Vatican Takedown of Nuns No Laughing Matter

Appearing at Fordham University on Monday, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a key papal advisor known as “the pope’s theologian” attempted to laugh off the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s harsh criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious last week. David Gibson writes: “I also am considered suspect!” Cardinal Walter Kasper said with a laugh during an appearance Monday at Fordham University. “I cannot help them,” he added, referring to his critics in Rome.

Kasper was referring to criticism of his book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, by some in the Vatican as containing “heresies.”

According to Gibson, this was an attempt by Kasper to provide “context” to the unusually blunt rebuke of the LCWR. Kasper also defended theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, whose honoring by the LCWR was one of the causes of Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s displeasure with the conference. Kasper said he held Johnson in “esteem” and noted that Saint Thomas Aquinas also had been condemned for his work. “So she is in good company!,” he said.

Kasper suggested that the whole thing was just a misunderstanding that could be worked out:

“If you have a problem with the leadership of the women’s orders, then you have to have a discussion with them, you have to dialogue with them, an exchange of ideas,” he said. “Perhaps they have to change something. Perhaps also the Congregation (for the Doctrine of the Faith) has a little bit dialogue. Dialogue presupposes different positions.”

But Müller didn’t seem to be in a “dialogue”-y mood when he reminded the LCWR that it was “a canonical entity dependent on the Holy See.” He spoke from the position of a man in charge of what was once the Inquisition expecting obedience to his orders and threatening consequences for those who didn’t comply.

The exchange shows how the Vatican’s more charismatic front men, whether it be Kasper or Pope Francis, publicly downplay the harsher actions of the “back office,” such as the CDF, while allowing them to proceed anyway. Francis calls for a more “pastoral” and less legalistic application of church teaching against birth control or homosexuality, but here in the United States the Catholic bishops’ strenuous efforts against the contraception mandate and same-sex marriage continue unabated and are most certainly legalistic, involving active participation in high-profile court cases and political campaigns.

After all, Francis presumably could halt the CDF investigation of the LCWR if he felt it was unjustified or an overreach but he hasn’t. He could tell Müller to tone down the rhetoric but he didn’t. The investigation will have real consequences for the nuns of the conference. No matter what the outcome, it’s apparent that they will lose a good bit of their organizational and intellectual autonomy. Undoubtedly many in the Vatican think this is a good thing because the LCWR has strayed too far off the ranch. But no matter what you think about it, it isn’t a laughing matter.

Or perhaps it requires a different perspective. Like the Vatican’s most recent Statistical Yearbook of the Church, for example, which shows some growth in many areas of the Church worldwide, but includes this:

The number of women in religious orders continued its downward trend. The total of 702, 529 temporarily and permanently professed sisters and nuns in 2012 was a 1.5 per cent decrease from the previous year and a 5.9 per cent fall since 2007.

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.