Taming the nuns

The trouble with God experts is that they squabble among themselves so much.  Why is the signal God broadcasts so faint that different humans who tune in to it receive such contradictory information?  Can’t God just speak a little louder into the mike?

The latest brouhaha is between the Vatican and America’s nuns, organized into the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious.”  Back in 2009, Rome announced an “apostolic visitation” to some 400 women’s religious institutes in America, to be conducted by the heavies at the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” – the organization known until two centuries ago as “The Inquisition.”  The result was a scathing report issued this spring, accusing the group of promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”  Worse yet, nuns are spending too much energy on “social justice” matters like helping the sick and the poor, and not nearly enough on combating the real evils of society, like contraception.

The attitude of the church from earliest times was expressed by St. Augustine in the fourth century: “Rome has spoken; the matter is settled.” Nuns whose livings are provided by the church are expected to toe the church’s line and not think for themselves, period. Even with all the trauma and loss of billions of dollars provoked by the child molesting scandals of the past decade, the Inquisition was never called in; but disagreeing with the pope is serious.

This is the latest in a long line of troubles that male God experts at the Vatican have had with women who sported their own God expertise. In the early days, women administered church sacraments without any problems; women were hearing confessions well into the Middle Ages. As the church became more well-entrenched, the men in charge cracked down on this severely, which drove many women to heresy. One of the most fascinating heretical sects was the Cathars, who became especially popular in southern France. Cathars taught that the sexes are equal before God, and that God’s church therefore ought to give women exactly the same opportunities it gave to men. This it did; the highest rank in the Cathar hierarchy was called the “Perfects,” and 69% of the Cathar Perfects in the one region where we have good records were women.

Even strong Catholics felt that the Cathars were harmless. St. Bernard wrote that “If you interrogate them, nothing can be more Christian; as to their conversation, nothing can be less reprehensible, and what they speak they prove by deeds. As for the morals of the heretic, he cheats no one, he oppresses no one, he strikes no one; his cheeks are pale with fasting, he eats not the bread of idleness, his hands labor for his livelihood.”

Still, Rome couldn’t stand the competition, so it took a break from trying to re-conquer Palestine for Christendom and instead directed a military Crusade into southern France to stamp about Catharism. Some historians estimate that as many as a million people perished in this campaign. In 1209, Arnold Aimery reported to the Pope that the capture of Beziers had been “miraculous,” and that the Crusaders had slain 15,000 victims, “showing mercy neither to order, nor age nor sex.” When residents of another town jammed themselves into its cathedral for sanctuary, that just made the extermination process more efficient – 12,000 fell that day. But were they all Cathars? The Catholic commander didn’t care. “Kill them all,” he ordered, “for God will know his own!”

After Catharism was destroyed, the Church still found pockets of women claiming to live a life devoted to God, but declining to do so in one of the orders of nuns officially recognized by the male hierarchy. Sometimes called the “Beguines,” these women were considered such a threat that the General Council of Vienne in 1312 concluded that:

We have been told that certain women commonly called Beguines, afflicted by a kind of madness, discuss the Holy Trinity and the divine essence, and express opinions on matters of faith and sacraments contrary to the catholic faith, deceiving many simple people. Since these women promise no obedience to anyone and do not renounce their property or profess an approved Rule, they are certainly not ‘religious,’ although they wear a habit and are associated with such religious orders as they find congenial. … We have therefore decided and decreed with the approval of the Council that their way of life is to be permanently forbidden and altogether excluded from the Church of God.

It didn’t take a military expedition to deal with the Beguines, though; the Inquisition handled them. When discovered, their property was confiscated, and many were forced to marry.

Not all the problems the Church has had with nuns have been from an excess of piety. Sometimes there has been a lack of it. Convents in the Middle Ages were convenient dumping grounds for daughters of the nobility whom economic or other circumstances rendered unmarriageable. Imposing some sort of Church discipline on these establishments was not easy. William of Wykeham wrote with exasperation to the Abbess of Romsey in 1387 that “we strictly forbid you all and several … that ye presume henceforth to bring to church no birds, hounds, rabbits or other frivolous things that promote indiscipline … through hunting dogs and other hounds abiding within your monastic precincts, the alms that should be given the poor are devoured and the church and cloisters … foully defiled … and through their inordinate noises divine service is frequently troubled … we strictly command and enjoin you, Lady Abbess, to remove the dogs altogether.”

Johann Busch, sent to investigate convents in the German diocese of Minden, described an out of control situation in which the nuns had abandoned their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, apparently with the connivance of the local Bishop. When he assembled one group to read out a disciplinary charge, “The nuns laid forthwith with one accord flat on the choir pavement, with arms and legs outstretched in the form of a cross and chanted at the top of their voices, from beginning to end, the antiphon ‘In the Midst of Life We are in Death.’” A thoroughly flustered Busch had to call in armed force.

It would make great television if America’s nuns were to respond to the latest Inquisition report by lying spread-eagled on the pavement and chanting at the top of their lungs.  Not very likely, though.  Their spokeswoman promises an extended bureaucratic slog that, in her words, will “be like watching paint dry.”

One thing that would interesting to know is how big a factor pensions play in promoting docility among America’s obstinate nuns, a group whose average age is now about 70.  ERISA, the federal law governing pensions for private sector workers, has ironclad rules that an employee who has at least six years on the job cannot be cut off from his pension rights just because his company doesn’t like him anymore, even if he commits an act as egregious as stealing money out of the company till. “Earned” means “earned.”  Church organizations are exempt from this rule, though, just as they are exempt from so many other sensible laws that govern the rest of society.  It’s one thing for a 40-year old who has a chance to earn a living in some other way to stand up for her beliefs, but quite another to expect a 70-year old who has lived under a vow of poverty, owning essentially nothing her entire life, to do the same.

Back in the good old days, the Inquisition used torture to enforce its dogma. Today, at least for American nuns, it doesn’t need it.

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