Nun wars: For Pete’s sake, quote the Vatican

At the heart of the whole U.S. nuns vs. the Vatican media storm is the April 18th “doctrinal assessment” in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expressed its concerns about the theological orientation expressed by the leadership of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The report mentions a host of concerns about a decade or two of LCWR educational events, speeches, national conferences, etc.

The document is not hard to find and it is only eight pages long. Click here to read it.

Since this story is going to be around for some time, it’s important to note how many, if not most, mainstream reporters are framing the dispute.

Now, this is a story with two sides and there are articulate voices out there to quote representing the competing points of view. However, the actual Vatican document states many of the basic facts and, to my amazement, major news organizations have consistently been paraphrasing this document to say things that it does not, in fact, say.

That’s a problem. It’s hard to follow a debate when some of the key facts crucial to the contents of the debate have been twisted.

Consider, for example, the top of this new Reuters report, as it appeared in The Chicago Tribune:

(Reuters) – In Washington, D.C., and Toledo, Ohio, in upstate New York and in south Texas, protesters have gathered in recent weeks with a simple message: Let the sisters be.

The vigils in cities across the United States are intended to express solidarity with American Roman Catholic nuns, who are struggling to formulate a response to a sharp rebuke from the Vatican.

The Vatican last month accused the leading organization of U.S. nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, of focusing too much on social-justice issues such as poverty and not enough on abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia. The Vatican also rapped the group for standing by as some nuns publicly challenged U.S. bishops on matters of church doctrine and public policy.

Readers who have followed this story closely will spot all kinds of familiar errors. For example, the story frames the conflict with the whole “let the sisters be” construct, backed with descriptions of the protests (with no factual material about the size of these efforts, other than a later reference to an online petition with 50,000 signatures) that are meant to “express solidarity with American Roman Catholic nuns.”

Yes, way down in the story, there are voices that try to focus on what the Vatican document actually says:

Mary Ann Walsh, a nun who serves as spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said some protesters might have misinterpreted the Vatican’s action. Church officials demanded reform of the nuns’ leadership group, she said, but did not intend to criticize all 57,000 nuns in the United States.

There’s a simple logic behind this argument by Walsh — the Vatican document goes out of its way to focus on the leadership of some of these orders, as opposed to the rank-and-file members of the orders, in general. Thus, here’s the crucial question for the editorial team behind the story: Where are the quotes from the actual document? More on this point in a moment.

However, the most important problem with the top of this story is its paraphrased quotation — or statement of fact — that the nuns are under Vatican attack for “focusing too much on social-justice issues such as poverty and not enough on abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia.” The problem is with the first half of this statement, because the Vatican document simply does not say this. Instead, it praises the nuns for their work with the poor and needy, praises them for their application of the church’s doctrines and teachings in these areas, and then questions why these same teachings have not been applied as rigorously to abortion, marriage, euthanasia, etc.

The critical issue is this: Where are reporters getting the statement that the Vatican thinks the nuns have focused “too much” on poverty and social justice? The document does criticize the leaders of some of these orders for ignoring or undercutting the church on some critical issues, but that is not the same as saying that they have spent too much time on the care of the sick and the needy.

Let’s look at two chunks of the actual “doctrinal assessment,” sections that should have provided the background material for this section of the Reuters report — since it claims to be quoting material from the Vatican accusations (“The Vatican last month accused”) themselves.

The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years. Pope John Paul II expressed this gratitude well in his meeting with Religious from the United States in San Francisco on September 17, 1987, when he said: I rejoice because of your deep love of the Church and your generous service to God’s people. … The extensive Catholic educational and health care systems, the highly developed network of social services in the Church — none of this would exist today, were it not for your highly motivated dedication and the dedication of those who have gone before you. The spiritual vigor of so many Catholic people testifies to the efforts of generations of religious in this land. The history of the Church in this country is in large measure your history at the service of God’s people. The renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious which is the goal of this doctrinal Assessment is in support of this essential charism of Religious which has been so obvious in the life and growth of the Catholic Church in the United States.

While recognizing that this doctrinal Assessment concerns a particular conference of major superiors and therefore does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of Women Religious in the member Congregations which belong to that conference, nevertheless the Assessment reveals serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life. On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a “constant and lively sense of the Church” among some Religious.

Later on, members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith note that their research reveals that:

… while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching.

In other words, the social justice work has been done “in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine,” while work on the right-to-life and family issues have not been in harmony with those same teachings.

Once again let me stress that I am not criticizing mainstream — at Reuters, or anywhere else — journalists for quoting the claims of progressive Catholics about this document in stories in which voices on both sides are accurately covered. Their views, opinions and actions are a crucial part of the story.

I am asking a more basic question: Why do so many reporters insist on misquoting, or ignoring, the actual contents of the “doctrinal assessment” itself? Why not quote the actual document saying what it says and then go from there?

In particular, why do so many journalists keep insisting that all nuns are under attack because of they have spent too much time caring for the poor and the sick? Where does the document say that?

PHOTO COLLAGE: Portraits of some famous modern American nuns, care of the website.

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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.

  • Jo Chopra McGowan

    It’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric mainstream commentators employ to rail against the Vatican’s dictatorial ways: they compare the scandal of pedophilia and its subsequent cover-up with the selfless work of so many sisters throughout America in hospices, prisons and slums. They reference the support nuns have received in the wake of this obvious PR disaster and gleefully hurl neat phrases like “Nuns rock!” and “papal crackdown” at their reading public (Nicholas Kristof in the NYT)

    If only it were so simple.

    It’s not. For every Bishop in regal attire there is a Mother Superior to whom novices bow down in reverence. For every priest being pilloried for child abuse, there is a nun who humiliated and beat youngsters simply because she could.

    It isn’t simple and it isn’t black and white.

    And it isn’t actually about the good nuns vs. the scandalous priests anyway. This is about the authority of the Church and what it means to be a Catholic. This is about revelation, and whose job it is to interpret it.

    I don’t expect every mainstream commentator to understand or write intelligently about the real issues at stake in this incredibly fraught moment – a true standoff between the traditional and the progressive wings of the Catholic Church – but I agree that they can at least be responsible enough to quote thoughtfully and accurately from the documents in question.

    However! We all quote to our own purpose. The document itself does this when it refers patronizingly and somewhat sarcastically to the “Systems Thinking Handbook” which the LCWR has developed as a tool to help its members analyze social issues in the light of spirituality. I have read a good bit of the handbook and I found it persuasive, insightful and challenging. The authors of the CDF document, on the other hand, found it offensive and doctrinally disturbing. Their selective quoting is out of context and gives no sense of the deep faith which inspired it.

    That doesn’t excuse the media doing the same thing, but it does illuminate the depth of the divide and the willingness on both sides to avoid looking at the real questions in preference for pre-determined answers and accusations.

  • Jay

    This isn’t a news story, it’s a “controversy” story.

    In particular, it’s an anti-establishment or oppressive establishment story, and (like hundreds of thousands of stories in the past 40+ years) follows the same template. Hook with the story of the oppression — or the oppressed fighting back against their oppressors — keep the anecdotes vivid, focus on the individuals and not the actual institution or facts at hand. If the journalism is criticized, wrap yourself in H.L. Mencken.

    I realize there are some reports who would actually use the facts. But I suspect they are the same ones who would look at this day 41 story and say there’s no news there — so the story gets assigned (or self-assigned) to someone who wants to help the oppressed sisters promote their cause.


  • carl jacobs

    Why do so many reporters insist on misquoting, or ignoring, the actual contents of the “doctrinal assessment” itself?

    Framing the story in this way allows for a convenient division into pre-defined ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ Such a construct allows the morality play at the center of the story to be presented in an easy-to-understand’ manner. The media wants to present this as a “Don’t Tread on Me” re-hash of individual liberty against hierarchy. I am surprised the media hasn’t pulled out descriptions of medieval torture devices to provide context. They constantly mention that the Inquisition is the predecessor of the CDF, and there is only one reason to make that connection. It serves to illustrate the underlying narrative of Tyrannical Religious Obscurantism vs Enlightened Individualism.

