Why the sudden Vatican crackdown on American nuns? The recent spat between the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the Vatican and the nuns' highly publicized bus tour is so intriguing that it borders on farce. Is the crackdown isolated or part of a larger program? Are we finally seeing Ratzinger the Inquisitor re-emerging from the papal vestments? Is it gendered? Is this a patriarchal institution reasserting the dominance of men over women? Does the social isolation created by incredible hierarchy and forced celibacy blind the church fathers from the inevitability of the lay backlash against their disciplinary actions? Lots of questions.
NPR's Barbara Hagerty has this conjecture: "Perceiving its core beliefs to be under threat...the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are pushing back." I think she's on to something. Sociology has pointed out this same phenomenon among other social groups, like middle class white men, who see their status as being under threat. As society progresses, offering once marginalized groups (e.g. women) increasingly egalitarian status, the relative status of those who were once solely in power (e.g. men) shifts. This can be terrifying to the once-powerful. Societal progress is then met with reactionary politics and regressive policies. The irony, of course, is that this kind of theological and political conservativism is a sign of weakness, a kind of death knell.
For another take on women and religion, here is a succinct little video of the New Testaments scholar and Anglican bishop Tom "N.T." Wright talking about the overlooked leadership of women in early Christianity (h/t Rachel Held Evans):