Abuse of Power in the Catholic Church: Undoing Almost Fifty Years of Progress – Part I, by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

“Now the Vatican says that nuns are too interested in “the social Gospel” (which is the Gospel), when they should be more interested in Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception (which do not exist).  Nuns were quick to respond to the AIDS crisis, and to the spiritual needs of gay people—which earned them an earlier rebuke from Rome. They were active in the civil rights movement.  They ran soup kitchens.” —  Roman Catholic Women Priests (via Facebook)

I once had a conversation with my New Testament Professor about the issue of women ordination.  He was optimistic and thought there might be a possibility that change was in the air – that was six years ago.  The basis for his statement had to do with language.  Of the journals and articles read, he felt the language used was more inclusive and that once people adjust to this discrete change in gender inclusive language, change for women in the Church can come.

He was right about change coming.  The result was not equality and ordination for women, but an attempt to silence and force these women back into their habits and cloisters.

Language here is vital.  Language is an extension of power – a weapon of enforcement, abuse, and control. If we examine language, four important points show a movement to undo almost fifty years worth of progress in the Catholic Church.

The first is the issue of Vatican warnings issued, especially against Roger Haight S.J. and Jon Sobrino S.J.   John L. Allen, Jr. in 2007 predicted, or shall I say prophesied, that the Vatican’s warning against Liberation Theologian, Jon Sobrino S.J., was the sign of things to come.  Specifically Allen states that the issue of “low Christology,” or the focus on the humanness of Jesus, is at issue.  Allen states that the problem, according to Pope Benedict XVI, is:

“If Christ is seen as merely a human being, then Christian service to the world could be reduced to a “purely sociological” endeavor, as opposed to something that points to a spiritual message about supernatural redemption and salvation.”

This message is troubling.  Works and charity are being de-emphasized, almost eliminated with the current controversy surrounding the U.S. Catholic Sisters, in favor of a “high Christology,” or focus on the spiritual or supernatural “Christ.”

The second is the change in words and gestures used during Liturgy.  While sold as a more accurate translation of the Latin (Vulgate as opposed to Koine Greek or Ancient Aramaic), this is a return to language and gestures used during Liturgy before the Second Vatican Council.  One only needs to talk to someone familiar with the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council to confirm this.

Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Image from http://ncronline.org

From there, backlash against theologians erupt with attempts to silence and redefine their purpose.  This came at the hands of the USCCB, with now Cardinal Dolan at the helm.  The issue surrounds the role of a theologian.  According to CTSA,  the theologian’s task is meant to venture in “new ways to imagine and express the mystery of God.”  Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, before he died, emphasized that theology is not only healthy but “ultimately builds up a vital future for the church.”  A push is being made to make Catholic theologians to take the party line and uphold, not challenge, the teachings of the Church.  By this, theologians will become catechists, those “trained to teach” the catechism of the Catholic Church, instead of engaging in an exploration of the meaning of “faith seeking knowledge” – the definition of theology coined by Thomas Aquinas.

The final blow came down like a hammer against the keepers of the social gospel and the women that built and ran non-profit hospitals, taught in schools and founded institutions of higher education, and cared for orphans and the impoverished – the U. S. Catholic Sisters.  Robert McClory tells a story of a homily given by a retired Pastor, Bob Oldershaw, who “praised in his homily women religious for creating in the U. S. ‘the most successful realization of Catholicism in history’.”  Also touting the contribution of the women religious is James Martin, S.J., contributing editor at America Magazine,  who started the Twitter hashtag flurry of #WhatSistersMeantoMe, which is captured in this video (warning the song that plays with the image contains an explicative (which you can mute), but the images and messages here are important and worth watching):

Martin’s video of thanks to the Sisters, which also mentions the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, is found at this link: http://youtu.be/ALx-eolC1FI.  In a quote found in the Huffington Post, Martin states:

“Catholic sisters are my heroes. In light of the Vatican’s desire to renew and reform their main organizing body, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, I thought it would be a great time to speak a word of support for Catholic sisters, and to acknowledge the hidden ways that these women have generously served God, served the poor and served this country.”

It is important for those not familiar with the status of the Catholic Sisters (or vowed religious) in the Catholic Church to know something about their mission, vows, and charisms:

“We make public vows of chastity, poverty and obedience to God. We vow to live for God alone and to serve God’s people for the rest of our lives. Our vows free us for this life through which we hope to express God’s love, mercy, compassion and care.”

