Nun wars: Plain Dealer gets one side of the story

So, let’s let the whole progressive nuns vs. the Vatican thread spin on a bit, since the regional stories continue to pop up in the mainstream press.

In the comment pages on my most recent piece on this topic, a reader points us towards a sterling piece of advocacy journalism in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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

The question to ask yourself, as you read this Plain Dealer piece is quite simple: Who did the newsroom interview to speak on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy?

Wait! Please read the whole piece before you click “comment.”

At this point, we can almost go through a checklist to keep track of the basic problems in these mainstream news, or perhaps “news,” reports. The goal is to see if each story states:

* The Vatican attacked all American nuns.

* The Vatican attacked the nuns for working too much on social justice issues, especially work with the needy and sick, and not enough on culture war issues such as abortion and the defense of Catholic doctrines on issues of sexuality, marriage and family.

* The views of critics of the Vatican’s “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, but not the critics of the LCWR, especially not the voices of traditional nuns and sisters.

* The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is the only national organization worth mentioning, to the exclusion of the smaller — but growing — Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

A special bonus is extended to stories that do not even quote the eight-page document released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which can be easily found online. Click here to read it. An honorable mention citation to those fail to quote the central thesis of the document, perhaps even with commentary quotes from articulate voices on the Catholic left and right discussing what this passage means. I refer to this passage, especially its reference to a “fundamental Christological center.”

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.

Now, the Plain Dealer article jumps off the rails right in the framing language of its lede, which states:

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Some local Catholics are coming together for a prayer vigil Wednesday as a show of support for America’s nuns, whom the Vatican accuses of having “serious doctrinal problems.”

The vigils, of course, are said to be in support of “America’s nuns,” not the group that is actually criticized in the Vatican document — the LCWR leadership. All of America’s nuns are accused of having “serious doctrinal problems,” a statement directly contradicted in the actual Vatican text.

This is really interesting, since The Plain Dealer then goes on to print information that contradicts its own lede:

The vigil at St. Colman Catholic Church on Cleveland’s West Side follows a Vatican move last month to intervene and reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization that represents most U.S. nuns.

The Vatican scolded the conference for making statements that “disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.”

Three cheers for the phrase “most U.S. nuns,” which, of course, means that the Vatican is not attacking all American nuns. Who are these other nuns? Are any of them in the Cleveland area? (Cue the crickets.)

It is also accurate to say that the Vatican is interested in reforming the LCWR itself, which is by its nature a leadership network. It would have helped to have quoted the document’s statement that its contents should not be seen as criticism of the nuns and sisters in these various orders, but that would simply be too much to ask, I guess.

Later on, the story clearly states the following:

The Vatican action follows the completion of two separate investigations — launched by the Holy See in late 2008 and the spring of 2009 — into the lifestyles, politics and doctrinal beliefs of American sisters. One inquiry, known as a “visitation,” ended in December, but its results have not been made public.

The other, known as a “doctrinal assessment,” targeted the nuns’ leadership conference, an organization that claims 1,500 members representing more than 80 percent of the 57,000 Catholic sisters in the United States. The assessment concluded that the leadership conference has ignored various church doctrines and has pushed “certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” …

It added that the conference has worked hard to promote social justice issues but has remained silent on church concerns such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Bravo for the additional factual information about the size and make-up of the LCWR. Bravo, sort of, for avoiding the now all but standard claim that the nuns were attacked for working “too much” on social issues. The wording in The Plain Dealer is much better than the norm, but still fails to note that the Vatican actually praises the sisters for their application of church teachings on social justice — while then asking why the LCWR leaders have failed to apply the same teachings to other hot-button issues. That’s one of the crucial equations in the document.

Please read the whole story and, of course, it really does help, of course, to compare it with the actual Vatican document.

So, the Plain Dealer team gets some things right, some things almost right and a few things dead wrong. Still, one really has to ask: Did the same person write the lede who wrote the body of the story? Why did editors allow the factual contradictions that exist in this story?

Also, where are the voices of the conservative nuns and other critics of the LCWR? I mean, there are eight orders in Ohio that are part of the more conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. It is possible that these nuns would wish to remain silent. Still, it would be nice to know that they exist. The voice of even one living and breathing critic of the LCWR leadership would have help turned this piece of news analysis into an actual news story.

VIDEO: A brief appeal to young women from some of the nation’s orders that are attracting new members.

Print Friendly

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.

  • Tim

    Like I said in my comment, the article says it tried to contact some local nuns:

    “Local nuns contacted by The Plain Dealer declined to discuss the issue. Sister Jane Pank of Sheffield Lake said the leadership conference asked nuns not to make public comments until after it issues a statement.”

