Dr Lavinia Byrne: Catholic church risks new debate on the role of women

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Since the church's Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and 70s, American nuns have radicalised, reaching out to the poor, the uneducated and eventually to minorities.

Wherever there was need, the sisters were there. As well as being radicalised, they became politicised too, prepared to speak out against injustice and to champion human rights. Including, ultimately, their own. So were they expecting the Inquisition? I doubt it.

And now it looks as though they are going to have to look to their backs and prepare for a more controlled future, for the Inquisition in its modern manifestation – the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – is on their case, sending in a heavy-duty, pre-Vatican II nun to sort things out. The irony is that for 40 years, the sisters enjoyed a large degree of freedom. But two things went wrong. Firstly, a decline in vocations. Nowadays you do not have to become a nun in the Catholic Church to "do good". Aid agencies and volunteer groups enable women to fulfil a sense of commitment to the church that does not bar them from marriage.

And, of course, young women have other aspirations because their dreams of dedicated service now extend to the priesthood too. If you can be a nun, why not be a priest? Why join the Indians when you could be a chief?

By asking the US nuns to reconsider their role, the Vatican may inadvertently have opened a brand new can of worms. The place of active, intelligent women in the service of the church will become wide open to debate.

The writer left her religious community in 2001 after 37 years as a nun

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