  • The vow of Chastity is the promise to live single-heartedly for God and to love wholeheartedly and inclusively all God’s people.
  • The vow of Poverty is a commitment to simplicity of life in which we share not only possessions but our time, talents, and presence.
  • The word Obedience comes from the Latin, obedire, which means “to listen.” There are community and personal aspects to the keeping of this vow. We are called to listen as a community to the Word of God, to the signs of the times in events and in society, and to the Catholic Church to see where we are being called and what we are being called to do. On the personal level, the vow of obedience requires a prayer life that cultivates a listening heart (emphasis mine).

Arguably the Catholic Church is the living breathing Church composed of its members, not the members of the hierarchy.  Finally, each order has a specific charism (like the Ursuline Sisters whose charism is education):

“The word charism means special character or gift which is the distinctive quality of a certain person or Congregation. Just as one inherits certain physical and emotional features from one’s ancestors, we religious women inherit certain characteristics and spirit from the founders of our individual Congregations. The founder’s charism of service, spirituality and sense of mission lives on in the Congregation which s/he founded. This charism is developed and creatively expressed in new ways as succeeding generations respond to new needs and challenges in the world.”

According to Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders, professor emerita of New Testament and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, in California:

“Whereas we are religious, we’re living the life of total dedication to Christ, and out of that flows a profound concern for the good of all humanity.”

Sr. Sandra Schneiders, Image from http://www.scu.edu

Sr. Joan Chittister, human rights advocate, former president of LCWR, and prolific writer stated May 3rd in a blog post:

From where I stand, it seems to me that male “protection,” paternalism and patriarchal theology are not to be trusted anymore because the actions it spawns in both men and women have limited the full humanity of women everywhere, and on purpose.  Isn’t it time for us all to really be converted, to say the real Truth about women from our pulpits, from our preachers, from our patriarchs, until both they and we finally believe it ourselves? Then surely the actions that make it real will follow.

Sr. Joan Chittister, Image from http://www.womensconference.org

Truth with a capital “T” is emphasized. She also stated that for the group to revise itself was “actually immoral:

” ‘Within the canonical framework, there is only one way I can see to deal with this”… ‘They would have to disband canonically and regroup as an unofficial interest group.  That would be the only way to maintain growth and nourish their congregational charisms and the charism of the LCWR, which is to help religious communities assess the signs of the time. If everything you do has to be approved by somebody outside, then you’re giving your charism away, and you’re certainly demeaning the ability of women to make distinctions.’ “

Today we find another American Cardinal is to blame for the original investigation; a Cardinal that has no business casting stones.  His name? Cardinal Bernard F. Law.  For those that do not remember the issues surrounding Law, he  “resigned as Boston’s archbishop in 2002 following articles in the Globe reporting that he had allowed priests accused of sexually molesting minors to continue serving in parish ministries where they persisted in abusing children.”  According to Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University:

“Many observers underestimated Law’s influence by focusing on his former role as arch-priest at St. Mary Major Basilica while ignoring his posts on important Vatican committees, especially the Congregation for Bishops. “He clearly was in a position to have influence to the extent that anyone would listen to him,’’ Reese said. “And many people at the Vatican felt he got a bum deal and were sympathetic to him.’’

As time continues to progress, the abuse of power exercised by the hierarchy moves in a way that refutes the teaching of Jesus.  As we move away from the social gospel that Jesus left as a legacy and the foundation on which the Catholic Church was built, a question arises: Is the person who sits as Peter’s successor, entrusted with the keys to the kingdom of heaven, also standing in Peter’s shoes as the one who denied Jesus?  With the judgment passed on theologians and the vowed religious, and with the exclusivity of language oppressing women, the cock has now crowed three times.  But why?

As a young theologian, then Ratzinger, worked on the following documents as an “expert” during the Second Vatican Council:  Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), and the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes).  It is important to understand the focus of each of these documents:

  • Gaudium et Spes focuses on the Church’s duty in the world for human dignity and the common good – a Christocentric document with the basis of interpretation as  the social gospel.  This is another major document that came out of the Council.

