Hits and misses in media coverage of nuns

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization that represents leadership of most of the sisters in the United States, is having its big annual meeting in St. Louis this week. And today is the big day where we learn how they’ve decided to proceed in response to the Vatican crackdown on them. In the past few months, we’ve seen a lot of glowing and puffy and rather one-sided coverage of the sisters. In the dispute, the Vatican was more rarely actually quoted than inaccurately summarized.

So how are things going this week? Well, some are doing better than others.

A reader submitted this St. Louis Beacon story by Patricia Rice. The reader described it as a “really informative and even-handed report on the LCWR meeting, its keynote speaker, the presence of the local archbishop, and the general atmosphere. Excellent.” It’s nice and long and covers all the bases. I particularly liked how it captured the atmosphere, from the “comfortably dressed” sisters and their seating arrangements to the warm welcome between the local archbishop and the sister who introduced him. So often reporters try to paint an event dramatically at expense of reporting a more nuanced reality of what even the most contentious convention is actually like.

On the other end of the spectrum would be this NBCNews.com piece headlined “‘We’re with you, sisters’: Nuns amazed by outpouring of support.” I’ll note that the focus of the picture for the article is a sister wearing her habit. Blurred in the background are a couple dozen other attendees — none of them wearing a habit. I always find these photos interesting.

It includes passages such as this:

The Leadership Conference, which represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, is holding its yearly national assembly this week following scathing criticism from the Vatican of the nuns’ alleged lack of fidelity to Catholic teachings.

Their supporters say they were shocked by the crackdown.

We hear from a group called “The Nun Justice Project, a grassroots coalition of Catholic organizations.” Here’s how the Nun Justice Project describes itself on its fairly savvy web site (not sure if it’s this savvy):

The Nun Justice Project is a grassroots movement supported by the following organizations: American Catholic Council, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, Call To Action, Catholics for Choice, CORPUS, DignityUSA, FutureChurch, New Ways Ministry, Quixote Center, RAPPORT (Renewing a Priestly People, Ordination Reconsidered Today), Voice of the Faithful, WATER: Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, Women’s Ordination Conference.

Is “coalition of Catholic organizations” the anodyne way you’d describe that collection of groups? There is no balance at all whatsoever to the article, only including quotes from people who are opposed to the Vatican’s take on the LCWR and even then failing to explain where they stand in general. The word for whatever happened there is not journalism.

Much better is this piece from the New York Times, headlined “Nuns, at Juncture, Meet to Weigh Their Reply to the Vatican.” It’s extremely well written and what amazes me, again, is how it’s done with an economy of words. The lede refers to a “biting Vatican assessment.” I’ll take biting over scathing! We’re also told:

The nuns’ meeting on Wednesday in a vast hotel ballroom here exemplified the melding of traditional Catholicism and modern innovations that has so perturbed the Vatican. They sat in silence for a long stretch, sang songs about truth and mystery accompanied by a guitar and a choir, and heard a keynote address by a futurist who was escorted to the podium by seven liturgical dancers waving diaphanous scarves of pink and tangerine.

I’m not entirely sure where the “traditional Catholicism” is in that imagery but the theme is continued here:

The nuns, most dressed informally in pants or skirts, gave a standing ovation to Ms. Hubbard, a beatific presence with a mantle of white hair who quoted Jesus, Buckminster Fuller, the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the current pope, Benedict XVI.

I don’t know about this characterization. If you read various reports in Catholic media, I saw no reference to Jesus or Benedict quotes but quite a bit about the influence from Teilhard and New Age movements. Quoting Benedict is one thing but saying this about the Vatican is another.

All that being said, the article explains how the speaker highlights the conflict between the Vatican and the LCWR. I mean, some people hear that this group of female Catholic leaders invited a non-Christian futurist with no regard for the Vatican to keynote an annual conference for religious discussion and they get the Vatican’s problem right there. (Speaking of, while fully acknowledging that I can only barely understand what a futurist is, is it just me or do they always seem to envision a future that is very much like the 1960s?)

The Times, however, explains it:

But if the nuns submit to the Vatican’s plan to overhaul their organization, it is doubtful that their meetings will feature a keynote speaker like Ms. Hubbard, who grew up a nonreligious Jew in a Scarsdale, N.Y., mansion (her father founded the Marx toy company) and is now acclaimed by New Age luminaries like Deepak Chopra for helping to lead what she calls the “conscious evolution” movement.

Precisely! The media have been very, very busy writing stories about LCWR sisters being awesome. I get that. But they’ve penned all those stories at the cost of failing to really explain the conflict simply. So this mention in the Times is helpful.

The publication of the Archdiocese of St. Louis took it a step further by quoting the Hubbard speech, explaining how it differed from Catholic teaching, and then providing an absolutely brutal listing of ideas discussed by previous speakers and writing that they dramatically differ from Catholic teaching. It’s striking how so many in the media herded behind the “Gasp! The Vatican said “radical feminism”! Bring us to our fainting couches!” angles and how few focused on the radical teachings described in that Archdiocese of St. Louis piece.

The article goes on to give quite a bit of time to the public relations campaign involving letters of support to the sisters and doesn’t mention that attendees are not supposed to talk to the media about the Vatican document.

The picture accompanying the story features St. Louis’ famous arch … and two sisters wearing habits. The story does mention, again, that most attendees were dressed informally. The St. Louis Archdiocese site has some good pictures of the event, if you’re interested.

