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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False Nun Syndrome and Its Secular Counterparts

Before you yawn and turn to something more interesting, let me reassure you that this blog post is about more than the title might suggest. I use the example of nuns because that is what I know best, but a little thought will soon show you where all this is leading.

From time to time, on Facebook, Twitter, in emails and on the street, I encounter False Nun Syndrome. It has various manifestations, but its chief characteristic is a desire to create nuns after the whims and fancies of the (human) creator. The ideal nun should be young, beautiful, smiling and silent — especially silent. She should be dressed in antique robes (the robes are important) and ready, at the drop of a veil-pin, to surround the unbidden guest with sympathy, tea and homemade cake. She must never, ever suggest she has a mind or opinions of her own, and should the beautiful brows ever beetle in anger or irritation, she must know that she is a complete and utter failure. The reality is, of course, that nuns and sisters are just like anyone else and can be middle-aged or elderly, ugly, opinionated and badly dressed. What matters is the fidelity with which each one lives her vocation before God — and that is largely a matter of individual conscience, duly informed and lived out in the particular institute to which she belongs.

So, do we find False Nun Syndrome appearing anywhere else? I think we do. We find it in all kinds of human relationships, where one person seeks to dominate another. It can also be called Perfect Wife/Husband/Child Syndrome. The husband who demands that his wife should always dress in a certain way; the wife who demands that her husband should always act in a certain way; the parents who demand that their child should be top of the class/outstanding at sport/play the violin, or what you will: these are all, in their different ways, guilty of wanting others to be as they want them to be and not as they are. It can cause conflict and private anguish; and in the case of children can scar them for life. It is closely linked to the arrogance I wrote about yesterday, and like arrogance it is often unremarked by the perpetrator who genuinely thinks he or she is doing the right thing. How many a parent has wailed, ‘I only wanted what was best for him’ on discovering that all the carefully-made plans have led to a break-down or worse?

There is a humility I think we all need to cultivate with regard to one another. It is not the same as indifference or lack of care or abdicating responsibility to challenge or correct. On the contrary, it means caring enough really to listen, really to look: seeing and hearing the real person, not the false person we wish to create. It means allowing the other person to be him or herself and adjusting our own views to cope. False Nun Syndrome is usually met with a wry smile or (as only too often in my case, alas) with an irritable little outburst. Much more dangerous is Perfect Wife/Husband/Child Syndrome and the damage that can do. Maybe this would be a good day to ask whether there is just the merest smidgeon of that in us? We may not have husbands or wives or children, but unless we live alone on a desert island, my guess is that there is someone, somewhere we do not always see whole and complete but only as we want them to be.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

Spiritual Mothers and Old Maids

There was some quiet chuckling in the monastery at some alleged remarks of Pope Francis which you can read here: http://bit.ly/14bxA73. The chances are that the pope has been quoted slightly out of context or mistranslated (some things sound fine in Italian but are rather limp in English) or otherwise ill-served by his reporters, but the contrast he apparently drew, between spiritual mothers and old maids, was always going to ignite a few fires. In the U.S.A. they seem to have gone down as well as the proverbial lead balloon — except among laity who have ‘issues’ with American sisters.

I have met a few nuns and sisters for whom the concept of spiritual motherhood is valuable and helpful; I have never yet met any who desired to be a spiritual old maid; most simply don’t think of themselves in those terms at all (and, though I’ll disappoint some readers by saying it, very few of my acquaintance have ever taken the Bride of Christ image to themselves, seeing it more accurately as a reflection of our theological understanding of the Church as a whole). We are just nuns or just sisters, responding to a call from God as best we can. Where that call takes us, what it demands of us, is part of the journey of faith and obedience each of us must make.

Such simplicity of understanding may seem wanting, but I think it is actually very important. Religious life for women is often circumscribed by rules and regulations which can get in the way of taking to heart the enormity of what is asked of us: a life TOTALLY centred on Christ. The vows we make, the renunciations we undertake, have only one end in view, to deepen our relationship with Christ, a relationship at once deeply personal yet at the same time always ecclesial.

On this feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny, it is good to remember that the life of each us should glorify God; and it can only do that insofar as we take on the shape and form of our vocation, whatever it may be. Spiritual mothers v. old maids? I don’t think so. Forgive my chuckles, Pope Francis, but I think it might be more fruitful to think in terms of child of God v. child of the devil.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail