LCWR and Girl Scouts Investigations Are Part of the “War on Women”

May 27, 2012

LGBT issues have been an important factor in what has been dubbed “the war on women” taking place in society. “War on women” refers to the political trend to dis-empower females in society, particularly in regard to health care and sexuality.  The “war on women” has been playing out in the Catholic Church in the recent investigation of the Leaderships Conference of Women Religious (LCWR, the leading organization of heads of religious communities of nuns) and the Girl Scouts of America.

Two recent commentators have provided insight on these two topics:  Ted Frier, on Slate.com, tackles the LCWR case, while Marianne Duddy-Burke looks at the Girl Scouts story.

Sister Joan Chittister

In his article, “Catholic on Catholic civil war brewing,”  Frier focuses on Sister Joan Chittister’s response to the Vatican’s investigation of LCWR, and his insight into Chittister’s response follows her example of not mincing words:

“The question is. . .where has all this energy for empirical destruction come from in a Church now projecting its own serious problems with sexual issues onto everything that moves?”

Chittister’s analysis goes beyond the immediate issues at hand and tackles the larger question of how the church is governed:

“Sister Chittister is directly attacking the authoritarianism at the heart of the current political campaign by the Pope and US bishops to impose dogmatic conformity on American Catholics. She even goes so far as to excavate unflattering Church history in order to warn of the dangers of neo-fascist tendencies which inherently lurk within an institution that operates in secret and is led by an all-male hierarchy that occasionally claims it possesses powers of absolute infallibility.

“Chittister concedes that it is not easy to run a ‘universal’ church which must take account of so many different cultures. But the Vatican needs to try harder, she says.

“The Catholic leadership must have sympathy and respect for the national cultures and traditions and values where it is attempting to evangelize, she says, and for the workings of the society itself. And for American bishops, says Chittister, that means appreciating that ‘The American tradition comes out of a commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of thought and democratic participation in the political process.’

“But this is exactly where the Church falls short, since it is America’s democratic traditions which Chittister says ‘the Vatican has always suspected and indeed has never liked.’ “

Her solution to current problems honors the response of New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, Sister Jeannine Gramick, during her own run-in with the Vatican:

“Chittister’s response to the Vatican’s crack-down was roughly the same as that of Sister Jeannine Gramick of the New Ways Ministry when her group was told to cease writing or speaking about homosexuality or advocating on behalf of gays and lesbians in the Church: ‘I do not choose to collaborate in my own oppression.’

“Chittister has suggested the LCWR follow the example of Gramick’s much smaller New Ways Ministry and simply disband in order to reconstitute itself as a non-canonical institution outside the Vatican’s purview. . .”

In “Is the Catholic Church sending a message to women?,”WashingtonPost.com On Faith commentary on the investigation of the Girl Scouts by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA executive director and a partner in the Equally Blessed coalition, notes:

“It is tempting to laugh off this news as further evidence of how profoundly out of touch many of our bishops are with the lives and concerns of the people who fill their pews. But the hierarchy’s attempt to exert pressure on an organization that has helped millions of girls grow into strong, self-reliant and public-spirited women is only the most recent episode in an increasingly troubling sequence of events.”

She then enumerates the recent cases which make up the “war on women:  the USCCB investigation of theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson, Susan G. Komen Foundation’s attempt to de-fund Planned Parenthood, the contraception issue in the healthcare debate, and, of course, the LCWR case.  Her conclusion:

“The bishops may not acknowledge it, but our church’s moral authority has been weakened by their pursuit of an agenda that demonstrates a passion for power, rather than for service, and a willingness to put women’s lives and ministries at risk to achieve their political ends. At first glance it may seem that the hierarchy’s investigation of the Girl Scouts provides an opportunity to have a good laugh at the bishops’ expense. But it is women and girls who are paying the price.”

In the past, many have noted that homophobia is intimately linked to misogynist tendencies.  In the LCWR case, the nuns’ support of LGBT issues–particularly New Ways Ministry’s programs–was an explicit factor in the Vatican’s investigation of them.  In the Girl Scouts’ story, a number or reporters noted that the a Denver Girl Scouts’ troop had recently accepted a transgender child as a member.  One is reminded of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous line from his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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