Take this number — please

Number dispenser

On Saturday, thousands of opponents of the current health care legislation showed up at the Capitol where they expressed concern with various parts of the bill. I was able to observe many hours of the protest and some of the proceedings inside. But I thought it interesting that the very first protester I saw getting off at the Metro stop nearest to the Capitol was a nun in habit.

I had written about a few problems with last week’s coverage of a letter released by Network, a Catholic social justice group, in support of health care reform legislation. It was signed by several dozen influential women leaders but it was portrayed by some media as representing all 59,000 women religious in the country. This was because it was signed by the head of a major association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States (Leadership Conference of Women Religious). Her group has 1500 members, but they’re spread throughout some 90 percent of congregations.

One reporter wrote in, asking for more explanation of my criticism that the group of nuns who signed the letter in support of health care shouldn’t be described as representing tens of thousands of sisters. I’ll sum up her points but she said she thought this was one of the most bizarre and politicized criticisms in memory and that it’s standard to identify organization leaders by who they represent. She said Americans know that not everyone in a given organization/religion/etc. agrees with the leader.

I think many of these points are completely reasonable and I should clarify that I do think it’s important for reporters to identify prominent leaders by explaining who they represent. But I’ll also note that I didn’t read any stories about the Roman Catholic bishops coming out against health care legislation that put their advocacy in terms of how many people they officially represent (on the order of 60 million Americans). If we had seen that kind of parallel structure in stories, it might not be such a problem.

Also, some reporters were more nuanced than others. Part of the problem was that some reports, including Associated Press accounts and at least one Washington Post story, flat out said that one woman’s endorsement meant that 59,000 sisters (or nuns, as the media put it) had decided to wade into the fray. That’s how many women religious are in the entire country! Here’s the Washington Post‘s Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane, again:

… 59,000 nuns waded into the debate, declaring their support for the legislation …

Not all reporters overstated the letter that came from the social justice group NETWORK (the lobbying organization about which we talked about in a previous post), but this is just factually untrue. What happened, according to Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK, is that she emailed out a request for signatures on Sunday of last week and requested a response by Tuesday. She did get over 50 signatures. Most of these signatures were, for instance, from the head of the Sisters of St. Francis in Tiffin, Ohio, or the president of Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters in Huntington, IN. But there are over 700 congregational groups like this. That’s not where the huge number came from.

The inflated figures arose because of one woman — Marlene Weisenbeck. She signed twice. Once her name was listed as the President of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in LaCrosse, WI. But she’s also the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. That group actually has 1500 members, not 59,000. But those 1500 members have leadership positions in some 90% of the women’s congregations in the country. That still doesn’t explain how some media outlets came up with the 59,000 figure, but the press release issued by NETWORK did claim that they spoke for 59,000 sisters.

I think a better number to use would have been LCWR’s membership number. Not that any of those 1500 members were consulted on the endorsement but they really are members of that organization and could be fairly said to be represented by their president.

Still, I think the worse problem was that almost every media outlet portrayed the endorsement by this leader of the association — and a few dozen administrators of the over 700 U.S. congregations — as a surprising or rare break within American Catholicism. It seemed that no one remembered that the Vatican is actually investigating the LCWR for heterodoxy. Things have been tense between traditionalists and the progressive sisters for 30 years but one of the final straws was when the LCWR had a conference with a keynote speaker talking about “moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus.” They couldn’t be in the midst of a more public break if one of the sides were advertising it on a billboard. And while I don’t think the Vatican investigation was mentioned in recent mainstream reports, I think that this New York Times story did a good job of putting the endorsement in context:

In breaking publicly with Roman Catholic bishops over the health care bill, a group of nuns has once again exposed the long-running rift between liberal and conservative theology in the Catholic Church.

The issue dividing them is whether the Senate version of the legislation goes far enough in limiting the use of federal subsidies paid for insurance policies that cover abortion. Progressive Catholics, including the group of more than 50 nuns representing thousands more from various religious orders, said this week that they would support the Senate bill. The traditionalists, like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said they would oppose it.

