not in Primary anymore

looking to the catholics: how nuns are disengaging from the feminism duel

by Derrick Clements

I was walking home from work today when my iPod’s podcast queue started playing this episode from Fresh Air. I saw that it was about a conflict between the Vatican and a group of Catholic nuns called The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and I was about to skip it.

“I am neither someone who loses sleep over disagreement with the Pope, nor am I a nun,” I thought. But something stopped me. As a pattern-seeking human, a few things stopped me from skipping the episode: I do lose sleep over disagreement with the Prophet, and I am not a nun, but I am an active Mormon!

Mormon feminists do not exist in a vacuum. In fact, as we look around at the larger community of religious feminists, we actually find that we are the young ones at the table. Not only are there Catholic feminists, but there are Jewish feministsMuslim feminists, and many others. These older siblings to Mormonism have already explored a lot of the internal questions we are only beginning to crack open ourselves. If Mormons are metaphorically Joseph, these religious feminists are our Alvin and Hyrum.

Other religions have had centuries more experience than we have at existing within secular societies, and many of them have become sophisticated enough to handle complicated perspectives without resorting to excommunicating the faithful on the fringe.

In recent years, the Church seems to me to be less vulnerable to the potential threat of its own fringes, showing signs as an institution of being able to keep its feminist thinkers in the body of the Church, instead of vomiting them out. This year, an LDS woman who had been excommunicated in the 1990s for feminist teachings made her way back to the Church, providing a nice illustration of the sea change.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWF) provides another fantastic illustration. Here’s the skinny: The Vatican published a Doctrinal Assessment on this leading organization of nuns, and found “serious doctrinal problems” with its teachings, including LCWF positions (or lack thereof) on issues of homosexuality, birth control, and women’s ordination to the Priesthood. It also found what it saw to be LCWF members moving beyond the Church or beyond Christ, “a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life.”

It also accused the group of “radical feminism.”

When one is accused of heresy, it’s hard not enter into the mindset of the duel. When one has this mindset, one sees only two options: fall back in line with the mainstream, or cut ties entirely. In this paradigm, people are always either in agreement or opposed, with each other or against each other. It does not take both parties to enter into the duel; one can enter the mindset alone and then bring opponents in through accusation or attack.

Feminism has often been lured into this kind of duel. Patriarchal structures have distrusted feminists, and feminists have distrusted all men. Militant feminism is a term for a reason. But as I listened to the president of LCWF, Sister Pat Farrell talk about the story on Fresh Air, what struck me was how skillfully she disentangled herself and the organization she represents from that kind of duel with the Vatican.

GROSS: Do you know what the options are? I mean, it seems to me some of the options include agreeing to the terms of the Vatican, changing the positions of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, changing some of the language it uses, or risk being perhaps excommunicated or leaving the church. Are those all options?

FARRELL: No, not exactly. We’re not talking about the risk of excommunication or leaving the church. That’s not our intent. We’re talking about the Vatican’s dealing with a national organization, not with specific religious congregations or individual religious. So first of all, the one and only underlying option for us is to respond with integrity in however we proceed. That is our absolute bottom line in this. And some of the options I think would be to just comply with the mandate that’s been given to us or to, you know, to say we can’t comply with this and to see what the Vatican does with that or to remove ourselves, form a separate organization, or hopefully, in my mind, to see if we can somehow, in a spirit of nonviolent strategizing, look for some maybe third way that refuses to just define the mandate and the issues in such black and white terms. I don’t know to what degree that could be an option.

To not even acknowledge that excommunication or leaving are options on her end is to escape the clutches of the duel. By grounding her position in terms of integrity rather than in reference to the Vatican, she is absorbing the spirit of war and turning it into useful dialogue. In matters of faith, it does more harm than good to fight.

The LCWF are a wonderful example to Mormon feminists about how to be faithful feminists as well as respectful Church members as they promote dialogue and understanding within their own faith community. Again from Farrell:

[W]e have been, in good faith, raising concerns about some of the church’s teaching on sexuality, human sexuality, the problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought, in light of the world we live in and new questions, new realities as they arise.

And if those issues become points of conflict, it’s because Women Religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives. That is our gift to the church.

Our gift to the church is to be with those who have been made poorer, with those on the margins. And questions there are much less black and white because human realities are much less black and white. So that’s – that’s where we spend our days.

And let’s not forget the fact that they are primarily an organization that helps the poor and needy. Catholic women really are incredible.

For more on this story, here’s two from the Washington Post, one one from CNN, from USA TODAY, and of course, reporter Samantha Bee:

5 Responses to “looking to the catholics: how nuns are disengaging from the feminism duel”

  1. Asriel

    Really interesting post, Derrick. As humans, we’re all on the same team (even though it would appear at times we don’t know it!), and I love that your approach is so ready to search out our common elements, the things we share with those who are different from us.

