It may seem odd to some that with all the problems and tensions in the world today, the Pope has chosen to rebuke American nuns for being more concerned about poverty and social justice issues than about abortion and gay marriage.
Last month the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith scolded the Leadership Conference of Women's Religious (which represents some 80 per cent of American nuns) for "serious doctrinal problems," such as subscribing to "radical feminist themes" like social justice and poverty, while being silent about abortion and same sex marriages.
Apparently, a bishop has been appointed to correct this discrepancy, but there seems to be dismay and puzzlement among nuns (and others) who point out that the Bible has a lot to say about poverty and the poor but doesn't explicitly mention homosexuality or abortion, except by implication (Sodom and Gomorrah, anyone?).
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is aghast at the Vatican chastising nuns, a group for whom he justifiably has boundless admiration. In nasty places around the world, nuns sacrifice themselves to help those in greatest need.
As an aside, I tend to share Kristof's view. I vividly recall nuns and Catholic missionaries in Biafra, running hospitals and refusing to flee, while other religions got out of the war-torn area while the getting was good. Nuns were stalwart and inspirational; others were hesitant and disappointing. A stark contrast.
By reacting against "radical feminism," the Pope may inadvertently be aiding its cause. His predecessor, John Paul, took issue with things like "liberation theology" and pro-revolutionary, Marxist sentiments of the church in Latin America. John Paul, being John Paul, effectively short-circuited that trend by his own example, and his quiet but adamant stand against communism.
Pope Benedict lacks John Paul's human appeal.
One can appreciate the Vatican's concerns, but to suggest that nuns spend too much effort at helping and guiding the poor, seems wrong and a tactical error. It simply looks bad. Many feel that nuns represent the strength and mainstay of Catholic Church.
Even the virulent anti-Papists would agree that nuns who serve in remote, dangerous and uncomfortable areas of the world, resonate bravery, faith and are often the only ones dedicated to helping and comforting the sick and dying, and those who have no hope.
"Social justice," is -- or can be -- a pejorative term. Some argue that, say, Che Guevara sought social justice -- and sought it in an obsessive, homicidal way. Nuns are rarely homicidal. Helping the poor and poverty issues are hardly revolutionary.
In the Times, Kristof points out that scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church in recent years have involved priests and cover-ups of pedophilia and sexual mischief. The same isn't true of nuns, about whom the harshest criticism may be from those who've been schooled and disciplined by nuns whom they felt were too demanding.
He also notes that as a group, nuns aren't pushovers, and often find ways around what they view as mistaken directions from the bishop.
Kristof recalls a mother superior in Greece who asked the bishop if she could send two nuns to teach a literacy project in a poor area. The Bishop said "no."
"The bishop was very clear in his refusal to allow two nuns, and I could not disobey him" said the mother superior recalled. "So I sent three nuns."
That's a way to get around foolish orders with actually disobeying the order.
With that in mind, I'll wager American nuns will find a way to continue what they're already doing -- and will continue to remain mostly silent about abortion and gay marriages.