The Holy See says nuns should be speaking out against contraception and… (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images )
In Philadelphia last week, a child sexual abuse trial involving Catholic clergy led to a bombshell — a bishop from West Virginia was accused of abuse.
In Kansas City, a Catholic bishop goes on trial in September, accused of failing to report suspected child abuse.
Last year church officials paid $144 million to settle abuse allegations and cover legal bills, and although many of the cases went back decades, church auditors have warned of "growing complacency" about protecting children today.
So who's in trouble with the Vatican?
You know, the thousands of women who took vows of poverty to work with the poor, the sick and disabled.
They're just not toeing the line, says the Holy See. Instead of frittering away so much time on "issues of social justice," they should be speaking out against contraception and homosexuality. They should also muzzle themselves on the ordination of women and other "radical feminist themes."
When I first heard about this "doctrinal assessment" of the nuns, I thought it might be someone's idea of satire. You know, a parody of the out-of-touch Vatican patriarchy.
But holy jumping Jehoshaphat, they're dead serious, which would be funny except for the effect it's having on American nuns. The ones I spoke to were shaken. They felt insulted and demoralized, too, even though the Vatican briefly acknowledged their good works before rapping them hard on the knuckles with a ruler.
"This is the same church that ignored people who were being pedophiles," said Sister Jo'Ann De Quattro, who, as a Los Angeles nun for more than 50 years, has worked as a teacher and advocate for peace and justice. Cracking down on nuns, said De Quattro, was a convenient way of shifting the focus away from the church's ongoing abuse scandal. "We really know why they're focusing on the women. It's all about control. It's all about exercising authority."
Some of the nuns I spoke to were reluctant to let me use their names until the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, to which 80% of the nation's nuns belong, can recover from the shock enough to deliver a formal response to the rebuke from Rome. One such nun, who has dedicated her life to the homeless, told me more investigations of nuns and their organizations are underway, and sisters fear that speaking up could jeopardize support or funding for their missions.
"Some of this stuff leaves me speechless and cold," she said, suggesting that church leaders are fiddling while Rome burns, so to speak. "The world is in such desperate need of leadership, and they're talking about all this stuff that's truly small when we need big leaders, big thinkers and big hearts."
Sister Simone Campbell, whose Encino-based order is called Sisters of Social Service, took the Vatican's assessment personally. She is executive director of Network, which lobbies on Capitol Hill for economic and social justice, and the agency was singled out by Rome as part of the problem. No specific criticism is made clear in the turgid report, which reads like a medieval manuscript found in a cave. But there is a suggestion that they haven't spoken out on "the right to life from conception to natural death," among other things, and examples of nuns who "disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church's authentic teachers of faith and morals."
I had to cross myself when I read "morals."
"It's clearly payback for healthcare," said Sister Campbell, "because I wrote the letter that the nuns signed that [President] Obama said was the tipping point for getting healthcare reform, and the bishops had opposed it."
Campbell, an attorney who ran the Community Law Center in California earlier in her career, insisted that the healthcare reform bill offered no federal funding of abortion. But U.S. bishops still had concerns and gave thumbs down to so-called Obamacare, which could be torpedoed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Campbell's organization has characterized the healthcare reform bill as pro-life, in part because it would offer medical care to many of the nation's nearly 50 million uninsured people.
I spent my formative years in Catholic school, so I'm not all that comfortable posing tough questions to nuns. But I did ask several of the sisters why they'd expect the church to do anything other than crush anyone in the church who would even think of questioning the patriarchy on anything.
"We're in the Easter season, when we remember with great joy Jesus' resurrection," said Sister France White of Pasadena, a nun for half a century. "But we also know his crucifixion was caused by his being prophetic, as the religious are called to be in the church….The church also teaches freedom of conscience….Certainly I consider what the church teaches, but when experience and prayer have told me different….I can't deny that."
"My conscience is supreme, not what somebody tells me," said De Quattro.
Sister Campbell said this is all about a "clash of cultures" within the church. The male leaders live in a monarchy, while for decades, good sisters have lived in the real world, pursuing democratic principles in their service to the poor and their exploration of the new.
"Where was Jesus?" she asked. "Jesus was with the poor, with the marginalized, with the outcasts."
"God did not make mistakes," said France White, who told me she believes people ought to be able to express their love for each other regardless of sexual orientation. As for birth control, she opined that "the methods the church says are acceptable don't work."
Boy, she's out there now, but White's conscience is free. She suggested the pope and his minions could have saved a lot of time and trouble if, before investigating and trying to control so many devoted, hard-working nuns, they had asked themselves:
"What would Jesus do?"