's mandate to reform the LCWR? "If Francis really wants a less authoritarian, more mission-focused church," I wrote, "shouldn’t he have called this whole thing off already?"

Mary Gordon asks a similar question in the August issue of Harper's, in an essay titled "Francis and the Nuns." It's a strong piece of writing and a very good summary of the tensions between U.S. sisters and the Vatican. Harper's readers will be well caught up on where things stand and how they got that way. And the piece ends with an interview with Simone Campbell, SSS, that gives a personal dimension to the way she and her fellow sisters from LCWR congregations have responded to the scrutiny and censure directed their way from Rome.

But when it comes to the Francis angle, Gordon's analysis is less solid. That's because there simply isn't much to go on. "Is the new Vatican all talk?" the essay's subhed asks. But on this subject Francis has hardly talked at all, so that anyone who wants to build a case for or against him has to resort to reading tea leaves. And silence has many interpretations, after all.

After an introduction that sums up the remarkable shift in tone and priorities that Francis has brought about since taking office, Gordon brings in the nuns as a test case. I think she's right to propose the U.S. sisters as the embodiment of what we might call the Francis agenda:

At least since the priesthood was first shaken by the sexual-abuse scandal two decades ago, and perhaps even before then, America's nuns have been the de facto leaders of the country's liberal Catholics, especially those more interested in social justice than in holding the Vatican's line on sexual politics. Like Francis himself, these women have been reprimanded for failing to give sufficient attention to abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. Their choice to focus instead on the needs of the poor has been met with heavy-handed behavior both from Rome and from U.S. bishops.

But her thesis is a soft one:

If the new pope were serious about shifting the Church's attention, one sign might be his treatment of these women.... But a year and a half into his papacy, Pope Francis is looking an awful lot like his predecessors.

Is he? Gordon goes on to skillfully sum up the "heavy-handed behavior" that was initiated under Francis's immediate predecessor: the CDF's investigation and "doctrinal assessment" and the CICLISAL "apostolic visitation," as well as American sisters' support for the Affordable Care Act (in contrast to the U.S. bishops' opposition), and the bishops' irritation over that disagreement. She rightly suggests that the CDF seems to have taken that act of insubordination into account in its finding of fault with the LCWR, though she stops short of quoting the part of the assessment that I read as an indirect reference to it: "Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church's authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose."

But, as she says, "The findings of the visitation have not been made public, and Francis has been silent on the topic." That silence could be, but need not be, interpreted as agreement with his predecessors. It certainly looks different to me from initiating the visitation and investigation in the first place. I know that many people, most especially the sisters who accomodated the process, find it frustrating that the visitation's conclusions have not been published. But another way to say that "Francis has been silent on the topic" is to say that Francis has determined that the visitation's findings should be ignored. If he wanted to show continuity with Benedict, he might have taken up implementing the recommendations of the visitors, whatever they might be, as a first order of business. Instead, you might say he's disregarding his predecessors' example in the least confrontational way available: put it in a file and never mention it again.

As for the CDF's investigation, Gordon says, "Lifting the mandate would be one way for Francis to signal a real commitment to a more open relationship between the Vatican and the nuns." Well, yes, it could be, but letting it play out, as I have argued, might end up serving the same purpose. I am reading tea leaves myself, but it could be that Francis thinks that the two sides' remaining in conversation, however unequal the stakes, is better than their retreating to their corners to resume their mutual hostilities. Or, I could be wrong. Francis may just not be that interested at all.

Things get a little silly at that point in the article: "While the nuns have committed themselves to asking difficult ethical questions, the Vatican does not seem to feel such a need," Gordon writes. Her examples? Francis "reaffirmed his implacable opposition to abortion" in a speech to gynecologists, and excommunicated a priest who "supported the ordination of women." The fact that Francis or other bishops (she mentions Cardinal Sean O'Malley) have firmly upheld church doctrine does not mean they have not asked "difficult ethical questions." I am not sure I would have drawn the same conclusion as O'Malley about declining to attend commencement at Boston College due to the inclusion of a pro-choice, pro-same-sex-marriage speaker, but I see no reason to believe his decision was the result of anything other than "difficult ethical questions," seriously considered. This is begging the question. After that, Gordon quotes Francis on the question of ordaining women, saying that "the Church has spoken and says no. Pope John Paul said so with a formula that is definitive. That door is closed." These words, she says, are "in stark contrast to his wish that the Church be more gentle in its tone and more open to genuine dialogue." Well, yes and no. I would certainly welcome dialogue on this subject, but I'm not surprised that the pope, at least in public, does not. And as quoted above, his words seem pretty gentle to me -- if you take for granted that he will unequivocally uphold church doctrine, as popes tend to do. He could have taken personal ownership of his rejection of women's ordination. Instead he puts it off on John Paul. When I first read that, it sounded to me like he was taking the easy way out of pursuing a difficult subject: Don't blame me; that door was closed when I got here.

