Cheering on those nuns on the bus

I’m so old that I remember when Catholic leaders getting involved in anything even slightly political meant that journalists would write hard-hitting pieces. Sometimes journalists would just follow the “too political” talking points of well-funded PR campaigns run by political opponents of the Catholic leaders.

Why, I remember this one profile of a Catholic leader that described him as angry and confrontational, only quoted those who oppose him (without mentioning their political positions), misstated the level of opposition, and ran with the “too political” theme to the bitter end. Oh wait. That was last week.

Well, this is a new week. And so we have in the same paper with the same reporter a very, very, very different type of profile of another Catholic leader.

Gone is the critique thing. In is the hagiography.

The Washington Post loves, loves, LOVES! this nuns on the bus tour. Let’s look at the gushy beginning for the piece headlined “The Nuns on the Bus tour promotes social justice — and turns a deaf ear to the Vatican.” (Would you please join me, by the way, in noticing the complete lack of scare quotes around the term “social justice”? I can’t be the only one to love that.)

The bus Sister Simone Campbell is using for her cross-country publicity tour is the type typically used by rock bands. To some, this seems appropriate. The D.C. nun was greeted in Jackson, Mich., with “Saint Simone” signs, and in Janesville, Wis., people inside a downtown office-building atrium lined the balconies chanting and snapping photos.

In the past couple of weeks, the dry-humored lobbyist has been on the “The Colbert Report.” “The Daily Show,” which will feature Campbell in July, made her a satiny, “Grease”-like jacket emblazoned with “Bad Habitz” on the back.

Why, even the liberal Colbert Report and Daily Show are cheering on Sister Simone? Well that certainly is news! Has NPR run a profile yet? (Ha, they have. Apparently 10 minutes for a piece headlined “Born To Be Wild: Catholic Nuns Hit The Road” during a week when the lawsuits against the HHS mandate received barely a mention.) Now, it’s wonderful that political activists who support increasing taxpayer funding of social welfare programs have liberal fans. Of course, most activists have their fans. They just don’t get all the fawning coverage.

Going on:

With the number of U.S. nuns plummeting in recent decades, many people have never seen one in person. Even fewer have seen a nun do something that appears as defiant as Campbell’s “Nuns on the Bus” tour, which rolls into the D.C. area this weekend in its full-size, advertisement-wrapped, spokeswoman-staffed bus.

Really? I mean, it’s an interesting world, isn’t it? When an increasingly-powerful federal government comes up with a brand new rule that would force religious groups to violate their doctrines, the targets of the mandate are presented by the media as the perpetrators of a “war on women.” And when a bus tour to protest a Republican-controlled House budget that will never even be voted on in the Senate — and not just because the Democratic-controlled Senate hasn’t passed a budget in over three years — this is an act of brave defiance?

Again, I’m not talking about the merits of fighting for religious liberty vs. the merits for fighting for an increase in federal funding of social welfare programs. These are complex issues and there are folks on all sides of these issues. But isn’t the framing distinction just staggering? By the way, there is no mention of the fact that the Senate hasn’t passed a budget in three years and won’t pass this budget that is being politically protested by activist nuns. Instead we’re told that the tour is simply an attempt to “motivate opposition to a House budget” and also a response to the Vatican’s April report:

The report said many nun leaders are focusing too much on ­social-justice issues and too little on same-sex marriage and abortion.

Actually, that’s not true. Not true at all.

It’s not true that the report said many nun leaders are focusing too much on social-justice issues. And this is an error that has been pointed out so much that it almost looks like it’s willful misrepresentation at this point. I might be so bold as to suggest a few less hours of Colbert viewing and a few more seconds of Vatican-report-reading. Go head: Click here for the full text (.pdf). It’s the journalistic thing to do.

The report, as informed readers (and a few journalists) know, praises the sisters for what they’ve done on social justice issues and then criticizes them for their silence on other similar doctrinal issues linked to the dignity of every person, from conception to natural death.

Anyway, the Post report goes on with hagiographic prose (and the reporter really is a talented writer, which makes almost everything she writes a joy to read, even if the pieces veer from hostile to cheerleading, depending on the subject).