Photo of a swing and miss via Aspen Photo/Shutterstock.com.

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  • Martha

    Mollie, I’ve seen this point raised over at Fr. Z’s blog, but is there any mention in the media of the LCWR’s difference of opinion with SNAP?

  • Spencerian

    The Nun Justice Project is a grassroots movement supported by the following organizations: American Catholic Council, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, Call To Action, Catholics for Choice, CORPUS, DignityUSA, FutureChurch, New Ways Ministry, Quixote Center, RAPPORT (Renewing a Priestly People, Ordination Reconsidered Today), Voice of the Faithful, WATER: Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, Women’s Ordination Conference.

    This list of supporters says so much of the root of the problems that the LCWR has and how the media ignores their relationship to the LCWR and Catholic teaching. Many of these groups are intent on forcing Catholic leaders to change their teachings through democratic or even legislative means. Where is the article’s contrasting view on why these groups are involved and why? Omission tells some readers more that what is not told — at least to Catholics like myself.

  • Jerry

    The story by Patricia Rice was also one I thought a very good read. I particularly thought that the highlighting of prayers by the nuns was a welcome anodyne to the perception that they’re all woo-woo. Specifically:

    Tuesday evening the LCWR annual assembly began with the whole body singing the hymn “Something New,” which includes the line “clearly something new is being born in our midst.”

    The two-hour opening session was laced with prayers.

    And, as opposed to the framing of the meeting as out-of-control or heroic nuns meet to draw battle lines with the priestly/backward hierarchy (depending on your bias), I found the following to be refreshing from that story:

    “I realize this is a most important meeting for you and I pray that the dialogue between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and LCWR is not politicized but a dialogue, worked out within a community of faith,” Carlson said.

    The church’s first century difference of opinion and tension between St. Paul and St. Peter was resolved peaceably at the First Council in Jerusalem

    One other comment, Mollie,

    (Speaking of, while fully acknowledging that I can only barely understand what a futurist is, is it just me or do they always seem to envision a future that is very much like the 1960s?)

    It’s you:-)

    Wikipedia:

    The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the earliest use of the term futurism in English as 1842, to refer, in a theological context, to the Christian eschatological tendency of that time.

    Also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futurism_%28Christian_eschatology%29

    In a secular context, it involves trying to understand what the future might hold based on trends and perhaps wild-card events. For example, a futurist could look at demographic trends and what will happen to Social Security and health care with a dramatically older population. Another developed Moore’s law which projects the speed of computers. I think this is a good introduction to the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futurology

    Finally, back to the topic of futurists and religion, there’s a book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening which is one example of how a futurist can think – taking current religious trends and envisioning a possible outcome.

  • David Clohessy

    Here are details about the LCWR’s refusal to address child sex crimes and cover ups: http://www.snapnetwork.org/nun_abuse

    David Clohessy
    Executive Director, SNAP
    Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
    7234 Arsenal Street
    St. Louis MO 63143
    314 566 9790, SNAPclohessy@aol.com

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I’m putting this one in the “miss” column. Do the math.

    This AP article looks like a hit to this amateur. Contrasting quotes and an accurate take on the Vatican assessment:

    Vatican investigators have praised the nuns’ humanitarian work, but said the conference had “serious doctrinal problems.”

    Not bad.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    Barbara Marx Hubbard is well known to folks who listen to Coast to Coast AM.

    She and her group plan to “evolve” to a higher consciousness in December (and you can join them if you pay to join and buy their tapes).

    I’m glad the Times noticed she isn’t quite compatible with Catholicism.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    Jerry, the problem with futurists is that they are “top down” planners.

    They envision a church takeover which will remold the church according to European/American elite attitudes, ignoring that the Church is now Asian/South American and African.

    But a quick perusal of history shows that whenever someone tries a takeover to remake the church into their utopian ideas, the Holy spirit tends to cause trouble by starting a renewal in the hitherlands, be it Assisi, Wittenberg, Nowa Huta, or Birmingham Alabama…

  • Jim Cole

    Over the years, Patricia Rice has been the best St. Louis reporter on religious topics, hands down. It’s too bad she does not have a regular national forum for her reporting.

    Jim Cole

  • Julia

    Finally, back to the topic of futurists and religion, there’s a book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening which is one example of how a futurist can think – taking current religious trends and envisioning a possible outcome.

    That’s the type of futurist that is the problem. One of the previous keynote speakers, a Catholic sister, talked of moving beyond the church and Jesus. Barbara Marx fits into that mind-set – her vision of the coming birth of something new has nothing to do with the church or Jesus.

    Still – no mention by any in the press of SNAP’s demonstrations outside the conference, asking again to be heard concerning the sisters and child abuse.

    http://www.snapnetwork.org/mo_sex_abuse_victims_to_protest_outside_nuns_conference

    Lots of photos of people demonstrating in support of the LCWR, but SNAP is nowhere to be seen. Strange, since they are almost always featured when demonstrating against bishops.
    http://www.stltoday.com/search/?l=25&skin=/&sd=desc&s=start_time&f=html&q=LCWR

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Rod Dreher is always good for a few comments on the subject, but he hit a home run (h/t, Father Z) with his video of the “futurist”.

    If LCWR folks are listening to this drivel, they have some serious problems, and they are not all doctrinal.

    Click on: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/why-liberal-nuns-are-dying-off/

    And please watch the video…..as far along as you can stand.

    Please pray for the LCWR.


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