Religion
12:55 pm
Wed July 25, 2012

Bishop Explains Vatican's Criticism Of U.S. Nuns

Originally published on Wed July 25, 2012 7:32 pm

Four years ago, a Vatican group called "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" began an assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a member organization founded in 1956 that represents 80 percent of Catholic nuns in the United States. The assessment was designed to take a careful look at whether the nuns were acting in accordance with the teachings of the church.

In the assessment, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the leadership conference is undermining Roman Catholic teachings on homosexuality and birth control and promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." It also reprimanded the nuns for hosting speakers who "often contradict or ignore" church teachings and for making public statements that "disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals."

Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, is the bishop who assessed the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Along with Archbishop Peter Sartain and Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, he will be working with the nuns of the LCRW to make sure the group is aligned with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The bishops and the nuns' group leaders were also told to develop material "that provides a deepened understanding of the church's doctrine of the faith."

Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the LCWR, talked with Fresh Air's Terry Gross on July 17. Farrell addressed the major criticisms of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, including the LCWR's decision to abstain from taking a public position on abortion, contraception and women's ordination.

Blair tells Fresh Air that the LCWR is "promoting unilaterally new understandings, a new kind of theology, that is not in accordance with the faith of the church." He says he would like to have a dialogue with the LCWR to "educate and help the sisters appreciate and accept church teaching and to implement it in their discussions, and try to heal some of the questions or concerns they have about these issues."


Interview Highlights

On the LCWR not taking a hard-line stance on abortion

"I recall something that Pope John Paul II said: He said that all other human rights are false and illusory. If the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and condition of all personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination ... to relativize or say, well the right to life of an unborn child is a preoccupation with fetuses or [it is] relative in its importance, I cannot agree with that, and I don't think that represents the church's teaching and the focus of our energies in trying to deal with this great moral issue."

On the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church

"I think that the sexual abuse scandal is a great shadow over the church and over the hierarchy that we have to live with. But we also have to keep going on as a church with integrity. ... We certainly have cracked down on sexual abuse and made great strides to understand it and prevent it."

On the dialogue that the LCWR would like to have with the Vatican

"If by dialogue, they mean that the doctrines of the church are negotiable, and that the bishops represent one position and the LCWR represents another position and somehow we find a middle ground about basic church teaching on faith and morals, then no, I don't think that's the dialogue the Holy See would envision. But if it's a dialogue about how to have the LCWR really educate and help the sisters appreciate and accept church teaching and to implement it in their discussions, and try to heal some of the questions or concerns they have about these issues, that would be the dialogue."

On contraception

"We do recognize the validity of natural family planning but not artificial contraception. And admittedly, that involves more of a personal investment as a couple or individual, but that would be based on the moral grounds of what church teaches about marriage and human sexuality."

On the ordination of women

"The church doesn't say that the ordination of women is not possible because somehow women are unfit to carry out functions of the priest, but because on the level of sacramental signs, it's not the choice that our Lord made when it comes to those who act in his very person, as the church's bridegroom. And you can say that sounds like a lot of poetry or you know, how do we know that's true, but if you're a Catholic, this is part of our sacraments and practice for two millennia, and it's not just an arbitrary decision of male oppression over women."

On the importance of women in the church

"It's very important for me to say that the history of religious women in the United States is absolutely outstanding, and that one of the most disconcerting things about recent reports is to suggest that somehow that the bishops or the Holy See are not grateful or supportive for the work of religious women. They have done tremendous work in our country and throughout the world. If anything, part of our concern is precisely for their diminished numbers and their aging population. ... We hope there would be revitalization of religious life for women."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we have Part Two of our discussion about a turning point in the conflict between the Vatican and the group that represents 80 percent of the nuns in the U.S. - the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, or the LCWR.

Four years ago, the Vatican office responsible for enforcing church doctrine - the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - began an assessment of the LCWR; motivated by the Vatican's concerns that the group expressed radical feminist views, and challenged core Catholic positions on contraception, homosexuality and the ordination of women to the priesthood.

