Catholic women deserve a say in the institution they serve.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the pioneering American feminist, found the Bible degrading to women, so she wrote her own version, The Woman’s Bible.

She paid a price for her audacity, and it looks like a lot of contemporary women are being punished for asserting themselves in much milder ways than Stanton did.

Last week The Vatican announced it has picked J. Peter Sartain, the archbishop of Seattle, to take control of the largest organization of Roman Catholic sisters. The church has been investigating sisters and nuns for the past few years and concluded there is some radical feminist stuff going on.

Some sisters even think women ought to be ordained; some, the church believes, have spent too much time on social justice and too little fighting abortion and gay marriage.

The archbishop’s oversight will even include screening speakers at the annual convention of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

From the outside, that looks a lot like the male church leadership is demeaning women.

Women have come so far, but they still have a ways to go.

The publication of Stanton’s Bible in 1895 caused a furor and greatly diminished her influence in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. It was too much even for other women to swallow.

Women eventually got the vote, but the idea that most bothered Stanton, that women were expected to be subservient to men, persists.

It is present in politics, in the workplace and in some households, but in most areas of American life, it is not OK to come right out and say it anymore.

In most spheres, laws and cultural norms offer some protection against language and practices that discriminate on the basis of gender.

Religion is different. There is separation of church and state for the most part, churches cannot be regulated but also it’s harder to argue with traditions that are defended as divinely ordained.

Yet, there are within each religious tradition many denominations and many interpretations of sacred texts.

An outsider might see that as evidence that much of church doctrine is a matter of human interpretation.

And when that is the case, can those rules be fair if only men are allowed to do the deciding?

The only answer is no.

I’ve been reading some of the reports from previous LCWR conventions, and it seems to me the sisters don’t want to rewrite The Bible, they just want to make a human institution, the church, more equitable.

One of last year’s speakers, Mexican theologian Sister Maricarmen Bracamontes, said many systems are “founded on ancestral injustices, passed down from one generation to another.” They are human creations that can be changed so that “other forms of religious life become possible.”

The sisters’ struggle is relevant to the rest of us in part because the matter of equality isn’t entirely resolved in the rest of society.

We should also be attentive because the Catholic Church is a large institution that has an impact on the nation beyond its cathedrals, schools and hospitals.

Not only is it large, it is political. For example, Catholic bishops fought against the Obama administration’s health-care overhaul because it covers contraception.

The archbishop here has asked his flock to sign a referendum petition to bring marriage equality to a popular vote — hoping to overturn the state’s new law that opens marriage to gay and lesbian couples.

The church is in other people’s business, so I see that as an invitation to reciprocity.

Let the sisters be free.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.