    This made me think that they tried to contact only members of the LCWR. Are all nuns obliged to follow the LCWR? The fact that you quoted a nun about this in your previous article made me think that that wasn’t the case.

    But the article does mention a spokesman for Archbishop Sartain, who is heading the intervention, did not want to speak on the matter until the Archbishop spoke with the leadership conference. This lead me to believe that the reporter tried to contact the Archbishop for comment.

    And the author of the article, Michael O’Malley, has been mentioned on GetRelgion before:

  • Joe K

    Local nuns contacted by The Plain Dealer declined to discuss the issue.

    I think comments from local nuns would tend to be distorted, especially regarding controversial topics such as LCWR. Religious women (and men) make a vow of obedience to their superior, and they tend to live in community or at least have a very strong corporate/group identity. When the story involves the whole group then individuals defer to their leader. This individual/group dynamic is similar in the military and the business world, etc. Women (and men) religious who cherish their vows would hesitate to air dirty laundry to the outside public. Comments tend to come from from mavericks or dissenters who’ve left their community. On the other hand, authority figures (mother superior, bishop or Holy See) who value cohesiveness and try to protect their individual members have less motivation to discuss internal matters.

  • Maureen

    Given the increasing small membership numbers of LCWR orders, and the fantastic growth rates among non-LCWR orders, I suspect that it’s not a case of “most American nuns.”

    But yeah, most responsible sisters and nuns of any order would hesitate to make statements on the record, because they can’t claim to speak for their orders. Irresponsible ones would probably yak their heads off, of course.

  • Jofro

    It is truly shocking to see, day after day, newspapers that do not even try to get this story right.

    In this day and age, when the Vatican document is available on the internet, for free, for anyone to have a read, in English, how hard is it really for even a low-level journalist to get the facts right?

    Reading these articles honestly make me want to take the newspapers, fold it up, and smack the journalist repeatedly, with me screaming, ‘Why you no check facts!! WHY?”

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    There is an interesting piece of news out from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops which, in the context of the LCWR controversy, shows on which side of the issue the current leadership of the USCCB falls.


    WASHINGTON—Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, a member of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tennessee, has been named executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Sister Fleming currently is principal of St. Dominic School, Bolingbrook, Illinois….
    “I am delighted that Sister John Mary will soon join the USCCB and am grateful to her religious community for allowing her to accept this appointment,” Msgr. Jenkins said. “Both she and her religious community have shown a commitment to Catholic education that resonances with our conference and which has been a hallmark of the Catholic church in this country”….
    Sister Fleming holds a licentiate in canon law from The Catholic University of America, a master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, a master of education degree in educational leadership and supervision from the University of Southern Mississippi and a bachelor’s degree in education from Belmont University, Nashville.
    Prior to her term as principal at St. Dominic’s, 2010-present, Sister Fleming was director of education for her religious congregation, 2000-2007; interim vice president of operations at Aquinas College, Nashville, 2000-2001; and coordinator of her congregation’s $46 million motherhouse building project, 2000-2006.
    She served on the board of Aquinas College, 2000-2007, and currently is a board member of Providence Academy, Minneapolis. In 2012, she also served on the 10-member team to develop a program for the year of Faith for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois.

    There are certain details here that, for LCWR leadership, probably feel like salt being rubbed into the wounds. She’s a canon lawyer (nasty creatures, them), a graduate of Franciscan University (that bastion of orthodoxy), led the charge on the much-needed expansion of their motherhouse (because they have so many women entering their convent), is on the board of an independent (i.e., not owned by the Archdiocese or any religious order) Catholic academy, and she was called on by the former Bishop of Steubenville, now the Bishop of Joliet (the former See city of the one who’s investigating the LCWR), to develop that program for the Year of Faith. Oh, yes – and she wears her habit.

    And then, there’s that money quote from Msgr. Jenkins: “Both she and her religious community have shown a commitment to Catholic education that resonances with our conference and which has been a hallmark of the Catholic church in this country.” Ouch! That had to hurt.

    Of course, the USCCB chose her because she’s good at what she does and wants her leadership on a national level. But the appointment could easily be viewed as an open-handed slap in the face to the orders affiliated with the LCWR and a ringing endorsement of those affiliated with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. Whether or not this will be picked up in the mainstream press is another issue.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Given the increasing small membership numbers of LCWR orders, and the fantastic growth rates among non-LCWR orders, I suspect that it’s not a case of “most American nuns.”

    Actually, the “most American nuns” bit is accurate, as the LCWR represents about 80% of all women religious in the United States. Despite the steep decline in vocations and the fact that within the next ten years a huge portion of LCWR members will likely die, for the time being LCWR still does represent the majority of American nuns. I suspect that very soon the LCWR and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (the more traditional group) will be rather equal in terms of members, but it is not currently the case.