Can a consensus be imposed? The short answer is no. The long one is that the Vatican believes yes it can and, in a process that may take months or years, has begun to order 24 Roman Catholic nuns to recant their view that a "diversity of opinion" about abortion exists within the church.

The nuns -- the Vatican 24 -- were among 97 signers of a statement published Oct. 7 that challenged the official church teaching that abortion is always wrong. The statement argued that "a large number of Catholic theologians hold that even direct abortion, though tragic, can sometimes be a moral choice."

Reflecting the tense climate in which activist priests in Brazil, Nicaragua and Poland have recently been rebuked for what the Vatican sees as leftist rebellion, the statement added: "Catholics -- especially priests, religious, theologians and legislators -- who publicly dissent from hierarchical statements and explore areas of morhtrinal, psychological and spiritual harm that is only now beginning to be documented.

Feminist scholars and others who have examined religion and women are reporting that the churches and temples of the West are havens for a masculine leadership using masculine theology. Calvin told women who were beaten by their husbands "to bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place upon" them. Augustine, the 5th-century woman-hater, called on good Christian males "to hate" in their wives "the corruptible and mortal conjugal connection."

In "Religion and Sexism," a 1973 collection of essays edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joan Arnold Romero writes that the current feminist protest within the church "is sometimes open but often silent, as women are becoming increasingly unhappy with the Church and social structures that do not allow them effective room to be themselves. In a sense they might be called the new 'Protestants,' who speak prophetically against alienating structures."

To support the protest of the Vatican 24 is not to sanction the violence of abortion. The issue is freedom of discussion, not the taking of life. Nuns, who have little forum as it is and no ecclesiastical power at all, are the last ones the Vatican should be harassing.

After plugging along all these centuries with loyalty, prayer and compassion, nuns should be respectfully addressed by the male church with these crucial and kind words: It's your turn to speak, what's on your mind?