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The Sisters Crusade

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At a retreat the previous year, Campbell had been praying about how her calling is a mixture of fighting and radical acceptance – a process she describes as "Push. Push. Push. Deal with it." The image that came to mind when she combined these two seemingly contradictory stances was fire. This led her to think about the burning bush – the sign sent by God to Moses, the bush's resistance to the flames a symbol of the power of faith. As she sat outside Ryan's office waiting to meet with him, Campbell flipped open her Bible to the burning bush passage in Exodus – and then, for the first time in ages, happened to turn the page, where she read Moses' plea to God: "Who am I to go to Pharaoh?"

Campbell cackles in the retelling. "That's exactly what I felt like: Don't send me to Pharaoh!" Shaking her head, she adds, "I should have read that part sooner."

The spectacle of a group of nuns refusing to back down from the Vatican, a literal patriarchy that is 2,000 years old, has undeniable power – especially coming, as it did, on the heels of the GOP's "war on women," a war you pretty much know you've lost when you start losing the nuns. Last winter, the Catholic bishops once again injected themselves into the national debate by loudly protesting an Obamacare provision that mandated all employers – including Catholic hospitals – provide contraceptives as part of their health care benefits. The Obama administration quickly made a technical fix so that (untaxed, publicly subsidized) Catholic institutions wouldn't have to sully their own budgets by underwriting IUDs and Trojan Valu-Paks. Still, the clash reinforced the impression that powerful groups of men, whether U.S. senators or Catholic cardinals, remain bent on controlling uppity, sexually active women.

Such retrograde stances by the church's hierarchy have contributed to a sharp decline in American Catholicism. If "ex-Catholic" were counted as its own denomination, according to national polls, it would be the third-largest religion in the United States. The numbers are just as dire within Catholic religious orders. There were nearly 180,000 American nuns in 1965, the same year The Sound of Music (starring Julie Andrews as a Benedictine postulant) challenged Gone With the Wind as the highest-grossing movie of all time. Today there are only 55,000 nuns, and their average age is 74.

I attended Catholic school from kindergarten until I finished high school in the late Eighties. Even back then, there weren't many nuns around. The ones who wore habits tended to be stern: Sister Marlene told us, in all seriousness, that our fingers would "burn in Purgatory" if we wrote in our textbooks and once savagely slapped a boy whose last name was Templeton (and whom she always referred to as "Simpleton") across the face in the middle of class, sending him from the room in tears. The habitless nuns, true to form, had a mellower vibe: Sister Sylvia, our beloved third-grade homeroom teacher, read us all seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia series without once pointing out the obvious Christian allegory. The schism between the old, obedient sisterhood and the new, more liberal order was well under way. Sister Campbell recalls Catholic functions, early in her career, when sisters in habits refused to eat at the same table as sisters from her own, less formal order. "They didn't think we were real nuns," she says.

The roots of that schism, like so many of our ongoing culture wars, date back to the Sixties, when the Second Vatican Council produced the church's most radical period of modern liberalization. Vatican II, as it was known, allowed for Masses to be celebrated in languages other than Latin and decentralized the power of the Vatican, awarding more leadership roles to lay members. Nuns, once cloistered in their own religious communities, were now encouraged to shed their habits and go forth into the world to pursue social justice ministries. Before you knew it, priests were espousing liberation theology – a radical interpretation of Christianity as a revolutionary doctrine – and musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were furthering the Jesus-as-Original-Hippie vibe of the era. At my church in suburban Detroit, a mass was added on Saturdays, where the big organ went silent and a folk group played hymns on acoustic guitars.

Sister Desautels, the Chicago activist, recalls the years just after Vatican II as a sort of golden age for progressive-minded Catholics, a time when "the social teachings of the church were really being promulgated, even from the pulpit." Vatican II, she notes, had mandated that all religious communities, including nuns, update and renew themselves. "So in some ways, all of the changes came because we were totally obedient," she says with a puckish smile. "The pope told us to do it!"

Spry and elfin at 74, Desautels is a staff member at the 8th Day Center for Justice, a progressive nonprofit founded by six Catholic congregations in 1974. Last year, the group received a stern letter from the cardinal of Chicago after it hosted a screening of Pink Smoke Over the Vatican, a documentary that supports the ordination of female priests. Desautels epitomizes the kind of nun the Vatican has set out to silence: In 2002, she served six months in federal prison for trespassing at the School of the Americas, the U.S. military academy in Georgia that trained Latin American death squads, and she traveled to Iraq to protest the Gulf War. After Vatican II, she says, nuns were "encouraged to do all kinds of work, to be a part of the ritual of the Mass. You could invite a moral theologian to church to talk about contraceptives or gays, and they'd say, 'Here's what the church teaches, but this is what other theologians say.' It was a wonderful time. You couldn't ever have that now."

