An outspoken US nun who was recently embroiled in a censorship row with Melbourne’s Archbishop has warned Australia’s Catholic Church it faces an inevitable decline unless it stops suppressing rank-and-file members pushing for reform.
The nation’s bishops are under pressure to overhaul the church after years of sex scandals and internal unrest, and one of America’s most prominent Benedictine nuns, Sister Joan Chittister, has now renewed calls for women to be ordained and for laypeople to be given more power over their parishes, declaring that the church needs to “grow up” if it wants to thrive.
Such reforms were meant to be thrashed out at the most significant conference Australian Catholic bishops have held in 80 years, the Plenary Council, which is scheduled to take place in October.
However, working documents prepared for the event have prompted concerns that some of the more contentious issues on the agenda could be cast aside or not addressed properly by the bishops, despite past assurances that “everything is on the table”.
“Everyone knows that the church in Australia needs a major overhaul of its governance, culture and structures, but instead of setting out a clear, concise and coherent blueprint for reform, this document is a ground plan for inertia,” said Catholics for Renewal president Peter Wilkinson. “It is very disappointing.”
Sister Joan, who this month headlined an event by the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald she shared concerns that “suppression by the bishops” would impede much-needed improvements. This, she warned, would prompt more members to abandon their parishes.
“There are one of two ways that this can end. The bishops can embrace the concerns and the need for resolution or they continue to ignore the laity – at which point the church will some day wake up in the morning and find out that the church is in fact gone.”
In a speech to a 3000-strong audience this month, Sister Joan added: “Catholicism must grow up, beyond the parochial to the global, beyond one system and one tradition to a broader way of looking at life … Why not married priests, women priests, or women cardinals?”
Sister Joan is a writer, feminist and theologian who has spent 50 years advocating for social justice and church reform. However, the prominent US nun found herself at the centre of an Australian censorship saga two years ago, when she was disendorsed from speaking at a Catholic education conference soon after Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli learnt of plans to include her.
The snub prompted a fierce backlash from rank-and-file Catholics, but the Archdiocese initially sought to dismiss the matter as a misunderstanding, saying the Archbishop had simply requested “that more names aligned to the themes of a national Catholic education conference be considered”.
Sister Joan disagreed, describing the episode as an “insult” to the Catholic education system.
“Of course it was censorship; there wasn’t any doubt about that,” she said this week. “Nobody has a right to tell anybody else what to think. That is not helpful to any organisation – state or church. You’re only burning it down from the bottom up if you do that.”
Sister Joan’s appearance in Australia comes at a critical moment for the church ahead of October’s Plenary Council. Expectations were high in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, which found the hierarchical nature of the church, coupled with its lack of governance, had created “a culture of deferential obedience” in which the protection of paedophile priests was left unchallenged.
However, rank-and-file Catholics have become increasingly concerned about the church’s will to change. Such fears were compounded in March when a working document prepared for the Plenary Council did not give enough credence to critical issues that members have been seeking to address.
Peter Johnstone, the head of the Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform, urged Australia’s bishops to use the Plenary Council to genuinely tackle the “existential crisis” the church faces.
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By Nicole Winfield
The Vatican women’s magazine is blaming the drastic drop in the number of nuns worldwide in part on their wretched working conditions and the sexual abuse and abuses of power they suffer at the hands of priests and their own superiors.
“Women Church World” dedicated its February issue to the burnout, trauma and exploitation experienced by religious sisters and how the church is realizing it must change its ways if it wants to attract new vocations.
The magazine published Thursday revealed that Pope Francis had authorized the creation of a special home in Rome for nuns who were kicked out of their orders and all but left on the street, some forced into prostitution to survive.
“There are some really tough cases, in which the superiors withheld the identity documents of the sisters who wanted to leave the convent, or who were kicked out,” the head of the Vatican’s religious orders congregation, Cardinal Joao Braz di Aviz, told the magazine.
“There were also cases of prostitution to be able to provide for themselves,” he said. “These are ex-nuns!”
“We are dealing with people who are wounded, and for whom we have to rebuild trust. We have to change this attitude of rejection, the temptation to ignore these people and say ‘you’re not our problem anymore.’’”
“All of this must absolutely change,” he said.
The Catholic Church has seen a continuing free fall in the number of nuns around the world, as elderly sisters die and fewer young ones take their place. Vatican statistics from 2016 show the number of sisters was down 10,885 from the previous year to 659,445 globally. Ten years prior, there were 753,400 nuns around the world, meaning the Catholic Church shed nearly 100,000 sisters in the span of a decade.
European nuns regularly fare the worst, Latin American numbers are stable and the numbers are rising in Asia and Africa.
The magazine has made headlines in the past with articles exposing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and the slave-like conditions sisters are often forced to work under, without contracts and doing menial jobs like cleaning for cardinals.
