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Sister power, Mad Hatter Mitt and uncritical thinking

July 13, 2012
By George J. Bryjak

In a recent article, "Bullying the Nuns," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, historian and practicing Roman Catholic Garry Wills commented on the Vatican's recent, harsh criticism of some American nuns for not following their bishops' thinking.

"Thank God they don't," Wills states. "Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of the bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them." The Vatican criticized the American nuns for being too interested in "the social gospel" (nuns in this country have always been on the front lines dealing with poor, marginalized people) that Wills notes "is the gospel."

According to Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by nuns, the Vatican blasted the sisters for holding "radical feminist views." The rebuke noted that Campbell's group focused too much on poverty and economic justice issues while remaining silent on abortion and same-sex marriage This is the same male Catholic hierarchy that remained silent for decades about pedophile priests, then did everything in its power to cover up these repulsive crimes.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University, the author of numerous books in Catholic studies, summed up the church's self-imposed blindness to sexual predators in their midst via the following: "On the bus ride to my first day of Catholic high school, the sophomores warned the freshman about Father Mott, who 'liked' teenage girls. Years later the diocese settled with a few of them. I cannot get it out of my head. If every girl on the bus knew, how come the bishop didn't? And if the bishop knew - as I suspect he did - why did he do nothing?" Zagano notes that years later, when she mentioned this to a "big shot" priest of Father Mott's era, he laughed saying, "Dirty old Jack Mott. I can't forget that, either."

Speaking of Catholic nuns, Sister Campbell noted that "Rome really likes our work. They like us to be in hospitals and be educators ... but they don't want us thinking. They don't want us talking. And they don't want us asking questions." President of the Catholic League Bill Donohue believes that nuns who disagree with the Catholic Church should become Protestants. That's one solution. They can join the millions of individuals (including yours truly) who have left the church over the past 30 years. Bullying nuns, some of the finest people in the Catholic Church (Felician sisters in Buffalo taught me to read and write), is not going to slow this exodus.


Mad Hatter Mitt

While politicians routinely contradict themselves, the undisputed king of convoluted political doublespeak is Mitt Romney. Within the space of a few moments he is capable of saying that governments don't create jobs, that only the private sector creates jobs, then blasting President Obama for not creating jobs, and completing his Mad Hatter logic by touting the number of jobs he created as governor of Massachusetts.

Romney has blasted "Obamacare" relentlessly, stepping up his attacks after the most important component of the Affordable Care Act, the individual mandate, was upheld by the Supreme Court because the penalty for non-compliance amounted to a tax. This is the same Romney who in a 2009 opinion piece stated that Massachusetts (when he was governor) "established incentives for those who were uninsured to buy insurance," acknowledging that this requirement amounted to a tax: "Using tax penalties, as we did ... encourages 'free riders' to take a responsibility for themselves."

I'm waiting for a reporter to ask the wealthy Romney, champion of the rich and richer, how his fortune and economic philosophy of rugged individualism (with generous government tax breaks and "wealthfare" for millionaires and billionaires) squares with the history of his Mormon faith. In an article, "How Socialism Helped Save the Mormon Church," William Van Wagenen notes that under the direction of Brigham Young, early Mormon settlers in Utah implemented a socialist economic system: "They never used the word 'socialism,' but socialist is the only way it can really be described."

According to Van Wagenen (a Mormon), when early Mormon settlers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, Young made it clear what kind of society they would build: "Again, with regard to labor - don't imagine unto your selves that you are going to get rich, at once, by it. As for the poor, there are none here, neither are there any who may be called rich, but all obtain the essential comforts of life." (Emphasis added.) This sounds pretty close to the famous Marxist dictum: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."


Uncritical thinking

The education section of the 2012 Texas Report of the Platform Committee and Rules Committee states: "We oppose the teaching of ... critical thinking skills which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed belief and undermining parental authority." Critical thinking can be defined as a systematic way of analyzing and evaluating information. This analytical method attempts to shed light on a fundamental question: "How do we know what we know?"

Utilizing critical thinking in the classroom, upon giving students reading assignments, I instructed them to look for any implicit and/or explicit assumptions the author was making. To pay attention to the source of the author's "facts." To determine if these sources were credible. To see if the author had an implicit or explicit agenda in writing this piece. (If so, what was it?) My goal was to make students "healthy skeptics," not accepting something they heard or read simply on the face of it or because someone famous, or an authority figure (including their instructor), said it.

I can understand Texas Republicans' steadfast resolve to keep critical thinking out of the classroom, as this form of rational analysis is antithetical to their "we have the one and only truth" world view. Individuals who learn to think critically are prone to ask questions about cherished beliefs - beliefs those in power consider sacrosanct and beyond reproach or challenge. The founding fathers - an extraordinarily talented group of critical thinkers - posed questions that challenged the authority and, most especially, the legitimacy of the British crown.

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin were thoroughly familiar with Enlightenment thinkers (Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire, for example) and were much influenced by their work. The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason (approximately 1650 to 1800), was a critical-thinking era that championed intellectual inquiry and rational thought, and opposed ignorance, superstition and tyranny.

Critical thinking is threatening to those in power as it's the initial step in creating social movements that often result is sweeping social, economic and/or political change. This is why the Vatican wants to silence Sister Simone Campbell and like-minded individuals.


George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.



"American Nuns Reprimanded by Vatican for 'Radical Feminist Views'" (May 2, 2012) Public Radio International,

Goodstein, L. (April 18, 2012) "Vatican Reprimands a Group of U.S. Nuns and Plans Changes," The New York Times,

Hunt, K. and S. Peoples (June 30, 2012) "Dems Rib Romney on Mandate" The Berskshire Eagle

Nader, R. (June 14, 2012) "Romney's Campaign of Inanity" The Nader Page,

"Report of the Platform Committee and Rules Committee" (2012) Texas Republican Party, Texas Freedom Network,

Van Wagenen, W. (accessed 2012) "How Socialism Helped Saved the Mormon Church," The Mormon Worker,

Wills, G. (June 7, 2012) "Bullying the Nuns" The New York Review of Books

Zagano, P. (Feb. 16, 2011) "Repairing the Broken Church" National Catholic Reporter,



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