In 1899, a contingent of nuns journeyed into the malarial forests of southern Africa to set up missionary schools. They mastered the clicking language of the Ndebele tribe, baked communion bread in brick ovens they built themselves, and steered clear of the subject of monogamy so as not to enrage the polygamous local chief.
In 1911, another group of sister-pioneers set sail for the islands of Fiji to run a clinic for lepers. In 1929, nuns in black habits rode a steamship up the Yangtze River into the heart of China, braving insufferable heat, flying termites, and warring generals.
So it is odd to hear the Vatican denouncing the largest group of nuns in America for promoting "radical feminist" ideas. The statement is shockingly out of touch with the modern world. But it is also willfully blind to important parts of the church's own history.
A profound faith in women's capabilities - in the world, in the classroom, and in God's eyes - lies at the core of what nuns have always been. Long before Betty Friedan kicked off the modern feminist movement in the 1960s, nuns were earning medical degrees and running complex institutions, often without financial support from Rome.
Just look at the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, founded in 1804 to educate impoverished girls. When a bishop forbade them to expand their work, they refused to obey him and were kicked out of France. They relocated to Namur, Belgium, and went on to build schools in 17 countries - including Trinity College in Washington, D.C., which educated Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius.
It's not surprising that religious orders attracted such tenacious women. For centuries, the convent was the only respectable place for girls who aspired to travel and make a difference in the world, not simply get married and bear children. Eventually, the women's-rights movement gave young women the chance to work in social justice outside of the church. That's one reason the number of American nuns plummeted from a peak of 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 60,000 today.
But the lack of respect for nuns in an all-male church hierarchy also played a role.
In the early 1960s, Vatican II gave nuns wide latitude to go out into the world and perform good works. Some joined the civil rights movement. Others protested the Vietnam War. But skittish men simultaneously reined them in. The archbishop of Washington refused to allow nuns in his diocese to attend Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, even though priests were encouraged to go. The archbishop of Los Angeles insisted on dictating nuns' bedtimes and prayer hours, and even which books they could read, leading to an infamous standoff in 1970 that prompted more than 300 Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to break with the church.
If the Vatican insists on punishing the largest group of American nuns - the recent reprimand accuses them for focusing too much on poverty, and not enough on the church's teachings on homosexuality - we could see a similar showdown. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious could take the dramatic step of removing themselves from the official church hierarchy.
Maybe the powerful men of the Vatican would say "good riddance." Maybe they prefer a smaller, "purer" church reminiscent of the Middle Ages. But what kind of message does this war with nuns send to everybody else?
Are we really supposed to believe that nuns on whose backs the church system was built are "radical" for seeking a greater voice in it? That strong-willed nuns are more dangerous to Catholicism than child-molesting priests? That crusades against masturbation and gay marriage are more important than helping the poor? It's hard to imagine that Jesus would agree.
The Vatican has been on the wrong side of history before. Luckily, the church's vibrant community has a way of self-correcting with time. Two hundred years ago, Julie Billiart, foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was a persona non grata in France. Today, she is a saint.