No, this isn't the beginning of a joke.
In April, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the Catholic Church's current iteration of the Inquisition, if you will – issued an assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80% of the US's 57,000 nuns.
Some key context here: the conference was formed 56 years ago at the behest of the Holy See, to provide "a unified voice" for US nuns who helped the poor, nursed the sick, taught students, worked as missionaries, and fought violence.
(Another important bit of background: the congregation is the same arm of the church that bullied Lavinia Byrne, feminist theologian and former British nun, for arguing in favor of female ordination in a 1993 book.)
The conference, according to the Vatican, was spending too much time doing good – and not enough time enforcing church teaching (against abortion, homosexuality etc).
So, the nuns actually got in trouble for being, well, nuns. So troubled was the church by this and the women's alleged "radical feminism" that the assessment demanded the appointment of an archbishop delegate to make them behave.
Nope, no joke.
At first, many members of the conference reacted with silent shock.
They didn't speak out against the Church because of their vows of obedience.
Many have since shot back, however, calling the charges wrongful criticism – and a distraction from the Church's failure to address adequately child molestation charges against clergy.
The Vatican might have gotten one thing right about these women: compared to the rest of the Pope Benedict XVI's ultra-conservative administration, they are radical feminists.
But the Church has also gotten something terribly wrong: US Catholicism desperately needs "radical" feminist nuns – and should embrace, not criticize them – if it's going to remain relevant to American society.
A 2008 Pew forum on religion and public life study determined that nearly a third of Americans were brought up Catholic, but that "less than one in four remained so" – meaning the faith had shed "the greatest" proportion of US-born believers.
Perhaps even more startling:
"Roughly 10% of American adults, or 22.5 million, are former Catholics. That would qualify lapsed Catholics as the second-largest single US denomination, behind Catholics, at 54.8 million, and just ahead of the Southern Baptist Convention's 15.1 million members."
In addition, a study conducted by the center for applied research in the apostolate at Georgetown University indicates that "42.7 million Catholics, or two-thirds of US Catholics, are not going to mass."
Only some 33% attend regularly.
Another approximately 33% attend occasionally, and the rest never go, Catholic advocacy groups report.
And the only reason the percentage of Catholics in the US population still hovers around 25%, Pew notes, is because of a steady stream of Latino immigrants.
The denomination's leaders worry so extensively about the hemorrhaging of parishioners that a group called Catholics Come Home launched a $3.5m ad blitz last December, according to the Denver Post, and had sponsored similar marketing campaigns in the past.
The non-profit hoped that the 400-plus planned ads, with an estimated audience of 250 million viewers, would boost these sluggish numbers.
If you look at lapsed Catholics' reasons for leaving the church, it doesn't seem like a lack of televised adverts quite tops their list.
Researchers at Villanova University's center for the study of church management recently reached out to several hundred lapsed Catholics in the diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.
They wanted to figure out why they stopped frequenting mass.
They were specifically asked "what issues they would raise if they could speak to the bishop for five minutes," according to the Newark Star-Ledger.
Their complaints included haughty clergy, "conservative haranguing", excessive focus on homosexuality and birth control, as well as negative attitudes toward female ordination.
They also "didn't like the church's handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal and were upset that divorced and remarried Catholics are unwelcome at mass."
A key point is that some 66% of respondents "were female, and the median age was 53".
This demographic detail has troubled Church leaders, who recognize that it is this group that has in the past tended to indoctrinate younger generations – their children and grandchildren – into the church. Anyone else see what's going on here?
The Catholic Church is shedding US members.
Those who have left they church say they don't like the Church's conservative approach toward birth control, homosexuality, and female ordination.
The Church has decided not to reconsider these policies – a move that could help maintain membership.
Instead, the Holy See has decided to attack the one prominent and popular group among the clergy because they back the modern ideas demanded by believers.
Thus, rather than defending the faith, the Vatican's strategy works only to hasten the extinction of the very institution it's seeking to preserve.