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It's got to be hard to criticize a nun.

Wagging your finger at a person who's vowed to be chaste and indigent and live a life of service to God and the disenfranchised seems beyond presumptuous. It seems, well, sacrilegious.

And I doubt it gets much easier just because you happen to be a boss of sorts to the nun — and especially not if your reprimand goes public.

Anyone who — as a headline in this newspaper on Tuesday put it — "cracks down on two nuns" isn't going to garner a lot of charitable Christian sentiment.

Even if maybe the nuns had it coming.

I don't have any particular pro-Catholic ax to grind in defending Madison Bishop Robert Morlino's decision to bar two nuns from providing spiritual services in the diocese's churches after the nuns allegedly strayed too far from Catholic teaching. In fact, my own faith is about as un-Catholic as a Christian denomination can get.

It also appears whatever insult the nuns might have caused, they haven't done any practical damage to anyone.

And then there's Morlino's well-documented conservatism, the occasional inter-diocese spats, and what that says about the direction of the broader church and Morlino's fitness to serve a diocese as liberal as Madison's.

But we're not talking about differences in denominations or church politics.

We're talking about keeping the faith.

In upbraiding the nuns for their work at an interfaith spirituality center, allegedly dabbling in "New Ageism" and "indifferentism," and maybe being a little too enamored of other religions, the bishop clearly has a pretty specific approach to how the Catholic faith is best kept.

Call it the you've-got-to-stand-for-something-or-you'll-fall-for-anything approach. Or maybe the believing-in everything-is-the-same-as-believing-in-nothing method.

Moreover, it's not enough to say that a different bishop might have taken a more liberal view of what it means to keep the faith and left the nuns alone.

Yes, applying religious doctrine is notoriously subjective, but what's not subjective is the Catholic church's strict hierarchy. Even if Morlino isn't well liked or very effective, he's still the boss. And nuns vow to be obedient, too.

Research by University of New Hampshire sociology professor Michele Dillon, who's studied the relation of Catholics to the church, suggests time is not on the side of the church's conservatives.

"It is also unlikely as more Catholics today seek a more expansive spirituality, that despite interventions like Bishop Morlino's, the bishops will be able to control the varied, on-the-ground spiritual quests and practices of Catholics."

For now, though, official Catholicism is a regressive and controlling throwback in a modern world.

That some Catholics forget this, or choose to ignore it, or decide to remain in the church despite it says less about Morlino and the church than it does about some Catholics.

As harsh as chastising the nuns might seem, it's an understandable outcome for such an uncompromising faith.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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