Mollie Wilson O'Reilly

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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A sister's witness to history

To mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Journal News of the Lower Hudson Valley (my local paper) has a front-page story about Maryknoll sister Madeline Dorsey, who was in Selma for the events that became known as "Bloody Sunday." There's a powerful photo of Dorsey and other marchers -- sisters, priests, and white and black demonstrators -- with some background on how she ended up at the front of that group:

Cardinal Burke's vision of a manly church, and what it leaves out

When it comes to policing grammar and usage, as any editor must, there are shifts in what is considered acceptable that it is fruitless to fight against. Ending a sentence with a preposition, splitting infinitives, using "decimate" to mean "destroy almost completely"—there's no compelling reason to resist any of those things, aside from pedantry for its own sake. But I will always hold the line on the misuse of "beg the question" to mean "raise the question." I don't care if it gets past the copy-editors at the New Yorker; it must not win the day. And the reason I resist is that "begging the question" is an important concept, and when we want to talk about it, we ought to have a phrase that clearly points it out. I was glad to be able to call on it in the final paragraph of my most recent Commonweal column, where I wrote this: "Who knows: maybe my kids will grow up to be the ones who can explain the all-male priesthood to me in a way that makes sense—who can offer a theological justification that doesn’t sound like begging the question."

Now, in his recent eyebrow-raising interview with (yes) the New Emangelization, Cardinal Raymond Burke has given us all a perfect and dismayingly high-profile example of what I'm talking about. He says:

I think that [the introduction of female altar servers] has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations. It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of [a] priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys. If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically.

What is it about serving as an altar boy that is "manly"? Well, the fact that it is similar to what a priest does, and what a priest does is manly by virtue of the fact that only a man can be a priest. "It requires a certain manly discipline," Burke says, but then later he concedes that "girls were also very good at altar service" once they were allowed to try it. So maybe it doesn't require any distinctly manly aptitude after all. As we have seen, this is a familiar part of traditionalists' argument for restricting the role of altar server to boys: the notion that they won't be interested in doing it if it's not something only boys can do. Thus my impression that most common defenses of the all-male priesthood, and the choices we make to maintain it, are begging the question: Unless you take for granted that the priesthood is properly and necessarily reserved to men, a role only a man can fulfill, none of this stuff meant to support that idea—e.g., claims about altar servers needing to be "manly"—makes any sense.

It should be clear from my column that my cultural assumptions are basically the opposite of Burke's: he thinks young boys need to be raised with a strong sense that the roles open to them are open only to them because of their incipient manliness; I think it is bad to impose arbitrary gender-role boundaries on children before they've had any chance to develop a sense of self based on their individual gifts and inclinations. Burke, or his fellow traditionalists, would reply that the boundaries they value are not arbitrary. But if so, why do they require such effortful reinforcement? Burke points to the pernicious influence of "radical feminism," but he seems to mean just "feminism." I don't deny that there's any significance to gender or sex in personal development. But I have faith that the non-arbitrary boundaries that will guide my sons into their future lives as men will assert themselves without much help from me. It's the assumptions they will make about where women fit into the picture that I'm worried about.

In short, I don't want them to look at the world the way Cardinal Burke seems to, as though women were not worthy of much consideration at all. Oh, when he mentions women he knows enough to say positive things. "Women are wonderful, of course," he says, and later: "It is easier to engage women because our sisters tend to be very generous and talented." But he doesn't mention us much. And what he says about men—who are, after all, the subject of this interview—is most notable, to my mind, for the way it leaves women out of the picture altogether.

Not everyone was happy with the Vatican's thank-you note to U.S. sisters

The final report (.pdf here) on the "apostolic visitation" of U.S. sisters, after effusively praising them for their work and witness over the course of seven pages, concludes on a high note, fit for the Advent season:

Our times need the credible and attractive witness of consecrated religious who demonstrate the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel. Convinced of the sublime dignity and beauty of consecrated life, may we all pray for and support our women religious and actively promote vocations to the religious life.

Indeed, the entire Church sings the Magnificat to celebrate the great things that God does for women religious and for his people through them.

Hear hear. But not everyone is joining the chorus. The mood at the National Catholic Register, for example, is rather somber. Ann Carey, who has dedicated herself for years to exposing the distasteful excesses of American nuns, is clearly disappointed that the visitation process did not result in the public scolding she feels is warranted. Still, the report is not just a "love letter," she points out in her "news analysis" for the Register: "A careful reading of the report reveals that, while some issues were ignored, there was an effort to point out that certain areas of religious life among U.S. sisters do need improvement."