We get many quotes about the “unspoken” message of the tour. Actually, they’re not quotes but just copy from the reporter:

The tour’s unspoken, but nonetheless loud, message: The nuns’ moral compass is working just fine, thank you.

There are quotes from people supportive of Campbell and lots of positive descriptions of her and her work.

We get a mention of the Catholic Church’s focus on religious liberty. One thing I found most curious was that Campbell’s work advocating for the 2010 health care law was mentioned alongside Sister Carol Keehan’s. But something was missing:

Campbell and Sister Carol Keehan, head of the huge Catholic Health Association, were considered key to the White House passing the health-care law; their approval helped balance bishops’ concern that the plan could provide federal funding for abortions. …

Campbell also bucked the bishops on their efforts to overturn a part of the new law that requires employers — including faith-based ones — to provide access to contraception coverage for their employees. Campbell “trusts the word of the administration” that the details will be worked out, her spokeswoman said.

Of course Keehan has since switched sides on the HHS mandate mentioned here. It seems like it should be mentioned. Anyway, just two paragraphs before the lengthy piece ends, we get a brief if brutal quote from someone who isn’t as rah-rah on the bus tour as the Post is. And guess what: He’s identified as a “conservative.”

The piece ends with a quote from Campbell ripping on Paul Ryan’s Catholicism. Neither he nor any of his supporters are quoted in the piece.

A few final thoughts. I wish the piece would have mentioned whether Sister Simone differs from the Catholic bishops on her view regarding the House budget. And, if not (and the answer is that they also had harsh words for it), why is this being framed as awesome, courageous, so-cool-we-can-barely-contain-ourselves! nuns against the big, bad Catholic leaders? How many nuns are on this bus? Is it just Campbell? (Should just one nun get this much coverage? Should we be using the plural? Given how much coverage this tour has received, even apart from Colbert and Stewart and NPR and the rest, I assumed it must be hundreds of nuns. But another report I read said that it was just Campbell and couple-three others.) Shouldn’t that be mentioned? Who is behind this bus tour? Who is paying for it? And are all sisters in these orders uniformly in agreement that this sort of partisan political activity is a good idea?

But other than that, a great yang to the yin of the Lori profile we saw last week.

IMAGE: Picture of the bus via a Catholic blog that did some non-gushy coverage of Campbell and her tour.

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  • Dave

    And this is an error that has been pointed out so much that it almost looks like it’s willful misrepresentation at this point.

    Sometimes a meme just grabs hold and won’t let go. Like the notion that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. It’s abetted when it aligned with someone else’s (usually adverse) political interest.

  • Bill

    Where to start?

    With the number of U.S. nuns plummeting in recent decades, many people have never seen one in person.

    Apparently, many reporters, including Michelle Boorstein have never understood that Catholic religious have taken a vow of obedience.

    The national attention being focused on a bus tooling across the Midwest with five nuns aboard says everything about the United States’ charged political climate. It wraps up gender, partisanship, religion and health care, all things that make a sexy story inside the Beltway these days.

    Actually, the national attention being focused on five nuns on a bus says everything about what the national press thinks is important. And it ain’t religious liberty.

    “When that happened, many [Catholic] House members felt: ‘If the sisters feel that way, we shouldn’t be worried.’ And it wound up helping to break the deadlock,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a group advocating for affordable health care.

    I guess he means Catholic House members like Nancy Pelosi.

  • Maureen

    I think a lot of Catholics hold deep anger toward the more liberal orders of sisters, because they not only fell for bad ideas, but pushed them on us. They were adults; we were helpless kids. Our parents wasted money on parochial schools; they didn’t know they weren’t as good as when they were kids. We went to be taught our religion, only to be taught wishywashy stuff or total falsehoods.

    Orders of nuns and sisters that have stayed real Catholic monastic communities instead of playbaby wannabe Buddhist or New Age ones, or ones worshipping the gods of Politics and Demonstrations, are still well loved and respected. The others, not so much.

  • Rachel K

    The report, as informed readers know, praises the sisters for what they’ve done on social justice issues and then criticizes them for silence on other issues.

