Some finger-waggling about a Catholic school story

The scowling, scolding, dogmatic nun is among the few stereotypes that persist in otherwise sensitive, all-accepting society. So it’s important for media to guard against perpetuating such images.

This is true especially when reporting public complaints against nuns, as in a recent story in The Charlotte Observer. On one level, the article merely reported a furor over an address by a Dominican sister at Charlotte Catholic School.

Parents were angry that Sister Jane Dominic Laurel was said to have spoken against gays and lesbians and — according to students and parents — “made inflammatory remarks about single and divorced parents.”

Mind you, the complaining parents weren’t there, and “a record of the comments was not available,” the article reports. But they were still angry:

The petition, which has drawn more than 2,000 supporters, listed 10 objections to her remarks, including this: “We resent the fact that a schoolwide assembly became a stage to blast the issue of homosexuality after Pope Francis said in an interview this past fall that ‘we can not insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.’ We are angry that someone decided they knew better than our Holy Father and invited (this) speaker.”

Some students told their parents that a few teachers left the assembly in tears.

In addition, parents called for a letter-writing campaign, sending out emails that listed the addresses of the Diocese of Charlotte, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, even the pope in the Vatican.

Other parents complained to the Observer that the school didn’t tell them in advance what Sister Jane would talk about. Remember: Catholic school, Catholic nun, Catholic doctrine. And they were surprised?

To its credit, the paper quoted a spokesman for the Diocese of Charlotte defending the nun. He noted that she has a doctorate in sacred theology and has spoken in the diocese before.

The newspaper also quoted a priest who said she “represented well the Catholic positions on marriage, sex, same-sex attraction and proper gender roles.”

Still, the Observer story has holes.

So no one recorded exactly what Sister Jane said. Did the paper ask her? Did it ask any students who were in the room? Why not ask: “Could you put Sally on the phone? I’d like to talk to her directly about this, if it’s OK with you.” Has this nun spoken on these topics in the past? What is her style when doing so?

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Did the reporter ask any teachers, for that matter? “Some students told their parents that a few teachers left the assembly in tears,” the article said. Meaning, of course, that the parents told the Observer what their kids allegedly said about what the teachers allegedly did because of what the nun allegedly said.

From the 10-point petition itself, we can guess at some of the speech, or at least the impression the writer(s) inferred.

They thought Sister Jane said that only traditional nuclear families embody positive role models and raise healthy children. They objected to the phrase “homosexual lifestyle” and the assertion that gays can’t live in monogamy. And they thought the sister claimed that men turn gay by “masturbating in the presence of one another.”

Interestingly, the petition has nothing about single and divorced parents, which, as you recall, parents found inflammatory. They should have been asked about that, too. But some of the above remarks would still have been good context for the Observer article.

As Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher comments, Sister Jane “may have said some bizarre things. It is possible to present orthodox Catholic teaching in an offensive way. On the other hand … it could be that these Catholic students were being told the Catholic truth, and they thought she was giving them hell.”

The Observer article did try some contexting:

The division over Laurel’s speech is a reflection of the culture wars being waged within Catholicism and in society at large. Conservatives point to the denomination’s traditional teachings against homosexual behavior and divorce.

Liberals look to Pope Francis, who has called for less emphasis on those issues and a more welcoming church that focuses on helping the poor.

Many U.S. dioceses, including Charlotte’s, are led by conservative bishops who were appointed by Pope Francis’ more conservative predecessors.

But where is the “division” over the speech? The Observer article quotes two indignant parents, their petition and their e-mail campaign. The other side is represented only by a priest and a diocesan flack. That’s two “real” people versus two talking heads.

Did any parents and students support Sister Jane’s speech and the school’s decision in hosting her? I’ll bet they’re out there. I’ll bet the school would have been more than willing to supply a few.

Because nuns aren’t the only ones who suffer from stereotypes, you know. So do newspapers that appear to favor one side.

