Nunsense: Pope errs in rebuking sisters

Pope Benedict XVI leaves after celebrating mass during a priests' ordination ceremony April 29, 2012, in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
AFP/Getty Images

(MoneyWatch) Once upon a time, I might have enjoyed watching Pope Benedict XVI trying to bring American Catholic nuns to heel.

But that was when I was in elementary school, and my pals and I would spend at least part of our day scheming to sneak something past the sisters. We seldom did. The good nuns always seemed a step or two ahead of their 10-year-old charges.

Vatican orders crackdown on U.S. nun group

Nearly a half-century later, the church leadership's animus against nuns seems like a heavy-handed, reactionary response to the sexual scandals that have taken place, notably the priestly abuse of children and other minors. To this end, the Vatican last month issued a report rebuking what is regarded as the most influential group of Catholic nuns in the U.S. Specifically, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was accused of spreading information that had "promoted radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith," including views on contraception, gay rights and women's ordination.

Rather than confront evil within the clergy, in other words, Benedict appears to be trying to reinforce his authority by lashing out at one group within the church he thinks he can intimidate.

As The New York Times noted, the Vatican document also accused the nun's group off "focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping 'silent' on abortion and same-sex marriage."

"The church hierarchy never recoiled in horror from pedophilia, yet it recoils in horror from outspoken nuns," Times columnist Maureen Dowd subsequently wrote in a recent column. Added fellow NYT scribe Nicholas Kristof, "Even as bishops have disgraced the church by covering up the rape of children, the nuns have redeemed it with their humble work on behalf of the neediest."

Ironically, two areas where the American Catholic Church generally receives high marks is the work it does providing primary school education and health care. And in both of these areas, women, notably nuns, play a significant role. Although there are fewer nuns running these organizations today as there used to be, their cause remains as righteous as ever.

One Catholic organization for which I serve as a consultant prides itself on the group's social mission while another I work with is diligent in holding its employees accountable in their ethical conduct toward patients as well as their coworkers.

The pope's and bishops' actions against U.S. nuns reminds me of a CEO who, fearing for his power, seeks to show toughness by trying to discipline those who he perceives as weak. Yet nuns are anything but weak. As Mary Johnson, a former nun who for 20 years served in Mother Theresa's order, told The Daily Beast in commenting on the flap, "I get the sense that the sisters are women with vision. They aren't going to be bullied. They've stayed with the church out of real conviction, lifelong commitment... They know who they are."

All is not lost. Kristof reports that four petition drives are underway in protest of the church's castigation of nuns. Sister Joan Chittister finds this reassuring. "You see a generation of laypeople who know where the sisters are -- in the streets, in the soup kitchens, anywhere there's pain," she tells the columnist. "They're with the sick and the dying, and people know it."

I think that is something the good sisters who educated me would be glad to hear. In spite of my occasional attempts to outwit them, it was they who got the upper hand by teaching me to read, write and reason.