The Sisters Can't Lose

About 40 years ago, a German priest who was horrified by the liberation and, as he saw it, licentiousness of the '60s, concluded that the Catholic Church should withdraw. He imagined an embattled "remnant" of orthodoxy, resisting the modern world and preserving its royal structure (pope as king), its system of male privilege, and its obsession with controlling all aspects of sexuality. Thousands of other priests would find this vision appealing and work to make it real.

As the priests nurtured their idea of Catholicism as a moral fortress, tens of thousands of nuns considered the '60s and loved much of what they saw and heard. They saw nothing wrong with questioning authority, asserting equality and promoting peace even at the expense of their own lives. They moved past their severe and chilly stereotyped roles to work and live in the world. As they did, they paid close attention to the poor, the sick, the young, the old, the powerless and the reviled. They respected the sexual choices made by loving, consenting adults.

Since the 1960s, the men of the remnant and the nuns of the world have continued to more in different directions. With the exception of certain politicians who would bring back the Nixon years (Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, etc.), almost everyone else has allowed the great argument of that time to cool. These two groups of Catholics, however, refused to let go. The nuns continually renewed their effort to champion the powerless, and risked their lives in the process. Since 1970s these women have been murdered in alarming numbers. The killings have occurred in El Salvador, Brazil, Liberia, Burundi, Peru, Sierra Leon and many other countries.

For their part, the men who feared the '60s focused first on gaining power. This effort culminated in the papacy of John Paul II. The theorist who voiced the remnant concept, Joseph Ratzinger, became his doctrinal enforcer, moving to discipline the unorthodox wherever they dwelled. In geopolitics, the men acted mainly as diplomats and charismatic leaders. They achieved great success aiding the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. However, since then their Church has been overwhelmed by a seemingly endless sexual abuse scandal that finds thousands of supposedly celibate men accused to violating children and teenagers. Hundreds of these men have been found guilty and sent to jail. Billions of dollars have been paid in civil settlements, and the shame has emptied churches from Dublin to Brisbane.

Coexisting for decades, the remnant and the nuns have become identified in the public mind, with two very different versions of Christianity. One seems devoted to confronting suffering with love, grit, and action. The other dons regal vestments and issued judgments and demands from thrones and pulpits. Recently the two came into direct conflict as the enthroned men -- now led by Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI -- declared the nuns in error and demanded they bring themselves back into line.

Recently, the nuns of the Leadership Council of Women Religious met with an archbishop named J. Peter Sartain, who represented the Vatican. As the sister's engage with the hierarchy they might consider that they, and the men who sought to preserve the remnant, now occupy the realities they once only imagined. The hierarchy of men based in Rome and ensconced in chanceries around the world is regarded with skepticism and, due to the abuse scandal, revulsion. Under their rule, Catholics the world over have become less committed to the institution. Conversely, Catholic nuns are widely respected and loved as examples of Christian devotion, selflessness and fearlessness. Faced with threats, they have received a flood of support from ordianry believers.

Some rank-and-file Catholics hope the sisters will push back hard, knowing millions of Catholics believe they represent what is good in their religion. Others hope to the nuns will engage in an extended process with the men, which may strengthen the Church for the long haul. Whatever the sisters choose to do, they needn't fear. If they measure themselves by the values they chose to follow in the '60s, they are both successful and secure.