The love of nuns runs deep in Marion Boden's family. Her great-grandmother, orphaned as a child, was rescued by the Sisters of Mercy. And several generations, down to her two granddaughters, have gotten their educations in schools staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood.

So a thunderclap from the Vatican, aimed at an organization that represents the vast majority of American nuns, jolted her. Still, she decided not to throw rhetorical bricks. It was best, she felt, to let the sisters sort it out for themselves.

But she did do two things:

She read two documents, the one from the Vatican aimed at restructuring the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and a 2007 speech to the conference by a Dominican sister, the only person the Vatican accused by name.

And she acted. "I thought the best thing we could do is to show them our love," said Boden, of Hampton Bays. "I bought flowers for some of the nuns that I knew. I liked the idea of bumper stickers. I put out the word to a few people to come up with something pithy." The slogan they chose was not anti-Vatican, but simply "I nuns."

This is what the Vatican seems not to have picked up: People love nuns. But there won't be any bumper stickers sending out love to far-off bureaucracies in Rome who have been more than a bit suspicious lately of American nuns.

The congregation that deals with religious orders launched a "visitation" of some orders in this country. That raised more than a few hackles.

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Now, a different bureaucracy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog -- has issued its "doctrinal assessment" of the conference. The CDF decided in 2008 to undertake this evaluation. This is the verdict: It doesn't like the "corporate dissent" from the church's teaching on women's ordination and homosexuality. It doesn't like some of the speeches given during the leadership conference's assemblies. And it cites fears of radical feminism gripping the nuns.

But the document doesn't define radical feminism. "For all I know," Boden said, "it could mean pierced ears." In fact, she found the Vatican document "kind of condescending. This is not the way one speaks to mature, educated adults."

The tone of the speech Boden read, Sister Laurie Brink's 2007 talk to the conference, was different -- human, warm, witty, rooted in Scripture, examining the realities that many nuns face today: declining numbers of new vocations, aging sisters, indecision about facing the future.

"She was being provocative," said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby. "Some people agreed with her. Some people disagreed with her. But we had a fabulous discussion."

For years, I've supported Network, a lobbying group I truly trust. Yet it's a target, too. The "doctrinal assessment" listed reviewing conference-affiliated organizations, such as Network, as one of the tasks for three bishops who will be revising the conference's statutes and vetting its programs and meetings.

Brilliant. For years, the church has dealt badly with a sexual abuse scandal about priests, and what does the Vatican decide to fix? Nuns.

The document cites "a serious source of scandal" in Brink's talk, which few Catholics had either seen or heard. Here's what most Catholics have heard: The Vatican is targeting an organization that represents nuns. What people know about nuns is this: They live the Gospel; they provide cheap labor to run Catholic institutions like schools and hospitals, and they're getting fewer (about a third of the 180,000 in the United States in 1965) and frailer, like my much loved first-grade teacher, Sister Marnette Bamberger.

In fact, it is the Vatican that has created a scandal that millions of Catholics have heard about -- and really don't like.

There are only 250 copies of Boden's bumper stickers, but bet on this: There will be far more expressions of support for nuns in other ways. If you see the sticker, honk. If you see a cardinal, use discretion.

Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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