Exactly — the announcement wasn’t surprising or rare so much as “once again” an expose of a “long-running rift” based on theology. And I also appreciate that the numbers are a bit more realistic from the initial reports (even if there are actually more reasons for disagreement on the abortion provisions than this or other stories manage to mention).

The article is very favorable toward the sisters and does a nice job of letting them defend themselves, although I have to admit I would have liked some meatier discussion of the actual doctrinal disagreements between the sisters and the bishops.

The Associated Press also had a more balanced take on the matter, although reporter Eric Gorski began his story by calling the split “unusual” and explaining that the bishops “regretfully” oppose the bill:

But the Catholic Health Association, which represents 600 hospitals, and about 60 Catholic nuns from various orders and groups disagree and urged Congress to pass the bill.

I think that’s a good way of describing the scope of support for the legislation. Side note: I really wish that reporters would simply mention the financial stake that Catholic Health Association has in the passage of the bill. The group spent well over a million dollars last year pushing for this. Why? I don’t know, actually, but I assume that organizations don’t spend that kind of cash without a compelling reason. But I’ve never seen that explained terribly well. Also, note how the reporter handles the “59,000 nuns” claim that crops up later in the story:

“You say that this is pro-abortion,” [Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio,] continued, and yet “you have 59,000 Catholic nuns from across the country endorsing this bill, 600 Catholic hospitals, 1,400 Catholic nursing homes endorsing this bill.”

(The bishops say the nuns supporting the bill speak only for themselves and are “grossly overstating” their claim of representing 59,000 women – essentially every nun in the country.)

Again, it strikes me as a fair way to show how the two opposing sides discuss the same endorsement letter. Well, now that it’s Monday, we all know that the Catholic Hospitals got what they and many other corporate groups lobbied for. But this is probably just the beginning of some serious fights, and religious views will certainly play a role on all sides.

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  • Darrell Turner

    E.J.Dionne wrote last week in his Washington Post column that the bishops’ statement misrepresented the views of the Catholic Health Association. What’s your take on this?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/17/AR2010031702440_pf.html

  • Peggy

    In your last excerpt,I think the journalist minimized the bishops and their view by putting an explanation of their rebuttal to the wayward nuns in parentheses. It shows that the journalist doesn’t think that the facts obtained from the USCCB have equal weight or are not really relevant to the story.

    Yes, exposing the financial interests of CHA would have been helpful. As would including photos of nuns in pantsuits!

  • Martha

    “Once her name was listed as the President of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in LaCrosse, WI.”

    Wait – what? That right there would have made me go “What the heck?” if I’d seen it. Religious congregations don’t have “Presidents” and if this group do, that’s a very, very, very, VERY (can’t emphasise enough) telling indication of theological/political inclination and likely positions on these matters.

    For instance, does anyone ever recall seeing Mother Theresa described as the “President” of the Sisters of Charity?

    Drat it, this is *exactly* the kind of detail that demonstrates why a religion reporter who knows the nuanaces and not just “hey, Joe, you’re not doing anything this minute, right?” is needed for coverage!

  • dalea

    Mollie asks:

    I have to admit I would have liked some meatier discussion of the actual doctrinal disagreements between the sisters and the bishops.

    I really don’t see this as a doctrinal dispute. It looks to me that those Catholics charged with actually running medical agencies supported it while those who have no real experienced of health care management were against. This seems to be a difference of practical concerns more than anything else.

    The other thing here is that the MSM loves nuns/sisters; they are always portrayed sympathetically. There is a cute factor here: anyone who goes against them will not be treated well. Press treatment has been like this as long as I can remember, and I don’t recall ever seeing a negative story about nuns/sisters.

  • Philip

    When will the MSM or anybody else for that matter realize that the Roman Catholic Church is not a monolith? They are as divided as any denomination could be. The only doctrine that unites them is the papacy. Everything else is up for grabs.


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