04/20/2012 07:40 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

Bishops vs. Nuns -- No Contest

I was joking yesterday that I was only slapped once by a bishop, while every nun who taught me hit me at least once -- and so it might seem strange for me to want to defend the nuns. But, it's not. While the bishops have adopted a Nixon-like "circle the wagons" defensive posture during their disgraceful "defend the institution at all costs" approach to the pedophile scandal, making us wince in shame at their outrageous behavior, it was our women religious figures who held high the social gospel, in word and deed -- reminding us why we could still be proud of the Catholic church and its teachings.

Instead of "silencing" nuns who support health care for all, the dignity of all life and have been in the forefront of the movements for peace and social justice, the bishops should be focusing their wrath on their peers who have spoken so shamefully about the President, behaved with such intolerance toward gays and lesbians and criminally mishandled the sex abuse scandals.

The church's hierarchy may have turned their back on the reforms of Vatican II, but in doing so they ignore the fact that, for my generation, it was the breath of fresh air created by those reforms that gave an exhausted American church new life. The sad fact is that it was the nuns who internalized the reforms of Vatican II, while many in the hierarchy recoiled, feeling threatened. In reasserting their heavy-handed control, slamming shut the windows of reform, the bishops are putting the church back on life-support.

With each new outrageous act of control, the bishops are looking more like desperate old men, obsessed with their narrow interpretation of one of God's Commandments, attempting to hold on to the last vestiges of their fading authority by defending their power over the institution while ignoring the gospel.

Most Catholics only know there are bishops, but they personally know the nuns -- they teach their children, run their hospitals, and carry out the gospel injunctions to feed the poor, clothe the naked, etc. The bishops may want to convert the church, transforming it into a "corpus Santorum," but when they pick on the nuns, methinks they may be over-reaching.