Ground Zero

Can Seattle's Liberal Catholics Contain Their Out-of-Control Bishop's National Agenda?

Ground Zero

Chris Karges

STANDING WITH THE SISTERS A vigil near the office of Seattle Archbishop Sartain, who is leading a nationwide crackdown on America’s allegedly “radical feminist” nuns.

Seattle's Catholics are angry—at other Catholics. Their ostensible leader, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, has spent the last three months crusading to stop same-sex marriage from becoming state law and, even more controversially, is now leading a pope-mandated inquisition against thousands of American nuns for adopting "radical feminist themes." Finding themselves at ground zero of a national fight with implications for millions of secularists, Catholics here have held weekly vigils near the archbishop's office, filed a political action committee to counter his views on marriage equality, and even begun cutting off money.

"I didn't give anything this year," says Roger Yockey, a parishioner of St. Patrick on Capitol Hill, referring to the church hierarchy's annual springtime collection. That's because donations from people like Yockey ultimately help fund the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Sartain is a member. That group has surged in recent years to become one of the most politically emboldened religious entities in the nation, and at the same time, its agenda has swerved hard to the right to focus on banning contraception and opposing gay marriage rights—not just in Washington, but in other states including California, Maine, and Minnesota. For people like Yockey, watching Sartain go after America's nuns was the final straw.

"The average age of American nuns is 74 years old," Gretchen Gundrum, who used to be a sister, told me last week. "These women have given their whole life to the service of the church, with no salaries and following the gospel. They are being told at the end of their lives that they are not being faithful and that they have been bad girls. They are treating these mature women like they are little kids. It shocks laypeople like me."

Yockey and Gundrum were two of more than 150 local Catholics at a recent vigil on the steps of St. James Cathedral in Seattle's First Hill neighborhood to defend the sisters, one of two-dozen vigils across the country. However, the events in Seattle may have a particular impact on a bishop whose chancery office is just one block away. While protesting is one means to capture Sartain's attention, Yockey said, "The bishops will get this message when the collection plates have less money in them." And he is hardly alone in that thinking.

Several Catholics have told me in the past two months they would maintain donations to parishes and Catholic charities, but not to the bishops. Betty Hill, who organized Seattle's weekly "I Stand with the Sisters" vigils, says she's stopped giving to the annual Catholic appeal entirely due to the bishop's aggressive political agenda and she "expects other people to withhold some giving."

"I think they are covering up for their own sins, sexual abuse," Hill says of the crusade to scrutinize the nuns. "The bishops have lost their moral authority and they want it back. But Archbishop Sartain needs to be aware that we are going to support the sisters, probably over him."

This clash also sets up a strange irony: Even though Seattle is notorious as one of the least churched cities in the nation, it's now at the epicenter of a clash inside the world's most powerful church.

The latest fissure results from a decree in Rome. The Vatican last month found that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of nuns and sisters in the United States, has taken positions that "disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church's authentic teachers of faith and morals." These women of faith had been focusing too much on alleviating poverty while remaining "silent" on abortion, death with dignity, and gay marriage, according to the April report. Now Sartain has begun a five-year campaign to rewrite the nuns' policies and force them to capitulate to the church's right-wing agenda.

Several sisters, including those on the national board, declined to make a statement on the matter until they convene this week to consider their options. Gundrum, however, says she expects a statement as soon as this weekend. The sisters could decide on action as radical as disbanding or could choose the route of complete cooperation—but the latter seems unlikely.

Gundrum adds that "the only power we have as laity is the power of the purse" to withhold donations.

But do the growing protests have any hope of dialing back the church's agenda in the United States?

"I hope they do," says Father John Whitney, the priest at St. Joseph Parish, and one of several priests to join the growing ranks of local Catholics opposing Archbishop Sartain's agenda. (Whitney prohibited petitions to repeal Washington State's gay marriage law at his church, even though Archbishop Sartain invited petitioners inside all the local parishes.) Whitney also hopes church higher-ups will decide on their own to "rethink their intervention and rethink their takeover of the Women Religious."

But realistically, if there is to be a reining in of the headstrong hierarchy, Whitney says it's unlikely to be done by the hierarchy itself, and it's unlikely to result from the outrage of the general, non-Catholic public. Nor is it with people like me who were raised Catholic, got frustrated, and left the church. The change, he believes, will result from those people who are staying inside the church, who attend mass every week, who are priests, and who tenaciously defend their reading of the gospel as a charter to help the impoverished instead of terrorizing women and gays. The Catholics can withhold their money, lay claim to the cathedral steps, stand at the pulpit, and resist from the inside. And secular progressives better hope they don't give up.

