(WOMENSENEWS)–The organization that represents Catholic nuns around the world, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, is for the time being silent about the Vatican’s charge that nuns spend too much time on issues of poverty and social justice, and not enough on opposing same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion.

But a few religious women are speaking out frankly and angrily. On May 4, Sister Brigid McDonald of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet told the Minneapolis news site Minnpost that Pope Benedict was guilty of “a misuse of power, a misuse of authority, where he can step into religious communities and dictate how they should speak about these issues.”

Sister McDonald’s order, headquartered in St. Louis, is active in social work, neighborhood and community development and social concerns such as non-violence. The 79-year-old nun worries that the true purpose of the Vatican is to silence women’s voices.

“I am suspicious of the motivation . . . They want us back in the habits and being obedient.” His message is, she told Minnpost, that “you don’t belong out here with social workers.” But, she added, “We haven’t got any more habits left anyhow. We would have to find those all over again.”

When the nuns cast off their habits, they also jettisoned submission and silence.

My eighth-grade teacher in St. Michael’s elementary school in Silver Spring, Md., was Sister Maria Patricia. Not only could she keep a class of nearly 50 kids engaged and able to learn, but at recess she’d tuck up her skirt and kick a football farther than most of the boys could.

A Familiar Face

Years later, when a friend was giving me a book party, I noticed a very familiar face in the crowd. This face was topped by curly dark hair and the woman was wearing an attractive black dress and sipping a glass of sherry.

“Sister!” I gasped. “Sister Maria Patricia!”

She smiled. She was still a nun, but the energy and change ushered in by Pope John the 23nd had changed her life. She lived in an apartment, not a convent, and worked with the area’s poor and troubled people to make their lives better. She never sought fame, recognition or even thanks. She truly did God’s work, with verve and gusto to boot.  Not all the nuns were so wonderful, of course. When I was in high school, my mother, a Protestant, worked hard with faculty at the school to stage events and raise funds. Once, she even drove me and a group of friends to a meeting where, it turned out, we prayed for the conversion of Protestants. My mom had a good laugh at that one.

They’d asked her to be president of the PTA and she’d agreed, even though she had a busy work schedule of her own. But one day she told me that she was not going to ascend to the presidency. The nun who was the president of the school said a Protestant couldn’t hold that office.

I was stunned. I protested, but the general silence was deafening. No one wanted to buck the principal.

The authority of the church ended for me that day. Any organization that could discriminate against my wonderful mother on religious grounds was far, far from perfect. It needed to be chastised.

And it still does.

Shameful, Sinful Behavior

The notion that the Vatican could attack today’s nuns, who minister to the sick and poor around the world and who defend social justice when it needs to be defended, is a shame. The nuns apparently do not sufficiently ride the Vatican’s hobbyhorses of anti-gay bias and opposition to choice. Who are these old men to admonish the best the church has to offer? It is indeed a shame, and a sin.

I know well the sins of the church. My brother was sexually molested in a Christian Brothers’ school in Washington, D.C., and for years told no one. He was only one of many boys molested in that school by one of the brothers. He struggled with depression for years and was in and out of mental hospitals. A psychiatrist told my mother, “I never saw such ego destruction as what was done to your son in that Catholic School.”

In his mid-30s, my brother was living in a halfway house and seemed to be improving. Then Ronald Reagan made draconian cuts in the disability rolls. My brother–who had not been able to work for years–was told he had to get a job or he would be sent back to the mental hospital. His doctors protested, but the dictum stood. He tried; he got a job but was fired in a week. He was sent back to the hospital where he hanged himself with his belt.

He was 38 years old.

So I say to the Vatican–shame! You, who perpetrated a worldwide crime against children and covered it up for years, are a disgrace. If the nuns had been running the church instead of you, that scandal would not have happened.

Caryl Rivers’ novel “Virgins,” about growing up Catholic, will be republished this summer by Diversion Books.

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