Sister Kathleen Marie and the Code of Canon Law (San Diego Source - The Daily Transcript)
By Dan Lawton
Monday, July 30, 2012

For most of its history, law has been a tool used by powerful people to serve their ends and keep ordinary people down.

If you doubt it, think of some historic instances of injustice and greed. (How about: the Nuremburg Laws; slavery and Jim Crow; the Irish Penal Laws; the Enron scandal.) In each of these disgraceful episodes, lawyers played key roles in planning, executing and, later, justifying what happened.

You will never hear it said into an open microphone at a law school graduation, but each is a blot on our profession. A recent sorry example of this phenomenon is the Vatican_s public reprimand of American nuns. (Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (April 18, 2012).) More about that later.

I was lucky to attend Catholic schools starting at age 6. At St. Mary_s School in Fullerton, Calif., the good Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange presided. Tuition and insurance cost $63 per year, plus $9 for milk (annual total in today's dollars: about $493). To families who couldn_t afford it, tuition was free.

I recall my first day in the first grade. I sat in the back in my brand-new uniform (blue-and-white pinstripe shirt, blue pants). The rows of desks contained 59 other six-year-olds.

Sister Bridget Therese introduced herself, and we got down to business somehow. I adored her as only a six-year-old can adore his first-grade teacher. I knew she loved us. But there was no mistaking who was in charge, and we wanted most of all not to disappoint her.

She and the other sisters lived in a convent across the street. The parish paid each of them $75 a month. They were paid during only the 9 months of the school year, so it came out to $675 a year. In today_s dollars: about $3,375 per year.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange did more than just run our little parish school. They founded and ran the first general acute care hospital in Fullerton _ St. Jude Hospital, which opened with 125 beds in 1957.

The sisters raised all the money and hired the doctors and nurses. They engaged a ladies_ auxiliary group to sew the first blankets that went onto the beds. About 15 of them lived right there on the premises of the hospital, in windowless 10 x 15 rooms (now offices). They worked as nurses, administrators, and staff. After I got hit by a car on my bike at age 11, I spent six weeks in the pediatric wing there. Today, St. Jude is the biggest and best hospital in northern Orange County.

These stories are personal and sentimental. But they illustrate a point. And that is: where the rubber of the Catholic church met the road in many American childhoods, the ones doing the heavy lifting were the sisters of Catholic religious orders.

They ran and staffed the parochial school system, which operated more than 8,500 elementary schools in America in 1970. They built, ran and staffed hospitals and orphanages. They taught you most of what you learned in school, from long division to grammar. If you were in their charge, they loved you -- probably a great deal more than you really deserved.

And at St. Mary's, they did all that for $75 a month.

It seems almost too easy to juxtapose such a great body of work with the criminal behavior and fiscal incompetence committed by certain American bishops. I speak of the men who enabled pedophile priests to abuse children, largely free of criminal prosecution or loss of their collars -- Bernard Law, Roger Mahony, and John McCormack among them.

The $2.6 billion in cash paid out in judgments and settlements to the victims is their legacy -- a colossal monument to arrogance, deception, and cowardice. (Imagine how many hospitals and schools could have been built with $2.6 billion. Imagine how many kids' tuition $2.6 billion would subsidize, so that their families wouldn't have to pay any more for their Catholic schooling than the $63 per year my family paid for mine.) The best one can say about this staggering sum is that it is at least measurable. The human toll of the victims' lives destroyed by clergy sex abuse can't be quantified.

Against this backdrop comes the Vatican's "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious," published three months ago. It is a stinging public rebuke of American nuns by the Vatican's chief doctrinal authority, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (headed until very recently by Cardinal William Levada).

It begins by extolling the "great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years." It acknowledges the "great deal of work in promoting ... social justice" by the sisters.

These are the spoonfuls of sugar meant to coat the bitter pill within -- a tongue-lashing over "doctrinal errors," "correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons," and "certain radical feminist themes" (that last is left undefined). The sisters have spent inadequate time condemning abortion and promoting the "Church's Biblical view of family life and human sexuality."

The document announces that the sisters' leadership can no longer be trusted to operate without men controlling them. (This is the Catholic church, after all!) The new boss-men will be an "Archbishop Delegate, assisted by two Bishops, for review, guidance, and approval, where necessary, of the work" of the sisters.

The mandate of these men includes controlling all "speakers/presenters at major programs." Included in the pious passages of the "Doctrinal Assessment" are lofty invocations of the Church's Code of Canon Law, which justifies the Vatican's "supreme direction" of the church's religious orders.

To me and others, the Doctrinal Assessment is a grim joke -- a reminder of the gross out-of-touchness and arrogance of the geriatric patriarchy that believes it runs the Catholic church in America. "Too much social justice, and not enough bashing same-sex marriage," it seems to say. "Nice job on the schools and hospitals, but knock off the radical feminism."

Any irony is lost on William Levada. To him, this is business as usual. The men of the Vatican talk; the rest of us listen. The law exists to serve their ends, and to make others (here, American women religious) less powerful than they. Remember: the Code of Canon Law cited in the "Doctrinal Assessment" is the very same code which many bishops took to require that they keep clergy sex abuse secret (even from law enforcement), so as to prevent "scandal." Is there a better example of law being used to protect the powerful and keep ordinary people down?

The Vatican's public flogging of American nuns is like every lousy thing the Catholic church has ever done in one respect: it is the work of obtuse men utterly convinced of their own righteousness.

There is any number of examples -- the Spanish Inquisition, the overt anti-Semitism of early "fathers of the Church," the cruel kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, Pope Pius XII's inaction while the Germans emptied Rome's Jewish ghetto in 1943, the clergy sex abuse crisis of our own day.

In contrast to this sorry tapestry, much (if not most) of the good that was done in many communities like mine was not done by mandarins like William Levada. Instead, it was done by Sister Kathleen Marie Pughe (my sixth grade teacher, whom I am lucky to call a good friend to this day); Sister Jane Frances (who founded St. Jude Hospital); and thousands of other sisters who helped form and inspire countless young lives, while working for poverty-level compensation.

William Levada's home is a spacious, elegantly-furnished apartment, with a fat view of St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. I have never toured it. Nor do I expect to have the chance. But I can't help but think of it while walking down the corridor past the windowless 10' x 15' rooms of the old convent at St. Jude Hospital today. When doing so, I find it hard not to compare the contributions of the American sisters to the work of the powerful men who find fault with them.
The sisters come out way ahead of the bishops and cardinals.

Law loses its moral force when people perceive it is as written by the powerful as a tool of oppression. This was true of the Jim Crow laws, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and any number of other laws. And it has been (and is) true of the Code of Canon Law -- if only in an instance where it is invoked as a premise for the public humiliation of 45,000 American nuns.

I miss you, Sister Kathleen Marie. I wish there were more cardinals and bishops about whom I could say the same.

Lawton is the principal of Lawton Law Firm in San Diego. He specializes in intellectual property litigation and appellate litigation.

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