One would think a group of Catholic women would have better things to do on a balmy fall evening than stand about the George Mason University campus holding up protest signs, but no, "Les Femmes" were there on a mission.
When Les Femmes, which means "the women" in French, heard that Sister Helen Prejean was giving a speech, members showed up with candles and protest signs.
"I happen to agree with Sister Prejean about capital punishment," said Les Femmes' president, Mary Ann Kreitzer, 50, of Alexandria. "I wish she agreed with me on abortion." Sister Prejean inspired the 1995 movie "Dead Man Walking."
Therese Bukowski, secretary for the group, handed out literature at the protest. "We wanted to ask her about Paul Hill, who is on death row," she said. "Is she going to defend him?" Paul Hill has been convicted of killing a doctor and an escort at a Pensacola, Fla., abortion clinic in 1994.
Les Femmes believe Catholics should be wearing out shoe leather protesting everything from sex education in the schools, feminist teachings, abortion and public acceptance of homosexuality. This past weekend, as the nation's Catholic prelates were arriving for their annual four-day National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Les Femmes held a candlelight vigil outside the papal nunciature asking the bishops to hold true to papal teachings.
"With us, intolerance is a beautiful thing," said Les Femmes' vice president, Mary K. Bailey, 49, of Vienna, "intolerance of sin and error, that is."
In an era where diversity and tolerance are the supreme secular virtues, these self-styled "housewives with chutzpah" from the "silent majority" say someone has got to take a stand.
"No one listens to us," said Mrs. Bukowski, 38, of Vienna, a mother of five. "We're not the single moms everyone loves in this country. We're the women that stay married."
The women say they are most frustrated by how Catholic public figures who favor abortion, contraception and homosexuality go unpunished and how dioceses exercise little discretion as to who speaks in their parishes. Mrs. Kreitzer said she was informed of the Prejean speech through a phone call from a priestly informant.
"Isn't it a shame," her husband, Larry, said, "a priest is calling you instead of his bishop?"
Bishop John R. Keating, a conservative who forbids liturgical innovations such as altar girls at parish Masses, is not far enough to the right for Les Femmes, and the diocesan chancellor, the Rev. Robert J. Rippy, declined comment about the group.
Mrs. Kreitzer says: "The bishop told me sometimes we cross the boundaries. That's OK. We pray for the bishop every day. If we're going to shine the light on [church] scandals, we need to pray for our priests."
Father Bob Cilinski, the Catholic chaplain at George Mason, said Les Femmes come across as good-intentioned people, "but their publications are very judgmental and severe, lacking the spirit of love," he says.
And Sister Prejean, he said, is pro-life and has been misunderstood on the topic before. "The fact that 1,100 people came to her talk and there were only 10 people protesting: There's a message there."
Les Femmes, a 2-year-old organization whose mailing list is at 900 names in 22 states, is part of a conservative Catholic underground of newsletters, telephone trees and Internet sites. If the institutions don't speak out, the members say, then the little people at the grass roots of society must do so.
Possibly their splashiest protest was against "radical feminism," held on a steamy June day in 1994 on the west steps of the U. …