THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
SARTAIN MUST BE A BRIDGE-BUILDER
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has investigated the activities of the organisation which represents the great majority of religious sisters in the United States, and it did not like what it found. As a result, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has been told to accept close supervision of its activities, to bring it back into line with church teaching and policy. Roughly nine out of 10 of the 50,000-plus nuns in America are in communities affiliated to the conference, which is recognised by the Vatican but which now risks losing that status. The conference is alleged to have had a radical feminist agenda, and its unacceptable activities include giving currency in various ways to opinions deemed contrary to church teaching, such as over the ordination of women, the treatment of homosexuals or abortion.
It is fair to say that the discussion of such opinions constitutes only a small part of the conference’s activities, that these are not its official policy but the views of some of its members, and that many nuns in groups affiliated to it may disagree with some or all of them. It is also fair to say that the leadership of the conference has seemed willing to risk or even provoke a reaction from the church authorities. More nuanced critiques might on occasion have been more prudent.
That does not mean the CDF’s reaction is well advised. With its usual indifference to public relations, the Vatican has outraged vast swathes of American Catholics who hold nuns in the highest esteem, not least because of their magnificent work in health care and education and in the alleviation of poverty and hardship.
They are indeed the glory of the American Catholic Church. Unlike the bishops, they were untarnished by the scandal of child abuse and subsequent cover-ups. The Leadership Conference tended to take a different line from the bishops on such matters as President Obama’s health-care reforms, perhaps because they are closer to the people most affected by them. But these are not shock troops. They have devoted their lives to prayer and works of mercy. Nuns have no official preaching role, and no duty to act as agents or advocates on behalf of the bishops on public policy matters. It may be this factor which encouraged the conference to feel it had the liberty to question the Church’s official policies. But if those policies are soundly based, the hierarchy should have nothing to fear. The resort to discipline can easily look like a last-ditch attempt to shore up a weak position. It can even more easily look like bullying.
The conference’s leaders are not sure how to react. A great deal depends on the tact and sensitivity of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, who has been appointed by the Vatican to oversee the process of reform. This is not a moment for a gesture of defiance, but a patient process to see whether it is possible to satisfy both the Vatican and the conference’s membership. No reform would work without the consent of the majority of sisters. That consent is likely to depend on preserving a forum in which conscientious doubts about church policy can be responsibly aired and discussed – whether the authorities like it or not. To screw the lid down without a such safety valve would be to risk an explosion.
CUTTING ISN’T WORKING
Across Europe, public opinion is rebelling against austerity. The first round of the French presidential election, which saw the socialist François Hollande in the lead and a strong showing for Marine Le Pen on the far right, is the clearest indication yet of this change of mood. Political upheavals in Holland, Greece, Italy and Spain tell a similar story. The same may be said of Britain, which has officially re-entered recession and where the austeritydriven measures of the Coalition Government have given the Conservatives a deficit in the opinion polls heading for double figures – aided by a series of gaffes and blunders that suggest incompetence is not confined to the economic sphere.
It is not hard to see why support for austerity is increasingly patchy. Countries that have borrowed too much in the past and face difficulties paying it back are told by their economist advisers to cut borrowing now, thus reducing their dependence on lenders and avoiding high interest rates. This means cutting public spending, both on capital investment and on public services, including pensions and unemployment pay. That lowers demand in the economy, because people have less to spend. The decline in demand leads to a decline in gross domestic product, an accompanying rise in unemployment and a decline in government income from taxes. This generates further pressure to borrow just to keep going. It is a downward spiral.
Financial markets follow these trends, though somewhat incoherently. Commentators say they have become schizophrenic, because they simultaneously want austerity and growth. So the markets, especially international markets in government bonds, are part of the process driving the spiral downwards. The only beneficiaries are hedge funds, which bet against recovery. The public, meanwhile, has begun to sense the danger of pressing further down this road, and is finding the hardship of falling incomes and fewer jobs, and above all of no hope for the future, no longer bearable. Resentment at the extent to which those who have no responsibility for past mistakes are paying the greatest price for those errors, is also evident. Meanwhile, eschewing European-style “sado-economics”, some modest Keynesian interventions by the United States Government have started to drive unemployment down and growth up. America is less obsessed by its budget deficit and refuses to let economic policy be dictated by the markets or by credit-ratings agencies. M Hollande is offering just such an approach to the French electorate. Given that it runs counter to what has been European Central Bank policy so far, his election could bring about a change of direction across the continent. But the alternative is not just an endless recession as European economies shrink year on year, as some are already doing. The success of Marine Le Pen shows that public opinion can be wooed by nationalist, protectionist and frankly racist parties, whose appeal is based on the scapegoating of minorities. There are menacing echoes here of the rise of Naziism in Germany and of fascism elsewhere.
The cutting of unemployment has to become a Europe-wide priority. Even if bankers, markets and economists react adversely to modest increases in public spending, they may eventually see the sense in it. Their alternative has been tried, and it is not working.
2 | THE TABLET | 28 April 2012 COLUMN
5 CHRISTOPHER JAMISON
‘The future depends on the possibility of dialogue between the old and new orders’
7 P E T ER HENNESSY’S
THE LION AND THE UNICORN ‘More anxiety was lifted off more shoulders than by any other reform’
1 2 P E T ER STANFORD
‘Where there is a mystery, our clever age tells us, there must be an answer’
1 5 PARISH PRACTICE 1 6 NOTEBOOK 1 7 L ETTERS 1 8 THE L I V I NG S P I R I T 1 9 PUZZLES
2 0 BR I D F EATHERSTONE
Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: gender, power, and organizational culture Marie Keenan
J IMMY BURNS The Spanish Holocaust: inquisition and extermination in twentieth-century Spain Paul Preston
CATHERINE N I XEY Waiting for Sunrise William Boyd
2 4 F EATURE
Rick Jones Janina Fialkowska
T E L EV I S I ON John Morrish Extreme Love
RADIO D.J.Taylor Wireless Nights
THEATRE Mark Lawson Long Day’s Journey into Night
2 8 APRIL 2 0 1 2
COVER STORY 4 A very public rebuke Phyllis Zagano
The Vatican’s demand that women Religious in the United States reform and conform has created deep unease
6 On the breadline Michael McMahon
As more people struggle to feed their families, food banks are increasingly stepping into the breach to provide basics for survival
8 Religion à la mode Linda Woodhead
The last in our series of articles based on the largest-ever research programme on faith and society looks at how belief has changed
1 0 Quench their thirst Daniel O’Leary
The Eucharistic Congress, taking place in Dublin in June, has the potential to begin the process of spiritual renewal in Ireland
1 1 From party to personality politics Ed Cox
Directly elected city mayors could revive local democracy – but they could also be merely a political version of celebrity
1 3 Fresh hope from Umbria’s hills Gerard Mannion
The ecumenical gathering in Assisi last week suggested that the will and energy exist to reignite the flame of dialogue
2 7 THE CHURCH I N THE WORLD
Vatican doctrinal assessment stuns US women Religious 3 0 L ETTER FROM ROME 3 1 NEWS FROM BRITAIN AND I RELAND
Assert your faith, nuncio tells bishops
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