The final assessment was released in April, and it orders the group to conform to the teachings of the church. The LCWR is still deciding how to respond. Last week, we spoke with the president of the LCWR, Sister Pat Farrell. My guest today, Bishop Leonard Blair, conducted the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR, and is now charged with advising Archbishop Peter Sartain, of Seattle, on implementing a review process and guiding the group to bring it into compliance with the church's teachings.

Bishop Leonard Blair, welcome to FRESH AIR. In the documentation that you presented for the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, you wrote that the group is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death; a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Why do you think that this group - the Leadership Conference of Women Religion(ph) - needs to be emphasizing the church's position on abortion and euthanasia, as opposed to remaining silent about it?

BISHOP LEONARD BLAIR: Well, I think it is very striking, when it's very clear to everyone inside and outside the church that the dignity - the threats to the dignity, and rights, of the human person from conception until natural death, is so much under attack; and where - you know, even popes like Pope John Paul have talked about it as one of the great moral issues of our time.

And the church has been so strong in defending that right to life, you know, it seems that one would expect the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to stand up and be counted in upholding this right, and working for its defense. And the reality is that there's nothing really said by the Leadership Conference on this issue. They have had statements on things like human trafficking and immigration - which are wonderful things, you know. Those kind of things should be addressed. They've had statements on ecology and climate change, militarization of space, nuclear weapons; but nothing on the issue of abortion, and the importance of upholding the right to life.

GROSS: Can I play you what Sister Pat Farrell had to say on the issue of remaining silent on abortion and euthanasia; on right-to-life issues?

BLAIR: Yes.

GROSS: Here's her response to that, as broadcast last week on our show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

PAT FARRELL: I think the criticism of what we're not talking about - seems to me, again, unfair because Religious have clearly given our lives to supporting life, to supporting the dignity of human persons. Our works are very much pro-life. We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. You know, if the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born, that is a distortion, too - if there's such an emphasis on that.

However, we have sisters who work - all of our congregations have sisters who work in right-to-life issues. We also have many, many ministries that support life, who - we dedicate our efforts to those on the margins of society, many of whom are considered kind of throwaway people: the cognitively impaired, the chronically mentally ill, the elderly, the incarcerated, tp the people on death row. We have strongly spoken out against the death penalty; against war, hunger. All of those are right-to-life issues.

And there's so much being said about abortion that is often phrased in such extreme and such polarizing terms, that to choose not to enter into a debate that is so widely covered by other sectors of the Catholic Church - and we have been giving voice to other issues that are less covered, but are equally as important.

GROSS: So that was Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, as recorded on our show last week. Bishop Blair, what's your response to what she said?

BLAIR: Well, my response is one of great disappointment because obviously, the human person has to be defended in all aspects, and I think that's what Sister Pat is saying. No one is questioning, or criticizing, the fact that they take care - that many sisters are involved in the care of the elderly or the infirmed, the needy, the troubled.

But I recall something that Pope John Paul II said. He said that all other human rights are false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right, is not defended with maximum determination. You know, we also hear a lot about the Second Vatican Council. The Second Vatican Council said that life must be protected with the utmost care, from the moment of conception; and said abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.

So to kind of relativize or say, well, you know, the right to life of an unborn child is a preoccupation with fetuses, or it's relative in its importance - I can't agree with that. And I don't think that represents the church's teaching, and the focus of our energies, in trying to deal with this great moral issue.

GROSS: The doctrinal assessment also criticizes the Leadership Conference of Women Religious by saying that issues of crucial importance to the life of the church and society - such as the church's biblical view of family life and human sexuality - are not part of the LCWR agenda, in a way that promotes the church's teachings. What would you like to see of the group teaching about human sexuality?

BLAIR: Well, I think another great issue of our society today is the defense of the God-given institution of marriage between one man and one woman. And I think everybody knows this is at the front line of moral issues in our country today. And so what we would imagine happening for the organization of Catholic religious women, would be that they would be front and center in speaking on behalf of this fundamental teaching. And yet we don't find that.

