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Nicholas Kristof: Why is the Vatican cracking down on nuns?

  • Published Thursday, May 3, 2012, at 8:14 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, May 4, 2012, at 6:52 a.m.

Catholic nuns are not the prissy traditionalists of caricature. No, nuns rock.

They earned doctorates or worked as surgeons long before it was fashionable for women to hold jobs. As managers of hospitals, schools and complex bureaucracies, they were the first female CEOs.

They also are among the bravest, toughest and most admirable people in the world. In my travels, I’ve seen heroic nuns defy warlords, pimps and bandits. Even as some bishops have disgraced the church by covering up the rape of children, nuns have redeemed it with their humble work on behalf of the neediest.

Yet the Vatican recently issued a stinging reprimand of American nuns and ordered a bishop to oversee a makeover of the organization that represents 80 percent of them. In effect, the Vatican accused the nuns of worrying too much about the poor and not enough about abortion and gay marriage.

What Bible did that come from?

Since the papal crackdown on nuns, they have received an outpouring of support. “Nuns were approached by Catholics at Sunday liturgies across the country with a simple question: ‘What can we do to help?’” the National Catholic Reporter counted. It cited one parish where a declaration of support for nuns from the pulpit drew loud applause, and another that was filled with shouts like, “You go, girl!”

At least four petition drives are under way to support the nuns.

Mary E. Hunt, a Catholic theologian who is developing a proposal for Catholics to redirect some contributions from local parishes to nuns, wrote: “How dare they go after 57,000 dedicated women whose median age is well over 70 and who work tirelessly for a more just world?”

Sister Joan Chittister, a prominent Benedictine nun, said she had worried at first that nuns spend so much time with the poor that they would have no allies. She added that the flood of support had left her breathless.

“It’s stunningly wonderful,” she said. “You see generations of laypeople who know where the sisters are – in the streets, in the soup kitchens, anywhere where there’s pain. They’re with the dying, with the sick, and people know it.”

I have a soft spot for nuns because I’ve seen firsthand that they sacrifice ego, safety and comfort to serve some of the neediest people on Earth. Remember the “Kony 2012” video that was an Internet hit earlier this year, about an African warlord named Joseph Kony? One of the few heroes in the long Kony debacle was a Comboni nun, Sister Rachele Fassera.

In 1996, Kony’s army attacked a Ugandan girls’ school and kidnapped 139 students. Fassera hiked through the jungle in pursuit of the kidnappers – some of the most menacing men imaginable, notorious for raping and torturing their victims to death. Eventually, she caught up with the 200 gunmen and demanded that they release the girls. Somehow she browbeat the warlord in charge into releasing the great majority of the girls.

Nuns have triumphed over an errant hierarchy before. In the 19th century, the Catholic Church excommunicated an Australian nun named Mary MacKillop after her order exposed a pedophile priest. MacKillop eventually was invited back to the church and became renowned for her work with the poor. In 2010, Pope Benedict canonized her as Australia’s first saint.

“Let us be guided” by MacKillop’s teachings, the pope declared then.

Amen to that.

Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist with the New York Times.

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