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About Jim Davis
  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Actually, there are those on the other side out there — they started a petition on some website in opposition to those who opposed Sister Jane’s talk (which, by the way, she has given in schools all across the country without the acrimony apparently present at this school). So it should not have been hard for the paper to find them — if they had even bothered to try.

  • Julia B

    Looks like some students and parents are getting their Catholic theological positions from the secular press. They are especially getting sound bites of Francis and don’t appear to have read anything he has written or heard any talks by him all the way through. That’s a story right there. How so many Catholics are getting their Francis info from the nightly news and pundits.

    • steve5656546346

      Since Pope Francis actively seeks out the secular press to give very long and rambling statements to, it is not unreasonable for people to assume that he believes that these are reliable sources.

  • tmatt

    WOW. Took me about 20 seconds with obvious search-engine terms:

    http://www.womenofgrace.com/blog/?p=29031

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      But I’m sure that was a really tough 20 seconds of making those fingers hit the keys, tmatt. I mean, give the reporter a break — he probably doesn’t have as much experience as you at these things, so his fingers don’t have the callouses that yours do.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    The quote from the pope as it is used by the petition, in the part that the article quoted directly, deserves some challenge from the reporter, too. If an authority in the automotive industry said, “we can not insist only on seat belts, antilock brakes and the use of air bags, but must focus more broadly on automotive safety,” does that mean he advocates abandoning the other safety measures? It would be ridiculous to say so. The quote from the pope means, “Our doctrines on these issues are correct, but they are not the whole of our doctrine.” Of course, the reporter doesn’t want to make that challenge, because it is clearly and advocacy piece. I am angry (sort of) that the petitioners decided they know better than our Holy Father and protested this speaker.

    • steve5656546346

      In this case, as in several others, Pope Francis played into the rhetoric of secular anti-Catholics.

      We have ALL experienced that “Judge not less you be judged” it the only Bible passage that many folks know. We have ALL experienced that they understand this to mean that there are no moral standards that can be stated out loud. This is the case throughout Western culture.

      When the Pope made the statement, it was within the context of a bishop who had apparently engaged in homosexual misconduct. Moreover, there are a number of other comments that the Pope has made which certainly seem to indicated that we are facing a truly terrible danger in the Catholic Church: too much orthodoxy. Too many people who view doctrine way too seriously.

      It really is not unfair–and it most certainly is not unexpected–to have this thrown back in our faces.

      • AuthenticBioethics

        Again, the “whom am I to judge” comment (which does not appear to be cited in the petition) was in a particular context of (and I paraphrase) “If the fellow is honestly seeking God but still sins….” It is not by any honest stretch of the imagination, “I think it’s all ok.” Even the Scriptural passage you cite is misapplied. Elsewhere it says, “By their fruits you will know them.” But Matthew 7:1 is not, “Don’t ever say or even think that other people who are engaging in objectively sinful acts are not sinning,” nor is it, “It’s wrong to impose your morality on others.” Rather, it is: “Do not think that you, like God, can see into people’s hearts and determine that they have malicious motives for what they do – because you yourself sin and know how weakness and temptation diminish your strength of will to avoid sin and to do good. You wish to be treated mercifully – then so should you be merciful when you see people sin (and it is not wrong to see sin as sin).” As the rest of Matthew 7 makes clear. The word “judge” in English has this soft connotation of “evaluate” or “assess” – and it is probably better rendered “condemn” based on the Greek. The word has a harshness in Greek, connoting an adversarial dispute, where the one “judging” has taken upon himself the prerogative of a king or other authority such as God. Mt 7:1 is not “Do not assess other people’s actions as sins,” but “do not make yourself God so as to condemn others when you want mercy for yourself.”

        I agree that this Pope has provided soundbites that can be exploited by secular and other contrary forces, which is unfortunate. However, I disagree that he has said anything that honestly and genuinely indicates that we have a danger of too much orthodoxy. I for one will not buy into the spin used by mainstream media and other contrary forces – regardless of which end of the political or religious spectrum they may be on – until this Pope unequivocally advocates a frank heresy against the Catholic faith.

  • Maggie Sullivan

    This school must have a lousy religion department.


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