I wasn’t raised a Catholic (my parents were atheists) and although I became one as a young adult, and have even taught (non-religious) subjects in a Catholic school, I don’t know much about Catholic dogma. I was confirmed by a bored, intellectual monsignor from a wealthy family who was stationed at a church on the edge of Harlem. During our weekly talks, we discussed literature, art, architecture and music but we rarely got around to anything about what the Catholic religion is all about. I’ve learned a lot from nuns too, but not much dogma there, either! From them, I’ve mostly learned how (and how not) to live.

The nuns I knew when I was a teacher in a Catholic school were the kind I learned how NOT to live from. They were teachers at the school where I worked, and as far as I could tell, were extremely childish. One of their main aims seemed to be “tattling” on each other about who was smoking cigarettes in the nunnery. I can just imagine how much our intellectual monsignor appreciated hearing those tales!

When (in Matthew 18:3), Jesus said, “You must be as little children,” I think he meant we should be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves,” that is, open to the wonders all around us, yet wise enough not to get taken in by any false prophets. But as everyone knows who has been around them for any length of time, little children are NOT all innocence, and have to be guided by firm and loving adults. These nuns were (too often) like naughty kids!

I had a friend in Texas who taught at a Catholic university. She said that the nuns she met there liked to read “Women Who Run with the Wolves,” and seemed to be WICCAN nuns. I thought this was an incredibly cool idea, and I reflected that, since we have an acute nun shortage going on, nuns might be considered to be the ULTIMATE feminists, in that no one can boss them around. If the priest in charge of the parish tries to tell them what to do, they can just say (a nice Catholic version of) “F–k you.”

In Texas, I took Tai Chi lessons from a very enlightened nun. While she was loyal to her Catholic vows, she was not trapped in rigid Christian ideology and explored Eastern spiritual paths as well. This nun was an inspiration for my own future spiritual path.

In the movie “Doubt,” Meryl Streep plays a perfect example of a modern nun. Film critics who don’t know anything about Catholicism jumped on the idea that her character was filled with doubts about her religion and her vocation. Well, OF COURSE she was, I can’t imagine a mature adult who chose that sort of path as NOT being that way! What the film (and original playwright, John Patrick Shanley) really showed us was that her character worked THROUGH her doubt by finding meaning for her spiritual life WITHIN it. And there was a sly example of the efficacy of her doubt when we saw her go into a classroom and badger some of the kids whom she “doubted” were paying enough attention to their teacher. She didn’t do it to be mean, she did it because she cared so much about them and knew that her school was one of their few chances they had to advance in life.

I’ve never understood why male power wants to reign over women (maybe they secretly fear them because they were intimidated by their mothers?) For instance, the new pope, Benedict, has made it a one of his major projects to curtail the activities of all the “renegade” nuns he sees in the US, and has even started something of an inquisition against them.

In the October 9, 2009 issue of the Catholic intellectual magazine Commonweal, “Sister X” writes: ” I have been a religious sister for more than thirty years, part of a community that has been active in this country for over a century, and whose work centers on teaching and health care. In February the Vatican announced it would conduct a three-year ‘visitation’ to assess the ‘quality of life’ of American sisters” having to do with ‘alleged failure to express sufficiently rigorous doctrinal compliance with several recent church documents.’ Some of these include ‘the ordination of women, the relation of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions, and the ?intrinsically disordered? nature of homosexual acts.'”

Uh oh. They’re getting sent to the Principal’s office! Sister X (who doesn’t even dare to sign her name) writes: “Why are American sisters being singled out? One widely shared area of concern, of course, is the dramatic drop in vocations in recent decades. Forty years ago, there were 180,000 vowed sisters across the country; today there are fewer than 60,000. Yet the number of priests has also dropped precipitously during the same period, leaving more than 10% of parishes without resident pastors. Why isn’t the priest shortage the subject of a visitation? And during the same period US bishops have presided over a sexual-abuse scandal that has cost the Catholic community more than $2 billion and the episcopacy much of its moral credibility. So why no visitation for the bishops? Do they really wonder why our numbers shrink and shrink? They might ponder their own actions. The visitation and investigation continue, the doctrinal assessment will ferret out our patches of heterodoxy.”

Before they whap them over the knuckles with a ruler, I hope the Vatican top brass will stop and consider that there’s a stature of Mary in every church, testifying to the need for a feminine presence in a spiritual place. Without the feminine, a religion turns into a left brain structure of rules and regulations from which no one can obtain enlightenment–the very sort of structure this exceptionally misguided pope seeks to ram down the throats of Catholics everywhere, and in particular the vibrant community of American sisters.

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