And this raises another important point, I think; that no one is questioning the compassionate, pastoral care that has to be given to people - for example, people who have a homosexual inclination. And I think sometimes, there's a disservice done when it's made to sound as if the church condemns homosexuals.

And that is not the case. The bishops in the United States have written a guide for pastoral care of people with a homosexual inclination. So we want to extend that care to everyone, and we want to treat everyone with dignity and respect. But that's very different than insisting, then, on the claims of a gay lifestyle or gay culture, and trying to undermine the institution of marriage. And that's something where I think Catholics would reasonably expect that a leadership group of women religious would, you know, subscribe to that, and want to be part of that effort.

GROSS: But a growing number of people in the United States find gay marriage to be not only a perfectly acceptable thing, but a positive direction to head in because it gives equality and equality of marriage to homosexuals. It's one of the things where a lot of people think the church is actually out of step.

BLAIR: Well, you bring up a very important point; that yes, there are a lot of people who don't agree with the Catholic Church about these moral teachings and moral issues. But we would expect that a group of religious sisters who are Catholic nuns, would accept the teaching of their church. And I might add that this is not a teaching that we just dreamt up in recent years. It's been the - from time immemorial, the God-given nature of human sexuality and marriage.

GROSS: I think some people think that, you know, that the church is actually being very hypocritical about certain issues like homosexuality and gay marriage, and trying to prevent nuns from questioning any church positions on sexuality while at the same time, many people think there was so much neglect and cover-up within the church of the priest sex-abuse scandal, with abusive priests sometimes just being moved to a different parish.

I want to read you something from the National Catholic Reporter. This is an article by Kathy Galleher - I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing her name correctly - from July 17th of this year. For nearly eight years, she worked as a psychologist at a treatment center for priests and religious, and she worked with a number of men who had committed sexual abuse. She writes:

(Reading) The church has not yet been willing or able to examine its own role as an institution, in concealing and enabling decades of abuse. The bishops have not taken collective responsibility for their actions and inactions, and for the enormous pain they've caused. As much as the abuse itself, it is this failure by the hierarchy to acknowledge and accept their responsibility, that has angered and disillusioned so many current and now-former Catholics.

(Reading) The church hierarchy has started a fight with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In the doctrinal assessment, they've accused the women of the church of betraying the core values of the church, and of not being sufficiently trustworthy to reform themselves. They have ordered the women to be closely supervised.

(Reading) These accusations seem more rightly to belong to the sexual abuse scandal, rather than to the actions of LCWR. It was the bishops who, by protecting abusers, betrayed core values of the church, and caused scandal to the faithful. It is the institutional church that appears not to be able to reform itself, and to be in the need of outside supervision.

What's your reaction to that? Because I think that expresses the views of a lot of people, inside and outside the Catholic Church.

BLAIR: Well, clearly, I'm not - wouldn't even attempt, nor would I want to, defend the indefensible. There's not a day that goes by that I don't pray for the victims of sexual abuse in the church. And I will say this; that I do think the bishops, in the last 10 years - at our meeting in Atlanta recently, we received a report from our national review board, reminding us of things that we are already aware of - for the most part; of the tremendous efforts that we've done and made in order to address this problem. And we've tried to be a real leader in examining the root causes and the condition of people who do this. We've tried to reach out to the victims, and I think we've been - we've made major strides in that area.

I hesitate to say that we've done all we can - because how can you ever do everything in such a tragic situation? But my point is, simply, that I think the bishops really have tried very hard, and have done a lot of good things, to try to remedy the situation and above all, to prevent it in the future. I think we've done everything humanly possible we can, as a body, to try to deal with this problem.

You know, it's the - but let's put it this way: Even Jesus said that scandals will inevitably come, but woe to those to whom they come. I've often thought, in terms of the sex abuse scandal, of the mystery of iniquity in the church. I've reflected on the fact that Judas was one of the 12 apostles. We don't think enough about that; that our Lord actually, within his own 12 apostles - and remember, the bishops are successors of the apostles - the great human weakness, and this mystery of iniquity that's at work.

