(Nuns) were the first feminists, earning Ph.D.’s or working as surgeons long before it was fashionable for women to hold jobs. As managers of hospitals, schools and complex bureaucracies, they were the first female C.E.O.’s.
They are also among the bravest, toughest and most admirable people in the world. In my travels, I’ve seen heroic nuns defy warlords, pimps and bandits. Even as bishops have disgraced the church by covering up the rape of children, nuns have redeemed it with their humble work on behalf of the neediest.
So, Pope Benedict, all I can say is: You are crazy to mess with nuns.
The Vatican issued a stinging reprimand of American nuns this month and ordered a bishop to oversee a makeover of the organization that represents 80 percent of them. In effect, the Vatican accused the nuns of worrying too much about the poor and not enough about abortion and gay marriage.
What Bible did that come from? Jesus in the Gospels repeatedly talks about poverty and social justice, yet never explicitly mentions either abortion or homosexuality. If you look at who has more closely emulated Jesus’s life, Pope Benedict or your average nun, it’s the nun hands down.
Since the papal crackdown on nuns, they have received an outpouring of support. “Nuns were approached by Catholics at Sunday liturgies across the country with a simple question: ‘What can we do to help?’ ” The National Catholic Reporter recounted. It cited one parish where a declaration of support for nuns from the pulpit drew loud applause, and another that was filled with shouts like, “You go, girl!”
At least four petition drives are under way to support the nuns. One on Change.org has gathered 15,000 signatures. The headline for this column comes from an essay by Mary E. Hunt, a Catholic theologian who is developing a proposal for Catholics to redirect some contributions from local parishes to nuns.
“How dare they go after 57,000 dedicated women whose median age is well over 70 and who work tirelessly for a more just world?” Hunt wrote. “How dare the very men who preside over a church in utter disgrace due to sexual misconduct and cover-ups by bishops try to distract from their own problems by creating new ones for women religious?”
Sister Joan Chittister, a prominent Benedictine nun, said she had worried at first that nuns spend so much time with the poor that they would have no allies. She added that the flood of support had left her breathless.
“It’s stunningly wonderful,” she said. “You see generations of laypeople who know where the sisters are — in the streets, in the soup kitchens, anywhere where there’s pain. They’re with the dying, with the sick, and people know it.”