The Catholic Church's Treatment of Nuns Is Polarizing and Alienating

The Vatican is criticizing its dedicated female servants when it should be giving them a larger role.

Catholic nuns
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I'm not a Catholic theologian or expert or activist of any kind. I'm just a mom who is getting increasingly uncomfortable with the Catholic Church in which my daughters are growing up. To me, the Vatican has become polarizing, extremist, and alienating. It seems like the true believers vs. the infidels. Now it's the bishops vs. the nuns.

The Vatican's enforcement office, known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently said this about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a mainstream organization that represents approximately 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States: "Occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church's authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose." The LCWR was found to have "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." This was after a multi-year investigation of the nuns by a panel of American bishops.

We have two nuns in our family, and "radical feminists" are not the words I'd use to describe them. Selfless, kind, wise, courageous, funny, and hardworking are more like it. In fact, I'd say both women are, like the bishops, "authentic teachers of faith." Both sisters have been in the trenches for years, helping the dying poor in church-run nursing homes. "Radical feminists"? More like "living saints."

[Susan Milligan: The Vatican Should Exalt Catholic Nuns, Not Upbraid Them]

The LCWR's leaders said they were "stunned" at the rebuke and asked for prayers as they respond, because as the nuns put it in their statement, "This is a moment of great import for religious life and the wider church." They're right: We have come to a moment, not just for the nuns but for the rest of us as well.

The central question is whether the church can regain its moral authority in the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandals. It's not a question of whether women can fix the church. We know the answer to that. And it's not a question of whether the bishops will let them. We now know that answer, too. It's a question of whether women will choose to stick around and try.

Most of us believe that the most pro-life, truly Christian thing one can do is serve others. We admire American saints like Baltimore's Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the nation's first Catholic schools, and Frances Xavier Cabrini of Chicago, the patron saint of immigrants who started hospitals for the poor. We understand how important women have been to the history of the Catholic Church in America. The question is, will the role of women continue to grow and expand? Not if the bishops get their way. But I've got my money on the women.

While the number of women joining religious orders is down, these days there are still more nuns than priests in the United States. In today's Catholic Church, women, whether as nuns or as lay people, serve as chancellors, vicars, tribunal judges, heads of Catholic Charities agencies, directors of hospitals and schools, theologians, liturgists, and finance directors. And that doesn't take into account the sheer volume of Catholic women who volunteer on the front lines in underserved neighborhoods.

[Read Mary Kate Cary, Robert Schlesinger, and other U.S. News columnists in U.S. News Weekly , available on iPad.]

The number of men joining the priesthood has been declining for years, but it's gotten so bad that of the some 17,000 parishes in all 50 states, more than 3,000 of them are without a resident pastor. The fact that women are barred from administering the sacraments and saying Mass, in this day and age, is becoming increasingly indefensible.

Yet, two years ago, the Vatican put out a directive that listed what the church considers to be the most serious crimes one can commit: heresy, schism, pedophilia, and ... ordaining women. After the uproar by women's groups, a Vatican official, Charles Sciciuna, tried to walk that back, saying, "This is not putting everything into one basket." He was right. The men and women are treated very differently: Ordained women are quickly excommunicated, and priests who are abusing children are rarely excommunicated, the Christian Science Monitor reported.