When the Vatican ordered the supervision of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious last month, the 1,500 members flipped their habits. They claimed to be "stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment."
Many, many liberal commentators took up their cause. Pope Benedict XVI and company, we were told, were picking on little old nuns. For shame!
But these aren't your mother's, er, sisters, as I discovered the hard way. I was at a movie screening in Beverly Hills for For Greater Glory -- a dramatization of Mexico's Catholic revolt against a viciously anti-clerical government -- and so was a Pauline sister. We got to chatting.
She initially was quite cordial. We talked about our travels and she invited me to visit her order's bookstore on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. When I asked in passing what she thought of the recent Roman order, she became irate. "The Vatican has become a patriarchal institution in need of serious change," the sister sputtered.
Now, I could have let that pass. Instead, I admitted how I thought the Bishops may have a point. And they do. The Vatican wasn't targeting all nuns. It was singling out the most activist among them, nuns who hold "public witness events" that are actually full-fledged demonstrations "promoting social, economic, and earth justice."
Among their issues of justice are: climate change, comprehensive health care reform, Haiti, immigration policy reform, Iran, Iraq, Iraqi refugees, nuclear weapons, torture, and water.
The Vatican wasn't even necessarily ordering these community organizer nuns to knock off the protesting. Rather, it was reminding them of their moral priorities. Noticeably absent from the LCWR's list of grievances is perhaps the most significant issue of justice for Catholics: abortion.
But back to the sputtering sister. "You're just another white man not aware of your privilege," she told me, finger pressed to my chest. She seemed to take deep satisfaction from this and thought it would throw me off balance.
Unfortunately for her, I went to DePaul University. There, I spent years watching notoriously leftist nuns obsess over issues far beyond their competency. Radical sisters would march through the campus shouting ditties along with the college peaceniks, commies, and anarchists.
It's not just men who object to this sort of thing, I replied. I reminded the sister that vocations to her order and many like it that make up the LCWR are on a death spiral, while (as a 2009 Georgetown University study demonstrates) vocations to traditionalist orders are on the uptick.
She ignored the point and heaped more blame on the Church "run by old, white men."
By that point, I thought I'd humor her. I agreed that too often Bishops inappropriately offer their opinions on social issues that are outside of their expertise and authority.
For instance, there was the official Catholic hue and cry over Congressman Paul Ryan's proposed budget. This only made her more upset. "The Bishops have every right to oppose Paul Ryan!"
What followed should probably be written down for posterity:
Me: The Catholic Left's attacks on Paul Ryan are completely uncalled for. They reject the social principle of subsidiarity.
Sister: It's all racist.
Me: What is?
Sister: Ryan. Subsidiarity. It disproportionately affects poor blacks.
Me: How do you know?
Sister: I just do.
And there we were. Her wrapped up in righteous certainty, me too amused for words.