The allusions in the report to areas that might need improvement are not that hard to suss out; determining that "some issues were ignored" on the basis of what's in that report requires more of an effort. Carey has her own ideas about what issues should have been addressed more forcefully:

For example, in discussing the lack of religious vocations, the report noted that vocation personnel find that candidates often prefer to live in community and wear religious garb. The report notes this is a “challenge” to orders that do not have that lifestyle, but it gives no counsel to orders to stop blurring the lines between religious life and secular life, something many orders of women religious freely admit they are doing.

They admit they're not wearing habits! We've got them dead to rights! Come on, CICLSAL, this was a gimme.

The report advises that private, individual reports will be sent to all the orders that were visited and those where problems were found. If directives are given by the congregation for religious for specific reforms in an order, that likely will not be known unless the order releases that information.

I did not mention that in my own response to the visitation report, and I probably should have, because it is important. This is from the report's introduction:

The Vatican's Thank-You Note to U.S. Sisters

To read the "Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America," which was released this morning by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (or CICLSAL), you would think the aim of the whole project was to produce the world's wordiest (and most expensive) thank-you note.

CICLSAL is "sincerely grateful for the presence of women religious in the United States," and for the work that they have done "courageously" and "selflessly" for so many generations. That's on page 1 (click here and scroll down for links to the PDF of the report, and of the remarks at this morning's press conference). "The Dicastery expresses its gratitude to women religious" -- page 5. On p. 7, "this Congregation expresses its gratitude to the sisters who minister within their own communities for the precious service rendered to their institute and to the Church." And "once again," on p. 8, CICLSAL "wishes to express the profound gratitude of the Apostolic See and the Church in the United States for the dedicated and selfless service of women religious in all the essential areas of the life of the church and society."

Way back in 2008, when the visitation was first announced, it did not seem likely to end in a lengthy note of grateful recognition. That was partly because the news came alongside that of the CDF's doctrinal investigation of the LCWR, and partly because of the visitation's opaque origins and stated aims: "to look into the quality of life of religious women in the United States," in light of then-CICLSAL head Cardinal Franc Rodé's concerns about "a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain 'feminist' spirit."

It didn't take a cynical mind to feel pessimistic about a project aimed at exposing feminism among women's religious congregations. The whole point of that "Thank You, Sisters" campaign you may recall -- an outpouring of affection and support, in various media, from Catholic laypeople and priests -- was to counteract what looked like an uncalled-for attack on the lives of faithful U.S. sisters.

But that was years ago. CICLSAL has new leadership. We have a new pope, one who has troubled himself to say unambiguously positive things about women's contributions to the church (and the inadequacy of current provisions for same). The Year of Consecrated Life, the Vatican's tribute to vowed religious, has just begun. And the visitation itself -- which took three years and God knows how much money to complete -- was generally left to sisters themselves to conduct. The result, as Jim Martin has pointed out at America, is "a positive, sometimes adulatory" document that says nothing at all about feminism or any other supposed heresies, and communicates the challenges facing women's apostolic congregations in terms that the sisters themselves would recognize and affirm. That's a relief. It will go a long way toward repairing the strained relationship between the church's male hierarchy and its women religious -- though the ongoing LCWR investigation is obviously still a problem. As Sister X put it in Commonweal in 2009, "Any pastoral invitation to dialogue in the current visitation has largely been compromised by Cardinal Levada’s simultaneous investigation of the LCWR’s doctrinal orthodoxy."

But if the report is a relief and an affirmation, it also represents a huge waste of time, and of money.

"This stops today": Eric Garner and police accountability

As New Yorkers know and others may have heard - if you were reading social media, watching cable news, or perhaps just tuning in to the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony last night -- New York City saw a clutch of protest marches and demonstrations last night, after the announcement that a grand jury had failed to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner. More are planned for today.

It was a shocking outcome, even given the frequent failure of grand juries to indict cops (an exception to their otherwise high rate of indictment). As so many have observed, if the details were fuzzy and accounts hard to reconcile in the Ferguson, MO, shooting death of Michael Brown, in this case they were utterly clear. A bystander's cell-phone video captured the whole encounter, including Garner's pleading for breath as officers tackled him and Daniel Pantaleo kept an arm wrapped tightly around his neck. Garner was unarmed; he posed no threat to the the police, or to anyone else, except of course to their sense of authority. His "resisting arrest" was nonviolent. His supposed offense -- selling individual cigarettes on the street -- was minor. His cries of "I can't breathe!" were clear.