So having said that, though, I don't think you - or anyone - would suggest that because there is this scandal; and because there were tremendous failures, and we have to live with that, and try to make reparation for it; that doesn't mean that the Catholic Church now is somehow going to cease to exist, or that the bishops can no longer exercise their responsibility for being teachers of the faith, for proclaiming the Gospel, for celebrating the sacraments, for speaking to the world about Christ.

And if we have to - if we are to continue that mission, well, that includes our responsibility for church teaching. And that's the issue here with the doctrinal assessment.

GROSS: So to people who think that the church is being a little hypocritical, in cracking down on nuns who are expressing either dissenting views or - more likely - silence on certain issues that you'd like them to be emphasizing; while taking so long to really investigate the sexual abuse scandal - so do you understand why some people think that that's hypocritical?

BLAIR: Yes, I think that the sexual abuse scandal is a great shadow over the church, and over the hierarchy, that we have to live with. But we also have to keep going on as a church with integrity. And, you know, you used the phrase "cracking down." I think we certainly have cracked down on sexual abuse, and have done - made great strides to understand it and to prevent it.

I don't know that I would use the word cracking down, with regard to the LCWR. All along, the assessment - and even now - is meant to be an effort to work with them, to have them enter into dialogue with us in order to remedy what we feel are serious doctrinal concerns.

GROSS: My guest, Bishop Leonard Blair, conducted the Vatican's doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that represents 80 percent of U.S. nuns. Now the bishop is charged with helping bring the group into compliance with the church's teachings on human sexuality, the ordination of women and other issues.

I know Sister Pat's feelings were that it is not - that she would like to be in dialogue. She would like to be able to question and think and dialogue, and talk it through. But what the assessment is asking for, isn't dialogue. It's conformity; conform to the teachings. This isn't the time to be dialoguing. It's the time to just say, follow these rules.

BLAIR: Well, I think we have to give a nuance about dialogue because if by dialogue they mean that the doctrines of the church are negotiable, and that the bishops represent one position and the LCWR presents another position, and somehow we find a middle ground about basic church teaching on faith and morals, then no. That's - I don't think that's the kind of dialogue that the Holy See would envision.

But if it's a dialogue about how to have the LCWR really educate; and help the sisters to appreciate and accept church teaching, and to implement it in their discussions, and try to heal some of the questions, or concerns, they have about these issues; then that would be the dialogue.

I think that the fundamental faith of the Catholic Church is that there are objective truths; and there are teachings of the faith that really do come from revelation, and that are interpreted authentically through the teaching office of the church, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and that are expected to be believed with the obedience of faith. And those are things that are not negotiable. You can have dialogue about understanding these things, but it is faith-seeking understanding. It's not new understandings that then change the faith. And I think that's what really gets to the heart of all that we find in this assessment - that they are promoting - unilaterally - new understandings, a new kind of theology, that is not in accordance with the faith of the church.

GROSS: You know, while we're talking about obedience, let me play you what Sister Pat had to say, about her understanding about the vow of obedience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

FARRELL: Well, first of all, obedience to God. But the word "obedience" comes from the Latin root meaning to hear, to listen. And so as I have come to understand that vow, what it means to me is that we listen to what God is calling us to in the signs of our times. We listen to the voice of God in legitimate church authority, in the pain and the hopes and the aspirations of the people of our time. We listen to the voice of God in the depths of our own hearts, and in our consciences; and that all of that together is what we listen to in trying to discern, what is God really calling me to? And it's to that, that I must be obedient.

GROSS: What's your reaction to that?

BLAIR: My reaction is that it sounds very beautiful and appealing. And no one can argue that we have to be obedient to God, and that we have to follow conscience. But on the other hand, it flies in the face of 2,000 years of the notion of religious life; that obedience means obedience to lawful superiors within the community, and it certainly means the obedience of faith to what the church believes and teaches.

Again, Catholicism understands Christianity to be a revealed religion in which truths of faith, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are authentically taught. So St. Paul talks about the obedience of faith. So it's not just about a kind of vague sense of obedience, but it really comes down to a very specific obedience, in some cases; particularly for religious women or religious men.