The drop in their numbers has resulted in the closure of convents around Europe, and the ensuing battle between the remaining sisters and diocesan bishops or the Vatican for control of their assets.
Braz insisted the assets don’t belong to the sisters themselves, but the entire church, and called for a new culture of exchange, so that “five nuns aren’t managing an enormous patrimony” while other orders go broke.
Braz acknowledged the problem of nuns being sexually abused by priests and bishops. But he said in recent times, his office has also heard from nuns who were abused by other nuns — including one congregation with nine cases.
There were also cases of gross abuses of power.
“We’ve had cases, not many thank goodness, of superiors who once they were elected refused to step down. They went around all the rules,” he was quoted as saying. “And in the communities there are sisters who tend to blindly obey, without saying what they think.”
The international umbrella group of nuns has begun speaking out more forcefully about the abuses of nuns and has formed a commission with its male counterpart to take better care of their members.
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The Lord’s Prayer filled the marble dome of the Russell Senate Office Building on Thursday as 70 Catholic sisters, clergy and parishioners were led away in handcuffs.
“Forgive us our trespasses,” the demonstrators recited, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
On a day they dubbed the “Catholic Day of Action,” hundreds of Catholics gathered outside the Capitol to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies and its treatment of migrants.
“We hope that by being here and putting our bodies on the line, we can give people, members of Congress, courage to do the right thing,” said Sister Marge Clark, from the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “It’s important to go beyond words, to put your body where your words are, where your beliefs are.”
In their hands and fastened to their bodies, demonstrators carried photographs of migrant children who died in federal custody into the Russell building, where more than 30 senators have offices. As five protesters lay on the floor of the rotunda to make the shape of a cross with their bodies, the group recited the children’s names:
“Darlyn,” protesters chanted in unison. “Jakelin. Felipe. Juan. Wilmer. Carlos.”
Thursday’s demonstration was the second protest this week in which people of faith decried Immigration and Customs Enforcement and called for an end to the federal practice of detaining migrants at crowded detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ten Jewish demonstrators were arrested Tuesday for refusing to leave the lobby of ICE headquarters in Southwest Washington. More than 100 others locked arms and formed barriers around the building’s doors and garage, disrupting the agency’s daily operations.
Thursday’s protest, which called for an end to child detention, was organized by a coalition of more than 15 Catholic groups, including the Sisters of Mercy, Faith in Action and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
“We are here today because of our faith. The gospel compels us to act,” Sister Ann Scholz, associate director for LCWR’s social mission, told the crowd. “We are outraged at the horrific treatment of families and especially children. The inhumane treatment of children being done in our name must stop.”
Though Pope Francis and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have long affirmed their support for migrants and refugees, Catholic voters are split on the issue of immigration, according to surveys conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center.
Catholic Democrats are more likely than Catholic Republicans to view immigration as a boon rather than a burden to the United States — 86 percent to 47 percent — and are more likely to oppose expanding a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We can and must remain a country that provides refuge for children and families fleeing violence, persecution and acute poverty,” the Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in a statement last month. “All people, regardless of their country of origin or legal status, are made in the image of God and should be treated with dignity and respect.”
Claribel Guzman, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, bounced her 17-month-old daughter in her arms Thursday as demonstrators read aloud the words of migrant children detained at federal facilities.
Guzman, afraid of being deported to a country she fears and of being separated from her child, said she has been weighing her options. Maybe, she said, she would seek sanctuary at a local church.
Later, as Franciscan brothers in brown robes were arrested alongside Catholic sisters, Guzman looked on, her head shaking slightly.
“This is my fight now, for my daughter,” she said in Spanish. “It’s very frustrating, very difficult. I am alone here. But in this moment, seeing people like this helps me.”
The demonstration came less than a week after President Trump promised a crush of immigration raids in cities around the country. Though they failed to materialize Sunday as the president promised — Trump said he wanted agents “to take people out and take them back to their countries” — several sisters who work with immigrants said they have seen a lingering fear grip their communities.
“It’s so much worse now. So much worse than we’ve ever seen it, and every day my stomach sinks when something new comes out,” said Sister JoAnn Persch, 85, a Chicago nun with the Sisters of Mercy. “But you know what I’ve learned? I’ve learned that nuns have power. And that’s why we’re here.”
Persch and Sister Pat Murphy, 90, began working with immigrants in 1990, when they took over Su Casa, a Chicago refuge for Central American women, children and torture survivors. In 2007, they began sitting vigil outside the Broadview Detention Center, an ICE facility near Chicago that is often a last stop before immigrants are sent back to their home countries.
They return every Friday — no matter the weather — to pray the rosary.
“Those little children and their mothers and fathers coming across the border, those who are here in the United States, are maligned, called names. It’s rude, crude, disgusting,” Murphy said. “The climate in the country now is very sad, and it’s scary. It’s a scary time.”
