Novelist, essayist and biographer Mary Gordon takes on Pope Francis’ treatment of American nuns, and by extension his and the Catholic Church’s attitudes toward women as a whole, in an essay in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine.
Gordon notes that Francis’ much-quoted assertion that the church has focused too much on “issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” has “suggested the possibility of a new era for the Church, on in which economic justice would take precedence over divisive social issues.” As American nuns “have been the de facto leaders of the country’s liberal Catholics,” Gordon says that Francis’ treatment of the nuns can be seen as a marker of how serious he is about “shifting the Church’s attention.”
But, she concludes, “a year and a half into his papacy, Pope Francis is looking an awful lot like his predecessors,” most notably by allow the investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and their ongoing censure and the larger “apostolic visitation” of all American nuns to continue at the behest of Vatican conservatives.
RD’s Patricia Miller talked to Gordon about Francis’ treatment of the nuns and the history of hostility between women religious and the all-male hierarchy, which she says “has been consistent throughout Catholic history.”
Your essay points up the disconnect between what Francis says, especially in his famous interview where he said the church has talked to much about abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and how he acts toward women, especially American nuns. Why do you think he has been able to maintain so much goodwill in the face of this contradiction?
I have three explanations. First of all, compared to Pope Benedict, he looks great, just because next to Benedict, Godzilla would look great. Second, Nelson Mandela died and the world is looking for a spiritual leader to fill the gap. And finally, something that you see often with religious progressives, is that they don’t get whole women’s piece. For them it just isn’t a deal breaker.
What Francis is good about isn’t new in terms of substance—Pope John Paul II said some very strong things about capitalism. What is new is his tone. He is very good about tone—about washing women’s feet and welcoming nursing mothers. He seems like a softer, gentler version of a pope. And the bottom line is that Catholics are just so tired of fighting.
You point to a crisis of masculinity among the hierarchy as a result of the sex abuse scandal and the fear of powerful women (who are playing a surprisingly effective role in the political arena, as Network and the LCWR did during the debate over ObamaCare). Does this come down to a question of authority in the church and who wields it?
Yes, it does. With all people in authority, when they feel embattled they get more aggressive. The bishops aren’t any different. They really perceive that their authority is being challenged by the nuns. It is a kind of default setting to look at women when that happens and to try and dominate them to reestablish authority.
You note how badly the attacks on the LCWR and the American nuns in general have gone over with the general public. It really has been a PR disaster for the Vatican. Why don’t you think they have recalibrated, if for no other reason than they seem to be generating more and more sympathy for the nuns?
Because I think they perceive, correctly, that their growth area is with the right wing. That’s their base and that’s where the money comes from. In America, the people who like the nuns are the liberals and they aren’t in the pews every Sunday.
It all comes down to the money. They don’t want to alienate Dominos Pizza [Dominos Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan is a major donor to conservative Catholic causes] and the other big money donors. No one on the left gives them the kind of money that they get from the right. You see this all the time with Catholic colleges like Boston College. Wealthy alumna will make a fuss about something they don’t like and they will pull back.
As you note, there are limits on what Francis can do, and animosity between nuns and the hierarchy over questions of authority has a long history in the church. What is the one thing you think Francis could do to show that he is serious about reform and a new attitude where women are concerned?
What would have been really easy for him to do is to pull the censure of the LCWR. He could have done that in a minute.
I am also tired of the way that women are always referred to as the kinder, gentler, more nurturing sex. It’s a way of denying us power. On my more charitable days, I think, okay, Francis is 76 and he is Latin American. Maybe he doesn’t have a lot of experience with strong women.
But because a lot of what he has accomplished is tonal and symbolic, then I think, let him invoke Catherine of Siena or Teresa of Ávila. Let him acknowledge strong women, women theologians and women intellectuals. He could do that with no cost to himself and it would go a long way.