The family of Michael Brown has set a goal for protests in St. Louis: body cameras for police officers, which would capture encounters like the one that resulted in his death and reduce the need to rely on an officer's own account of the details. One thing video evidence has revealed, time and again, is that -- hard as it may be to believe -- police officers do sometimes lie about their actions in ways that make them look better, when they think no one will know the difference. But the Garner case has thrown cold water on that crusade: no body camera could have captured the incident more clearly than the video we already have, and still no indictment -- that is, a jury did not find probable cause for Pantaleo to stand trial for having wrongfully caused Garner's death.

SCOTUS gets another shot at gutting the ACA

Be sure to read Linda Greenhouse's powerful column in the New York Times on the Supreme Court's decision to hear arguments in King v. Burwell -- which Jonathan Chait called "a mind-blowing development" -- and how, in terms of politicizing in the court, it's even "worse" than Bush v. Gore. In this case, Greenhouse writes,

The Susan B. Anthony List, and the pros and cons of single-issue politics

After you've read the New Yorker article Paul Moses recommended below, consider checking out Kelefa Sanneh's story in the October 27 issue on prolife politics, "The Intensity Gap."

More on Douthat and the Vital, Betrayed Remnant

I am glad Peter Steinfels has written such a clear and comprehensive response to Ross Douthat's Sunday column in the New York Times, "The Pope and the Precipice," because now I can throw in my two cents with a focus on the part that really took me aback.

I don't care so much about how Ross Douthat understands church teaching on marriage -- especially since he seems to have so little interest in the real and embarrassing bind that teaching has forced on the real people whose situation Cardinal Kasper et al. are seeking to address.

This, though, I found "stunning," as Peter said in his post below, and deeply revealing too:

Such a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice. Of course it would be welcomed by some progressive Catholics and hailed by the secular press. But it would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents....

Those adherents are, yes, a minority — sometimes a small minority — among self-identified Catholics in the West. But they are the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were. They have kept the faith amid moral betrayals by their leaders; they do not deserve a theological betrayal.

Are these the real stakes of the discussions at the synod? Not the possibility that the church has condemned some of its members to a state of perpetual mortal sin, at least in the technical matter of reception of the Eucharist, even though the circumstances of their lives may not support such a verdict -- but rather the possibility that some self-described "orthodox adherents" will feel put out and "betrayed" if the church discovers room for mercy in any of its positions? That it would even occur to Douthat, or anyone else, to weigh it this way -- a win for  their side ("some progressive Catholics" and "the secular press"; still no mention of the people who would be most directly affected) is a loss for ours -- is astonishing to me. But it does help me understand the full-on panic I've observed among some conservatives since the synod began its deliberations. I've wondered, are they really so certain that this specific application of Christ's teaching on marriage cannot be adjusted in the slightest? Can they be so convinced that the church's current practice, which sits so awkwardly on many Catholics' lives, is nevertheless the only possible way of being faithful to the words of Jesus?

Was the Synod All Just a Terrible Dream?

George Weigel! George Weigel! I had the most frightening dream! It was about the Synod on the Family, and oh, it was dreadful!

Now now, have you been listening to The Media again? You just come over here and let George Weigel put it all in the proper context for you.

Well, I dreamed that the bishops at the synod were openly debating how to apply abstract principles to specific challenges, instead of serenely insisting that nothing about either church teaching on marriage or its application in particular instances can ever change a bit!

My, that does sound scary.

I dreamed that people -- respectable, important people, not just the lamers we always make fun of! -- were talking about Vatican II as if it were an authoritative council of the church whose vision of collegiality ought to be faithfully studied and implemented, instead of just some embarrassing thing that happened in the '60s, like Woodstock, that has no relevance now!

Nonsense. That was just the northern-European bishops and theologians and bishop-theologians trying to spook you. I mean now really, who would take those guys seriously?

But weren't they appointed by --

No one, that's who.

But wasn't the last pope from --

Shhhhhh, now you're getting yourself upset.

Men at Work

My big mistake was not looking closely enough at the storybook zoos. I thought I was raising a liberated preschooler, unburdened with hoary notions of gender roles that might thwart his ability to form healthy relationships. His favorite toy is his play kitchen, where he cooks like Daddy does. When he plays “going to work,” it’s me he imitates, hoisting the bag that holds the breast pump for the baby onto his three-year-old shoulders and heading for the door with a cheerful goodbye. Once we showed him a video of a men’s swimming relay, because he wanted to know what swimming looks like.