Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Bring Out the Religious Knuckle Rappers

Really? Women religious in America will now have a bishop grading their morals?

Shouldn't it be the other way around? Given the sex-abuse scandals -- in which many Roman Catholic bishops looked the other way at best and moved child molesters from parish to parish, perpetrating evil, at worst -- you would think that a ruler rap on the hierarchical knuckles would be in order. "Sister" should have stepped in years ago. Instead, the Vatican has assigned a bishop to crack down on the nuns.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, aka the Inquisition, has appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain to review and revamp the plans, programs and pronouncements of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of the superiors of religious orders that represents about 57,000 U.S. nuns. What sins have these religious women committed that brought on the wrath of Rome?

Here's one, according to the Vatican document: "While there's been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church's social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death." Oh, no -- while these women are ministering to some poor pregnant girl and giving her the wherewithal to get health care and food for her baby, they are not loudly attacking abortion?

Another transgression: "The Church's Biblical views of family life and human sexuality are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching." Translation: The nuns aren't condemning gay marriage as they make their rounds to hospitals and social-service agencies where gay clients and their children await their care.

The nuns' silence on gay marriage must be particularly galling to their new inquisitor. Archbishop Sartain has thrown the full force of his office behind a proposed ballot initiative to overturn Washington state's new marriage equality law. His 2010 appointment to the Seattle archdiocese provoked protest from victims of pedophilia, because only a year earlier, Sartain had ordained a molester -- later convicted of his crimes -- despite warnings from other priests.

But that revelation didn't cause the new archbishop to shy away from controversy. This month he not only urged support for an anti-gay-marriage referendum, he also suggested that Sunday Mass would be an appropriate place to collect signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. Several priests refused, including at the archbishop's own parish of St. James Cathedral. The Rev. Michael Ryan concluded that the petition drive would "prove hurtful and seriously divisive in our community."

Sartain probably wasn't happy with that reaction, but at least it came from a man. (BEGIN ITALS)Women(END ITALS), beware. When superiors of the religious orders dare to differ with these men, they receive a reprimand from the Vatican because they have made statements "that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops." Wow.

This ruling from Rome comes at a bad time for American bishops. It throws them further into what some Democratic politicians are labeling the Republican "war on women." However spurious that charge, Democrats were handed the ammunition for it by Republican presidential candidates who backed the bishops' rejection of an Obama compromise on contraception coverage by religiously affiliated institutions under the health-care law. And polls show that a majority of Catholics support the president's position.

It's not just the nuns who challenge the bishops -- it's the folks in the pews and in public office. Every gay-marriage law passed so far has been signed by a governor who is Catholic. When asked by The Wall Street Journal whether the church has a problem convincing the congregants to follow its moral principles, New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan replied, "Do we ever!"

Dolan thinks that's because church leaders have gotten "gun-shy" about talking about chastity and sexual morality. What? That's all we hear them talking about -- abortion and gay marriage, and now contraception. Yes, bishops back immigration reform and have recently rejected Republican budget proposals, and Catholic Charities runs wonderful social welfare programs. But those programs are not where the bishops put their political muscle.

Maybe if the men who run the church put the same lobbying efforts behind things the nuns talk about -- human dignity, including the dignity of women, and care for children, the poor, the sick and the frightened -- their flock would pay more attention to them. Instead, the hierarchy is trying to make the women sound more like the men. It won't work, thank God, but it will give these good women grief, and that's a knuckle-rapping offense.

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