At Religion Dispatches, Mary Hunt comments pointedly on the recent spate of examples of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops cracking down on insufficiently subservient women-folks, specifically the Leadership Conference of Women Religions and the Girls Scouts:
Several parallels with the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious lay bare the playbook here. The LCWR “doctrinal investigation” was Rome-based, undertaken by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Girl Scout “investigation” is U.S.-based sleuthing led by the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth chaired by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. Both cases are based on longterm reporting by conservative Catholics, both lay and clerical, of the groups’ supposed sins. This is a cottage industry that includes the Eternal Word Television Network and random ecclesial busy bodies who apparently report to Rome and to the USCCB on a regular basis.
What mystifies me is that with all of the economic, racial, and war-related issues at hand the bishops still choose to take on these girls and women. Gone are the days when governments, businesses, and armies worried much about what the bishops had to say. Here are the days when disgraced bishops are deposed and indicted for the sexual crimes and cover-ups that have come to define contemporary Catholicism. By contrast, nuns and Girl Scouts are powerful symbols and equally powerful advocates for justice and peace. So in a sense the bishops have really taken on those who are shaping the culture.
The bishops fretted in both cases about sex and gender, especially reproductive justice. The straw that broke the camel’s back for the nuns was the support some of them showed for a more inclusive health care policy. For the Scouts, it was the organization’s public acceptance of a transgender child into a Colorado troop. Underneath those decisions lurks the fact that nuns, not bishops, were seen as normatively Catholic, and even though a quarter of all Girl Scouts are Catholic, they didn’t consult the bishops before doing the right thing. Who would, given the men’s handling of abuse cases?
Warmongers, vulpine capitalists, and child rapists are all safe from examination by the Bishops. But middle aged and elderly women and ten-year old girls represent an existential threat that must be met with all the force a cadre of coddled, geriatric men can muster. But why bother?
The investigations are meant in large part to intimidate since they really don’t have much of a direct impact. Intimidation happens in small ways—a few nuns self-censor, the leaders of the Girl Scouts redact a few publications. But just as most nuns are going about their business undaunted, the Girl Scouts will gather 100,000+ strong for “Girl Scouts Rock the Mall” in Washington DC on the 9th of June. They hope to set a world record for the biggest sing-along in history. Their new theme song says it all: “Girl Scout ignite a dream, ignite your hope, ignite the world on fire.” Now that ought to be enough to make the bishops tremble in unison. The contrast between the girls and “the big boys” will be vivid that day.
But this is just another example of the totalitarianism of the Bishops. It's not enough to exercise unearned authority over their own institutions, they need to spread their influence to institutions that they have no legitimate authority over, both within and outside the church. And in particular, they can't tolerate the idea that there is someone else out there in the world trying to define women's nature. Particularly when the people doing so are themselves women.
Women's identity must be kept, as the Bishops see it, solely under the control of the celibate men who make up the Catholic heirarchy, and any attempt to define womens' identity apart from that heirarchy's clearly well-informed opinion must be crushed, much the same way Mr. Burns might crush an ant.