    I will say that I thought it was interesting that you framed the position taken by Sister Pat Farrell and the NWCF as disengaging from the “duel” by standing their ground. To me, dropping the issues and following the crowd/mainstream is surrender, and leaving (via choice or excommunication) is not engaging in the duel, either, but merely walking away from the fight. These religious leaders are giving the Catholic hierarchy an ultimatum, of sorts. The Vatican can drop the issue, conceding some of its authority over the church body, or it can reassert its authority to govern Catholicism by disowning groups and individuals that sympathize with the NWCF on the principles in question. That to me is the essence of a democratic, top-down vs bottom-up, duel.

    That said, I agree with you that the NWCF is setting a great example of being willing to bring these problematic issues to light, and to encourage religion to find ways to improve and legitimize the “gray areas” that religion tends to pretend do not exist. The take-home message for me is “Keep agitating. Keep asking the hard questions. Keep offering the neglected solutions.”

    • Derrick Clements

      Good point, Asriel. But standing one’s ground does not necessarily mean one is engaging in the duel. They have made it about self vs. integrity, not about one vs. other. I thought the way Sister Farrell addressed the conflict was instructive; she didn’t pick or even acknowledge a fight, simply said, essentially, “this is how we’re going to do it.” It would have been engaging in the duel for her to say, “we oppose the Vatican on this and this point,” or “the Vatican has to change or we’re out.”

      An important component to this is that to the NWCF, the Vatican is not God, and they are interested in serving God. I think for Mormons, it is more difficult to separate the Church hierarchy from God, which makes it hard. But I don’t think that is the only way to see things, doctrinally (we believe in agency, in personal revelation, in fallible prophets, etc.). In order to be active in making a positive difference in our culture, I think we have to separate the Church from God, while maintaining utmost respect for the Church and its exclusive authority to enact institutional “official” change. A lot of the change that need to happen are not on that level though. But when we can see ourselves more on the same (or similar) level as the Church, as its peer rather than servant, then we can avoid dualistic thinking and reach compromises.

      • Ertan

        in reference to what OJ has been sanyig: You guys are all bent out of shape for Mormons limiting who they extend the blessings of their gospel to. Jesus Christ also limited the blessings of the Gospel. I think you do an excellent job here of distinguishing between Mormon gospel and Christ’s gospel. They are different, and I’m glad to see that you can acknowledge that. As usual, OJ merely shows that he does not truly grasp the biblical text, and eisegetes the biblical text to support a false doctrine of Mormonism. What I fail to understand is why Mormons defer to the Bible when it’s not truly authoritative for them. In one breath you want to relegate it to an unfaithful manuscript; in the next breath you want to use it to support an argument. You really can’t have it both ways.The Israelites were called to be a nation of servants, because they believed in the true and living God, while the nations around them followed after false gods. This is not a delay as OJ would want us to believe; to assert such is a ridiculous eisegetical fallacy. This is just the natural course of things. The issue with blacks and the priesthood was abolutely racial, and racism is the product of the Devil.So, it seems that you are comfortable in championing someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, which is indeed your prerogative. I just pray that you will trust in the living God and the Word He has revealed to us, which we call the Bible.Praying for you

  2. eris91

    Interesting post, Derrick, and good points. But the thing is . . . the LCWR (and us radical Mo fems) are in a duel regardless of our personal approach, simply because we aren’t submitting to the church hierarchy. When the Vatican complains that the LCWR isn’t spending enough time preaching against gay rights or Planned Parenthood and the LCWR refuses to comply, a duel of sorts is inevitable. I don’t see anything wrong with wanted to engage in and win a duel like this, especially since so much is at stake – like the well-being of the underprivileged, the right to define what it means for you to be a Mormon or a Catholic, etc., all of which the “religious elite” are against. Basically, I see no reason to shy away from “warfare” when it comes to culture clashes of this scale. We’ve conceded to this the moment we disagree with a church’s teachings on human sexuality (etc.) and actively counter them.

  3. Yully

    Im7, I think you’re wrong. Having the privilege of rnviecieg the priesthood is not the same as having the privilege of the opportunity to receive the priesthood. It depends how you read that statement, and either way, not all of Abel’s seed have had the privilege of rnviecieg the priesthood any way you cut it. What we’re doing here is typical Mormon rabbit trail chasing. As usual, it’s impossible for you to defend your prophets, and as usual the most offensive prophet is Brigham Young. So you deflect the issue somewhere else to take the spotlight off of your false prophet and his statements that I hope are shocking to any Christian. Brigham Young was a racist ruled by his hatred of those he felt were inferior, and that racism is still present in the parents of the LDS people I know today. Any former or current Mormon raised in the church can testify that church doctrine teaches that blacks are inferior based upon their performance in the pre-existence. It’s part of LDS culture. There was nothing saintly about BY. Stand on the street corner and declare that any white man who marries a black woman should have his head cut off. Can you do that? Then why would you ever defend such horrible statements made by one of your prophets? I think it’s disgusting the way you ignore the plain meaning of the words of a bigot and then compare them to God’s command to Israel to separate from the pagan nations surrounding them. There is a huge difference. Blacks in America were not part of a pagan nation at odds with God’s holiness. And for your information the Book of Abraham is a hoax. Don’t rely on it for your spiritual edification.


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