PMS 6: Hey, How About a Nun for Pope?
If there is one subject political commentators should generally avoid like the plague, it’s religion. Typically, they know little to nothing about it, and simply transpose their political opinions into settings where they are, the vast majority of the time, wholly inappropriate. Exhibit A for this phenomenon might be Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who thinks that because he himself is a member of the Catholic Church, he therefore is in a position to advise the cardinals about their choice for the next pope.
In giving up the papacy, Pope Benedict XVI was brave and bold. He did the unexpected for the good of the Catholic Church. And when it selects a new pope next month, the College of Cardinals should be equally brave and bold. It is time to elect a nun as the next pontiff.
I’m sure he thought this a terribly clever attention-getter.
Now, I know this hope of mine is the longest of long shots. I have great faith in the Holy Spirit to move papal conclaves, but I would concede that I may be running ahead of the Spirit on this one. Women, after all, are not yet able to become priests, and it is unlikely that traditionalists in the church will suddenly upend the all-male, celibate priesthood, let alone name a woman as the bishop of Rome.
Nonetheless, handing leadership to a woman — and in particular, to a nun — would vastly strengthen Catholicism, help the church solve some of its immediate problems and inspire many who have left the church to look at it with new eyes.
So the problems of the Catholic Church have nothing to do with the faith, wisdom, insight, spiritual guidance, theological acumen, or gifts and abilities that a person might bring to the papacy. All that’s needed is the right set of chromosomes.
Consider, first, what constitutes the church’s strongest claim on public respect and affection.
A completely irrelevant question. The Church is not about “public respect and affection,” unlike, say, the politicians Dionne usually writes about. It is about the worship of God, faithfulness and service to God, proclamation of the gospel, and making disciples of Jesus Christ. Not that I’d expect a political columnist to get that.
It is not its earthly power, the imposing beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica or even its determination to preserve its doctrine whole. Rather, the church impresses even its critics, and inspires its most loyal and most dissident members, because so many in its ranks walk the talk of the Gospel.
There is no doubt that the best representatives of the Church are those whose lives are closest to the image of Christ. But if Dionne really thinks that this “impresses even its critics,” he needs to read Christopher Hitchens’ book on Mother Teresa.
More than any other group in the church, the sisters have been at the heart of its work on behalf of compassion and justice. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times made this point as powerfully as anyone in a 2010 column. “In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches,” he wrote. “One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch. . . . Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.”
This dichotomy between the “rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy” and the “grass-roots Catholic Church” is both simple-minded and typical of those who have little understanding of what the Church is about. Journalists like Kristof and Dionne think that the Catholic Church is essentially supposed to be a private form of the Department of Social Services or local school board. Yes, Catholic institutions as well as individuals do countless good works ever single day, from disaster relief to education to healing the sick in church-run hospitals to feeding the hungry, etc. But all of those good works are not simply humanitarianism in action. They are expressive of the gospel of Christ, the preservation and propagation of which is the single most important task given to the bishops, and ultimately to the pope. It’s all fine and good for political journalists to value what the average nun does over what the pope or the bishops do, but it’s safe to say that without the hierarchy doing its job properly, the works of nuns would shortly degenerate into either isolated band-aid applications without personal transformation, or political lobbying to have the government do what religious orders no longer had the spiritual power to carry out. (See Council of Churches, National; and Episcopal Church, The.)
Kristof went on to say that “there’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans.”
There are certainly bishops and cardinals who have done this sort of godly work and many more who have supported it. But those who have devoted their lives to climbing the church’s career ladder tend not to be like that nun in the jeep in Swaziland. What a message the cardinals would send about the church’s priorities if they made such a woman pope.
Once again, the point is that the charism of the papacy is not primarily about visiting AIDS orphans. It is about building the Body of Christ in such a way that those who have the charism for such work have a Christian context in which to do it. Guys like Dionne and Kristof seem to think that such works happen in a spiritual vacuum. They don’t.
A sister as pope could also resolve what might seem a contradiction in Catholic theology. More than Protestants, Catholics are profoundly devoted to the Virgin Mary — and few were as devoted as the late Pope John Paul II, who declared that Mary “sustains the spiritual life of us all, and encourages us, even in suffering, to have faith and hope.” A church for which the Blessed Mother plays such an important role should certainly be comfortable with female leadership.
I don’t know who was in charge of E.J. Dionne’s catechesis, or who he’s listening to when he goes to Mass. But whoever they are ought to be ashamed of themselves, that a Catholic with such a prominent platform as a Washington Post column could trot out such egregious nonsense.
The cardinals who will gather to elect a new pope know that one of the church’s central and most wrenching problems is the sex abuse scandal. An all-male hierarchy adopted policies to cover up the abuse and seemed far too inclined to put protecting the church’s image ahead of protecting children.
Throughout history, it’s not uncommon for women to be brought in to put right what men have put wrong. A female pope would automatically be distanced from this past and could have a degree of credibility that a male member of the hierarchy simply could not.
The story of the sex abuse scandal is a long and sorry one, and there are more than a few heads among the hierarchy that ought to roll because of it. As a Protestant observer, I am scandalized by the idea that former Los Angeles archbishop Roger Mahoney, whose tenure was marked by multiple instances of cover-ups of priestly abuse, is actually going to be able to vote on who the next pope will be. None of that has any bearing whatsoever and whether women should be ordained as priests (which, of necessity, any pope must be–at least in theory, any adult Catholic male who has no hindrances that would prevent his ordination as a priest may be elected pope). Nor is there any inherent reason why any male elected pope could not deal effectively with those who need to be disciplined.
In the United States and other Western countries, the church is suffering a huge loss of younger female members who cannot understand why it continues to resist the progress women have made in so many other spheres of life.
Which, once again, is not what the Church is about, unless it is the Church of the Zeitgeist.
Electing a nun as pope would electrify women all over the world. And those who think that Catholics in the developing world would object to a female pope should note that women have been elected to lead governments in, among other places, India, Chile, Brazil, Liberia, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Argentina and Dominica.
So? What’s your point? Pakistan elected Benazir Bhutto, and Israel elected Golda Meir, as prime ministers. Does that mean that the Catholic Church should have a Muslim or a Jew as pope?
And a church that has made opposition to abortion a central part of its public mission should consider that older men are hardly the best messengers for this cause. Perhaps a female pope could transform the discussion about abortion from one that is too often rooted in harsh judgments (and at times, anger with modernity) into a compassionate dialogue aimed at changing hearts and minds rather than changing laws.
Unborn children are vulnerable. So are pregnant women. In my experience, nuns are especially alive to these twin vulnerabilities. Nuns are also the people in the church who work the most with pregnant women, the mothers of newborns, and battered women and children. They know better than anyone that a concern for life cannot stop at the moment a child is born.
And at this point Dionne is just getting insulting. Does he really think that all those pro-life Catholic men who have labored alongside Catholic women (as well as lots of non-Catholics) for so long to end the scourge of abortion don’t care about what happens after they are born? Earlier in this column, he lauded the efforts of the Church in a wide variety of areas, and this is one in which it has been especially active. The idea that a female pope is needed either to carry the pro-life message (pro-aborts would simply consider her a traitor to her gender) or to somehow get Catholics to care about those saved from abortion after they’re born is absurd. (Of course, the slander that pro-lifers only care about life in the womb is one of those things that bears no relationship to reality but has been a Planned Parenthood/NARAL/NOW talking point for years. No surprise in seeing someone like Dionne parrot it.)
The Washington Post has done a stellar job this week of giving fora to carriers of Papal Malarkey Syndrome. Maybe having saturation-bombed their readers this week, they’ll give it a rest next.
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