    It’s even less controversial than that. The report doesn’t criticize them for silence on other issues, but for “policies of corporate dissent” and “protesting the Holy See’s actions.” In other words, the Vatican doesn’t give a tinker’s toot if an order devoted to helping the poor stays silent on gay marriage, because that has absolutely nothing to do with its charism. If the order starts saying that the best way to help poor women is to improve their access to contraceptives and protect their rights to legal abortion, that’s a different kettle of fish.

  • Kevin J Jones

    Faith in Public Life, the same media strategy group running cover for the Obama administration in the HHS mandate controversy, is also running the PR campaign for the Nuns on the Bus tour.

    If I recall right, Sr. Simone Campbell’s predecessor as head of Network was a founding board member of FPL.

    FPL is certainly competent at what it does.

  • Norman

    “and the reporter really is a talented writer, which makes almost everything she writes a joy to read”

    It’s paint by numbers. We get the same breezy, cutesy, aren’t-they-hip tone for every favored religious figure, with a dash of aren’t-they-brave thrown in somewhere. There is a set tone for every propaganda need and it has all become unutterably dull. Our media has become unutterably dull.

    I had a class in college where every exam was multiple choice and the basic format was “common wisdom says X”, which was always the wrong answer, “but we now know Y”, which was always the right answer. I stopped studying and only showed up for class to take the exams, and I banked my A. Our media is like that today. We know what every single story is going to say in our major newspapers without ever having to bother to read past the headline.

    It’s not a joy, it’s a bore. We could pretty much design reporter-bots and forgo the human element, which is lacking in contemporary journalism anyway.

  • Norman

    If the subject is a Catholic group or figure who they dislike, there will be some emphasis on secrecy, darkness. If a disfavored evangelical group or person is under the microscope, they will be presented as wild-eyed, unsophisticated, lacking in depth, also cloyingly and impossibly wholesome.

    We have already read every media story that will be written for the foreseeable future. It is all rinse-and-repeat at this point.

  • Will

    ….Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a group advocating for affordable health care.

    I guess that shows all those people who are against affordable health care.

    And what is the difference between “advocating” and “advocating for”? (Yes, I know I should be posting that on GetGrammar.)

  • John M.


    Another day, another windmill that needs to be tilted at. It is sort of fascinating in its maddening predictability, though, isn’t it?


  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “The nuns on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…” Oh, sorry! Was that disrespectful?

    Anyway, what else are we to expect? When you’ve got funding from Faith in Public Life (presumably) and FPL is feeding the press their lines, what else is going to happen? It’s the GIGO factor — garbage in, garbage out.

  • Mollie

    Wait, the claim above is that FPL is running the PR campaign for the partisan bus tour while running the PR campaign based on the idea that fighting for religious liberty is “too political”?

    Really? I am sorry, but I have a hard time believing that’s true. Any links for substantiation?

    I have a very difficult time believing that reporters could regurgitate both PR campaigns if they were being run simultaneously. I have a hard enough time believing they’re going for the “too political” one I know they are doing.

  • Mollie

    Also, I’m totally mortified that I missed how many nuns were on the bus in the same story I was critiquing. Also, five nuns!

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Mollie, I hope you’re joking. If not, your incredulity at the possibility of FPL “running the PR campaign for the partisan bus tour while running the PR campaign based on the idea that fighting for religious liberty is ‘too political’” is rather incredible. The following link is not complete proof of what Kevin Jones stated, but it certainly gives credence to it: “Casey Schoeneberger, Media Relations Assistant: Before coming to Faith in Public Life, Casey participated in the Associate Program at NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.”

    I’m finding nothing on the Nuns on the Bus page about their connections and who’s working for them, but the fact of this connection makes it perfectly possible that such a thing is happening. And isn’t it interesting that the Nuns on the Bus website is rather lacking in helpful information, like who’s backing them? Most non-profits that I know of would have something saying, “This campaign has been made possible through a generous gift from the X Foundation” or something along that line.

