American nuns at rough end of Pope Francis’s mixed messages

Whether deliberate or not, Vatican ambiguity is most harsh on women

So much for all the cozy hugs and soothing cold calls and fun selfies and humble gestures and talk of mercy, love, inclusion, equality and justice. Pope Francis appears guilty of condoning that most base Vatican sport: bullying nuns. The cool pope suddenly doesn't seem so cool, allowing Rome's grand inquisitors to torque up the derogation this Mother's Day of the American sisters who have mothered so many - even as an endless parade of ghoulish priests were shielded as they defiled vulnerable kids in their care.

Pope Benedict XVI's Vatican was determined to rein in American nuns inspired by Vatican II, accusing them of pushing "radical feminist themes" and caring for the sick instead of parroting church teaching opposing contraception, gay relationships and the ordination of women.

Although some conservative American bishops have politicised the abortion issue, punishing liberal pols who were pro-choice, they were furious that some uppity nuns supported the president’s healthcare plan, including his compromise on contraception for religious hospitals.

On Monday, we learned that German cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican orthodoxy watchdog, upbraided the officers of the largest group of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which has been investigated and reprimanded by Rome.


He objected to their plan to honour Sr Elizabeth Johnson, a Fordham theology professor, who has written that women are uncomfortable with “the dominant images of God as father, lord and king” and would prefer “non-authoritarian” female language for God.

Last year, Francis said he would let the Vatican's coercive reform of the nuns' group continue. And this past week, he was silent after Müller's mauling of the nuns. The odd thing, as his biographer Paul Vallely told me, is, "He basically agrees with the nuns." The new pope's focus on the poor and social justice, his "Who am I to judge?" cri de coeur on gays, his critique that the church has become too "obsessed" with abortion, gay marriage and contraception – all these shocking and refreshing moves echo the Gospel-infused spirit for which the nuns are being punished.

Butterfly of delight
"This latest slapdown raises a big question about Pope Francis's character," said Kenneth Briggs, the author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns. "Is he content projecting a Mr Nice Guy image while giving the green light to the Vatican big boys to pursue a hard line? Is he the butterfly who delights everybody, or is he also the strong arm?"

Although the 77-year-old pope has said that women could gain greater power in the church, other comments have been typically atavistic. While praising women for their “sensitivity,” “intuition” and mothering skills, he said flatly that women’s ordination to the priesthood “is not a question open to discussion”.

The pope has admitted that as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, head of the Jesuits in Argentina, he did not do enough to fight the Dirty War. Bergoglio helped some people privately but did not come to grips publicly with the murderous junta.

“It was a sin of omission,” Briggs said. “He apparently didn’t have the gumption to go to that next step. It parallels what has happened with the nuns.”

Two of his priests, vocal advocates of the poor who worked in the slums, were captured and viciously tortured by the junta. One wrote a book claiming that Bergoglio had informed on them to the military, a claim the pope denies. In his book Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, Vallely writes that Bergoglio later realised he "should have seen the danger in which he was placing his two priests" and "has been trying to atone for his behaviour ever since". In Rolling Stone, Mark Binelli said that Pope Francis's charm masks "authoritarian steel".

Vallely told me that the pope is “intent on sending ambiguous signals in certain areas”. He did not contradict Müller “because that would be sending out a liberal message rather than an inclusive message”, the biographer said. But, in June, the pope reportedly told a group of nuns and priests from Latin America not to worry if they heard from the orthodoxy enforcers because “this will pass!”

Vallely said the pope was allowing the liberal German cardinal Walter Kasper to make speeches on changing the rules to allow divorced Catholics to take Communion at the same time he’s allowing conservatives to oppose the same thing. He chose a liberal pope for sainthood to balance the conservative, pedophile-shielding pope.

Different voices
"The thing he really hates is the way the papacy used to work like a medieval monarchy," Vallely said. "He wants the church to reach decisions slowly, by conversations within the church. He wants to hear all the different voices. He's letting a thousand flowers bloom."

Or not. Women, gays and dissident Catholics who had fresh hope are going to have to face the reality that while this pope is a huge improvement on the last, the intolerance is still there. We are still going to be discriminated against, but with a smile instead of a frown. Maybe a frown is more honest. – (New York Times service)