With everything that is happening, evidence emerges and continues to emerge, showing a movement to undo the teachings of the Second Vatican Council is in the works, especially those worked on by the current Pope.  At the forefront of this agenda is sexism, an attack against women in the Church.  Quoted by Jason Pitzl-Waters:

“The Pope, who wrote the latest ruling, has been a strong opponent of feminism in the Catholic Church.  In his book, The Ratzinger Report, he wrote, ‘I am, in fact, convinced that what feminism promotes in its radical form is no longer the Christianity that we know; it is another religion.”

Whether emergent at the level of Bishop, Cardinal, or Pope (or as indicated here, all three), abuse of power in the hierarchy of the Church is rampant and ravaging the Church with the target firmly set on women – especially feminist, theologians, and/or vowed religious.  The Sisters have given so much to all of us, without asking for anything in return. They are Christ in the world.  We need to support these women in a very public way, through our language – the language of the living breathing Church – each one of us baptized into the catholic church  (small “c” emphasized).

For more information about the investigation surrounding the U.S. Catholic Sisters, see NCR’s blog page dedicated to tracking the responses and articles: http://ncronline.org/blogs/examining-the-crisis.  To send a word of support: http://signon.org/sign/support-catholic-sisters.fb5?source=s.fb&r_by=4430626.  To show solidarity with the sisters consider signing the petition to the USCCB and Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith: http://www.change.org/petitions/support-the-sisters.  If interested in showing financial support to LCWR: https://lcwr.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=1.  Also see FAR’s dedicated page to this controversy.

The second part of this article, abuse of power by the hierarchy will be explored, especially the question – How did we get here?  How did the hierarchy become so powerful?  Is there anything we can do about it and remain faithful members of the Catholic Church?  One thing is certain –  the history behind and the cause (or motivation) for the abuse of power is remarkable, disturbing, and contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

Note:  Images of the vowed religious used above and not otherwise marked can be found at http://www.CatholicNunsToday.org and http://www.catholicozvocations.org.au.   Hyperlinks, in brown type-font, refer to cited material and videos.

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality.  She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies and is an Adjunct Instructor in Religious Studies at Ursuline College.  Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://johncarroll.academia.edu/MicheleFreyhauf.  Michele can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.

Author: Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013). Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.

10 thoughts on “Abuse of Power in the Catholic Church: Undoing Almost Fifty Years of Progress – Part I, by Michele Stopera Freyhauf”

  1. 50 years of progress? You’re kidding right? Actually, the catholic church has maintained a complete consistency in its contempt and hatred of women. It has always advocated for the death of women in childbirth to save the child, it has always excluded women from the clergy, and its male priests have always raped children…. some things never change.

    What changes are women’s delusions of change. If you are a 70-something nun, you entered the convent pre-feminism, and nuns have forged unique places on the boundaries of male domination.
    I’d argue that nuns are more feminist than most straight women out there… no make-up, no children, completely spectacular in their educational achievements and dedication to social change. They are not locked up in vapid “nuclear” families, and probably are actually freer than most hetero women out there. They have a committed sisterhood, and lead lives far freer of men than women that are stuck in offices with the patriarchal oppressors.

    I think women want to see the best in these male dominated woman hating institutions, hey it’s the old “I was born and raised in this womanhating attrocity and by gum I’m going to keep on wallowing in it.” I personally think the pope did all women a favor…. he showed his true colors. Maybe this will get through the denial of women who keep wanting to be in that institution… hey, getting out of denial is one of the key steps to recovering from drug addiction, and catholicism for women is a drug.

    It panders to “loving” the servitude that so enthrals women, the majority of the world’s oppressed, who can’t seem to get enough of their lords and masters. Women marry men and actually live under the same roof with the oppressors, and hey they LOVE their men, just as women LOVE their church. But now the masters got a little too cocky this time around, they tipped their hand a little too much. But will women leave this church and form something new, and stop giving their free labor to males? Nope, they LOVE their mens so much, that they just wanna serve and serve and serve. Radical lesbian feminists just sit and marvel at the denial again and again and again… on aand on it goes….


  2. “The Pope, who wrote the latest ruling, has been a strong opponent of feminism in the Catholic Church. In his book, The Ratzinger Report, he wrote, ‘I am, in fact, convinced that what feminism promotes in its radical form is no longer the Christianity that we know; it is another religion.”

    Could Ratzinger be right? Are the Sisters simply returning Christianity to its original meaning or are they part of a movement to transform Christianity from the patriarchal religion it has been into something else.