Then Gordon gets to the part of her essay I liked best: a historical roundup of some of the power struggles between women religious and hierarchs through the centuries. Hildegard of Bingen, Anne-Marie Jabouhey, Mary MacKillop, Margaret Anna Cusack, and the IHMs of Los Angeles: some stories I knew, some I didn't, all of church authorities trying to bring pioneering women to heel. It's hard to deny, when you hear these stories one after another -- and there are many more -- that there is something pathological in the way an all-male leadership, again and again across the centuries, reacts with alarm and displays of authority to women who strike out in new directions while living their vows with what they see as fidelity and integrity. Gordon brings it all back to the Second Vatican Council, which challenged and empowered religious communities to "Move in the direction of greater responsibility, which entails higher levels of education and self-governance." American congregations responded to that call, as she notes, and the recent scrutiny from Rome can credibly be interpreted as an attempt to roll back the results.

There is another quick gesture to the sex-abuse crisis toward the end of the article that I think would have been better left out. Gordon notes that "the timing of the investigations intersects" with the aftermath, particularly the financial aftermath, of the scandal. True enough. But then she ventures, "Whatever else it is, the sexual-abuse scandal is clearly a crisis of masculinity. It's all about men and boys. (Girls who have been molested by priests never come in to the conversation)."

That last line, the parenthetical, baffles me. I've heard the testimony of female victims. There are fewer of them, or so it would seem -- is Gordon suggesting that the numbers may be greater than we know? Or that, however many or few the victims are, they are not significant when talking about "scandal"? And who is doing the excluding from the conversation? And what conversation are we talking about, if not the one that begins by declaring that "the sexual abuse scandal is...all about men and boys"? She's on to something in suggesting that fear of losing power and credibility because of the scandal may be motivating Rome to put the nuns in their place. And there may indeed be a gendered element to that power struggle (how could there not be, in an entirely patriarchal power structure?). But the aside about the abused girls is so disruptive to this theory that the whole thing looks like an unseemly stretch.

Still, Gordon brings her piece to a strong finish, and I think her take on how the American Catholic public feels about and responds to the sisters and the Vatican's assault on them is right on. "Many Catholics, tired of being ashamed, now looked to nuns as the face of the Church with which they wanted to identify. And they didn't like to see the very people who had shielded pedophiles threatening nuns."

The essay finishes with a conversation with Sr. Simone Campbell, who explains how her ministry is grounded in the vision of her order's foundress, Margit Slachta. I am grateful to Gordon for giving so much attention to an aspect of women religious's lives and self-understanding that is so often overlooked, especially by people who want to dismiss the "liberal" American nuns as one big (but not big enough) and mostly corrupt group. The changes they've made since the Council, in clothing, lifestyle, and ministry, are not just arbitrary concessions to modernity; they are individual to each order, and rooted in reflection on that order's founding charism and goals. (I tried to say something like this in my response to a letter that followed my column.) Every sister is called, not just generally to obedience to the bishops and the church, but to membership in a particular community, and to a particular kind of openness to the Spirit. Ignoring that, or regarding it as an insignificant detail, makes it impossible to say anything constructive about how sisters are fulfilling or not fulfilling their proper roles. That is something Pope Francis, himself a member of a religious order, might be more sensitive to than many Vatican officials. It is also something Gordon understands and communicates very well, and in doing so she contributes significantly to the public discussion of the issue -- whether or not Francis ever speaks up for himself.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

Also by this author
Bob Herbert: "Losing Our Way"

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads