Why Can’t the Vatican Hear Women?

A group of progressive Catholic organizations writing under the banner of the Nuns Justice Project has sent an open letter to Pope Francis asking him to personally intervene to remove the “unjust mandates” placed on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious by the Vatican.

They say that the recent harsh criticism of the LCWR and Sister Elizabeth Johnson, “one of the most beloved and respected theologians in the world,” by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, “eclipsed any opportunity for public dialogue” and “communicates that faithful Catholic female leaders are disrespected and discounted in our Church.”

All valid criticism, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the Vatican to respond because it’s clear it has a serious hearing problem when it comes to women, a deafness that dates back to the period right after Vatican II, when women began agitating for leadership roles in the church. That’s when the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious changed its name to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an upgrade that didn’t go over well with the Vatican, which objected to the nuns’ appropriation of the word “leadership,” which, obviously, is reserved for men.

Sister Margaret Brennan, who was the head of the conference at the time, respectfully requested an audience with Pope Paul VI to explain the conference’s rationale for the change. He not only refused to see Brennan but refused to even respond to a woman directly. He had Cardinal John Krol, head of the U.S. bishops’ conference, deliver the message to Brennan that if she was “more obedient” she might get in to see the pope.

So clearly asking the pope for an audience wasn’t the way to go. Eight years later, when Pope John Paul II was making his hugely hyped first tour of the U.S., LCWR president Sister Theresa Kane decided to take matters into her own hands. When greeting John Paul on behalf of women religious at a packed mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Kane electrified progressive Catholics by calling for women’s ordination the day after the pope had publicly opposed it:

“Your Holiness, I urge you to be mindful of the intense suffering and pain which is part of the life of many women in these United States. I call upon you to listen with compassion and to hear the call of women who comprise half of humankind. As women we have heard the powerful messages of our Church addressing the dignity and reverence for all persons. As women we have pondered upon these words. Our contemplation leads us to state that the Church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our Church. I urge you, Your Holiness, to be open to and respond to the voices coming from the women of this country who are desirous of serving in and through the Church as fully participating members.”

The audience definitely heard Kane because she received thunderous applause. The pope never replied to her respectful request but did subsequently scold her for failing to wear a habit. Apparently he could see her but not hear her.

Around the same time, the Sisters of Mercy decided to allow sterilization at the hospitals they ran because tubal ligations were an increasingly popular form of birth control. When the Vatican complained, the sisters explained it was a matter of good medical practice to provide the procedure for women who wanted it immediately after childbirth rather than have them go to another hospital later for a separate procedure, which increased their health risks. Instead of listening to the nuns about what was in the best interests of the women they cared for, the Vatican threatened to dismiss their entire leadership and take control of all of their hospitals and schools if they didn’t rescind the policy. The sisters heard the Vatican. They backed down.

And now comes word that a cardinal in the Philippines is shocked to learn from the Vatican’s survey of family life that Catholics really, really disagree with the church’s position on birth control. Apparently he hasn’t had a newspaper delivered in some time or, sadly, he lacks a radio, TV or computer. He’s certain that the problem isn’t with a completely indefensible teaching that makes no sense to Catholics, it’s just that the Vatican hasn’t explained it well enough. Apparently the Vatican can’t comprehend it when Catholics don’t hear them.

The horrifying reality of the cardinal’s deafness is that the Philippines bishops’ conference spent years blocking access to contraception after it colluded with the country’s leadership to mandate a national family planning program that only offered natural family planning. Just this spring the Supreme Court finally upheld an historic measure to restore contraceptive funding after the bishops challenged it as a violation of the constitution’s protection of life.

But for more than a decade, poor women in the country were denied access to contraception as maternal mortality soared. According to the World Health Organization, the Philippines has one of the highest rates of unmet need for family planning in the western Pacific, which means women are asking for birth control but can’t get it. And as usual, the Vatican can’t hear them.

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.