Where is Tom Hanks when you need him? Something sinister is happening in the Catholic Church, at least according to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. And the way she writes, it reads like the beginning of a treatment for a Dan Brown extravaganza. Her plot, you see, is just that absurd.
Dowd was convinced that the nuns who taught her in the fifth grade were unhappy, and she remains adamant that the situation remains the same today. She writes: "Nuns were second-class citizens then and — 40 years after feminism utterly changed America — they still are."
I can't speak for "the formidable Sister Hiltruda" Dowd had in grade school, but the columnist needs to meet some of the sisters I've been talking to lately, all over the country. Young women are willingly devoting their lives to the Church, with veils and all, in places like Birmingham, Ala., Alma, Mich., Nashville, Tenn., Washington, D.C., and New York City. It's becoming common that orthodox orders report waiting lists, as they see themselves filled to capacity with young postulants and their overjoyed older sisters.
"In all that we are and all that we do, by living in union with the Lord, striving to manifest His grace, we imperceptibly are changed," is how a blog post by a sister of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George put it. (Yes, a blog post, there are Web-savvy sisters in 2009. Readers can follow even the lives of cloistered nuns on sites like www.monialesop.org. When Dowd writes that the Vatican is "hoping to herd (sisters) back into their old-fashioned habits and convents and curb any speck of modernity or independence," it is clear she does not have these cyber sisters bookmarked.)
These young women are only human, and I'm sure they have their struggles with faith and obedience. But there are a lot of happy women behind convent walls. They have answered a Heavenly call. Their submission is not to any man, in Rome or anywhere else, but to the will of the Creator. It's otherworldly, so it doesn't fit as well on op-ed pages.
As Dowd complained, the Vatican is currently conducting investigations of women's religious orders in the United States. Is this, as Dowd accuses, because the men in Rome are upset with "nuns who live in apartments and do social work with ailing gays"?
Actually, it's because, despite a renewal that is going on among small, tightly focused female religious communities, many orders that were once the backbones of so many schools, parishes and service institutions are literally dying. They are not recruiting, and even their sacred sense of purpose seems to be suffering. As Ann Carey, author of "Sisters in Crisis," has explained: "Many sisters no longer work in apostolates related to the Church and no longer live or pray in community, and sometimes sisters even openly dissent from Church teaching on matters such as women's ordination, homosexuality, centrality of the Eucharist, and the hierarchical nature of the Church."
A Dominican sister in Chicago was recently pictured in a photograph that ran the Chicago Tribune standing outside an abortion clinic, where she volunteers as an escort for women who enter to obtain abortions. She belongs to a group of sisters who advocate legal abortion. In case you are confused: this is not Catholic.
The Catholic Church hasn't been isolated from the chaos that the sexual revolution wrought. It warned against the troubles that would be unleashed, but that didn't keep the Church immune. Yet now, after decades of spirited dissent and too much shameful sin in the headlines, if you look around, what you'll see is countercultural faith. There's a rebirth: a "new evangelization" is what they're calling it in Rome.
"Religious community is the visible manifestation of the communion which is the foundation of the Church," Pope Benedict XVI, back when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote. When some religious communities so blatantly represent values inimical to the Church, intervention is called for.
The Vatican has taken action because there are ships off course. And the waters are rough; our culture can't afford to have so many lost at sea. The fog has come because of surrender to the cultural chaos. Maureen Dowd's answers involve more of the same — confusing faith with politically correct fluff. The answer lies in what John Paul II biographer George Weigel recommended: Have the courage to be Catholic. Know what that means. Go back to basics. Teach, and live what you teach. Maureen Dowd would have the Church remake itself in the image of the conventional modern — exactly what some dying religious orders have tried to do, and that has been the cause of their collapse. The Pope whom Maureen Dowd scorns speaks a different tongue than the New York Times typically does. But it's a liberating language — much more freeing than the tired and angry gender politics that offer little hope to the anxious men and women of our time.
Kathryn Lopez is the editor of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.