If you want some perspective on just how benighted the Roman Catholic Church looks today on the subject of women, consider Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a German Benedictine nun in the 12th century and a leading feminist writer of her time. But even though that time was the 1100s, the Vatican rarely hassled her for asserting that men and women are equal — that God’s true nature, in fact, is maternal — or that nonprocreative sexual pleasure is O.K.
Hildegard in fact was canonized as a saint this year. If she were to have come on the scene in the 21st century, however, you have to wonder if she might receive the same censure that Sister Margaret Farley is facing this week after the Vatican denounced her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. Farley, a Sisters of Mercy nun, a retired Yale divinity professor and a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, condones practices that have been morally acceptable to most U.S. and European Catholics for quite a while, including divorce, homosexuality, nonprocreative intercourse and masturbation. But Rome’s doctrinal bulldogs are sternly reminding her that those acts are “disordered,” “deviant” and “depraved.”
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Sadly, it’s the church that’s looking unhinged these days. The Vatican was apparently just warming up in 2010 when it declared, astonishingly, that ordaining females into the all-male Catholic priesthood would be a “grave sin” on par with even pedophilia. Since then, as if scapegoating women for the escalating dissent among Catholics toward its hoary dogma, the church seems to have embarked on a misogynist’s crusade. Its legal assault on the Obama Administration’s requirement that Catholic institutions like colleges and hospitals make contraception available to female employees as part of their health coverage is, ultimately, less about religious freedom than about women’s freedom. Then there’s the U.S. bishops’ absurd probe of whether the Girl Scouts are selling feminist theology as well as fattening thin mints — and Rome’s accusation of “radical feminism” within the Leadership Conference on Women Religious (LCWR), which represents most of the U.S. nuns doing genuinely Christ-inspired work with the poor and the sick.
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Still, nuns from Hildegard to Farley have always been able to focus on the light of the faith they follow and look beyond the shadows of the hierarchy they tolerate. Examples like theirs make it easier for Catholics like me to remain Catholics. So it’s unsurprising that the LCWR has all but thumbed its nose at the Vatican this month or that Farley coolly told the Vatican this week that it “misrepresents … the aims of my work.”
Yet there may be another reason the nuns aren’t buckling. For once, the numbers are on their side — and they may realize that the hierarchy needs them more than they need it. Catholicism has certainly lost followers amid the clerical sexual-abuse scandals and the laity’s resulting reassessment of the church and its retro teachings. The U.S. Catholic population is down 5% since 2000, to 59 million, according to the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville, while the share of Catholics in Ireland who attend Mass has plummeted from 82% in 1981 to just 35% today — including a paltry 14% in the capital, Dublin.
But the sudden drop in the number of female Catholics — the backbone of most parishes, though the church has taken them for granted for millennia — gives the nuns real leverage. In olden days, Catholic women didn’t feel as excluded by an all-male priesthood because the church offered leadership roles rarely available to them in the secular world, like hospital and business administration. Today, however, many if not most Catholic women just see an institution that rates them as second-class. And as Patricia Wittberg, a Sisters of Charity nun and sociologist at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis wrote this year in the Jesuit weekly America, they’re increasingly opting out.
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It began, Wittberg notes, with American female Catholics of Generation X, born between 1962 and 1980, who “barely equaled their male counterparts in regular Mass attendance and were significantly more likely” to disagree with the church on matters like women’s ordination, homosexuality and premarital sex. It gets worse with female Millennials, born between 1981 and 1995, who according to Wittberg’s research are more likely than men to say they never attend Mass — “the first generation of American Catholic women for whom this is so,” she says — and whose distrust of the church is even more pronounced. Which helps explain why, for the first time ever, fewer U.S. Catholic women than men are entering religious life. In Philadelphia, where a jury is now deliberating in a major clerical sex-abuse case, 173 men prepared for the Catholic priesthood in 2010, while only 30 women prepared to be nuns.
Logic would thus dictate that it’s counterproductive for the church to persecute nuns and vilify legitimate and responsible female interests like contraception. But this is where the Pope and his bishops are especially and stunningly divorced from reality. They’re convinced — just as the 17th century church was certain it could make the heliocentric universe go away by threatening to torture Galileo — that by reminding Catholic women that men wear the ecclesiastical pants, they can whip the ladies back in line and stanch Catholicism’s female exodus.
The long-term result of that delusion could be catastrophic for Catholicism. Driving out dissenters won’t purify the church, as Catholic conservatives so tiresomely insist; it will simply petrify it. Incredibly, the church leaders reading Hildegard of Bingen nine centuries ago understood that better than the hierarchy watching Sister Farley does today.