And it also applies to me as a bishop. I have to be obedient as a bishop. I cannot go out and say that I'm going to do my own thing, or that I'm going to teach something contrary to the Catholic faith.

GROSS: But the bishops have the authority to interpret what church teachings are. Nuns do not have that authority.

BLAIR: Well, I wouldn't say nuns. I would say that the church is a communion of faith, and it's part of our belief that it is hierarchically ordered, yes.

GROSS: Bishop Leonard Blair will be back in the second half of the show, to talk more about the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio. We're talking about the conflict between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of the nuns in the U.S. The Vatican ordered a doctrinal assessment of the group because of its positions on such issues as contraception, homosexuality, the right to life, and the ordination of women - which were not in compliance with the church's teachings. Bishop Blair conducted the assessment for the Vatican's office of the Doctrine of the Faith. The bishop is now assisting Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, in implementing a review process of the LCWR and bringing it into compliance with the church's teachings.

When we left off, we were talking about the meaning of obedience. Last week on our show, Sister Pat Farrell, president of the LCWR, said obedience means listening to what God is calling us to do in the signs of our times. But Bishop Blair says the church is hierarchically ordered; and obedience means obedience to lawful superiors within the community, and to faith in what the church teaches.

What Sister Pat said in response to a question about that, was that she feels she is part of the church, you know; that she just - she may have her differences but she is the church, and she doesn't want to leave the church, and she doesn't want the group to leave the church. Just as she said, if you disagree with the government in America, you are still American.

BLAIR: Well, let me emphasize that no bishop wants them to leave the church, either, you know. And yes, they are part of the church. That's why we're so very concerned about them - and about religious life in the church, which is so important. But I don't think it's the same as government, a political membership, because belonging to the church is a matter of faith. It is the profession of faith. And you know, we're baptized with a creed. We believe a creed, and we believe what our faith teaches. Now, if in conscience we come to no longer believe those things - well, then people sometimes will find a new church, or they'll - even a new faith. And we have to respect the integrity of their conscience; that that's what they chose to do. But you can't simply say, I can have a Unitarian view of the Trinity, and I can have a Buddhist view of salvation, and I can have a Protestant understanding of ministry; but I'm a perfectly good Catholic. And let me be quick to add, I'm not saying that that's what the LCWR accepts; those teachings, I give as an example. But even for rational coherence - not to mention the coherence of the faith itself - you can't just have your own opinions, or have contradictory doctrines within the communion of the church.

GROSS: One of the things that the doctrinal assessment criticizes the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for, is - I'll quote this - "Issues of crucial importance to the life of church and society, such as the church's biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the group's agenda in a way that promotes the church's teaching." I assume that means, in part, that you'd like to - the group to be speaking against contraception.

BLAIR: Yes. Contraception would certainly be an issue that would figure into that list of things. Now, you understand, though, it doesn't mean that we expect the Leadership Conference of Religious to constantly be having programs devoted to church teaching on contraception. But we certainly would expect that over the years - and particulary, since part of the organization's role is to provide enrichment, and for theological formation for their members - that this issue would come up in a positive way, that explains the church teaching.

GROSS: On a related note - and I'm not attributing this to the LCWR - but I think the issue of contraception is an issue that has driven many women away from the Catholic church. And many women within the Catholic church don't follow the ban on birth control. And I think it's fair to say, many women are confounded by the idea that they have to follow the rules set by celibate men who have no idea what it means to be pregnant, who have no idea what it means to have a sex - to know that every sexual encounter with your husband might result in a pregnancy; and that it's very - it's very challenging for many women to live in that kind - to live with that kind of rule, that every sexual encounter with your husband might result in a pregnancy.

BLAIR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: That would affect every aspect of your life, of your family's life; of your health, of the finances of your family, of your ability to work, just of your ability of other children to maybe go to college because there wouldn't be enough money if there were nine children, as opposed to two children. So on like, every level, every sexual encounter has the potential of affecting your future.

Now - and just on a practical level, this is why I think many women either leave the church, or stay and just don't follow the church on that teaching. So I'm wondering if you think about that; and what you think about, when you do think about that.

