That strange inquiry into nuns and doctrine

nunsWhile the health-care wars are dominating the mainstream press at the moment, I think it’s interesting that the Vatican inquiry into the doctrinal standards of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is continuing to get quite a bit of ink. In fact, there’s too much coverage — click here for a sample — to take it on all at once.

Since we can’t look at all of the coverage, let’s look at one Associated Press report — since that is the wire-service source that will reach most readers. This version of the story recently ran in USA Today. Here’s the top of the piece, which focuses on the great “mystery” of why Rome things this investigation is needed:

An association of U.S. Roman Catholic sisters raised questions … about why they are the target of, and who is paying for, a Vatican investigation that is shaping up to be a tough review of whether sisters have strayed from church teaching.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing about 800 heads of religious orders, said there was a “lack of full disclosure about the motivation and funding sources” for the inquiry. …

The investigation, announced earlier this year, will examine the practices of the roughly 59,000 Catholic sisters working in the United States. Some sisters have privately expressed anger over the assessment, which they say unfairly questions their commitment to church teaching. However, in public they have remained largely circumspect in their comments.

Later we read more about these mysterious questions, which seem, in fact, quite accusatory:

… (The) nature of some questions seems to validate concerns that they are suspected of being unfaithful to the church. Among the requested information are details of “the process for responding to sisters who dissent publicly or privately from the authoritative teaching of the Church.”

Separately, the Vatican has opened a “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which is based in Silver Spring, Md. … The Vatican ordered a similar investigation of U.S. Catholic seminaries in 2002, at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

There are other elements of the story, including (naturally) a dismissive quotation from Father Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. However, what you will not find is a single sentence from conservative Catholics or neutral observers giving any factual material about activities by any individuals or religious orders that might inspire such an inquiry.

It’s all a mystery, you see.

catholicsusecondomsBut this is one case in which journalists might want to actually read one of the most powerful voices on the Catholic left — as in Frances “Sometimes abortion is the better choice” Kissling, the founding president of Catholics for Choice.

The always colorful Kissling recently wrote a Salon piece focusing on the fact that the leaders of some religious orders do not want to talk about their role in the sexual-abuse scandals that have rocked the church in recent decades. The headline was blunt:

Nuns on the run from the truth

Why won’t the leadership of America’s nuns meet with the survivors of sexual abuse by nuns, and hear their stories?

That is certainly an important topic. But I was struck by this passage in her piece:

Nuns, it seems, are no longer as obedient as the Vatican would like. One sister I know is a clinic escort at her local reproductive health clinic; others are active in gay and lesbian ministries and one, close to 90, has been a leader in the movement for sex worker rights. They fasted for the Equal Rights Amendment, spoke out in favor of women priests and choice, marched with Martin Luther King, and thought John Paul II was a disaster.

We — feminists and progressive Catholics — love them.

Now that’s interesting. While many different kinds of Catholics, left and right, backed the Civil Rights Movement, I would imagine that Rome would take a different view of those actually involved movements that oppose Catholic teachings. A nun serving as an escort at an abortion clinic?

Anyway, it seems to me that it would not be hard to produce a fact paragraph or two to include in AP follow-up reports that is based on information of this kind, facts and anecdotes drawn from liberal and centrist Catholics as well as conservatives. Perhaps this would put the Vatican investigation in context and make it a bit less mysterious?

Just saying….

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry N

    That question about funding sources is a new one to me. Has anyone played that card in response to a Vatican inquiry before?

  • Peggy

    I am very curious about this weird belief that some one must be paying for the investigation. I have never heard of such a thing. Fr. Reese pushed that idea in one article I read. The article you posted shows it at the top as well. Don’t the media want to know why the women religious & Fr Reese have such an idea? How common is such a funding?

  • Julia

    I am constantly amused at US Catholics wanting the Vatican to operate like a US democracy. We are so insular and self-involved. And the press never gets that the European continent has a different kind of legal system – which derives from Roman law instead of the English common law, the source of our US legal system. Catholic Canon Law comes from that European tradition, not the English system.

    Additionally – if people and organizations are holding themselves out to the public as representing a world-wide organization, why wouldn’t that world-wide organization want to have some oversight concerning how it is run and its activities? We’re alway accusing the UN of not doing so good at overseeing its troops, for example.

    tmatt says

    Later we read more about these mysterious questions, which seem, in fact, quite accusatory

    I wonder why you used the word accusatory. It’s very public knowledge that some religious orders and/or members are involved in public dissent – you frequently link to MSM reports about that dissent. In fact, you list quite a few instances in a later paragraph in this very post.

