Yesterday's opinion piece in the New York Times was rather refreshing. Nicholas Kristof didn't intend, he says, to write about the Catholic Church again, but its members have the unsettling trait of showing up all over the world, carrying out the most varied forms of service--the kind that a writer of human interest stories wants to write about. So there he was in Sudan...
I think Kristof is starting to get it. Identifying the Pope or cardinals or bishops with "the" Church is a little like identifying U2 with Bono. It's valid--but incomplete. Bono is the most recognizable of the group, the one member who can stand for the whole, but Bono≠U2.
In the Church, the Pope represents Christ, and teaches in his name, but the Christ and the Church form one body, and that body has many essential members. Putting too much emphasis on the person of the Pope or the bishop tends to reinforce a clerical mindset: that the Church belongs to the clergy, and the laity are just along for the ride. This gives the clergy more power than is their due, and relieves the laity of their responsibility for bringing the Gospel forward, making it penetrate and transform society.
This is where the nuns come in. We aren't clergy: we are lay women. So we're not part of the hierarchy. We're in the trenches with our specific charisms for the transformation of the world in a way that is different from that of most lay people, and yet definitely not in a hierarchical way. The Church needs both dimensions of life: the "skeleton" of the hierarchy, and the "flesh" of the laity. Remember St. Therese a century and a half ago writing that she would be "love in the heart of the Church"? She was onto something. As Kristof wrote, "Nuns rock." (Lord, make me into that kind of nun!)