BLAIR: Well, let's begin with a little history. Until 1930, every Christian denomination was unanimous in condemning contraception. And I remember once seeing that in 1930, when the Anglicans did abandon the teaching - they were the first, I think, to do so - it was the Washington Post that editorialized that this would be the death knell of marriage as a holy institution and would lead to indiscriminate immorality; and legalized contraceptives would create all kinds of problems. Now, 40 years later, in 1968, when Pope Paul VI reaffirmed this received Christian teaching about contraception, he pointed to some of the consequences of separating intercourse and the procreation of children. He said there'd be a gradual weakening of moral discipline, a trivialization of human sexuality, the demeaning of women, marital infidelity often leading to broken families, and state-sponsored programs of population control based on imposed contraception and sterilization. That was in 1968.

Now - I think - 40 years later, it's pretty clear that all of those things are happening. You know, we live in a world of divorce and broken families, cohabitation, recreational sex, fornication, promiscuity, pornography. And so you have to ask yourself, what are the consequences of this contraceptive morality, or contraceptive practice? But let's be clear - the church recognizes that couples can have valid reasons not to have children at certain times in their married life. But what is the method, if you have valid reasons not to have children at certain times? People often scoff that the church condemns so-called artificial means but accepts natural family planning. You know, after all, the desired effect is the same, no baby. But...

GROSS: What is natural family planning?

BLAIR: Natural family planning is one which looks to the infertile time that women have, so it requires a certain self-discipline. But it has been shown, in its modern form, to be actually quite effective and satisfying for married couples to practice natural family planning. But - and the church tries to promote this very much - but it is treated with a certain indifference and even rejection, you know, or ridicule, by many people. But it's a very effective way. The difference between sterilizing an active intercourse yourself, and accepting the God-given infertile time, is one of great moral dimensions. So it's not entirely true to say that the church simply says that every - every single act of marriage must result in the procreation of a child.

GROSS: I think some nuns believe that because they are in the world working with women - often, working with poor women - that they have some understanding of what birth control means to women.

BLAIR: Yes.

GROSS: So maybe - and I'm just speculating here; I'm not speaking for the LCWR here.

BLAIR: Yeah.

GROSS: I guess what my ultimate question is, churches change; religions change. Religions - many religions are dealing right now with issues of sexuality; equality of women; the question of homosexuality - does the religion see homosexuality as being acceptable, do they see homosexuals as being equal, or as people in need of treatment or change, or repression of their feelings; is gay marriage acceptable; should women be equal within the religion; should there be women rabbis, should there be women priests, should there be - you know - women ministers. These are questions that - you know, what is the role of women in Islam? Every religion, it seems to me, is asking - at some level, if not at all levels - these questions. And I think that through their questioning, or through their silence, that the LCWR is asking some of these questions, too. And I don't mean to speak on their behalf here. It's my interpretation of what they're saying.

BLAIR: Well, I think the question is even more fundamental. What does it mean to be a man; what does it mean to be a woman; and - is the question for the world today. And that's what the church tries to address from the point of view of Christian anthropology; from the Gospel, and from her teachings. As I said earlier, you know, it's one thing to question, in the sense of trying to grapple with the issues of the day and the challenges that are made to faith, and to what one believes. But you do it from the principle of what your fundamental teachings are, and not move into an area where you deny those teachings.

You know, it's very interesting. In the New York Times earlier this month, there was an article, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" And, you know, the author - and I don't mean to pick on Episcopalians, because I'm just quoting what this writer said in the New York Times - but he said today, the Episcopal church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict suddenly adopted everything urged on the Vatican by, you know, liberal theologians and thinkers, and people who dissent. But he said instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded group, he said the church is really experiencing a tremendous drop in its - in practice. And I mean, Catholicism is, too, having its share of problems. But, you know, this is - just becoming like the world, and just accepting the secular culture's answer to all these things, is not really a solution for people of faith.

GROSS: My guest, Bishop Leonard Blair, conducted the Vatican's doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that represents 80 percent of U.S. nuns. Now, the bishop is charged with helping bring the group into compliance with the church's teachings on human sexuality, the ordination of women, and other issues.

