U.S. nuns have plenty of brothers and sisters

06/13/2012 12:00 AM

06/12/2012 4:34 PM

It doesn’t take a radical feminist insubordinate to recognize the chutzpah involved in a bunch of power-hungry old guys who live in a dysfunctional but opulent secret enclave in Rome stomping on thousands of American women who truly live the life of the Gospel.

Given the Vatican’s myopic view of moral leadership – and the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy’s sometimes conspicuous failure to exercise it – I find it astounding that officials whose own house is in disarray should be telling U.S. nuns that they’re deviating from the holiness rules.

Apparently many other American Catholics feel the same way, marching, holding vigils, circulating petitions and launching Facebook pages to show the enforcers, from Pope Benedict XVI on down, that they won’t let their sisters be bullied.

This all started after the Vatican issued a report in April giving a loud smack on the knuckles to the umbrella group that represents more than two-thirds of U.S. nuns. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious was scolded for having speakers at its gatherings whose unorthodox views on spirituality go far off track from church teachings; for focusing on social justice instead of stepping loudly into public debate about abortion and homosexuality; and essentially for not being sufficiently subservient to the U.S. bishops and their stands on volatile political issues.

An American archbishop was designated to oversee “reform” of the nuns’ organization. Representatives of the organization are supposed to travel to Rome soon to convey their objections in person.

The Leadership Conference recently called the Vatican’s accusations “the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency” and said the report has “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community.”

Here’s what riles some of us ordinary Catholics, not to mention those of other beliefs: We hear of wayward priests and bishops, who are supposed to be celibate, having affairs and fathering children, sullying the daily labors of many fine and earnest religious men and women. Yet the message the Vatican really wants to emphasize is that devoting yourself to good works isn’t enough if you aren’t leading the charge against insurance subsidies for contraception or gay unions.

Sure, human sexuality raises many difficult moral dilemmas, but morality extends far beyond that. And the call to live a virtuous life involves myriad other ways in which we serve one another and allow our society to treat the least among us. The Leadership Conference is interested in issues such as shifting Pentagon spending to education and jobs programs; reforming immigration laws; improving health around the globe; and preventing domestic violence and human trafficking.

When I think back to the nuns I knew in grade school, I can’t imagine Sisters Francis Clare, Fidelis, Jane Marie, Julietta, Cordula and Mary Catherine, all Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, butting heads with the church hierarchy over conforming to doctrine. Of course, that was in the days when you could tell nuns by their habits, well before such “radical feminist” notions as equality between women and men moved to the mainstream.

Like so many others before them and after, those nuns taught, served as role models and no doubt were strong-minded women in their own ways.

A couple of decades after those Catholic-school years, when my husband and I were befriended by Sister Theresa, who led the program at our Maryland church for adults becoming Catholics, we so admired her dedicated, thoughtful and realistic approach to living her faith that we asked her to be our daughter’s godmother.

This distressing conflict between Rome and the nuns can only diminish the voice the church might bring to political discussion in this country. I don’t always agree with the U.S. bishops – for instance, suing the Obama administration over insurance coverage for birth control seems misguided – but they can add important perspective to public debates over the death penalty, war and, yes, abortion.

If the church can’t tolerate reasoned, rational internal debate, how can its leaders expect to be listened to in the public square?

Last week the Vatican warned Catholics away from a book by a nun who taught Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School because the text, published in 2006, doesn’t sufficiently condemn masturbation, gay marriage and divorce.

Meanwhile, stranger-than-fiction intrigue swirls around the Vatican, with the pope’s butler being suspected of leaking internal documents that suggest power struggles and Machiavellian schemes designed to control the eventual selection of Benedict’s successor.

Is it any wonder that so many are standing with the sisters?

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