The Abuse of Nuns and Sisters in the Catholic Church

Pope Francis’s recent acknowledgement of the sexual abuse of female religious by Catholic clergy should have surprised no-one (see, for example, the account given here: https://is.gd/FoGNnU). I can remember our own D. Teresa Rodrigues, who was Secretary of Aide Inter-Monastique for many years, waxing wroth on the subject. It is one of those scandals everyone is aware of, professes to abhor but doesn’t actually do anything about because there is no reward for doing so. If male, it doesn’t advance one up the clerical career ladder; if female, it doesn’t endear one to one’s religious superiors and lays one open to all kinds of sanctions; if lay, one has more than enough to worry about with the terrible scandal of the sexual abuse of children. I think it’s worth pointing out, however, that although the pope directed our attention to sexual abuse, that is only one aspect of the matter — a manifestation of another and more general abuse. At the heart of it all is the low opinion the institutional Church has of nuns and sisters and women generally.

The patristic tradition and modern versions of it: motherhood
As soon as I say that, I know many will protest that the Church holds women in high honour. Some will point to the long patristic tradition honouring Mary, the greatest of all women. Others will quote more or less sugary texts telling us what wonderful beings we are and how privileged we are to serve in our maternal roles. There is my first problem: not the patristic tradition itself, but the shrunken version of it that we are often given, which sees all women through a single lens, that of mother. Not all women are mothers, just as not all men are fathers; but the Church has never sought to define all men in terms of fatherhood in the way she has often seemed to define all women in terms of motherhood.

Motherhood is a great vocation, make no mistake, but it can be reduced to a caricature of itself, to a kind of ‘flower-pot’ role in the life of others. My own mother summed this up rather crisply when she said, ‘Blame Mummy for everything that goes wrong, but don’t give her credit for anything that goes right!’ Fifty years on, and I feel the truth of her words more and more. It is (comparatively) easy to dismiss women as being somehow of less account, especially in a Church where priesthood and rulership are reserved to men. Most of the women who read this blog will have their own stories to tell of occasions when they encountered attempted put-downs or were dismissed unheard. A shrug and a smile and choosing which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t is probably the response most of us make most of the time. But I wonder whether we should be addressing another question that is becoming more and more urgent. Are the rights and responsibilities of women in the Church properly understood?

The rights and responsibilities of women: the exercise of power and authority
There was a time when arguments about the rights and responsibilities of women in the Church, whether religious or lay, were glossed over by reference to ‘cultural circumstances’. We were told that the future growth of the Church lay in Africa and Asia, where women were culturally subservient, and it would be wrong for the Church as a whole to upset this order of things. So, please would Western women shut up, say their prayers and do as the men said. I exaggerate, of course, but even the furthest regions of the Vatican must now be aware that society is changing fast, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa and Asia. With better education comes greater autonomy, which may be one reason why many absolutist regimes try to restrict access to education, especially for women and girls. Where women have a better grasp of their rights and responsibilities, it is impossible for the institutional Church to go on behaving as it always has. It must actually engage with women; and that can be very difficult for those who grew up in a different world or who have had no contact with women, other than as secretaries or servants, for most of their lives.

Of course, where the Church does not promote or even protect the rights and responsibilities of women, we end up with a paternalistic system which works well enough until it is placed under scrutiny, when it shows how very flawed it is. The exercise of power and authority will always be viewed with some suspicion by those who have no power themselves, but one must ask whether women in the Church need to be quite as invisible as they have become. Following the publication of Cor Orans, I have had to do quite a lot of work on canon law and I have found sobering the way in which female religious are regarded as being ‘disposable’ — their persons, their property, even their mission being subject to control by those who may have no first-hand experience of what they are dealing with. They are in some ways infantilized. This is very far from religious obedience, which should lead to a growing maturity in Christ. What has gone wrong? Do we take the easy way out, and blame the women themselves, or do we ask ourselves what in the structures of the Church could be responsible for bringing about such a situation?

A personal and tentative conclusion
I think myself that a reluctance to engage with women except on a top-down basis has led to a kind of blindness in the Church that is now disabling her more than ever. I don’t believe, for one moment, that popes, bishops and clergy set out to do women down or treat them with contempt; but I do think that unexamined attitudes have led to us getting further and further away from the gospel. The authoritarian exercise of power makes people concentrate on the power, not on what it is intended to bring about. I am not alone in thinking that the institutional Church has not yet really taken on board how serious is the sexual abuse scandal, and how inadequate appear the various measures suggested for its resolution. The reluctance to include women in the processes for examination of the problem is telling. It is a kind of ‘own goal’ for the Church.