    Why wouldn’t the parent organization want to know how the order is handling that public dissent by its members? Joining up with a religious order is somewhat like joining the military – there are greater expectations of loyalty and toeing the line. Freedom of speech is a guarantee in the US Constitution Bill of Rights and it only refers to US government curbing speech of its citizens. It has no relevance to Vatican activities.

  • Julia

    If I worked for the Jiff Peanut Butter Company and was badmouthing peanutbutter to the public and the press, writing books about how Jiff is bad for your arteries, and teaching against eating peanut butter in the classroom at Jiff University, I don’t think I’d keep my job very long.

    I understand that Wheaton gently pushes Catholic converts off the payroll. Is that shocking? Not to me.

    It is not the Vatican City-state that is making an inquiry, it is church management. I think the MSM gets that confused. This is not a civil rights issue. We’re talking about a voluntary association dealing with its voluntary members, no different from Wheaton College. But quite different from the Episcopalians and the Evangelical Lutherans in America – who vote on things.

    I think reporters need to sit down and think through the nature of the institution on which they are reporting. All religious institutions are not alike.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There is another organization of American Catholic religious women. It is far more orthodox, loyal, and traditional than the “Leadership” organization. It even goes by a Latin name which I can’t recall right now–but it is growing and the number of women in their religious orders is thriving.
    Yet, so far, it is the Leadership” group which is considered THE organization of religious women.
    My suspicion is that this inquiry is to lay the groundwork for disbanding the “Leadership” group (which is rapidly dieing anyway because the heretical radicalism of so many of its leaders and orders is attracting very few vocations). That will pave the way for the more traditional group to be recognized as the THE official organization of religious sisters by the Vatican.
    This would make perfect sense under the circumstances. Maybe some media coverage could look at it from this angle. But it would take a little deep probing.

  • liberty

    I was struck by the top picture that you have on this piece. That might be the traditional understanding of what a Catholic nun looks like… but that is NOT what the women of the ‘Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ (those who are being investigated) look like at all. A better image would be angry women in their 60s protesting something while wearing polyester pantsuits.

    That’s something that I think has not been well covered – the fact that there are now 2 groups of Catholic women religious. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is made up of religious groups who are (for lack of a better term) ‘liberal’. They tend to be older women and have few (if any) vocations with younger women. The other group (The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious) tends to be made up of religious orders who look like those young women in the picture above – young, wearing habits and living in community.

    As far as I can tell that second group is not a subject of the inquiry by the Vatican. One would think that reporters would ask some questions about what sets the two groups apart and has resulted in different treatment by the Vatican.

  • Perpetua

    Well, I have wondered how the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Atherton (south of San Francisco) wound up having a school play promoting homosexuality using the old shellfish argument.

    Were they the dupes of the lay man running the drama program or were they in on the plan to defy the Archbishop of San Francisco?

  • Brian Walden

    Here’s how journalists can cut to the chase. Interview the leaders of of the LCWR and ask them if they can profess the Nicene Creed. You’ll have your answer to why they’re being investigated.

    P.S. the nuns in the picture have nothing to worry about – they’re the good kind of nuns.

  • Susan Peterson

    Where did that awful picture/condom ad come from?
    It doesn’t seem directly related to the article, unless it is meant to be an example of something promoted by disobedient nuns.

    Oh, I see from the small print that it is something that person Francis Kissling’s organization did. UGH.

    I wish there were a way to trademark the brand “Catholic” and keep people like her from using it.

    from shamefully mis-using it

    Susan Peterson

  • CEK

    So far I’ve only seen poor reporting on this issue from the MSM. The standard personalities are referenced, and language amenable to the LCWR’s resistance. Not once have I heard from the sister who’s actually leading the investigation, and you’d think she would be one of the best people to interview!

    The gay/condom ad reminds of the ones that Catholics for Choice plastered all over Cologne for WYD 2005. The ads depicted two young people engaged in a pre-sex act, with the caption “Abstinence has a high failure rate’. Which lead to one of the greatest examples of organic adbusting I’ve ever witness, with WYDs defacing the ads so they read ‘Abstinence has a high’.

  • Julia

    Are these the Episcopalian nuns that are converting?