The Problem with Nuns…

is not just a Buddhist thing. The Vatican has been enduring increasing levels of anxiety about the nuns, specifically the nuns of the US.

The leading representative body for nuns in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, despite it’s canonical status within the Church has come under repeated fire and investigation for various heretical tendencies, which you can read about in the Vatican’s statement here, and the LCWR response here. The Vatican takes this so seriously that have set up a formal investigation, and the LCWR is talking about seceding from the communion.

The parallels with the situation regarding Wat Pa Pong and nuns are quite remarkable, for all the differences in the details. Despite the misleading and sensationalist headline, this article from AlterNet does a good job of explaning the background to the dispute. The author argues that the basic issue is about power, and it’s hard to fault this. Just as WPP criticized Ajahn Brahm and others for questioning the orthodoxy, so ‘obedience’ is foremost in the lessons that the bishops would have the nuns learn.

And the basic conflict is pretty much exactly parallel. The conservative group insists on keeping the medieval power structure in place, insisting that that, and that alone, is the truth; while the progressive party—more alive to the nuances and changes of history—look for inspiration in the heart of the teacher’s message for guidance in changing times.

It’s not just the LCWR that’s proving controversial. A leading academic nun in the US, Sister Margaret Farley, has come under fire for discussing sexual ethics in ways that the Vatican declares to be “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology”. As always, it’s best to read the Vatican’s original response, which is posted here.

Sister Farley is criticized for taking liberal positions on a range of matters relating to sexuality and relationships, namely masturbation, homosexual acts, same sex marriage, and divorce.

What’s interesting (or interestingly boring, depending on your perspective) is the wording of the criticisms. The document speaks of ‘doctrinal errors’, ‘the constant teaching of the Magisterium’, ‘the objective nature of the natural moral law’, ‘errors and ambiguities’ (Oh, those ambiguities! Can’t have them… Or can we?), ‘conform to Catholic teaching’, ‘This opinion is not acceptable’, ‘Sacred Scripture… presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law…’ ‘Legal recognition of homosexual unions… would mean… the approval of deviant behavior…’.

It’s all astonishingly unreconstructed. Despite Vatican 2 and the tremendous efforts by Catholics all over the world to genuinely engage with modernity within the framework of their faith, in this document the patriarchy just slams right down, no concessions granted. Modernity is just shrugged off like an annoying mosquito.

The Vatican document cites the ‘confusion’ among laity, a similar position to that which was expressed at the same sex marriage meeting I attended in April. This was also a key point in the official Amaravati document on the Five Points that subjugate the nuns. These were intended to allay the ‘confusion’ of the lay folk, which is why they were called ‘Points of Clarification’. For these patriarchies, allaying confusion means insisting on the One and Only Truth, which always has been and always will be, and which is fully embodied in the patriarchy itself.

The original document on the five points is here, and it’s worth reading it side by side with the Vatican documents. The Vatican, being older and more confident, expresses itself directly, whereas the Amaravati document ties itself in knots trying to apologize. But the end result is the same: obey or get kicked out.

There is, of course, the difficulty that many of the propositions insisted on by the patriarchy are unethical and harmful. They stem not from any timeless well of truth, but from well-understood social and historical conditions, conditions that no longer exist—except in the minds of the patriarchs. But as long as ‘modern’ notions can be dismissed by the sheer fact of their heterodoxy, they need not be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Buddhists and Catholics go about our lives. We hear these pronouncements: sometimes they make us angry, sometimes they make us sad, sometimes they make us feel pity. But no one will ever be persuaded by them. They are a call to spiritual devolution, to a regression to lesser lives and diminished horizons. The spirit calls us on, and we won’t be shackled.

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25 thoughts on “The Problem with Nuns…

  1. Interesting read, as always. Reminded me of a delightful girl I knew back in the early 70′s who wrote “to Rome!” to push for the cause of women priests in the Catholic Church. She did enter a convent however left after 4 years.Missed opportunity for all concerned.

  2. I think the five points make a lot of sense in the Buddhist context of training for realizing nibbana. Luang Por Sumedho is a very wise monk and an inspiring Buddhist leader. Therefore his introduction of the five points are backed up with a deep understanding of what the world is like and how it works. Only because these five points do not make sense to Ven. Sujato, does not mean that these five points are meaningless. Actually they are very adequate and completely in tune with the spirit of the Vinaya.

  3. Thanks for your feedback – as always, I welcome a diversity of views, as long as they are expressed politely. I would suggest, however, that your argument, such as it is, commits the logical fallacy of ‘Appeal to Authority‘.

    Ajahn Sumedho’s wisdom or otherwise is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether the Five Points, and the sexism that they embody, lead to harm or to benefit.

    I have shown at length on many occasions of the kind of harm that such sexism entails. If you are not convinced, I hardly think I will change your mind now.

    However, for your benefit and that of others, I can highly recommend an article that directly addresses this point in the Buddhist context: Allison Goodwin’s ‘Right View, Red Rust, and White Bones: A Reexamination of Buddhist Teachings on Female Inferiority’, recently published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. I will do a more detailed blog post on this article in due course (with a bit of luck!)

  4. There are not many actions that bring just harm or just benifit, How about reflecting on the benifit that Ajahn Sumedho may have brought about?

  5. Bhante Sujato, You cannot think of “any” benifit that Ajahn Sumedho may have brought about?

  6. Ven. Sujato is certainly capable of speaking for himself, but I don’t think his last comment here was speaking to the value of Ajahn Sumedho’s actions in general. I think he was only addressing whether the act of implementing the Five Points has had any beneficial effect.

