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dogging the hatches

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jan 31, 2008

As I opened the hatch, I found myself looking into a raging inferno which pushed me back. It was impossible to enter. The screams and cries of those many Army troops in there still haunt me. Navy regulations call for dogging the hatches to preserve the integrity of the ship, and that's what I did. -- from a World War II naval memoir

One of the best-hidden casualties of the post-Conciliar Catholic upheavals is the unprogressive religious sister who finds herself trapped in a congregation that has flaked out. Her plight is not the same as that of other old folks who find adjustment to novel circumstances difficult. For the nun's part, her religious commitment requires fidelity unto death to her institute, yet the institute to which she is committed has excused itself from a comparable fidelity to its own charter. Bound by her faith to a system of belief, piety, and discipline to which her superiors grow increasingly alien, bound by her vows to obligations of obedience that preclude an effective challenge to the injustice of her predicament, she has no choice but to put up with the indignities visited upon her by the people in power, as they sing a new church into being.

Though not without frustrations of their own, unprogressive priests are rarely afflicted to the same extent. On the one hand, Holy Orders affords them some canonical protection against arbitrary use of authority; on the other hand circumstances often make it possible for them to find refuge from institutionalized flakiness. Regardless of the atrocities his brethren commit in the chapel, e.g., a priest can slip off and say a licit Mass on his own; yet Sister is pushed in her wheelchair into a multipurpose worship space where, liturgically speaking, she has to eat what her superiors put on her plate.

The unprogressive sister is not always the best advocate for her own cause. Faced with an intimidating ecclesiastical machinery that appears presumptively aligned with her superiors and against the dissident, she will be reluctant to sound off. When she finally does give voice to a grievance the occasion may seem petty or peripheral (even when there's a serious religious malady at the bottom of the offense). It's also the case that a sister who spent her past forty years working in a laundry or a kitchen can't always muster in her defense the kind of formidable theological arguments that will stand up against her superiors or that will engage the sympathies of the churchmen to whom she appeals for redress.

For ultimately it comes down to the churchmen: the diocesan bishop in the first instance, the officials of the Congregation for Consecrated Life in the last. Outside the authority structure of her own institute, these are Sister's only hope. Yet there seems to be a kind of social darwinism current among senior ecclesiastics -- including those who deplore the flakiness -- that is content to watch the diseased orders sicken and die off by their own devices, and that almost never intervenes to correct the abuses. The political reasoning behind this darwinism is easy to understand: why cause a media furor and disedify the faithful by attempting piecemeal corrections in congregations that will probably resist the corrections and that will eventually collapse anyway? Benign neglect (so the thinking goes) may serve the purposes of the larger Church.

Naval warfare presents the horrifying circumstance of a shelled or torpedoed ship in which the crew must isolate the the flooded compartments from the rest of the vessel by sealing them off ("dogging the hatches"), thereby abandoning the men on the wrong side of the bulkhead to certain death by drowning. Necessary though it may be to save the ship and the greater part of the crew, the command to wall-in one's comrades to their fate must be painful to contemplate and a torment to remember. So too the ecclesiastical non-interventionist strategy of "leaving the dead to bury their dead" would be unproblematic but for the vexing consideration of immortal souls: most poignantly, but not exclusively, the souls of those sisters trapped beneath the water line.

How many unanswered letters and unreturned phone calls have been transmitted by good women whose only fault was to enter the convent on the wrong side of 1965? How do they make sense out of the bishops' inaction? How do they interpret their superiors' confident gloating? Wheeled out of the worship space back to their rooms, how do they keep the faith?

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  • Posted by: garedawg - Nov. 05, 2009 6:02 PM ET USA

    If the fellow who is so fond of horses can wait a few years, he'll be able to marry one.