Last week, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 85th birthday by issuing a rebuke of an unlikely foe:
Following a bizarre three-year inquisition of American sisters' "quality of life," the Vatican slammed nuns for devoting their lives to educating the poor, treating the sick, and feeding the ravenous. Women religious are "charitable," but all this social-justice work has fostered a "radical feminism" the pope wants to tamp out, ASAP.
The Vatican says the sisters sinned by supporting President Obama's health-care plan and helping homosexuals. But nuns are also guilty of staying too "silent" on issues like abortion.
You can read the eight-page "doctrinal assessment" (http://bit.ly/JamGHa), but I'll summarize the conclusion: Nuns need to remember their place and obey the men who run the church.
To that end, the Vatican assigned a bishop to "reform" America's 70,000 women religious, a dwindling group of aging believers who've always amazed me with their ability to embrace second-class citizenship with grace.
Sisters at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the nuns' umbrella organization, were understandably "stunned" to learn of their public punishment.
Surely, fallout from the international sex-abuse scandal represents a more grave concern than devout old ladies saying health care is a human right. Rome is burning from fires set by collared arsonists, but the Vatican takes aim at women without so much as a match?
"It's a sad commentary on the institutional church, which keeps making itself more irrelevant," sighs an area nun who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons.
"This just feels so . . . small. They should be bigger."
Heroines among us
My daughter will soon make her first Communion. She's learning about the church at a time when women run for president, but only men celebrate Mass.
Whenever Jane asks where the nuns are, I tell her they're off in hospitals, schools, and shelters doing the really important stuff God trusts women to get done.
"Nuns are my heroes," declares the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author from Plymouth Meeting who learned the catechism from Sisters of St. Joseph and worked with nuns who dodged bullets in Africa.
"Sisters do all the things that priests and men religious do, without the benefit of money, power, and respect," he notes. "And they do it with grace, humility, and a sense of humor."
Martin heard from so many sisters whom the Vatican document has demoralized that he asked his 8,900 Twitter followers to show their gratitude using the hashtag #whatsistersmeantome.
Tweeted one admirer: Because of the advocacy of American nuns, those without a voice are heard on Capitol Hill.
Recalled another: They taught me what love was during a very dark time in my life.
Apologies or pity?
Martin's point about sisters laughing at their fate rings true when I call women religious who agree to chat candidly, if anonymously.
"Rome," says one nun, "is crazy."
Nuns may lift spirits, but the Vatican would prefer that they heed bishops, "who are the Church's authentic teachers of faith and morals." (Lest anyone forget, it is moral men - not nuns - who are on trial in Philadelphia in a sordid criminal case entering its fifth week.)
Paraphrasing Gandhi, one nun reminds me that "there is no religion greater than truth." She doesn't seek "validation" from the institutional church. She finds it in the faces of the needy.
Another sister, sharing an e-mail joke about nuns being "the plankton" of the faith's food chain, suggests the lashing may backfire.
"I don't feel angry," she admits, "but sorry for the church for being so focused on us."
The priestly enforcers expected apologies? Instead, they get pity.