One of the things that the assessment that you helped conduct, of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious - one of the things the assessment criticizes the group for, is its silence on the issue of women's ordination. In other words - Blair, I understand that you would like the group to be more vocal in saying that women should not be ordained.

BLAIR: Well, no. We would just like them to have their speakers acknowledge that this is a doctrine of the church.

GROSS: That women should not be ordained.

BLAIR: Yes.

GROSS: So today, nuns are in the position of leadership in the world; they're presidents of universities and hospitals, principals of schools. They're highly educated. And I'm just asking this as an interviewer - I'm not speaking on behalf of the LCWR - but why would women have - want to have positions of leadership in the world, but be subservient in the church?

BLAIR: Well, that's a loaded question because it says that if somebody is not a priest, they're subservient; if somebody doesn't exercise some kind of jurisdiction or can't celebrate and lead the Mass, that they are subservient. This is a startling thing, in light of 2,000 years of Christian history. I don't think anyone felt that because the priest...

GROSS: Perhaps I used the wrong word. So let me not use the word "subservient," but say not represented in the hierarchy of the church.

BLAIR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And not be among the group that interprets theology - because that's reserved for the bishops. Correct me if I'm wrong.

BLAIR: Well, I would say that the interpretation of theology is a work of not just bishops but also, theologians. There have been great saints, women saints - and men - who have contributed tremendously to our theological understanding. And I'd be the first to admit that in the past, women were not represented so much in theological faculties and things like that. And now, they are.

And that's wonderful. And there are many outstanding examples of women who exercise that role, in great fidelity to the teaching of the church. In other words, to be a woman in that position doesn't mean that you have to dissent from the teachings of the church - to exercise that role.

But when it comes to the priesthood - and I don't know that on a program like this, we're able to explore the theology of it. Because it is a theological one. It's not political; it's not sociological. It's theological, about what the sacraments are, and what it means for a man to stand at the altar and act in the very person of Christ, as a priest. I mean, St. Paul talks about Christ being the groom, and the church being his bride. That symbolism, theologically, is very much a part of the - of our understanding of the Mass and the priesthood.

And that's, I think, also why Christians who maintain their faith in a priesthood - namely, the Catholics and the Orthodox - do not have a female priest. But churches such as in Protestantism, that speak only about ministry rather than priesthood, for them it's much easier to have women do that because it's a very different kind of faith about the meaning of these things.

The church doesn't say the ordination of women is not possible because somehow, women are unfit to carry out the functions of the priest; but because on the level of sacramental signs, it's not the choice that our Lord made when it comes to those who act in his very person, as the church's bridegroom. And you can say, well, that sounds like a lot of poetry or - you know, how do we know that's true? But again, if you're a Catholic, this is part of our sacraments, and our practice, for two millennia; and it's not just an arbitrary decision of male oppression over women.

GROSS: As the world changes, and as women become more equal in the world - should religion change at all, as the world around it changes? And - for example, I mean, the church has changed on a lot of things. I mean, if you go back to the 12th and 13th century, the office that is now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was, at that time, the office that ran the Inquisition. And people who challenged any of the faith - you know, Catholics who belonged to groups that dissented from some of the teachings, they were held in secret trials. They were punished. They were sometimes tortured. I mean, there's no way the church would do that now. I mean, the church has changed its ways in many things, over the years. So is - you know, is women's position within the church one of the things that maybe, at one point, it would - it would change?

BLAIR: Well, yes and no. I think certainly, the world in which we live today is vastly different than the ancient world or the medieval world, or even the world of a century ago. And so there's always an evolution in society. But what are your first principles? What are your basic beliefs? What do you believe is something that's revealed by God in Scripture, and tradition and taught authoritatively through the ages?