"I think that if American Catholics speak with one voice, I don't know how the hierarchy can't listen," Whitney says. recommended


Comments (26) RSS

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I cut off the bishops years ago when they made their hard right politically. Told the Archbishop when he sent me his "appeal" that I didn't contribute to the Republicans so I sure as hell wasn't about to give him anything. Since then I have started giving the $$$ I gave my parish to Planned Parenthood. The Bishops are in the process of destroying the American Catholic Church.
Posted by Hoodsport Writer on June 8, 2012 at 8:36 PM · Report this
Peter Sartain is just another Vatican lackey with ambitions-maybe if he shouts enough about embracing Vatican antediluvian dogma he might get a red hat. Dolan of New York did exactly that and now he's a cardinal, too. John Paul II and now Benedict XVI have populated the RC episcopate worldwide with fawning hierarchs. Pity!
Posted by Vox Populi on June 6, 2012 at 8:29 AM · Report this
Atheism is always ready to embrace you.

For you Catholics not ready to do away with your weekly social gathering, the Episcopal Church is pretty much the same thing, without as much child rape.
Posted by madcap on June 5, 2012 at 1:33 AM · Report this
Badthing 23
Separation of Church & State is as real as Immaculate Conception.
Posted by Badthing on June 4, 2012 at 10:45 PM · Report this
Sartain is just another Vatican and Timothy Dolan stooge. Catholics everywhere-not just in the USA-should reject anything emanating from these far right Vatican satraps who claim to speak for Catholics and who would, with Vatican encouragement, attempt to force their sharia-like laws on everyone.
Posted by Vox Populi on June 2, 2012 at 5:44 AM · Report this
ScienceNerd 21
As a recovering Catholic, I completely agree with #20.

I learned I wasn't a Catholic when I realized I didn't agree with them. I feel bad for the nuns, I loved my nuns in my school. But if they don't agree with the heads of their religion, then they should leave. The Catholic church is pretty f'ed up. You don't have to be a part of it...

Sadly, I would assume that the reality for the women is that there is no where else to go at this point. Average age is 74? Wow...
Posted by ScienceNerd on June 1, 2012 at 4:37 PM · Report this
So you say you're Catholic but don't agree with Catholic doctrine. Isn't that like saying "I'm vegetarian, but I believe eating meat is okay, so change the definition of vegetarianism to accommodate me"?
Posted by just thinkin' on June 1, 2012 at 1:50 PM · Report this
alter boy 19
suk muk duc your highness
Posted by alter boy on June 1, 2012 at 12:53 PM · Report this
The thing is that the Vatican doesn't give a flying f*ck whether people leave the Church. Benedict and John Paul before him are both theological purists who would like to drive out the "cafeteria Catholics" in order to have a purer Church. The Church has no desire to "reform" in any way, so it never will. If people boycotted all Catholic businesses (e.g. hospitals, schools, etc) that would have a bigger impact.
Posted by wxPDX on June 1, 2012 at 12:47 PM · Report this
#13 - YES! "I STAND WITH THE SISTERS" buttons are available by request on the "I STAND WITH THE SISTERS" website:

"I STAND WITH THE SISTERS" also has a Facebook page:…

From their Facebook page: "A grassroots movement galvanizing people of faith and justice to stand in solidarity with U.S. Sisters and in support of their lived gospel values." The buttons have been shipped from Seattle all across the country.
Posted by IStandWithTheSisters on June 1, 2012 at 12:19 PM · Report this
You all realize the nuns are part of the problem, don't you? First, without their existence and cooperation the church couldn't function. Second, as in all families where there has been child abuse, the abuse couldn't have gone on without the mothers' (the nuns) knowledge and tacit approval (if not without their express approval). Finally, I married a woman who went to cahtolic grade school, and I know a lot of other peorple who went to catholic schools as well. They all tell terrible stories about the physical and emotional abuse imposed on them by the nuns. So I have no sympathy for any of the actors in this particular passion play.
Posted by A Mighty Fortress on June 1, 2012 at 8:36 AM · Report this
Here's the story that the media either misses or ignores: conservative parishes are in much better shape, in terms of finances and attendance, than are the liberal parishes.

Sartain knows that. He sees the weekly offerings.

Catholics want a return to the traditional church and are leaving the parishes that won't give them what they want. Sartain is giving the parishioners what they want.

The Stranger, understandably, refuses to believe this but that's par for the course.
Posted by Washington Catholic on June 1, 2012 at 7:51 AM · Report this
really old guy 14
Sartin is not "going after the Sisters," he has been assigned to come up with a solution. Remember, Bishop Wuerl came here it "investigate" Bishop Hunthausen. His comments? "I find nothing wrong with this bishop." Sartin as bishop is required to "toe the party line" What he thinks in private and in ministry to individuals we do not know.

