The Vatican is losing the war of public opinion in the pews. It needs to flex its muscles. It needs to create fresh fear.
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I was not at all surprised to read about the Vatican's fresh attempt to clamp down on nuns in the United States. When the class bully strikes out with the tough guys in the schoolyard, what, in his desperation, does he do? He moves on to the girls. A "Get the nuns!" strategy makes perfect sense at this point in time.

The Vatican is losing the war of public opinion in the pews. Prominent practicing Catholic politicians are refusing to budge on equal marriage rights and medical insurance coverage of contraception. The sexual abuse stories keep coming -- I think they are getting
uglier. In the United States, the Vatican has failed to muster adequate support in the pews for its (secular) political agenda. The Holy See's efforts to strong-arm American politicians have failed and are likely to backfire. Some of the Vatican's own bishops are refusing to campaign against equal marriage rights in their dioceses. The hierarchy itself is sharply divided. In the U.S., the Vatican has struck out with the president and its long-shot dream of an Opus Dei in the Executive Office has gone the way of ripples on a pond.

The Vatican needs to flex its muscles. More urgent, still, is its need to push tales of Vatican corruption, child molestation and news of its colossal failure to convince Catholics to vote in accordance with the Magisterium off of what we once called "the front pages." The Vatican needs to create fresh fear.

One Catholic fringe group has nothing at all to say about this week's reports of a Philadelphia bishop who covered up for a priest who stripped children naked, draped them in loincloths and whipped them in the service of recreating the Passion of Our Lord, but has its knickers in a twist about a "Three Stooges" film that casts a bikini-clad beauty and a Jewish, male comedian as Catholic nuns. (It's safe to assume our women religious would be more offended by the priest who whipped naked children in Christ's name than by Larry David's portrayal of one of their own.) But one need look no further than the Vatican's recent decision to stick it to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in order to behold a truly obscene display of disrespect for women religious.

I admit I didn't like l nuns so very much during my days as a gum-snapping New York City Irish American schoolgirl in Catholic pleats -- and the feeling was mutual. As a young woman working as a teacher in Catholic schools, however, I had the opportunity to see nuns up close, and to note how much good they do. As a middle-aged woman active in parish life I have come to believe that it is in communities of religious women where one finds the most exemplary models of Roman Catholic faith and Christ-like conduct.

Nuns relinquish the opportunity to be wives and mothers and take vows of poverty in order to serve Christ without the pomp, perks and payoffs of priesthood. Many nuns are quite poor, have little vacation or recreation time. Most work very hard for low pay. Many nuns are quite well-educated, but unlike priests, who have always been exhorted to study, nuns have had to fight for education. In the context of medical issues and education of children, it is Roman Catholic nuns, not priests, who work in hospitals as health care professionals and and teach in schools. For very good reasons, the expertise of its women religious scares the Vatican.

Nuns are best and brightest of Roman Catholic religious.

One of the reasons Ratzinger is targeting nuns is that he knows that some convents are indeed Women's Ordination Movement think tanks. But there's more to it. There's the larger, pervasive misogyny of the hierarchy always seeking to ensure that women don't gain too much power; and there's the knowledge that nuns, not priests, drive catechesis in parishes. The Vatican needs women (nuns and lay women) to continue to prepare people for the sacraments, especially as it contends with the growing reluctance of even traditional Catholics to leave their children in the care of (male) priests. The Vatican is between a rock and a hard place in this. It lacks a male workforce adequate to run parishes and educate Catholic children, but if it can not arrest the erosion of doctrine brought about by what the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith sees as a facet of the "radical feminism" among women religious, the Vatican stands to lose a lot of doctrinal ground.

On the other hand, if the Vatican can create enough fear, it might retard women's ordination activism and thwart the trickle-down effect which results when "radical feminist" nuns are charged with indoctrination of the young. If nuns teach children preparing for confirmation that love between two Catholics of the same sex can be holy, for example, Catholic children might grow up thinking that being gay and married is not sinful. If nuns teach children that not every woman who terminates a pregnancy is a murderer, children might grow up having a more open view of abortion.

When it comes to the immediate future of the church in the U.S., nuns hold the cards. The Vatican has stacked the deck -- but nuns have found the workaround. The Vatican can not win without resorting to intimidation. Hence the need for Apostolic Visitations ("Inquisitions" technically) of 2009 and the current crackdown on nuns in the U.S.

Do women become nuns because they can't become priests? Yes and no. Many nuns, like men who those called to become deacons and brothers, do not feel called to the priesthood. The two vocations differ greatly. But many nuns who have felt called to the priesthood report having answered the call by becoming sisters. As women assume more and more leadership in the Church, many of these women are coming forward to teach, preach and minister in ways nuns have not traditionally undertaken. Women in charge of educating Catholics are finding greater opportunity to steer the church in the direction of women's ordination. It is easy to see why an 85-year-old pontiff might be vexed by the notion of nuns going rogue without concern for obtaining his imprimatur.

The Vatican (CDF) document devotes several syllables to the matter of hunting down "radical feminists." While I am encouraged that this term even appears in the creepy Vatican warrant, I find that it doesn't exactly describe the nuns I have encountered at masses celebrated by a woman priest. Although their bravery is astounding (they stand to lose everything if they are caught), these quiet, unassuming and humble ladies -- some of whom took their final vows long before the Second Vatican Council -- hardly come off as rabid radical feminists. They teach children in parishes, and work with the aged and indigent. They're the regular nuns all Catholics know; they merely happen to concur with the many Roman Catholic bishops, priests, nuns, theologians and millions of Catholics in the pews who believe that the Church has both the authority and the obligation to ordain women as priests.

When the class bully strikes out with the tough guys in the schoolyard, what, in his desperation, does he do? He moves on to the girls. But the fellows in the Vatican have their work cut out for them. It will take a lot more than a few raging bullies in miters to take these flying angel nuns down!

Although the Vatican struggles to keep nuns subjugated, it may have already forfeited this fight. Nuns are at the forefront of catechesis; they wield great power. Furthermore, their power is relatively untainted by the Vatican's fiscal improprieties, complicity in widespread child abuse, rape, homophobia and misogyny. They actually have credibility.

The Vatican fears women religious because they possess the moral authority the Vatican lacks.

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