U.S. Catholic nuns go about work after rebuke

Karen Schneider, nun
Dr. Karen Schneider, a Sisters of Mercy nun, working at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore
CBS News

(CBS News) Pope Benedict XVI is feeling a backlash from American Catholics over his crackdown on America's 57,000 nuns. A letter from the Vatican warned them warned that a group that represents most of the nuns is straying from church teachings on abortion and homosexuality.

As the group's leaders meet in Washington this week to talk about a response, the rest are doing what they do every day: God's work.

In the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, Dr. Karen Schneider is about to save an infant boy who can't breathe.

For Schneider, saving children is not just a job, it's also her life's mission as a Catholic nun. Sister Karen Schneider became a Sister of Mercy 29 years ago, before she attended medical school.

"I wake up in the morning and think of myself as Sister Karen. I think being a physician is one of the best things we can do as sisters," Schneider said.

While many Catholics remember nuns as habit wearing school teachers, Sister Karen is the new version of Catholic nun. Most are highly educated and are managers of schools, colleges and hospital chains. This explains why many nuns were stunned when the Vatican accused their leaders of promoting "radical feminist themes" and of being too "silent" on issues like "the right to life". In daily life, most nuns see those questions as outside their mission.

"Personally I don't have the time," Schneider said. "A child comes in in respiratory distress, I take care of the child in respiratory distress. So that's what my ministry is."

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They do it to follow Jesus. In response to the letter from Rome, hundreds of Catholics have rallied behind the sisters. Betty Hill calls it wrong for the Vatican to ignore sex abuse by male priests, but want reform from the Church's most respected women.

"Because we feel trampled on and we see that our sisters are being trampled on and we can't stand for that anymore," Hill said.

The U.S. bishops in charge of the reform are aware of the nuns' popularity. The bishops' mandate from Rome allows them to order change, but only after discussion and consultation.

"They hope to work on this together, prayerfully, quietly in a peaceful dialogue," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the bishops.

Walsh said the change is not some much a command, as it is a dialogue.

At the hospital Sister Karen is planning her third trip this year to treat children in Haiti. Her attitude on reform is simple. Let Rome keep its focus on the rules of the church. She'll stay focused on the work of the church.

To help Sisters of Mercy, visit their website here.

  • Wyatt Andrews
    Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.