Those kind of things do not change. Their understanding can evolve. There can be aspects of it that evolve and change, but not the fundamental things. And so when it comes to the role of women in the church and in the world - yes, this is a major question today. And it's one that's going to continue to be addressed, but it has to be addressed on the basis of the faith. You know, if one comes to it with the approach that unless women are ordained priests, they are somehow subservient; or that this is a male-dominated patriarchy that is corrupt, and has no creditability with the Gospel; well, if that's the approach, that's not going to be compatible with Catholicism.

And there may be many people in these great upheavals who dissent, one way or another, about things. There always have been, about doctrinal matters through the centuries. But ultimately, I do believe, under the work of the Holy Spirit, that the faith of the church continues.

GROSS: My guest, Bishop Leonard Blair, conducted the Vatican's doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that represents 80 percent of U.S. nuns. Now, the bishop is charged with helping bring the group into compliance with the church's teachings on human sexuality, the ordination of women, and other issues.

So let's get back to what's happening next with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Because of positions they've taken, or silences that they've maintained, on issues pertaining to radical feminism, human sexuality - what am I leaving out? - ordination of women, the bishops conducted an assessment of them. You participated in that assessment. You've decided that they need to be helped to become more consistent with the church's teachings.

So now, basically, the group will be answering to you and to another bishop, and to the archbishop who is overseeing the group now. And my understanding is any books that they publish, conferences that they have, speeches that are presented, will have to be - basically, vetted by the bishops and the archbishop. So is that right? Do I have that right?

BLAIR: Well, just a few things here. When you talk about bishops, I think it's important to make some distinctions. There's one college of bishops in the world. And the pope is - presides over this with a special authority because we believe him to be, as bishop of Rome, to be the successor to St. Peter. The assessment was initiated by a papal initiative in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, not by the bishops of the United States.

But to the extent that the congregation has concerns about doctrinal issues, I think we can presume that any bishop would be concerned, including the American bishops, about it. But on the other hand, the initiative for this, is directly from Rome. And more than that, the - what - the direction that's been set here to try to remedy the situation, was approved personally by Pope Benedict himself. So this is something that comes from the pope, asking that this be done.

Now, you know, we want to do this collaboratively; we want to do it in dialogue with the LCWR. But I have to - you know, as they say, in all candor - I have to say that up till now, there's been a lot of just, denial; the refusal to - at least, up till now - to recognize that there are any problems that the bishops, or the Holy See, should even be concerned about - the things that we've talked about on this program, and that appear in the documentation. And if someone will not even acknowledge that this is a problem, then of course, that creates a grave difficulty. So Archbishop Sartain, from Seattle, who's responsible for this next phase of working with them - I think, you know, he's going to have to, with the leadership, find some way forward.

GROSS: How would you like to see this resolved?

BLAIR: How would I like to see it resolved? I would like the LCWR leadership to acknowledge that the bishop's questions have merit; that they can appreciate why we are concerned - why the Holy See or bishops would be concerned; and that they would be willing, then, to help their members to appreciate and accept the teachings of the church on these matters.

GROSS: Is it paradoxical at all that a nuns' group - a women's group - in its positions, or its silences, pertaining to women's sexuality, women's issues is - has been judged by an exclusively male group; and exclusively men will now be overseeing the group?

BLAIR: Well, I would say that in this situation, this has become a necessity because they are not doing it on their initiative. If they were doing it on their own initiative as members - religious consecrated women, with religious vows in the Catholic church, there would be no need for the bishops - or for the Holy See, I should say, to intervene in this matter.

As far as questions of human sexuality and women's issues, I respectfully suggest that the profound questions about identity, and sexuality, cannot be the domain of women alone or men alone. This is about a common humanity. Questions about the meaning of sexuality, and marriage and such, are not exclusively the property of one sex or the other. And so certainly for the church, they're part of a corpus of teaching that embraces the whole human person.

GROSS: Well, bishop, I want to thank you very much. You've been very generous with your time, and I want to let you know how much I appreciate that.

BLAIR: Well, thank you very much. I am happy to have had this chance to be with you.

GROSS: Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, conducted the Vatican's doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and is now charged with helping bring the group into compliance with the church's teaching. You'll find a link to our interview with the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sister Pat Farrell, on our website, freshair.npr.org - where you can also download podcasts of our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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