He recently started walking with a cane, amid speculation that his health was failing, and during a mass last week to mark both his 85th birthday and his seventh anniversary on St. Peter’s Throne, he remarked, “I am on the last lap of my life.”
But in what some saw as an effort at rejuvenation, the persona that so alarmed liberal Catholics when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI—with a reputation forged during the quarter century as Pope John Paul II’s “enforcer of the faith” or “God’s Rottweiler”—has made a startling comeback. And he’s taking a bite out of a major organization of American Catholic women.
With the pope’s approval, Cardinal William Levada, the American who occupies the post that Ratzinger held for so many years, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—a bland modern name for what used to be called the Inquisition, and the grave old men who staff it take the “correction” of the unorthodox as seriously as their Spanish predecessors did centuries ago—has launched a crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the umbrella group that represents the overwhelming majority of American nuns.
For a period of up to five years, the biggest organization representing nuns in the U.S. is essentially on probation, with conservative bishops scrutinizing its words and deeds, eliminating those that offend Catholic doctrine, and chivvying these incorrigible liberals back onto the straight and narrow.
The LCWR is full of good works, the Vatican document announcing the crackdown makes clear. “The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude,” it begins, “the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by the Religious over the years.” But the tone of purring approval is quickly replaced by the flashing of naked claws, as the Vatican takes a swipe at the organization’s attitude to gay marriage, abortion, and the ordination of women.
The LCWR, the Vatican claims in the document, “is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda.”
So far Pope Benedict has not been as ferocious a pope as many liberal Catholics feared. Soon after his election he hinted at one reason for that, in a remark to a dinner companion: “It was easy to know the doctrine,” he said. “It is much more difficult to help a billion people live it.” Another reason is that the priest-pedophilia scandal, which has generated vast problems for the church, forced him onto the back foot. But for anyone who dreamed that Benedict had mellowed with age, the decision to hang the LCWR out to dry is a rude awakening.
One devout woman expressed her reaction in the form of a prayer: “Please give me bigger blindfolds and larger earplugs or tell me how to belong to a group that constantly tries to discourage my participation.”
Last week in Italy, by coincidence, Father Armando Matteo published a book entitled The Flight of the Forty-Year-Olds: The Difficult Relationship Women Have With the Church. In the past, he writes, it was men who tended to drift away from the church as they grew older, while the women stood firm; since 1970 that trend has gone into reverse.
One reason for the exodus is the depressing realization that the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict does not intend to yield an inch on issues that millions of Catholic women consider of vital importance.