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Why the Pope Hates Nuns

It's tempting to simply view the church hierarchy as a cult of misogyny. But at its heart, it's a cult of power; misogyny is but one tool for securing that power.

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Writing at Religion Dispatches, Mary Hunt contends that the Vatican's attack on the nuns isn't simply about nuns -- or women. It's about the laity -- keeping the people of the church from actually claiming them the power granted them during the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and maintaining the power of the clerics. "The effort to rein in LCWR is meant as much to scare the rest of us into line as to corral the nuns," Hunt writes.

This isn't this first time that the Vatican has sought to silence U.S. nuns. In one famous case, 24 sisters were threatened with expulsion from their orders for having signed a statement that asserted "a diversity of views" on the subject of abortion existed within the church, including the belief that abortion could sometimes be a moral choice. The ad was sponsored by Catholics for Choice, then under the leadership of Frances Kissling. Cardinal Ratzinger presided over the inquisition.

But this time is different, Hunt contends, because of the role played by nuns in the passage of Affordable Care Act, the health-care reform law initiated by the Obama administration and signed by the president. When the bishops, via the USCCB, sought to to block the legislation, largely because of measures that dealt with coverage of women's reproductive health issues, the administration turned to Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, which represents some 600 Catholic hospitals and 1400 health-care facilities. When Keehan backed the bill, she lent a Catholic imprimatur to the administration's much-contested hallmark piece of law. After Obama signed the bill, he sent Keehan one of the ceremonial signing pens he used to make the bill a law. Keehan's defiance was compounded when a coalition of U.S. nuns penned a letter supporting the law that was signed by leaders of 55 religious orders and umbrella groups, including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. .

Earlier this year, Sister Keehan stepped up again, when, after the administration announced that Catholic institutions would not be exempt from the law's mandate to employers that their health insurance plans fully cover patients' contraceptive costs, and do so without demanding a co-payment from the patient. After the predictable outcry from the bishops, the administration offered an "accommodation" requiring health insurance companies to pick up the tab for the conception coverage, and Keehan gave her approval.

Nuns Defy Bishops on Health Care; Bishops Cry Foul on 'Religious Freedom'

In choosing the nuns to provide a stamp of Catholic approval for both the health-care law itself and the contraception "accommodation," the Obama administration acted on a calculation that the bishops' hard-core position against contraception and abortion under any circumstances was not supported by the majority of American Catholics, whose views are more in line with those represented by the nuns. The administration's concern was winning buy-in from Catholic lay people -- the voters -- and its legislative strategists knew that the moral imprimatur of the nuns would go a long way to that end. But in executing its strategy, the administration dared to do what no other before it had: expose the powerlessness -- the impotence, if you will -- of the hierarchy when faced with the will of what the church reform documents of Vatican II called "the people of God." The bishops, and presumably the pope, were not amused.

While it's true that the Vatican investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious began nearly four years ago, the timing of the Vatican's announcement of its "hostile takeover" of LCWR coincides with the launching of a barrage of lawsuits against the administration by the bishops and Catholic entities challenging the requirement that all health insurance companies contracted for employer-provided health plans offer contraceptive coverage to the insured, and with no co-payment by the patient. This requirement applies to virtually all employer-provided health plans, including those that cover the employees of Catholic hospitals, universities and other institutions. The timing of the Vatican attack on the nuns also aligns with the timing of a public relations offensive by the bishops that frames the contraceptive mandate as an infringement of religious liberty -- an offensive that includes a heretofore unprecedented attempt at overt political organizing by the clerics for what they're calling a "Fortnight for Freedom," spanning from June 21, which commences the feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, through to July 4th.