We have to have law; we have to have regulations for large and complex organisations like the Catholic Church; but I am not convinced that we have to have the kind of laws and regulations we currently have. If one part of the Church has no voice — if it is always the part to which things are done, rather than engaged and participant — then there is bound to be a problem with how it is viewed. If female religious are basically of no account, then of course they can be treated as children. And the horror of it is, that we see exactly where failing to treat children as we should has led us all.

Postscript
I have deliberately distinguished between the institutional Church, for which I use the neutral ‘it’, and the Church as a whole for which I use the feminine ‘she’. It’s a crude distinction, but it is useful. As always, I don’t want my male readers, especially the clerical ones, to feel they are being blamed for the difficulties I discuss. They know how much they are loved and valued, and many share my sense of frustration with the way in which the Church appears to be failing to address important questions. I’ve tried to write for those who don’t have much history or canon law but who believe in the gospel and want to right the wrongs they see. As a Church, we preach peace and justice but without real justice within the Church, can there be genuine peace? Although I am writing about the exercise of power and authority, I am not writing about ordination which is theologically a much more nuanced question than many are prepared to admit. So, please, no ‘If only the Catholic Church would ordain women’ responses. That is not what is at issue here.

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Deacons, Deaconesses and the Call of the Holy Spirit

Yesterday, in a ‘closed door’ discussion with members of the International Union of Superiors General, Pope Francis called for (another) commission to study the possibility of re-instating female deacons in the Church (see Radio Vaticana’s report, here). Immediately the Catholic web and blogosphere was awash with argument. Those open to the idea of the commission talked about female deacons; those hostile talked about deaconesses; and there was rather a lot of arguable ‘history’ on both sides. Interestingly, most people seem to have forgotten entirely the context in which the pope’s remarks were made: a typically wide-ranging discussion about the mission and ministry of women in religious (consecrated) life with the 900 heads of female religious orders and congregations who make up the IUSG.  So, it wasn’t just another musing aloud to a group of press hacks, it was a discussion with women already vowed to a life of obedience and service, and it had a wider scope than the question of reinstating female deacons.

Of course, whenever anyone mentions the role of women in the Church, he/she touches a neuralgic point. I am too tired to want to engage in the kind of polemics many enjoy. Suffice it to say that I am myself convinced by the historical evidence and the practice of some of the Eastern Churches that there were female deacons in the early Church, that I don’t see the restoration of the female diaconate, should it ever occur, as a step towards the ordination of women to the priesthood (in fact, I rather lament the fact that the male diaconate is often seen as a lesser kind of priesthood rather than an important, but quite distinct, form of service in its own right); and I should be very sorry if the question of studying the possibility of reinstating female deacons were to obscure the much bigger question of women’s role in the Church and, since I am one myself, the role of female religious in the Church in particular (which is where the pope’s remarks started).

One of the sad facts of life in the Church today is that we do not use the gifts of many of her members. Over the years I have heard nuns and sisters recounting instances of being treated in ways that would be illegal in the secular sphere. I have heard intelligent and able men and women, but especially women, talking about the times they have had to fight Church authorities in order to perform some work or other. That surely isn’t right. Sometimes, too, when I look at a sanctuary crowded with men or listen to a lacklustre homily, I wonder whether the enormous and growing gulf between what men and women experience in Church and what they experience outside isn’t becoming more and more of a problem.

The Holy Father isn’t likely to be asking for my advice, but if he did, I think I would say: why don’t we just ignore the ancient divisions, and, instead of tying ourselves in knots about whether reistating female deacons would involve ordination as later generations have come to understand it, create some new categories which could be open to both men and women? For example, a Licensed Preacher might be one. An Administrator (with a capital ‘A’) might be another. I suspect one of the arguments against would be that the Church hierarchy would worry about having a body of people it could not really discipline, but, unless I am mistaken, that is a problem they already have with some clergy and religious anyway!

