08/14/2012 05:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Nuns Gone Rogue

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

How do you find a word that means Maria?

A flibbertijibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!

Remember "Maria," that unforgettable ditty from "The Sound of Music" sung by a bevy of cloistered nuns in response to the very un-nunlike antics of the irrepressible Maria? That song popped into my head recently, some time after reading copious copy on the shenanigans of those rogue nuns of the Leadership Conference of the Women Religious; got me imagining Cardinal Levada and the Vatican Bishops all singing along, keeping step with some peppy papal choreography: "she'll outpester any pest..."


Anyway, as I followed this head-shaking story, I found myself, once again, incredulous at why another religion has made it their focus to publicly push not only against a more inclusive view of humanity, but the inexorable evolution of cultural thinking. Their clear and desperate need to NOT change has left the Catholic Church wheezing on weary air, losing its youth in droves, and perpetuating a brand seen as antiquated, patriarchal and intolerant, rather than one that's contemporary, vibrant and eager to embrace the widest possible definition of compassion. It must be exhausting to be so convinced of one's doctrine that you'd sacrifice your very best and brightest (that'd be the nuns) for a status quo that's on the wrong side of history.

This from Laurie Goodstein's NY Times article on the topic:

The Vatican's "doctrinal assessment," issued in April, accused the nuns of a host of transgressions, including featuring speakers at conferences who did not adhere sufficiently to Catholic beliefs, advancing "radical feminist themes," permitting "corporate dissent" on church teachings against birth control and homosexuality, and being silent in the church's fight against abortion and same-sex marriage while pouring energy into working for the poor and disenfranchised.

Let's look at that last line again: "...pouring energy into working for the poor and disenfranchised" -- instead of putting their efforts into proactively upholding a regressive doctrine of intolerance towards women and gays. What in God's name (literally) were they thinking?!

The bigger question is: What is the Vatican thinking?

How they're thinking is clearer: like the mostly old, systemically sexist and deeply out-of-touch men who run the Church think. But frankly, thinking as a practice is not particularly applauded in the Catholic Church. One is simply expected to adhere, ask as few questions as possible, debate fewer, and accept dogma as a "matter of faith," rather than digging deeper toward logic, compassion and greater understanding. In Judy Woodruff's interview on PBS NewsHour with Christendom College's Donna Bethell and Jeannine Hill Fletcher, a theology teacher from Fordham University, that point was made clear. Despite Ms. Hill Fletcher's assertion that Vatican II proved the Church capable of change, Ms. Bethell, Chairman of the Board of Directors at Christendom, countered that the nuns in question are expected to be "fully on board" with Church doctrine, adding that "there are doctrines of the Church that are not open for debate." Not hard to figure which ones!

OK, here's a random analogy: remember when you were dating and despite the various shortcomings of your beloved you were absolutely convinced they would change for the better? Then life taught you they usually don't and you wisely learned to choose and accept a person for exactly who they were with no expectation of change. If they met your criteria, great; if not, best to move along. Let's frame this fracas with the Women Religious vs. the Vatican in a similar light:

The Catholic Church is no secret. There can be no one involved who doesn't know what they're about, what they teach, their official stance on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, women's reproductive rights, abortion, euthanasia, even the advancement of women in the Church. It's all painfully clear and there's no doubt what you're getting into. So if you do sign-up, you should be "fully on board." If you're not, move along. Yet, like the gooey-eye girl convinced that the rigid, intolerant, homophobic guy she loves will ultimately change into someone more admirable, the nuns, and other liberal thinkers like them, seem to be operating on the basis that the Catholic Church will change into that contemporary, vibrant organization eager to embrace the widest possible definition of compassion.

That's not going to happen. They won't. Forget Vatican II, forget any hope stirred by the occasional free-thinking priest; forget human evolution, modern issues, the historical shift toward greater acceptance of all people. Forget the fact that Jesus sat with prostitutes, cared for lepers, and told us to love one another as we love ourselves. Ignore the fact that biblical comments on homosexuality are cherry-picked while others supporting slavery, sleeping with your brother's wife or eschewing shellfish are ignored. None of that matters. They're not going to change. Ever.

2012-08-14-IMG_3448.JPGSo since the Catholic Church is not going to change, unless one is fully on board, there's no reason to be there. In fact, to stay implies agreement with its doctrines, agreement with its worldview, agreement to BE Catholic in the fullest sense of the word. If, instead, you believe in equal rights for the LGBT community, rights of women to choose and have access to reproductive healthcare; rights of women to be honored and respected in positions of leadership as priests within the church, then you are NOT a Catholic and not in the right place. And as we learned with that unchanging paramour, that's the time to move on.

I'm with the nuns and their enlightened focus on social justice, civil rights and catholic thinking. (Did you know that Catholic -- with the upper case C -- means "of or relating to or supporting the Roman Catholic Church" but lower case catholic means "of broad or liberal scope"? I find that truly ironic.) But they did sign-on to be Catholics with the upper case C and that comes with expectation and limit, the kind that stymies the scope of their mission statement. Therefore, they would be better served by leaving and joining -- even starting -- a religious movement that embraces and supports their efforts. Others have done it throughout history and it seems time to do it again.

Please do, Women Religious. We need your vital energy and compassionate service. Don't let the Vatican disempower you with doctrine; find a way to carry on with dignity. The world needs you -- unfettered.

Photographs by Lorraine Devon Wilke: