I identify entirely with my friend and colleague Melinda Hennenberger’s excellent take on the Vatican’s crackdown on American nuns. Indeed, I also liked what one commenter on her piece had to say: “The American Bishops should be washing the feet of American nuns and sisters!” Actually, all of us who are Catholic should honor the nuns. The Church would be lost without them. I hope to have more to say on this unfortunate Vatican statement next week.
It’s especially odd that a criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for apparently placing too much emphasis on Catholic social teaching came in the same week that the Bishops offered strong criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget (without mentioning Ryan by name). A letter signed by Bishop Stephen E. Blaire on behalf of his fellow prelates called on Congress to “protect essential programs that serve poor and hungry people over subsidies that assist large and relatively well-off agricultural enterprises.” He also said: “Cuts to nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will hurt hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors and workers who cannot find employment. These cuts are unjustified and wrong.”
There is a real struggle going on in the Church right now between conservatives, who seem intent on making President Obama a target and downplaying the Church’s social mission, and more progressive Catholics, who think the Church should be placing even more emphasis on social justice and issue more emphatic rejections of budget cuts along the lines of Bishop Blaire’s letter. Conservatives have had the upper hand over the last few months, but Bishop Blaire’s statement can be seen in part as a response to the pushback from Catholic liberals who wondered where the Bishops have been in the ongoing budget fight. (Blaire, it should be said, has a strong social justice commitment of his own.)
My hunch is that the attack on the nuns will bring a lot more blowback from progressive Catholics. Up to now, Catholic conservatives have been especially aggressive in pushing the Bishops’ Conference to the right. The Bishops will now be getting a lot more pressure from Catholics on the other side. I think conservatives will ultimately regret targeting the sisters. The nuns have a great many friends in the Church.