As Republicans are discovering to their despair, American bishops make poor political bedfellows. At just the moment Republicans seemed to be making progress putting this whole "War on Women" thing to rest the Catholic bishops, to whom Republicans have affixed themselves at the hip, go out and open up a Second Front against Catholic nuns for Christ's sake!
Late last month, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (what in darker days was called "The Inquisition") reprimanded the nuns for taking positions on political issues that differed from those bishops the Catholic hierarchy regards as the Church's only "authentic teachers of faith and morals."
Specifically, the Vatican accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents about 80% of the nation's 57,000 nuns, of being "silent on the right to life from conception to natural death," and of failing to make "the Church's Biblical view of family life and human sexuality" central to its political agenda.
As a result, for the next five years the nuns are essentially on probation, with conservative bishops assigned to scrutinize their every thought, word and deed in order to rectify what the Vatican thinks are "serious doctrinal problems" among the sisters.
Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle has taken control of the Conference, writing new laws for it, supplanting its leadership, and banning "political" activity, which is what Rome calls "social work," notes historian and Jesuit-educated seminarian Garry Wills.
In a statement issued on their website, the nuns said they were "stunned" by the Vatican's decision. Another exasperated sister prayed: "Please give me bigger blindfolds and larger earplugs or tell me how to belong to a group that constantly tries to discourage my participation."
If I am Karl Rove I've got to be saying to myself: "Those @%$*&%@ Bishops! First, they scold our fiscal wunderkind Paul Ryan like he's some kind of parochial schoolboy just because he refused to play the Good Samaritan with the poor, and now they've gone out and taken on the sisters!"
But this is what happens when Catholic bishops -- who take their marching orders from a right wing German who lives in Rome and hopes to recapture the lost glories of the medieval Church -- insert themselves into modern American politics in order to re-fight old wars over personal freedom and autonomy that most people thought were resolved long ago.
The internal power struggles and schisms within the Catholic Church today are both fascinating and profitable to watch because they parallel so closely the polarizations dividing American society at large.
First are the similarities to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the conflicts between the 1% and the 99%.
"The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless," says Wills. "Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility."
The Vatican says nuns are too focused on "the social Gospel," which Wills says is the Gospel, while the Vatican wants nuns paying more attention to Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception -- teachings which Wills says "do not exist."
All of those Catholic schools, hospitals and soup kitchens the bishops are threatening to shut down unless President Obama capitulates to the bishop's demands on contraceptive coverage were built, and are run, by those very same nuns the bishops now want to shut down for their free thinking.
But the simple fact is, says Tom Roberts in the National Catholic Reporter, that it was women who built the Church's social service network the bishops want to leverage for political power, not men.
"We wouldn't have the Catholic school system without them," says Roberts of the nuns. "We wouldn't have a hospital system without them. We wouldn't today have a Catholic presence in many of the worst parts of our cities without them. We wouldn't have ministry to the displaced, unwanted and hurting without them. In many cases we wouldn't have any ministries or education programs in our parishes and dioceses without them."
No wonder the nuns were the first to accept the good faith compromise the President offered on birth control so that the important educational and healing work of the Catholic Church could go on uninterrupted. The bishops, on the other hand, insisted on escalating the conflict further. And this is why no greater challenge exists to the bishops' hierarchical power and traditional way of doing things than those Catholic sisters who recognize "their mission in the Church was to be more than cheap labor for the hierarchy," says Roberts.
The second point of congruence between Catholic and American politics are the attempts to disenfranchise the public.
We see this manifested in Republican attempts to raise barriers to voting by the poor, the aged the young and others who vote Democratic. We see it from the Vatican in efforts to reassert obedience to ecclesiastical authority in the belief that women and the laity are incapable of governing themselves.
The Catholic hierarchy is reeling in a world "where the trappings and presumptions of an all-male monarchy have little hold on the contemporary Catholic imagination," says Roberts, and where the laity's rejection of the Church's ban on artificial contraception was a particularly bitter pill to swallow.
"That decision, informal but widespread, created quite a rumble," said Roberts. "The Church stood, minus, perhaps, a gargoyle here and there. God remained in the heavens, and life went on. But a key new insight pervaded those in the pews. The fear of eternal damnation for disregarding a teaching that didn't make sense began to evaporate as a reason to obey."
The bishops' rather pathetic attempt to put the genie of free will and personal autonomy back in the bottle suggests an internal counter-reformation in the Church, says Peter Popham, which "comes perilously close to validating the views of hyper-traditionalists who think Vatican II went too far and that it's time to rein in not just nuns but all those liberal Catholics who believe they can remain in good standing while practicing contraception or voting for pro-choice political candidates."
You don't need to read too deeply in traditionalist literature, he says, "to find a strong sentiment that American Catholics as a whole need to be disciplined."
