Don't look now, but the pope and his posse of bishops are on the warpath. The Vatican and American bishops are out to squash those they consider the greatest threat to the authority of the almighty Catholic Church.
And who is their target? Not Catholic Republicans in Congress who thumb their noses at the gospels by systematically trying to destroy every government program to help the poor. Not Catholic politicians of both parties who gleefully carry out the death penalty by marching us off to war. Not all those priests who molested little boys, nor the bishops who covered up their crimes and sent them off to new parishes (and a new group of little boys).
No, like Republicans in Congress who've declared war on women, the pope and his bishops have declared war – on nuns. They're upset because some nuns don't seem to know the rules: Their job is to do the grunt work of the Church. Only priests and bishops are allowed to think.
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In April, the Vatican cracked down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents nearly 80 percent of American nuns. They accused the women religious of daring to make policy statements not approved in advance by bishops – who are, Rome decrees, "the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals." Again, only priests and bishops are allowed to think.
According to the Vatican, the LCWR erred by endorsing President Obama's Affordable Care Act, which bishops opposed, and by accepting the administration's compromise of making birth control accessible to all women, without requiring Catholic institutions to pay for it. Most seriously, huffed the Vatican, American nuns are paying too much attention to poverty and economic-justice issues, while remaining "silent" on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Note: The bishops are upset at nuns for focusing on poverty and economic justice, which Jesus does talk about in the gospels, instead of focusing on same-sex marriage and abortion, which Jesus does not talk about. But, of course, nuns don't seem to have the same obsession with sex that sex-starved, celibate men do.
Next victim: This week, in a statement approved by Pope Benedict XVI himself, the Vatican condemned Sister Margaret Farley for her new book, "Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics." Farley, who taught ethics at Yale Divinity School and is past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, dares suggest a possible theological basis for same-sex relationships, masturbation and remarriage after divorce. Masturbation especially, for reasons you can imagine, drives bishops crazy. In its edict, the Vatican insists that "the deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose." Sex, in other words, is only permissible inside of marriage, only between a man and woman, and only for the purpose of procreation. How unrealistic. How medieval. How Rick Santorum.
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No matter how powerful the papacy, maybe the Vatican should have thought twice before unleashing its bishops on nuns. Because, in so doing, they've only stirred up even more sympathy for nuns and reminded us all who's really doing the Lord's work every day. As Catholic scholar Garry Wills wrote recently in the New York Review of Books: "The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility."
And, by declaring war on them, bishops have learned something else about nuns that a lot of us learned in grade school: They're not as soft as you might think. They don't just bow to pressure from the Vatican. They fight back. The LCWR called the Vatican's charges "unsubstantiated" and are sending their leaders to Rome to fight the charges.
Meanwhile, another group of nuns organized by Network, a social justice lobby, is planning a June bus trip across nine states – stopping at homeless shelters, food pantries, schools and health-care clinics – to protest the House Republican budget authored by Catholic Paul Ryan because of its devastating impact on programs for the poor and working families.
By going on the road and talking about poverty, aren't they afraid of upsetting the bishops even more, I asked one nun recently. No, she assured me: "The boys are just nuts."