    To sum up, the media is framing the story to make it easier to tell a simple morality play to the general reader, and because the media is ideologically predisposed to agree with the Liberal Nuns.


  • Rachel K

    Ugh. There’s also this bit in the Reuters article:

    But many protesters say they do not see the distinction and accuse the Vatican of silencing and marginalizing all women. In recent weeks some pro-nun vigils have added prayers for the Girl Scouts; U.S. bishops have just announced they would investigate the Girl Scouts out of concern that the group might have “problematic relationships” with organizations that support access to birth control. The church teaches that artificial contraception is a sin.

    News of the Girl Scouts investigation, coming just after the crackdown on nuns, has many Catholics thinking, “What’s next, kittens and puppy dogs?” Fiedler said.

    For starters, what on Earth is going on with that last quote? Did Fiedler say that this “has many Catholics thinking, ‘Whats’ next, kittens and puppy dogs?’” If so, why isn’t the “many Catholics” part in quotes? Or is Reuters using Fiedler’s quote to stand in as the opinion of “many Catholics”? If so, who are the “many Catholics”? Other nuns? The protesters? People who have called in to Fiedler’s radio show? Where are the numbers that show that there are, in fact, “many Catholics” who feel this way?

    More to the point, though, why is it a problem that the bishops are investigating whether the Girl Scouts go against church teaching in order to decide whether to endorse the Girl Scouts? As far as I know, every large organization in the world–not just religions, but governments and businesses–occasionally have to investigate groups that have worked with them to make sure those groups follow their mission statement. If the American Cancer Society was investigating a group that they’d sponsored in the past because of rumors that the group endorsed tanning salons, no one would say boo.

  • Hieronymus

    Nothing new, really. For several decades now the mainstream media do not report facts to inform but manipulate facts to indoctrinate.

  • Joseph

    We love what sisters/nuns have done. This is about a few groups not all sisters and nuns. If you’re going to be a nun or sister for goodness sake follow the teaching of the Church because you are causing problems. And for some of you liberal sister and nuns that was your goal in the first place. Everyone must follow the same teaching or get out and start your own Church. You would be the first!

  • Tim

    There is a story by Michael O’Malley in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer about upcoming vigils for the nuns. It has a few snippets from the document, but nothing from that opening paragraph.

    I think this quote from a local pastor, Fr. Koesel, summarizes how supporters of the LCWR feel:

    “The problem with the Vatican approach,” Koesel wrote in his church bulletin, “is that it places the nuns squarely on the side of Jesus and the Vatican on the side of tired old men.”

    So it’s not just “Vatican v. Nuns”, it’s “Tired Old Men v. Jesus”.

    The article says it tried to contact some local nuns, but I’m assuming the reporter tried to contact members of the LCRW.

  • Tim

    And here is a link to the bulletin referenced in the Cleveland Plain Dealer Article (via Blessed Trinity Church’s website):

    The one thing I took away from the bulletin was there was barely a mention of Pentecost until the last few sentences: “The old order died. The Holy Spirit won. Happy
    Pentecost Sunday!”

    The rest of it is, to use Fr. Koesel’s words, a “diatribe”. But it seems like a decent description of how liberal Catholics view the “nun controversy”.

  • lisag

    … This evaluation of the leadership of American nuns goes along with the made up “war on women”. The mean Catholic Church leaders are picking on poor helpless nuns who only want to help the poor. Just as they are against women as priests and want to deny women contraception.

  • John

    At this point, I take anything that comes from the MSM regarding the Catholic Church with a barrel load of salt. Fact is, they’ve always hated the Church, going back to the days of the 19th Century when the papers wrapped their arms around the Know Nothings. The only difference is that nowadays it’s secularists who are throwing stones instead of Protestants, along with a mob of apostates like Maureen Down and Bill Kellar, who are really just modern-day Catholic versions of Sonderkommando…

  • Mouse

    Ah, but if the mainstream media quoted Rome correctly, they wouldn’t be able to spread anti-Catholic propaganda…which is their underlying goal, or at least the subconscious reality!