In a similar vein, Garry Wills says it's not surprising that at the very moment the Pope is "quashing an independent spirit in the Church's women," he is also welcoming back into the fold ultra-conservatives and known anti-Semites who left the Church in protest over the liberating and modernizing spirit of the Second Vatican Council "but whose hard line against women priests, gay marriage, contraception and the return of the Latin Mass fits in with current Vatican thinking."
I don't mean to put words in Garry Wills' mouth, but it does not take a genius to see that what he is insinuating is the mortal danger facing a Church whose history of secrecy, traditions of authority and all-male institutional structure make it particularly susceptible to the poison of fascism unless the Church remains ever on its guard.
The third similarity to contemporary politics is the effort of Catholic traditionalists to purge non-conformists from the Church, which mirrors the systemic efforts underway within the right wing Republican Party to purify the GOP base by exiling or "primary-ing" all those Republicans in Name Only who don't kow-tow to conservative orthodoxy.
Just today in fact, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiania issued the following statement about the Tea Party-backed challenger who defeated Lugar by 20 points in yesterday's Republican primary and what that says about the party Lugar has served in the US Senate for more than a generation: "He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it."
The implicit accusation by the Vatican against its nuns, on the other hand, "is that its leaders are not Catholic enough in the church's eyes," writes the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, himself a Catholic who took grief from fellow liberals for siding with the bishops at the outset of the birth control controversy with President Obama.
"Having lived, worked, and prayed with these women for decades, I find this suggestion both insulting and absurd -- so absurd, in fact, that one wonders whether the investigation is actually meant to undermine confidence in women's leadership of their own congregations."
Dionne quotes from a "Sister X" who voiced skepticism about a similar Vatican intervention -- or inquisition -- three years ago: "I can't help suspecting that those behind these initiatives are not primarily interested in the quality of my spiritual life. To put it bluntly, I feel that American women religious are being bullied. The fact that the visitation is apparently being paid for by anonymous donors, and that the leaders of our communities will not be permitted to see the investigative reports that issue from it, does not engender trust. And indeed, the dynamics of the visitation and investigation so far have been experienced by women religious as secretive, unfriendly, and one-sided."
And finally, there is the Church hierarchy's own "war on women," which is not really a war on women per se, or one confined to the Catholic Church or the Republican Party or even to America, but a worldwide movement of reactionary men, here and elsewhere, trying to regain or retain the deference, powers and prerogatives they feel they've lost to modern, secular and democratic societies and the emancipation of women that go with them.
It is a movement that in various forms is trying to reinstate the male-dominated model of the traditional family as the template for all other social and political institutions so that conservative men can rule as absolute monarchs in the outside world just as they do in homes that are their castles.
The bishops accuse the nuns of supporting "radical feminism." But their real complaint is that the nuns are radical feminists themselves.
NCR's Roberts says Catholic nuns were among the very first feminists, "performing tasks normally reserved for men long before many other women in society."
It was the nuns, after all, who ran schools and hospitals and other institutions and were, in short, "the CEOs of institutions before women were CEOs of institutions," says Roberts.
Thousands were earning college degrees in the 1950s and carrying their new knowledge and skills into a wide range of new professions, he says, as the total number of doctorates awarded to sisters more than doubled between the 1950s and 1970s.
The similarities between contemporary Catholic and American politics are neither symbolic, circumstantial nor superficial - not when a five-member conservative Catholic majority sits on the Supreme Court and, intentionally or not, defines American constitutional law in ways that secularize the hierarchical and paternalistic pattern for organizing societies that are encompassed in Catholic social doctrine, with the Court's Citizens United ruling empowering a narrow conservative plutocracy over a larger democratic population being the most obvious example.
What we have here is a clash of civilizations
The ideas of Samuel P. Huntington, whose 1996 classic, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, gave expression to the idea of colliding civilizational tectonic plates, has most often been cited to help us better understand the so-called War on Terror and the clash between Islam and the West of which that pseudo-war was said to be a symptom. But more accurately, the clash of civilizations which Huntington describes is not between Islamic and Judeo-Christian worlds but between modern and traditionalist ones.
Just as military strongmen like Saddam Hussein kept the lid on the simmering sectarian animosities in their faction-plagued countries, the 50-year Cold War between Soviet communism and the Free World served to mask those tribal sources of conflict which have since been let loose to express themselves freely. And in the post-Cold War world, says Huntington, "the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political or economic. They are cultural."
Huntington would not be surprised by the dysfunction of the present day Republican Party as a governing entity in a modern state since he would immediately recognize the GOP as a rightist movement obsessed with what Huntington has said is the most basic political question humans can face: "Who are we?"
"People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs and institutions," said Huntington. "They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations and at the broadest level civilization. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against."
That's the right wing Republican Party in a nutshell. But the problem Republicans confront, with their tribalist obsessions, is that America -- like all modern, secular, democratic societies -- demands that people reach beyond their narrow and divisive identities and embrace universal, and unifying, ideas and ideals.
"America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them; and every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American."
That was said by George W. Bush in his first inaugural, using words that would mark him as a heretical "RINO" in today's Republican Party and so a likely target for excommunication in the party he once led.