  7. Quotes from Wikipedia

    “The ordination of women has been a controversial issue throughout the Anglican Communion. By 2012, however, 28 of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion ordain women as priests and 17 have removed all barriers to women serving as bishops.

    ” The Church of England has been ordaining women since 1994 and is in the process of making changes that mean women can also be Bishops”

    The Seventh Day Adventists in some written material refer to the Pope obviously as a male, but interestly, one of the female leaders of the Church refers to the Catholic Church Herself as “Her” or the Mother.

  8. Pre-Catholic belief systems in india – even if patriarchail had female Godesses, in addition some Pre-Catholic Western spiritual belief systems such as the “Druids” many who were considered the Spiritual authorities of the time, did not just have a/or male Gods, they to had female Priests and Goddessess.

  9. Hi DK maybe Ven. Sujato will clarify? It does seem like he cannot resist any opportunity to have a dig though. His panache for very public criticism pre-dates the perth ordination I believe.

    DK do you think the “Five Points” have had / will have only harmful consequences?

  10. Peter,

    What a stupid question to ask!

    Demanding in a society where even the law prevents inequality that women pretend to be subserviant to men – what other result could such ridiculous policies ensue.

    Peter, I have a question for you – do you think that Asians should be able to eat at the same table as white people!

    There are no teachings by the Buddha that denegrate women therefore and simply a monk that supports policies or attitudes that denegrate women should be disrobed, as it is also against the law in the West, as such one wonders whether a jail term or at least community service may also be warranted for these Monks.

  11. Peter,

    By the way, does you Ajahn also support raciest policies. That is do Asians or Blacks have to be subserviant to him and his male buddies as well or does he just bully women?

  12. Hi Markj
    “do you think that Asians should be able to eat at the same table as white people!” In my house they do. Your question originates from a racist mind-set.

    “does you Ajahn also support raciest policies. That is do Asians or Blacks have to be subserviant to him and his male buddies as well or does he just bully women?” Who is my Ajahn?

  13. Dear Peter,

    What about women do they

    Who is your Ajahn? – well, I guess you should not, that it is not a question for me to answer.

    Best Regards

  14. “Ajahn Sumedho’s wisdom or otherwise is irrelevant.” <<< Hmmm, Venerable Sujato, isn't wisdom and the generation thereof all Buddhism is about? Do we not have faith and trust in the Buddha mostly for the reason that he has got the wisdom of awakening?

  15. Herb

    I do not think in any way whatsoever that women are “better” than men, and even if they are not as outrightly violent as men, certainly inwardly they are just as destructive and cruel, but not in obvious ways. I do also believe there needs to be much more legal and honest acknowledgement of this fact , sadly though it will usually be the ones that men desire that get away with anything and the ones that are actually decent women who will be the ones blamed.

    In the article you referenced tthe word “woman” is not even mentioned – nor is there any reference to the “female” at all! The cause of the decline in membership is simply the projection of some mans fears of what may or may not happen in the future, because “young people are not attracted to the Church.” He has totally neglected and by-passed women and as ususal the middle generations and “yearns” for children – how would he no what is going to happen int he future, apparently C of E Ministers are now psychics as well?

    Possibly if he addressed the issue of women ie the mothers of the young people who may not want their children attending institutes of paedophilia which is what alot of Christian religions are associated with thanks to the Catholic Church, not to mention the issue of the middle generations not attending Chruch.

    Also there is the little issue anyway of grown men that actually worshiping a fictional character in the sky.

    While acknowledgement of the fact that the pretty little “ladies” that say and do the right things to win men over the women that men desire, crave want and respect and that men worship so much may not be all that they seem, possibly it is also time to acknowledge that niether is authority and “rightness” or so called “rationale” of men –

    and with regards to that – just where is that reference to women in that article Herb that you confidently claim supports the fact that numbers will decline if women are ordained – there is absolutely no mention of that fact at all!

  16. Looks like that article addresses the problem of AGING within the church community. It doesn’t discuss women ordination at all.

    The first sentence of the article summarises this point rather well:
    “The Church of England could be virtually extinct in 20 years as elderly members die, an Anglican leader has warned.”

    I don’t understand the article’s correlation to Markj’s comment at all.

  17. It’s irrelevant for the argument that he was making. Whether something is right or wrong does not depend on who pronounces it to be so, it depends on whether it is actually harmful or not.

  18. The decline of the CofE can hardly be blamed on women who have been the bastion of many a local fundraising effort over the years.
    Whether the Bishopric should be handed over to women on a plate is another matter- Maybe, when a man is allowed to present Womans Hour on Radio4 BBC? (Another equality rights forum. :)
    I always find it interesting that men are always fighting for womens rights- but very few women join in to support Mens’ missing rights, think Fathers for Justice.
    More likely to end up in trouble with the law than preaching anywhere!
    ‘Family’ [ahem!] courts are secret, unlike the workings of the CofE. Hand that rocks the cradle, etc..?

  19. “It’s irrelevant for the argument that he was making. Whether something is right or wrong does not depend on who pronounces it to be so, it depends on whether it is actually harmful or not.” <<< Only somebody with true wisdom can tell apart right and wrong. especially when it pertains to matters as final truth and the deeper level understanding of human beings. Otherwise the appearance of the Buddha would have been meaningless to this world. Even if one is right in the worldly sense, one can be very wrong in the transmundane and higher sense (leading to dukkha-nirodha).

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