It is good that Pope Francis has opened this discussion during these days when we are preparing for Pentecost. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and over the centuries has come to see more and more depths in the mystery of Christ. We must pray earnestly that the Holy Spirit will lead us wherever and however we are meant to go. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what any of us wants or what any of us thinks is a good idea. It is what God desires that matters. Our task is to be open to that and to do his will, not our own.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

An Irritable Post by an Irritable Nun

The hot weather is getting to me. I have laid aside, for the time being, a long and carefully argued post about RB 31 and the role of the cellarer and decided instead to have a little fun with some of my King Charles’ heads. In no particular order, therefore:

The Vatican Bank
Well, perhaps we now know why Pope Francis wasn’t at that concert! There has been more than a whiff of sulphur around the Institute of Religious Works (IOR), as the Bank is known, for many years. We must continue to hope for a thoroughgoing investigation and reform. However, those inclined to gloat should remember (a) that British banks are not exactly models of propriety, alas, and (b) ask themselves which other banks donated $70 million to charity in 2012. For reasons that are probably only too clear to you, if not to me, I have not yet received the call to go and sort them out. I shall therefore join the thousands of others acting as armchair experts and bore you in due course with my theories and opinions on what should be done.

Abuse Scandals
A major U.N. child rights protection body has asked the Vatican to disclose all it knows about abuse cases involving Catholic clergy (see BBC report here). Readers of this blog will know that I have absolutely no problem with that — the more transparency the better — though I must admit I am not overly impressed by U.N. officials’ own standards of behaviour in many spheres, but that is by the by. I am distinctly  unimpressed by the BBC’s analysis piece by John McManus on the same page, however, where he refers to abuse by ‘Catholic priests, nuns and brothers’ (note the omission of monks). As a cloistered nun, I’d be genuinely interested to know how many, if any, cases of abuse by nuns (as distinct from religious sisters) have been recorded. We are obliged to pay an annual Safeguarding fee to the Catholic Trust for England and Wales, but as we don’t have contact with children or vulnerable adults, I would imagine our risk assessment is fairly low. Which is why I object to the good name of nuns being treated so cavalierly by the BBC. If the BBC doesn’t know the difference between nuns and sisters, this little post may help them. The lazy, hazy days of summer are no excuse for lazy, hazy writing, are they?

Ecumenical Good Manners
Readers know that I don’t usually comment on the affairs of other Churches and never allow false statements about them to pass, even in jest. I think that’s quite important. I am a Catholic by conviction and am ready to give an account of what I believe and why. That doesn’t stop me valuing my friends in other traditions or respecting their points of view, even if I disagree with them. Respect is not the same thing as agreement, though some assume it is. It has much more to do with a readiness to hear the other out, weigh his or her words and respond kindly and gently, though with complete honesty. Nothing is to be gained by trading jibes, still less by perpetuating exploded myths about ‘what they believe’. Genuine dialogue, based on careful reading and prayer and leavened with a little humility, is another matter. In this age of the internet, where everyone has an opinion and opinions can be spread across the globe in a matter of minutes, I think we all have a duty to think before we blog, tweet or FB on religious questions. Our point-scoring can bring Christianity into disrepute, which is a very negative kind of achievement, isn’t it? Ultimately, it isn’t just a matter of ecumenical good manners but of truth itself. So, if you ever catch me falling below the standards I set myself, please alert me — but gently, if you can.

I think that’s enough ‘heads’ for one day. I have beans to pod. Very Desert Father-ish.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Keeping Faith

There has been a lot of comment on the Pope’s Memo regarding the Year of Faith (2012). Some of it has reminded me how grateful I am that this blog has never, as far as I know, become a battleground for conservatives and liberals, never ‘Catholic’ in the narrowly partisan sense, but has always been enriched by contributions from many differing Christian and non-Christian traditions. Yet I trust that no one reading it would have the slightest doubt that I write as a Catholic, from a Catholic perspective born of study of scripture and the Fathers and that immersion in prayer which is at the heart of monastic life. Some, I know, would prefer to see a more overtly theological stance or more explicit discussion of liturgy, but I think I can safely leave that to others. I am more concerned with the foothills of Christian living, and for that reason I am looking forward to what the coming year will bring.