    Judith Plaskow has argued that radical feminists in churches and synagogues should give up the illusion that they are simply returning patriarchal religions to a non-sexist “core” and admit that they are about transforming religions into something they have NOT been in the past.


    1. Carol,

      You make a good point, however I believe (or want to believe) that women were included and stood on equal ground in terms of ministry in the early Church. I firmly believe that the sisters live the social gospel fully, which means being accepting as Jesus was and to serve as Jesus did. Doctrinal lines are man-made and shift as sand shifts. I also believe it is just through the male re-workings and writings that they were marginalized and oppressed. Whether you believe in the precepts in Christian theology and teaching, looking at the example and teachings of the human Jesus as a role model is powerful and important. Service to others, a charitable heart, and humble stance – I think those concepts transcend any religious belief system.

      You certainly gave fodder for thought and I am quite interested in Judith Plaskow’s comments – she is on my reading list this summer. Thank you!



  3. For nearly two millennia, the papacy was a political entity as well as a religious one. Then they invented papal infallibility. The last two popes have been extremely political. So why can this guy complain about nuns? Good for them for taking their religion back to what their teacher taught. Let’s fire the pope!


    1. Barbara,

      I applaud the Sisters and have such high regard for them with such a powerful message of service and self-sacrifice. I agree about politics infiltrating the church. With JPII, I have to go back to some of his original writings, but I believe it was after his illness that things really escalated – and you know who his right hand man was. What is intolerable is what the American born Cardinals and Bishops are doing. The priests (for the most part) are rallying around the sisters. They recognize the sisters contributions and it has allowed them to do the more doctrinal (liturgical and “Sacramental”) jobs – plus it was the sisters who educated, who cared for the sick, who sat at the bedside of the recovering addict (and the list goes on and on).



  4. The nuns are indeed changing catholicism and bringing it to woman centeredness. You have to understand that the purpose of male supremacy is to “appropriate” female strengths as a way to undermine the original source which is women. It is a tactic that works very very well. So nuns are simply taking the original power of women back. The power of women, the non-violent cultures that existed in pre-patriarchy show that a goddess culture or a woman centric matri-focal world does create a liveable and thriving society.

    Nuns create a liveable society, their spiritual power is vast, it’s what makes NUNS well… NUNS. It’s why male supremacy is always trying to undermine them, and why they are such a threat to the papal throne.

    So if we want a non-violent world, then it will have to be matrifocal, and children will have to be a part of a female line, and men will prosper in a non-violent world, because men on the lower end of the economic or educational scale, while they still parade around in their male supremacy best, are NOT prospering. Do men really want a peaceful world which a matrilineal focus provides? Well that is a good question. Since I spend as much time as I’m able in women only or in very small minority male environments — say one man, and 20 women at an event, and also within all lesbian events, the shock of the social violence of male spaces seems even more extreme, as does the colonization of women who don’t really know the difference.

    If you want to know the power of women, then you really do have to be with women for very long periods of time. You need a clear alternative to male MAN-ipulation, male lies, male tactics, and believe me, they can never turn it off. Male supremacy, patriarchy, and male ownership of wives and children is not getting us anywhere, and if you think you are not owned, think again. Male identification in females is the virus of our current world, and believe me, women will go to all lengths to provide comfort to men, to protect men, to side with them. It’s done ALL THE TIME, even on this blog.

    It depends on what kind of faith the Nuns are propagating in the world, and if you compare what those nuns do day in and day out, the photos, the activities and then compare it to what bishops do day in and day out, you will see the difference visually. The pope does a token washing of feet once a year, but you rarely if ever see him dining at a simple table with a large group of women, and where male priests cook and serve the dinner in their little roman collars. The photos tell a truth.

    Original chrisianity is about goddess appropriation, naturally, and maybe the nuns know this in a cosmic way, or maybe the woman centered places that is the life of the nun inculcate this…. like Hildegard of Bingen, or Sor Juana de la Cruz, for example. And in the wonderful book “Breaking Silence” about lesbian nuns, the opening paragraph says that it is very difficult to tell the difference between lesbians and nuns… the book was out in 1985-86 I think, and well worth reading even today.

    Attacks on nuns are definitely attacks on lesbians!!


  5. The problems with the Catholic Church are rampant. That is why I was so inspired with Elanor Humes Haney’s desire to redefine the good as a way to find positive things in response to such problems.


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