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Caryl Rivers Headshot

We Need More Catholic Rebels

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Until quite recently, I had believed that the world of my novel, "Virgins," about Catholic girls growing up in the 1950s, was a giant step away from contemporary reality.

After all, in those days, nuns wore habits with skirts to the floor and were expected to be passive and obedient. Catholic women were never supposed to speak about contraception, even in whispers. Families were often overjoyed when a son chose the priesthood as his vocation.

Today, nuns have tossed away the habit and run their own social welfare programs. Catholic women use contraception at the same rates as other American women. And in the wake of the pedophilia scandal in the church, coupled with the Vatican's refusal to let priests marry or to admit women, the church can barely scrape up applicants for the roman collar,

But this month, as my novel is about to be re-published online, some wisps of the world I thought had vanished seem to be seeping back into the present through the permeable walls of time.

One again, nuns are being told to be quiet and obedient. The Vatican has called the sisters "radical feminists. " It has proclaimed that they are spending too much time helping the poor, the halt and the lame, and too little time battling the Vatican's demons, gay marriage and family planning.

I had imaged that contraception was a settled issue. After all, the Supreme Court legalized it in 1965 by overturning a Connecticut law against the sale of contraceptive devices on the basis of a right to privacy. In Maryland, where I grew up, condoms could be legally sold, but few Catholic women would dare go the drugstore to buy them, lest word get back to parish gossips.

When my best friend was about to marry, she and I drove to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where her Navy-officer-father had commissary privileges. We lugged huge boxes of the latex marvels back to her car. We chortled all the way, imagining the reaction of our parish priest at the sight: a dead faint, we decided.

Today, contraception is once again under fire, with a number of states debating laws allowing employers to deny women health insurance for birth control. Catholic Bishops support these laws.

With increasing decibels, the voice of the Vatican has become a roar, telling all women -- not just nuns -- to be silent and obedient. For lay Catholic women, barefoot, pregnant and mute is the condition it most seems to admire.

Rebelling is no more admired today than in was in the era when my Catholic schoolgirl heroines, Peg and Con, tested the limits of their school's restrictions. As editors of the school paper, they invented a saint, St. Leon of Skorytt, who was martyred by the forces of the Godless with a fatal blow to his head by an axe. They wrote about his life in the paper, and for a while, no one noticed that if you rearranged the letters in Skorytt, it reads "Trotsky." They had canonized communist icon Leon Trotsky -- who was indeed murdered, on the orders of rival Joseph Stalin -- but was hardly anybody's idea of a saint.

Unfortunately for the girls, the parish priest read the paper and picked the story of St. Leon as the subject for his Sunday sermon. Male clerics are outraged, and demand the girls' expulsion for this and other pranks. The principal, Sister Robert Mary, tempers justice with mercy (she secretly admires her feisty charges) and they get off with a slap on the wrist.

The real-life role models for those smart-alecky Catholic girls, myself and Clare Crawford-Mason, grew up to be journalists and mouthy broads. Clare was a Washington correspondent and NBC producer who did some of the first television reports on wife beating and sexual abuse. She now runs her own television production company, CCM. I have been a political writer covering media and politics. We're not big on silence.

What would have happened if women had real power in the church? Would there have been a cover-up of priestly pedophilia? Probably not. Women leaders would not have fallen silent on that issue. Would there be a crusade against family planning? No way. Women understand the need for family planning to prevent poverty, domestic abuse and to protect women's overall health a lot better than the Pope does. Has he ever changed a diaper or wiped away a child's tears?

Silence -- especially the enforced silence of women -- does no one any good, least of all the church. Women's voices desperately need to be heard, especially in a time when so many people seem to want to turn back the clock to a harsher, less tolerant age.

So let's hear it for the rebels.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of Journalism at Boston University. Her novel Virgins, (1984)) will be republished online this month by Diversion books.