In pop culture a generation ago, nuns generally were relegated to churches where they prayed, schools where they taught, TV shows where they flew, musicals where they sang and the occasional photograph of nuns in habits taking in a ballgame.
Today's nuns are front-page news.
When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, their president Cardinal Francis George, and the National Right to Life Committee opposed President Obama's health care plan, nuns made news by bucking the bishops and supporting the plan.
"This is the real pro-life stance, and we, as Catholics, are all for it," read a letter to Congress sent by organizations representing 59,000 nuns, including some who help run our suburban Catholic hospitals and charities.
But even among sisters, there are divisions, which is why we have a photograph of three nuns waving their "Don't Tread on Me" flag at a recent tea party "Taxed Enough Already" rally in Palatine.
"We find today's government and society to have sunk in a morass of atheism, filth and greed, and that is why we are on the streets, backing the people who have strong faith and family values," e-mails Mother Mary Patrick, a founder of the fledgling Daughters of Immaculata community in Libertyville, a group of four nuns with a median age of 55. She says she prefers e-mail because "we take a vow of poverty and find 'gabbing' on the phone not something in line with that."
While still in the process of becoming an official order of the church, the nuns live in a turquoise-colored ranch house on a cul-de-sac. In the driveway, a Buick Century built in the last century sports a red, white and blue "Support Our Troops" magnet and a "Don't Tread on Me" sticker.
"We actually do NOT take 'political' stands, and endorse no candidate nor party," e-mails Mary Patrick. "We participate in public rallies which promote our country being returned to the MORAL and Judeo-Christian roots on which it was founded. We crusade actively for pro-life and will speak out against abortion or any form of euthanasia."
She closes her e-mail with the quote: "A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have."
Meanwhile, other nuns speak out just as passionately for the children, the poor and the elderly who depend on those government tax dollars for food, shelter, prenatal care and life-enriching health care. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said it's time the Catholic Church elected a "nope" - a nun for a pope.
How should we handle all these diverse opinions coming from the nuns?
"Very carefully," begins Father Stephen McKinley, 57, guardian of Marytown, the church's national shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe, where the Daughters of the Immaculata serve.
"People want to make it black and white, but I find that life is a whole lot of grays," says McKinley, who joined the priesthood 15 years ago after a career as a schoolteacher. "Social teachings have always been a part of the church. Of course, there are going to be some disagreements on how we apply the teachings."
On "Respect Life Sunday," McKinley hits the street.
"I go out and hold a picket sign and pray for an hour. That for me is about as radical as I get," he says with a laugh. "I believe I can do more good praying than holding a sign."
Nuns, however, have been more public lately.
"St. Maximilian Kolbe, our patron, died in Auschwitz because he was willing to speak out against Nazi socialism during the time of Hitler," Mary Patrick says. "We can do no less."
I think it's healthy for nuns of all political leanings to add to the debate. If the activism continues, voters may one day get the chance to walk into that booth on Election Day and actually vote for nun of the above.