The Year of Faith promises much, but if there is one aspect I would want to emphasize, it is this. All theological disciplines, every attempt to articulate or express faith, should begin, and end, in prayer. Only prayer can keep us centred on Christ and in charity with one another, because only prayer can enable us to face the truth of God and of ourselves. No one, having seen him- or herself for what he or she truly is, could ever despise or disparage another. The Year of Faith is not an opportunity for neighbour-bashing in the name of religion but for learning how much further we each have to go to realise our vocation of holiness. Keeping faith will also keep us humble.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Serving God with Mammon

Yesterday’s release of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Note on Financial Reform has been variously received. I went through the text yesterday evening (it’s only 18 pages) and suggest you read it for yourselves rather than any commentary (mine included). It’s a long time since I worked in finance myself, but many of the questions it addresses are familiar; so too are some of the suggestions it makes regarding the future. It has, however, left me thinking about the whole concept of money, wealth creation and stewardship, particularly in light of our own needs. When is enough enough?

The economic basis of what we are and do is slender: a small business, to which we devote time and energy, and which must provide not only for our own needs and the needs of those who come to us for help, but also our service of the visually impaired, our internet outreach and much else besides. Without the generosity of friends and benefactors, much would have to go or be scaled down. We are at a critical point: we have vocations but nowhere to accommodate them; we have found a house which would enable us to do much more for others than we can at present; and the only thing stopping us is lack of money. If you haven’t yet looked at our presentation on the future of the monastery, please do so.

There are many practical ways of helping: a loan, investment in our Charitable Bond, a donation. You can’t serve both God and Mammon, perhaps, but you can serve God with Mammon.

DONATIONS
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The Web Magisterium and Other Weighty Matters

Tonight, after first vespers of SS Peter and Paul, the pope is going to launch the long-awaited Vatican news portal, www.news.va. If the sneak preview we were treated to at the Vatican Blognic is anything to go by, it will be worth waiting for. Benedict XVI is not perhaps the most naturally web savvy of men, but under him the Vatican has made strenuous efforts to improve its online presence (in the case of the Vatican web site the verdict must be ‘could do better’, but at least it’s a start).

I was mulling over this when I found on my Twitterstream a link to Fr James Martin’s reflections on what the Church is/is not doing online. Taken together with the same author’s Ten Dos and Don’ts, and the wise words of Pete Phillips on engagement with social media, we have a helpful summary of how best to make our web presence constructive. Needless to say, Digitalnun nodded her head in agreement over most of it and wondered whether we, as a community, come anywhere near to living up to the ideal. Is there scope here for a seventy-fourth chapter of the Rule?

One particularly eye-catching phrase used by Fr Martin was ‘the web magisterium’. What a perfect way to describe a phenomenon most of us have encountered from time to time (and maybe even been guilty of ourselves on occasion): the self-appointed guardian of the Church, who knows how to castigate what is wrong with bishops, priests and religious; who has the solution to other people’s problems and believes in ‘speaking the truth in love’; who is blissfully unaware of his/her own feet of clay and regards disagreement as a form of martyrdom. I’m not sure which is scarier: the liberal or the conservative manifestation. All I can say is, I thought about it a little, and trembled!

Finally, a sad day for bloggers: Mouse is hanging up his laptop for while, to concentrate on Mrs Mouse and the Baby Mice. We shall be the poorer for his loss, but children grow up fast, so perhaps he will return to the blogging scene earlier than we realise. Hope so.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

That Vatican Blogmeet Again

I suspect that by now anyone interested in the historic Bloggers’ Meeting at the Vatican on 2 May 2011 will have found links a-plenty. In case you haven’t, you can listen to all the audio files here (about half-way down the page). The best address, in my opinion, was given by Elizabeth Scalia, (a.k.a.The Anchoress), here, and the best post-meeting reflection by Anna Arco here. If it’s photos you are after, I suggest you look here or at the video on romereports.com. The live-streaming of the event was not wholly successful because of inadequate bandwidth. (Indeed, I appeared to be in a wi-fi blackspot as I was unable to get Twitter to load during the meeting.) I couldn’t attend the alternative meeting the day after organized by Hilary White, nor can I go to the London meeting today about forming a Guild of Catholic Bloggers. However, the internet is awash with information and comment, and even a cursory look through the Twitterstream #vbm11 gives  a lively idea of what was happening as it happened.

So, what’s to say that hasn’t been said? First, I must record my personal gratitude for having been encouraged to apply to attend, my delight at having been one of the lucky 150 invited and my very great thanks for the sponsorship which made acceptance possible. It was wonderful to meet bloggers who previously were only names, although there was far too little time to talk. There was such a buzz in the aula.