The sisters were among about 50 nuns who participated in Thursday’s act of civil disobedience.
As police officers led the last group away, hands zip-tied behind their backs, the demonstrators sang a hymn.
All that remained were photographs of the deceased children, scattered across the Capitol’s hard, cold ground.
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Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known American feminist, was planning to speak at a Catholic conference in Melbourne, but the archbishop apparently intervened.
By Damien Cave
Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known American nun, feminist and scholar, was looking forward to speaking at a Catholic education conference in Australia next year, figuring there would be plenty to discuss in a country where Catholic schools educate roughly one in five children.
But then Sister Joan, 83, received an email a few weeks ago effectively telling her not to come, saying that the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, had not endorsed the invitation.
No reason was given, she said. But to Sister Joan and her supporters, the message was clear: The leaders of the church don’t like her ideas — especially her call to empower women and laypeople — so they plan to suppress them.
“It is pathetic,” Sister Joan said on Monday in an interview from Erie, Pa., where she has lived and worked with the needy for most of her life. “These teachers for the next generation of thinkers are being denied the right to pursue ideas.”
“I see it as a lot bigger than one conference,” she added. “I see it as an attitude of mind that is dangerous to the church.”
The dispute over her invitation, unreported until now, arrives at a time of division and tension for Australia’s Catholic Church.
Cardinal George Pell, a former archbishop of Melbourne who also served as the Vatican’s treasurer, will soon learn whether the appeal of his conviction in December for molesting two choir boys in 1996 has been successful. Cardinal Pell, the highest-ranking Catholic official found guilty of criminal charges in the church’s child sexual-abuse crisis, was sentenced to six years in prison.
But close observers suggest the cardinal has a good chance of winning his appeal, which would ignite another round of anger among Catholics who believe the church is not doing enough to loosen priests’ grip on authority, contributing to a culture of secrecy that allowed the sexual abuse problem to fester.
The rejection of Sister Joan is fuel for the fire.
“The archbishop has made a serious mistake,” said Gail Grossman Freyne, a family therapist, author and friend of Sister Joan’s in Melbourne. “This ban will in no way hinder Sister Joan in pursuing her apostolate. In fact, it will only increase the number of people in Melbourne, in all of Australia, who will come to hear her speak and buy her books. What kind of threat is this 83-year-old Benedictine who has spent her life preaching the gospel?”
The Archdiocese of Melbourne did not respond to requests for comment.
Jim Miles, acting executive director of Catholic Education Melbourne — one of the groups organizing the National Catholic Education Commission’s annual conference, where Sister Joan had expected to speak in September 2020 — characterized the dispute as a communications failure. He said no one, including Sister Joan, had yet been formally invited to address the gathering.
“It is regrettable that Sister Joan Chittister may have been given the impression that she was invited to speak at the conference,” he said. “The conference organizing committee is working to ensure that this type of miscommunication does not occur again.”
Sister Joan, however, said that she had clearly been invited, and that she later received an apologetic email rescinding the invitation.
“I am very saddened to say that while our organizing committee strongly supported the inclusion of Sr Joan as a speaker at the conference, the Archbishop of Melbourne has failed to endorse her inclusion,” the email said.
Catholic scholars said they were not surprised by the dispute; Archbishop Comensoli is a conservative moral theologian who previously served as an auxiliary bishop in Sydney under Cardinal Pell when he was the archbishop there.
His views generally reflect the widening divide between the church’s leadership and many everyday Catholics. On issues like the role of women and acceptance of homosexuality, priests and bishops steeped in the doctrinal and social conservatism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI continue to be opposed by Catholics who have moved to the left, and want to see the church change with the times.
The current pontiff, Pope Francis, has tried to bridge this divide, calling for the church to be more inclusive, while upholding church teachings that prohibit gay marriage and ordaining women as priests or deacons. He has taken only modest steps on both the sexual abuse crisis and broader reforms. On Monday, he cracked open the door to ordaining married, elderly men as priests in remote areas of the Amazon, where the shortage of priests is dire.
In Australia, as in many countries, the divisions have contributed to the faith’s steep decline: Just over 10 percent of Catholics in Australia attend church weekly, down from 74 percent in the 1950s. And while the country’s Catholic schools are still well attended, thanks in part to government funding, they are also the forum where the Church’s generational and cultural rifts are most apparent.
Young Australians who identify as Catholic, for example, are far more liberal than the leaders of their faith. According to an independent study from the Australian National University, eight in 10 Catholic teenagers in Australia support same-sex marriage, and roughly the same percentage support the right of L.G.B.T. students to express their sexuality in schools.
