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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