Richard Rouse and others had put a lot of hard work into organizing the event at short notice. We tend to take for granted such things as simultaneous translation, but a little note of congratulation should go out to the translator who, without missing a beat, rendered Brazilian Portuguese into excellent English, even though it was not on the official ‘language menu’. Communication was truly the order of the day.

The first panel provided the most interesting talks. All were from thoughtful bloggers who reflected on such diverse topics as the nature of the blogosphere (e.g. the problem of charity and promotion of the ego) and ways of engaging people with faith (Fr Roderick Vonhogen must be one of the most media-savvy people in the Church). The second panel said some good things, although the language used tended to be more impersonal and abstract: definitely less blog-like! It was encouraging to hear about the Vatican’s plans for a new web portal and more creative use of social media; encouraging, too, to hear it stated that bloggers perform a valuable and valued service within the Church.

For me, the most remarkable thing was that the meeting took place at all. It reinforced my sense of the universalism of the Petrine ministry. However, I did come away with some questions.

I think bloggers fall into two categories: those who are in some sense professional journalists or otherwise ‘appointed’ to blog, and those who are enthusiastic amateurs (like Digitalnun). Some of the questions raised at the meeting about accreditation and copyright struck me as being of more concern to professionals than to amateurs. Those who blog in order to report news (or rumours) have a different take on things from those of us who merely share our bathtub thoughts about this and that. I don’t feel I need or want accreditation, nor any kind of policing (loyalty to the Church and to my monastic community would, I trust, prevent my straying too far into heterodoxy). I suppose I am suspicious of ‘badges’. I am not a  Catholic blogger but a blogger who is Catholic, as likely to blog about dogs as dogma. Most bloggers are responsible people who do their homework before launching forth into the blogosphere with their opinions, and I think the Vatican officials who spoke duly acknowledged that fact. But, and it is quite a big ‘but’, I did occasionally wonder whether the distinction being made between the institutional Church (as represented by the Vatican officials) and the rest of us was perhaps a little too clear-cut. We are all members of the one Body. Maybe that is what we need to emphasize.

And for the rest . . .

My two days in Rome were different from any I’d experienced before. I arrived mid-afternoon on Sunday, when the crowds who had gathered for the beatification were beginning to disperse but public transport was at a standstill. It was a long hard slog with my luggage from the Piazza Cavour, where the airport shuttle left me, to Paulo III, on the heights of the Via Aurelia; but the frequent need to stop and draw breath (Rome is not kind to people with sarcoid) made for some lovely exchanges. A beautiful Mexican stopped and chatted away and a lovely threesome from the U.S.A., grandmother, mother and baby, helped me drag my case the last couple of hundred yards.

Rome itself is not very welcoming to Benedictine nuns in full habit, especially on their own. The Swiss Guard salute rather endearingly as one passes by, but some of the locals go out of their way to be unpleasant. Is that why so many nuns and sisters look rather dour? I don’t know. Meals are another problem: cafes and restaurants are O.K. if one is with someone but can be awkward if one isn’t. If hungry, I usually opt for something from a supermarket or, if there isn’t time, from one of the street stalls. The trouble is, I can hear my grandmother saying, ‘No lady ever eats in the street’, which oughtn’t to worry me but does. Funny, that.

However, while in Rome I was able to see D. Margaret at Sta Cecilia (for the first time in at least six years); Abbot Cuthbert and Bro. Michael from Farnborough and I met in St Peter’s Square, as one does, and went off in search of coffee; and Muriel Sowden and I had a good face-to-face chat, our first since connecting on Facebook.

Really the best part of my visit came at the end, when Sr Lucy FMA bore me off to their Generalate and I was overwhelmed with kindness. It was lovely to be in a big community again, and I must say I was very impressed by their spirit. Sr Lucy could not have been more considerate. Finding that my flight out was not due until the afternoon, she arranged to take me to Subiaco for morning Mass and an unforgettable tour with Sr Mary and Sr Connie, devoid of tourists (!). It was immensely moving to kneel in St Benedict’s cave and be able to pray there for Benedictines the world over, and all our oblates and friends. Finally, I was driven to the airport.

It was a short visit but one I shall remember always with affection and gratitude. The gifts God chooses to give are always so much better than those one seeks for oneself. Thank you, Sr Lucy.

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