    But really, Mollie, your incredulity is almost unbelievable. “I have a very difficult time believing that reporters could regurgitate both PR campaigns if they were being run simultaneously.” Really? That reporters would be committed to slamming the bishops as “too political” while at the same time cheering on a group of nuns whose efforts are clearly a partisan effort on behalf of the Democrats and getting their information on both from the same source — this is difficult for you to believe? If you’re not joking, your apparent naivete on this matter is, um — well, I don’t know how else to say it — stunning.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Five nuns…. on a rock star bus…. on a national tour…. meals…. occasional hotels…. with expansive, professional PR…

    Wouldn’t all that money be better spent on, I don’t know, say, helping the poor?

  • Elizabeth D

    FIPL running the publicity for the Nuns on the Bus is not just credible, it puts the pieces together very well that this is a key one of the “big players” in DC which Sr Simone said helped brainstorm and implement the bus tour. Visit the facebook page for FIPL, Nuns on the Bus is actually their “cover image” (their main image on the page, with which they represent themselves) and they are steadily sending messages about the NETWORK bus tour on facebook and on their website.

    Wait a minute, have a look at Casey Shoenberger on the FIPL site who it is stated “Before coming to Faith in Public Life, Casey participated in the Associate Program at NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby. At NETWORK, Casey advocated for the protection of federal safety net programs.” Then look at this picture I took, the woman on the right accompanied Sr Simone closely and clearly seemed to be a PR type assistant, and to me looks like Casey. Casey had been posting FIPL’s “newsreel” links roundup blog feature (which featured plenty about dissident nuns, against the bishops etc) but has not been doing so since the “nuns on the bus” tour started.

    (I am the blogger who wrote the “non gushy” article this article links, about my encounter with the nuns on the bus in Janesville, WI)

  • Elizabeth D

    Confirmed, it is Casey, FIPL is doing the PR for Nuns on the Bus:

    This news article states: ““The sisters are merely raising concerns about Paul Ryan’s budget and saying that a budget that decimates services for the poor does not follow their religious values,” said tour spokeswoman Casey Schoeneberger.”

  • Mollie

    Elizabeth D., et. al., my colleague Sarah confirmed the same thing.

    The above criticisms are spot on. I’m too credulous. My apologies.

  • Clement Williams

    I believe that the basis of ‘Catholic Social Doctrine’ is based on, in Jesus’ own words the, ‘New Commandment’ to love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. I have looked for more elucidation of this. I did find Jesus saying something to the effect that don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’ and about being a cheerful giver. Nowhere did I find anything resembling ‘Pay more in taxes to Caesar to provide for the poor’.

    Can anyone find more that 0.1% of the taxapayers in our country, or for that matter, in any other country, where taxpayers write out their checks to the IRS cheerfully?

    When I was looking up the recently canonized St. Katherine Drexel, I was surprised to learn that her father who was a banker practised direct charity (caritas in latin means Love)and his daughter Katherine founded colleges for Black people. Yes, there is the Drexel University in New Orleans, LA.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    That’s OK, Mollie. Perhaps it is better to be too credulous than to be too cynical. Those who are credulous (sometimes “too”) are more open to seeing the beauty of things. Cynics can, quite often, miss that. My apologies on the harshness of my post.

  • MJBubba

    So, I suppose that Faith In Public Life is providing their services gratis, drawing on their grant funding from George Soros. But, who is paying for the bus?

  • Will

    “…decimates services to the poor”? You mean, cuts them 10%?

  • Sana

    So, the Nuns have good connections and PR hookups.

    What you really should be focused on is why the Bishops and the Vatican for that matter are having a hard time getting good PR strategists together to promote their image in another light than they are currently being presented as in the media. It’s mind boggling to me when they finally think they have a good PR strategy, it blows up in their faces- leaving more of a mess for them to clean up in addition to everything else.

  • Ann Rodgers

    When I asked Sr. Simone and their p.r. person about the tour they said if it had been left to them it would have been “nuns in a Prius” with felt-lettering on the car. They told me that outside advisors had raised the possibility of shrink-wrapping a bus, a process the sisters were unfamiliar wiht. They also siad the “Nuns on the Bus” slogan was actually an error by their graphic designer, which they attributed to the Holy SPirit.
    Casey Schoeneberger was definitely running location P.R. and organizing for them, so that seems likely that that’s where the idea came from. But it’s unclear whether he was doing that as a friend of the sisters or an employee of Faith in Public Life.