Like so many opinion pieces written by disaffected Catholics about something pertaining to the faith of their childhood, Maureen Dowd begins her latest exercise in studied irrelevance with an anecdote about the schoolyard, a mean nun, a handsome priest, and a cowering child--herself.
But only Dowd, with her splendid disregard for common sense, could conclude from such a story of her rescue at the hands of the kindly priest from whatever wrath the improbably-named nun might otherwise have been motivated to wreak that the real problem here was that the nun was a second-class citizen. Presumably, the priest should not have acted the role of male patriarchal oppressor, and the nun should have been free to employ whatever cliched punishment involving rulers or rosary beads or any other instrument of Catholic grade-school torture caught her fancy. Dowd, one is led to infer, would much rather have been punished by an empowered nun than forgiven by an oppressed one.
But apparently for Dowd, as for so many liberal Catholics or liberal ex-Catholics, the story of the evils of male hierarchical oppression must never deviate from a handful of preconceived notions tossed into a stew of reheated petulance and stale, leftover feminism. Nuns are oppressed because they are not priests; priests are oppressors because they are male; raise the felt banners and affix the peace signs, and join in a rousing chorus of Kumbaya.
Seen through this fogged feminist lens, the visitations--not inquisitions--the Vatican is now conducting as to the state of American nuns can only be an attempt to stifle dissent and muzzle the kind of intelligent spiritual growth that leads to nuns serving as abortion clinic escorts, nuns engaging in pagan worship rituals, and nuns, like Sr. Jeanne Gramick whom Dowd mentions, who campaign actively for gay marriage in clear defiance of Church teachings on the matter, and who, if they are ever disciplined, are inclined to don Che t-shirts and mutter about oppression and revolution to the tune of their favorite Marty Haugen song.
There’s a much more interesting story going on in regard to religious sisters in America--but Dowd misses it altogether. That story is simple, and can be demonstrated with a little light Internet searching. The average age of all American nuns is about 69--but the average age of the nuns in the young, traditional, habit-wearing, Latin chanting Vatican II orders, the ones who worship according to the Novus Ordo Mass but have resurrected such discarded practices as the rosary, Eucharistic Adoration, the wearing of the traditional habit, and the like--is about 35.
It is the old orders who are dying out, the ones who cast aside their spiritual patrimony because it has the Latin root word for “father” in it, the ones who imagined themselves as priestesses or at least as figures of power ushering in a new Church and a new Gospel based on openness to sin and aversion to judgment, a sort of combination of the words of a Gandhi with the practices of a Saul Alinsky. But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution; people began to realize that a faith which never asks them to die to themselves isn’t really worth living for, and it certainly isn’t worth living in community with a few dozen other women one’s whole life to achieve.
The story of religious sisters in America has yet to be finished. But if there is a renaissance of women religious about to begin, it won’t be beginning in the middle of the prayer labyrinth, and it won’t be ushered in by the sort of woman who doesn’t have a problem ushering women in to abortion clinics to have their unborn children put to death. It’s a pity Dowd missed that part of the story; it’s a pity she doesn’t know the kind of nuns who would laugh over her portrayal of Pope Benedict and her templates of Church--as--oppressor and nuns--as---second-class--citizens. They would laugh, and then they’d probably offer up a prayer for her. But that’s a fantasy, of course; the kind of sisters I’m writing about here would never waste their time reading the New York Times.