In prayer, let us ask for the grace of a pastoral heart, an open heart that draws near to everyone, so as to bear the Lord’s message…For without this love that suffers and takes risks, our life does not work. If we Christians do not have this love that suffers and takes risks, we risk pasturing only ourselves. Shepherds who are shepherds of themselves, instead of being shepherds of the flock, are people who comb “exquisite” sheep. We do not need to be shepherds of ourselves, but shepherds for everyone…
(Pope Francis, General Audience, 18 Jan 23)
It is something of a lugubrious tale, really, and perhaps not deemed worthy of notice by many people, but the fraught saga of the bumptious Bishop of the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, Michael Olson, and the cloistered community of Discalced Carmelite nuns of the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, in Arlington, Texas, centering on the community’s prioress, Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, is yet another display of the entrenched misogyny of certain members of the ecclesial hierarchy and yet another instance of a Catholic cleric foregoing any semblance of pastoral care or deference to human dignity (especially with regard to women) and preferring instead to assert his wrathful and prideful dominion over a community of women, as the Vatican gives him license to do so.
This is not the appropriate space to adjudicate the full controversy: in point of fact, the actual truth may never really be known since the accusations that have emerged, especially from the bishop’s office (including the monastery being a den of drug-abusing and drug-selling women and that Gerlach herself had crossed state lines to purchase her stash), are as muddled as they are curious. Still, even if any of the original allegations are close to the truth (at worst, sexual impropriety through text or phone since even the bishop does not claim personal contact between the nun and the priest), the response of Bishop Olson has been so appalling and lacking any semblance of pastoral compassion that there is currently a lay-led petition for his removal within the diocese.
The optics are startling. There is the spectacle of Bishop Olson first descending into the monastery with a band of brothers to confiscate all Mother Gerlach’s communication devices; later, his call to local law enforcement to enter the monastery to investigate and confiscate the communication devices of all the other nuns, and then finally, in reaction to the nuns’ rejection of his claims and methods, his prohibition of the celebration of (public) Mass and Confession at the monastery. Indeed, the event of Bishop Olson first threatening excommunication of Mother Gerlach and then censuring of the other members of the community, reminds this daughter of Boston, Massachusetts, not of the compassionate solicitude that any ordained man of the Church is expected to proffer to any member of his “flock,” but more the authoritarian tactics of the Puritan theocrats in the 17th century against women who resisted their dominion. Of course, the Olson episode also echoes the frenetic “apostolic visitation” to religious in 2008 that, ultimately, proved to be only a fruitless exercise of misogynistic furor.
The optics alone of this sordid series of events should give any thoughtful Catholic pause. How can the Church—and this Pope—continue to preach equity and love and mercy when it persists in the atrocious double standard that persecutes and maligns women but continues to care for men and, historically, even abet men in their deception? For example, it took weeks before the name of the priest who was the correspondent in this “sinful” matter to be publicly named, but the bishop promulgated the name of Mother Gerlach as soon as possible. There was little substantive proof or alternate explanations for the many accusations Olson made and yet he acted (and judged) imperiously and without pastoral concern for any of the nuns; however, for decades, the Church hierarchy protected, advised, consoled and even abetted thousands of male priests who were knowingly guilty of heinous crimes against children and other instances of grave moral failure.
As always, however, the specifics are more the sideshow to the grave disease of misogyny that continues to erode the Church. It is not simply a question of “allowing” women a “seat” at the synodal table or more presence at the altar—it is an insufferable culture of disregard and discontent with women (religious and lay) that has been pervasive in the history of institutional Christianity but made all the more acute by the resistant self-regard of a single-gendered community of men. The Vatican has supported Bishop Olson in all his machinations and communications and, thus, seems to have abandoned the nuns, cloistered Carmelites, to their male persecutor.
All of this must be considered with regard to the future of the Catholic Church, at least in the U.S. The epic fail of the Church to demonstrate even a fraction of pastoral care for the community of women and not demur at all when Bishop Olson sends out to the public a video complaining about his treatment at the hands of the nuns and how he has been so unfairly maligned, only telegraphs to women, especially younger women, that the Catholic Church neither defends nor protects their dignity as humans and their integrity as females. There can be no “rebuilding” of any edifice as long as one half is no longer there for support.
June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.