The Vatican is wrong in their pursuing the Sisters, it was instigated by people from the East coast.
Let us refrain from judging until we find out what Sartin has to say.
Posted by really old guy on May 31, 2012 at 9:22 PM · Report this
Is anybody making "I Stand With The Sisters" buttons?

I'd wear one and buy thirty to give to friends right about now.
Posted by AlaskanbutnotSeanParnell on May 31, 2012 at 3:09 PM · Report this
#9-dude, it's not like the rest of the Catholic population of the U.S. is down with Sartain persecuting the sisters-if ALL U.S. Catholics were like Sartain, Rick Santorum would be the Republican presidential nominee right now.

And you especially can't assume that U.S. Catholics are ok with Sartain hassling the sisters when you realize that he and Papenfuhrer Ratzi seem to be mad that those nuns were spending too much time helping the poor. Ratzi and Sartain would probably excommunicate Jesus.
Posted by AlaskanbutnotSeanParnell on May 31, 2012 at 3:03 PM · Report this
As a devout atheist (irony intended), I would offer the following advice. It will do neither you nor the church any good to simply withhold money from one Church cause while giving to another. The Catholic Church is a multi-national conglomerate and can move money better than JP Morgan/Chase.

You want to have an impact on the doctrine? Organize. Grass roots. Get someone in every parish to start working the crowd. Get a facebook page up and running and be committed to it for at least 2years. In that time, plan - pick one day - a major Sunday and coordinate a wwithholding of funds. Have people drop letters in the collection plate instead. If there is a wide enough impact, it will send a message and maybe, just maybe, the church will think about it. If you dare, sign your name to the letter, but don't be surprised if a few of you get excommunicated. My Mom was because she was a good Catholic.
Posted by BelieveWhatYouWant on May 31, 2012 at 2:58 PM · Report this
wow I never knew that 9 came out of hole number 2
Posted by will/LA on May 31, 2012 at 10:18 AM · Report this
"out of control"...who is in control, the parishoners or the Church. All the parishoners are more than welcome to start their own church.

This is such a fluff article considering it is published in this rag and situated in this area of the U.S. The comments are so typical of the erudite hipsters the rest of the country KNOWS lives in that area.

You guys stay up there, don't migrate out of your refuge.
Posted by osage2112 on May 31, 2012 at 6:36 AM · Report this
All this out-of-control spiraling bullshit propaganda because a big, dumb, corrupt-as-fuck misogynist pig is "getting nun"! If the Bishop wants to get to the actual root of all his evil, all he needs to do is look between his legs, if he can see past the fat.
Posted by auntie grizelda on May 31, 2012 at 12:25 AM · Report this
Yes, of course the nuns have more "liberal" ideas. They have to face reality all the time, as they are the ones to minister to the unwanted children, the dying, ect. Right wing talking points crumble to the ground when you're faced with reality. I'm not Catholic, but I stand with the Sisters too. Just like in the Bible, when someone's doing something dumbassed, they usually are equipped with a penis.
Posted by MinnySota on May 30, 2012 at 7:02 PM · Report this
Unfortunately, there is so much deeply wrong with the Catholic church that it is hard to know where to begin. Ceasing to fund any part of it was the least I could do.
Posted by tshicks on May 30, 2012 at 1:36 PM · Report this
I haven't given any money this year to the Archbishop's Annual Appeal either, but unfortunately, that will have little impact on the Archbishop. He will get the money anyway from the local parishes, as they "owe" it to the Archdiocese. It is the local parishes who will feel the pinch. This way, the Archbishop can continue to engage in political agendas against gay person, and indulge in the inquisitions of the nuns and girls scouts with total impunity.
Posted by m3gs on May 30, 2012 at 12:24 PM · Report this
Not even that they are supporting gay marriage or abortion or anything, but that they are focusing on poverty and helping people while refraining from judging other people or dictating their morals. Its funny, I think they may have been a famous historical Christian figure that espoused something like that...?
Posted by brent.b on May 30, 2012 at 11:59 AM · Report this
The last straw - nuns doing the Eucharist without a male priest involved.

The money thing, well, why would conservative Catholics not give more to compensate? A few thousand Seattle dollars will shake the finances of the Vatican? Think not, but, nice gesture of principle.

Non, Cath. who simply loves all nuns.
Posted by George Bakan on May 30, 2012 at 11:23 AM · Report this
They have so much in common with me: They don't believe in almost all the same gods that I don't believe in.
Posted by ctmcmull on May 30, 2012 at 10:41 AM · Report this
Knat 1
Good for them, not letting someone else dictate what their Imaginary Friend accepts or who He loves.
Posted by Knat on May 30, 2012 at 9:18 AM · Report this

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