Their transgression? His Holiness feels, on the basis of a Vatican report, that American nuns are spending way too much time tending to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised and fighting social injustice -- and too little time opposing abortion and gay marriage.
The news has had me grinding what's left of my teeth ever since.
I've experienced a multitude of emotions -- some irrational, some heartfelt and reasonably sane.
First, the insanity: my knee jerk inclination to vilify the Pope as a Nazi, a tone deaf policy wonk and a protector of pedophile priests.
But I realized that wasn't all right or fair. After all, he was young and powerless in Nazi Germany and perhaps had little, if any, choice about joining Hitler Youth. He has devoted his life to the vigorous defense and reinforcement of doctrines and dogma. That has been his passion, his life mission. It shouldn't be a surprise that when Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he would continue to focus on dogma rather than living faith through loving, generous and often brave work with the least among us.
I still haven't stopped being angry, though, about the Pope's (and his Church's) invasion of women's health rights and the options of loving and committed gay couples to marry in this country when, world-wide, pedophile priests were sheltered and given carte blanche to molest and rape generations of children and teenagers.
But, after letting this latest outrage sink in, my predominant feeling is sadness and anger that, once again, the efforts of the dedicated women clergy in the Catholic Church are denigrated in a storm of undeserved criticism.
For while prelates have lived in splendor in their gilded palaces, nuns have been doing the hard work in good faith. For hundreds of years, they have nursed the sick and taught the young. And since Vatican II, they have heeded the call to make a difference in the world by taking leadership in fighting social injustice and serving the poor and the powerless.
During the past 50 years, nuns have expanded their roles in the world -- becoming hospital CEOs and social activists -- protesting wars, facing down dictators and corporate honchos, caring for society's rejects.
To many, they have always been -- and continue to be -- the true heart of the Catholic Church.
I was born and raised Catholic, attending parochial schools from grade school through high school. And everything meaningful in the faith that sustained me in my difficult youth came from nuns -- as often by example and by sharing goodness and love as by classroom instruction.
Sister Rita was a shining beacon of hope for me in elementary school. There was loving safety in her arms. She encouraged me in my writing efforts, pushed me relentlessly in algebra, insisting I could do it. She taught me to speak clearly again as I struggled to recover from polio. She never focused on the awkward, precociously adolescent, terribly self-conscious child that I was, but delighted in my inner spirit and my possibilities. "Aren't you wonderful?" she would say warmly and often until I began to believe that I could grow past the abuse at home, my awkwardness, my shyness and become someone special, someone she could glimpse already. My confidence grew -- through her eyes.
And in high school, there was Sister Ann Ronin, who thrilled me with her keen intelligence and edgy humor and who never let me off the hook when I felt too shy to give an answer in class. There was lovely Sister deFatima, who encouraged me to keep writing and to seek spiritual meaning well beyond church doctrines to the essence of my soul. There was Sister Mary Joseph whose gentle humor and warmth sustained me through adolescent ups and downs. And, most of all, there was Sister Ramona who modeled for me what it meant to truly live one's faith and who was there for me at every juncture -- to listen, to encourage, to wipe my tears, to urge me on as I stumbled along my path of personal growth. I remember how she sometimes ignored the bell to afternoon prayers when it seemed most important to hold my hand and listen to a dark secret. And she accepted my life choices as the years went on with love, even when she might have disagreed.
Although many of these wonderful women have passed away, Sister Rita, now 81, and Sister Ramona, now 76, are still dear to me -- and making a difference in the world with social activism and, in Sister Ramona's case, by counseling students of all faiths at Stanford University.
These women of faith represent -- to me -- the very best of the Catholic Church. And women religious world wide are making a major difference in their efforts to end suffering and help the world become a better, kinder place. I have yet to meet a nun who champions the cause of abortion. Yet some, who work with real people in real life crises, can see shades of gray when it comes to church doctrines and human ethics.
Here in Arizona several years ago, a nun who was a hospital administrator also served on the hospital's ethics committee when it had to make a wrenching decision. There was a young woman, 12 weeks pregnant, who had developed a potentially fatal medical condition that would certainly kill her if the pregnancy continued. She was a young wife and, not so incidentally, the mother of four small children. The committee decided to permit an abortion. And because the nun on the committee had not actively opposed the decision, she was not only publicly reprimanded by Church officials but also actually excommunicated from the Church.
The incident above has continued to be highly controversial, with strong feelings on both sides. Other developments have been lower profile. There was the community of nuns in Santa Barbara, dedicated to working with the poor and the sick, who had their convent sold out from under them by the diocese in order to pay restitution to some of the victims of pedophile priests. There are the brilliant and dedicated nuns who have hit the ultimate glass ceiling in their vocation -- unlikely to ever become priests or prelates because of their gender. This institutionalized gender inequity -- in a Church that so worships Mary the Mother of God -- is an outrage to many.
This is one of the things that drove me, some years ago, to join the congregation at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Valencia, CA. The move was a wonderful spiritual renewal. The pastor -- Rev. Lynn Jay -- was and is a smart, feisty, deeply spiritual and loving religious woman -- like many of the Catholic nuns I've known. She preaches compassion and understanding, reaching out to those in need and standing up to hatred and bigotry. I was attracted to her church when I saw a newspaper photo of her standing in the middle of the major road that runs by her church, hands on hips, facing down a rowdy crowd of Evangelical protestors who had been bused in from Los Angeles to picket her church because she allowed an organization called Parents and Friends of Gays (PFLAG) to hold meetings in one of the church's classrooms one night a week.
Perhaps it's just me, but I fail to see how denying gay couples the right to love and to marry whom they choose brings any of us closer to the principles that Jesus taught.
And while I realize the issues around abortion are complex and while I respect both sides of the argument for and against, I fail to see how denying women insurance coverage for birth control makes us holy.
Some members of the Catholic Church are committed to offering newly besieged American nuns praise and support instead of criticism and censure. A Jesuit priest Rev. James Martin has started a Twitter hashtag called #whatsistersmeantome that features the following video:
Everything that is positive and real and lasting about my Catholic upbringing has to do with the wonderful nuns who guided, who listened, who have taught me and continue to teach me what it means to live one's faith with courage, authenticity and joy.