“There is often a misalignment between the laity and the hierarchy, particularly with anything considered socially progressive,” said Andrew Singleton, an associate professor of sociology at Deakin University near Melbourne who worked on the study. “The hierarchy takes its lead from Rome, whereas the laity takes its lead from a wide array of sources, not just the Church.”
Sister Joan is familiar with the fault line. In 2001, Vatican officials directed her order, the Benedictines, to keep her from speaking at a Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin. Her religious community refused, and she spoke anyway.
She has gone on to say that the ordination of women — which is not allowed in the Catholic Church — is not her main concern. But for educators in particular, Sister Joan’s acts of resistance make her a rich source of discussion about both the Church and activist faith in general.
For more than 50 years, she has combined Scripture with stories of modern inspirational figures and demands for equality. Friendly and relentless, she rose to prominence in the 1980s with her opposition to nuclear proliferation. Through countless lectures and more than 50 books, she has developed a worldwide following for highlighting the role of women in religious orders, for calling on the church to change and reconnect with the faithful, and for providing a model of spiritual leadership focused on social justice.
Her most recent book, “The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage,” is in many ways a cri de coeur against the status quo and for a bold spirituality to fight injustice.
Oprah Winfrey, who recently interviewed Sister Joan on her cable channel, said it was a wake-up call. “I read this and I thought, gee, I am not doing enough,” she said.
Sister Joan, who still hopes to come to Melbourne, said her critics in the church did not seem to grasp the book’s message, or the danger of denying information to the public.
“That’s exactly the way the church got into trouble over the sex scandals,” she said. “They did everything alone.”
She paused and sighed. “It’s the last act of a dying mentality,” she said. “All we can do is go on, go on.”
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The New York Times published an extraordinary article this week based on interviews with two dozen gay Catholic priests and seminarians in 13 states. “Out” men and women today are often widely admired, but most of the interviews had to be conducted anonymously because the Vatican still treats homosexuality as “objectively disordered” — a policy that persists even though the representation of gay men in the priesthood is higher, probably far higher, than in the general population.
The relevant catechism about sexuality does not condemn people with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” just those who act on those tendencies. In other words, you can be gay so long as you don’t do anything about it. The Times article rightly presents this distinction as a trial for the priests involved — one of the last major throwbacks to the era of “the love that dare not speak its name” (as Oscar Wilde’s partner, Lord Alfred Douglas, put it). But I wondered how the church’s policy on homosexuality affects men and women, as well as boys and girls, who are not priests.
The gay priest is required, generally, to uphold the official teaching of his church and of his superiors, making him a collaborator in the suppression of his gay brothers and sisters outside the clergy. In this way, without intending to, the victimized become victimizers. How does that play out, to take an example, in the confessional? If a penitent confesses homosexual activity to a gay priest, does the priest channel God’s forgiveness of a sin that he does not himself consider a sin? This is just one of the many ways in which we Catholics, if we refrain from criticizing this particular stance of our church, contribute to the persecution of the LGBTQ community.
The deepest irony is that a priest who is required to go against his nature is told that he must do this because of “natural law.” The church’s quaint theory of natural law is that the first biological use of an activity is the only permissible use of that activity. If the biological use of sex is for procreation, any other use is “against nature.”
The absurdity of this view is made clear by considering the first biological use for eating: the sustenance of life. If every other use of nutrition is against nature, then any diet beyond what is consumed for life-maintenance is a sin — in other words, no wedding cakes, no champagne toasts. Yet the church continues to adhere to so-called natural law because it underpins doctrine on all sexual matters, including the condemnations of abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization and stem-cell research.
Given the stakes in these and other matters, the ban on gay sex involves a larger “church teaching” than the single matter of homosexuality.
Priests and bishops who cover up male homosexuality are prone to a mutual blackmail with those who commit and conceal heterosexual acts by the clergy — sometimes involving women, including nuns, who have been victimized by priests. The Times’s portrait of gay priests was followed by a powerful Feb. 18 article revealing that the church has internal policies for dealing with priests who father children. The Vatican confirmed, apparently for the first time, that a priest with progeny is encouraged to ask for release from his ministry “to assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child” — there being no requirement in canon law that a priest perform this basic act of love for his offspring and the child’s mother.
Secrecy in one clerical area intersects with secrecy in others. There is an implicit pledge that “your secret is safe with my secret.” If there are gay nuns — and why would there not be? — that adds another strand to the interweavings of concealment.
The trouble with any culture that maintains layer upon layer of deflected inspections is that, when so many people are guarding their own secrets, the deep examination of an institution becomes nearly impossible. The secrecies are too interdependent. Truly opening one realm of secrecy and addressing it may lead to an implosion of the entire system. That is the real problem faced this week by Pope Francis and the church leaders he has summoned from around the world for a conference at the Vatican to consider the labyrinthine and long-standing scandals of clerical sex abuse.
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