The backlash began in 1978, with the ascension of Pope John Paul II, a staunch anti-Communist bent on effecting a cultural rollback. John Paul's influential predecessor, the liberal Pope Paul VI, came to power during Vatican II and popularized its reforms, but the new pope appointed a host of conservative bishops who would crack down on dissidents. During John Paul's reign, the man who would become his successor, the even more conservative Pope Benedict XVI, headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the same investigative body that censured the American nuns last spring. Benedict "led what was known as a Kulturekampf, or cultural war, against dissident theologians," according to a 2005 profile in The Los Angeles Times. "He shaped church opposition to homosexuality, Latin American 'liberation theology,' secularism, globalization, women in the priesthood, contraception and religious plurality." Today, those in the church hierarchy who supported Vatican II, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, are all but gone. "We always say, there's a few good men," Desautels says. "But they're dying out."

One logical response to the child sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church over the past two decades would have been to initiate even bolder, more radical reforms – a Vatican III. But Pope Benedict, whose investigatory zeal earned him the nickname Panzerkardinal, has led the charge in the opposite direction, insisting that the Holy See should not compromise its values in order to appeal to a 21st-century laity. As pope, he has famously embraced calls for a "smaller, purer" church, one that places a rigid, hard-line doctrine above all else. "A church which seeks above all to be attractive," he has declared, "is already on the wrong path."

On a recent fall morning, I meet Sister Campbell at New York's Penn Station, where she has arrived to speak at an interfaith conference on corporate responsibility. Though she'll be spending the night, she has stuffed everything she needs – including her New Jerusalem Bible, the type with a leathery zippered slipcover – into the kind of bag a rich lady might use to carry a tiny dog. She's staying at a hotel that overlooks Ground Zero, now a bustling tourist destination. Staring up at the soaring new tower, only partially built, Campbell shakes her head and says she wishes they had left the entire space as a memorial. "But with these guys, it always has to be bigger," she sighs. "And they are guys." Then she jaywalks in front of a truck, which slams on its brakes.

Little in Campbell's upbringing suggested that she would take the vows of a nun, let alone openly defy the pope. She grew up in suburban Long Beach, California, the daughter of an aerospace engineer. Her family was Catholic, but not excessively so; when other Catholics in the neighborhood started a "block rosary" – dedicating one night a week to praying at someone's house – the Campbells stayed home and watched their new TV. Simone and her younger sister, Katie, idolized John F. Kennedy, the handsome Catholic senator. In 1960, when their parents took them to the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, they hoped to catch a glimpse of their hero. Instead, as they stood near the elevators at the Biltmore Hotel, out walked Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's rival – "the enemy," in Simone's words. When LBJ bent down to give 13-year-old Katie a kiss, she raised her arm to counter with a handshake and wound up bopping him on the nose.

Eight years later, when she was a junior in college, Katie died of Hodgkin's disease. Campbell was devastated. She had already joined the Sisters of Social Service, an order founded in Budapest in the 1920s by the first woman ever elected to the Hungarian parliament. Like many of the sisters I meet, Campbell can't point to a single epiphany that led her to become a nun, but rather describes the process as a slow evolution, with fits and starts and moments of doubt. She first considered the idea in high school, after attending a Catholic summer camp run by nuns. She loved the sense of community at the camp, and how the girls, who came from all over Southern California – Mexican girls from the barrio, rich girls from Bel-Air, crossing all social lines – basically ran the place. "I liked being in charge," she recalls.

Campbell had never exactly been a normal teenager. She tutored in Watts and became involved in the civil-rights movement, all of which led her in the direction of the church. One day, while taking part in a sit-in for integration, she came to the realization that she did not simply want to share in the end goals of the movement – she wanted to share in the underlying reason for those goals. "And for me," she recalls, "it always was about the Gospel."

Still, it took nine years of prayer and counseling before she was deemed ready to make her lifelong commitment to her order. "You have to have a crisis before your final vows," she says drily. "It's required." In her case, the crisis came when she found herself spending more and more time with a "really nice" Presbyterian minister named John. The courtship carried on for several months, before Campbell finally told John she was going with the Other Guy. Then, just before making her final vows in her midtwenties, while working as a community organizer in Portland, she entered an intense period of darkness. "I'm very imaginative and very intuitive, so this will sound weird," she says, "but my sense was that the devil was laughing at me for making this choice."

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