Keller to Nuns: Get Out!

Bill Keller, Pope Benedict, Bill Donohue.jpg

Bill Keller, Pope Benedict XVI, William A. Donohue

Former New York Times editor Bill Keller thinks it sounds shocking that he agrees with the Catholic conservative Bill Donohue, but he need not be disturbed. Some of us have long thought he was closer to Donahue than he pretended.

Keller ran the paper of record when it cheered on the Iraq War. Now he is a columnist for the same paper, where he promotes disasters like Donohue. Donohue is president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which means that the more fatuous bishops get, the more furious Donohue gets in defending them. He recently defended the Vatican’s inquisition into the Girl Scouts for having supported Doctors Without Borders, which gives out condoms to prevent AIDS. I am sure he is chafing to join the assault on Sister Margaret Farley for arguing that masturbation is not a mortal sin.

In the Times of June 18, Keller praised Donohue’s new book, Why Catholicism Matters. What he particularly liked is the way Donohue argues that half of Catholics should just leave the church they pretend to believe in. Only those who attend church regularly and “pay the bills”—a number Donohue estimates at 50 percent—should be considered real Catholics. They will be better off without the other 50 percent—because, as he quotes Benedict XVI before he became pope, “Maybe a smaller church would be a better church.” Keller puts the matter even more punchily. He tells the useless half, “Summon your fortitude and just go.”

On nuns, too, Keller is even harsher than Donohue, who simply says that some sisters “have totally lost their moorings.” Keller mocks the nuns going to Rome to protest papal criticism of them. He tells them: “Unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go.” He even suggests they should be bribed to help them skedaddle. If, after a life of service, a nun should “find church teachings incompatible with her conscience, [she] should be offered a generous severance. We could call these acts of charity ‘Dolan Grants.’”

Keller no doubt considers himself one of Donohue’s good Catholics, who will be better off without us “bad Catholics” who do not blindly follow Vatican teachings. But there are far more of us than the 50 percent the two Bills consider salvageable. Multiple polls have shown a majority of American Catholics in disagreement with Vatican precepts on contraception, abortion, the male priesthood, in vitro fertilization, the celibate priesthood, and divorce (Donohue and Keller have both been legally divorced).

The Guttmacher Institute found that Catholics have just as many abortions as non-Catholics, and other polls show that as few as 20 percent of them think all abortions should be illegal. The most thorough survey of Catholics under thirty found, late in the 1990s, that so few hewed to the Vatican line on contraception that they would fall within the margin of error and be statistically non-existent. In 1995, the National Survey of Family Growth found that 95 percent of Catholic women who have had sex used contraceptives at some point. The priest sociologist Andrew Greeley found Catholics more tolerant of gay and pre-marital sex than non-Catholics.

If Keller and Donohue had their way, they would find themselves part of a tiny church serviced by a diminished and demoralized priesthood, most of whose recent recruits have been admitted only on terms of sycophancy to Roman teaching. They would instantly be deprived of the liberal women theologians who do much of the priests’ work now—teaching catechism, preparing for baptism and marriage, even preaching the homily (as in my church). They want the smaller, better church that is too good for mere Christians to belong to, and it really bothers them that “bad Catholics” hang around in their better company. In the church that they yearn back toward, the dissidents would be decent enough to get out. They want the church in which Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene wrote stories of Catholics suffering anguish for departing from Catholic dogma.

No more. Vatican II changed that—which is why Keller dismissively bunches the Council with such happenings as “Woodstock, Stonewall, Vatican II.” The one teaching of that Council that has stuck is the definition of the church as “the people of God,” not just the rulers of the people of God. The church is the Body of Christ, a truth Henri de Lubac and other theologians drew, in the lead-up to the Council, from deep wells of Catholic memories long forgotten. Catholics no longer think they must give up the Gospel if they do not join Rome in a war on condoms and nuns and Girl Scouts. They do not take the Romneyan advice of Keller and “self-deport” from the church if they doubt that Jesus cared more about Girl Scouts and condoms than about the poor.


The church free of dissidents that Keller wants would not have put up with Lord Acton and John Henry Newman, who assailed the first Vatican Council and its rigged definition of papal infallibility—Newman even prayed that Pius IX would die before he could do more harm to the church. They would not have countenanced a church in which poets like Dante and painters like Orcagna consigned popes to hell. Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became pope, was asked if it bothered him that so many Catholics dissent from hierarchical directives, and he said it did not, since “truth is not determined by a majority vote.” But the great historian Ramsay MacMullen wrote a book, Voting About God in Early Church Councils, to prove that is exactly how truth was determined. The early councils that defined such truths as the Trinity and the Incarnation did it by majority vote of hundreds of bishops—and those bishops were themselves elected by their congregations.

The early church was a far more democratic institution—Acts 2.44-45 even said it was communistic—than people used to think. It was only in the Middle Ages, when all authority was held to be male and monarchical, that the pope become a king, with realms and armies and prisons and spies and torturers—an apparatus pried from the resisting clutches of Pius IX only in the nineteenth century. But the truth is now out again: The pope is not a king. And Bill Donohue, though he would like to be, is not the king’s high commissioner.

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