Nuns, strippers and the never-boring Godbeat

Put another one in the “Godbeat sure ain’t boring” file.

I first read about the dispute between a group of Chicago-area nuns and a neighboring strip club in the Chicago Tribune:

A group of nuns is suing to shut down a strip club next to their convent in Stone Park that the sisters say keeps them awake at night.

The Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo Scalabrinians say in the suit that Club Allure has ruined their peace with blinking neon lights and loud thumping music. The nuns say they have witnessed drunken fights and found condoms littering the area.

The suit, filed against the club and the village of Stone Park, states that the club violates a state law against operating adult entertainment within 1,000 feet of a school or place of worship. The club is also near houses, and three neighbors have joined the suit.

“I think most people would find that offensive, to put a strip club next to a home for sisters,” said Peter Breen, attorney for the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that filed the suit on behalf of the nuns.

The Tribune offers a straightforward, non-cheeky account of the conflict, highlighting the nuns’ concerns, the tricky legal issues involved and the strip club’s response — all in less than 450 words.

The paper even provides a link to the lawsuit.

All three sources quoted — one each on behalf of the nuns, the municipality and the strip club — are attorneys. While that is entirely proper and journalistically sound, I found myself wishing I could hear directly from a nun. Or even a stripper.

The Chicago Sun-Times did quote a nun (although I’d rank its overall story below the quality of the Tribune’s):

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Will Pope Francis embrace all the ‘progressive’ nuns?

Journalists are rarely true prophets, but they often try to look into the future and see what they want to see — often with the help of long-time sources on one side of an issue who are also anxious to see what they want to see.

The sources for these wish-fulfillment stories are real. The quotes are real and almost always valid. The issue addressed in a trial-balloon story of this kind may be timely. However, it is crucial to note that these reports rarely feature quotations from people on the other side of whatever hot-button issue is being, allegedly, covered.

That appears to be the case with the recent Los Angeles Times story that ran under the headline, “Vatican observers look for thaw between Pope Francis, U.S. nuns.”

The lede is a picture perfect:

When the Vatican censured an organization representing thousands of American nuns, it did so in part because the group had not spoken out enough against gay marriage and abortion.

The Vatican said the Leadership Conference of Women Religious had espoused “radical feminist themes,” adding, “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.”

Now, some observers of the Roman Catholic Church are wondering whether the arrival of a new pope will thaw the frosty relationship between the nuns and the Holy See.

You can just feel the yearning, can’t you?

Now, all kinds of people observe the Vatican and some even know what they are talking about.

So who are the voices of conservative Catholic authority in this piece who believe that Pope Francis is going to embrace the DOCTRINAL STANDSclick here for a refresher — taken by these progressive nuns? As you read the piece, look for traditional Catholic voices who believe that this pope is going to be “inclusive” when it comes to their doctrinal views on abortion, salvation, Christology and, well, neopagan approaches to faith?

Again and again, it must be stressed that the Vatican, even under Pope Benedict XVI, praised these nuns for their stands on poverty and social justice. Yet the Los Angeles Times piece, as you would expect, notes:

In September, 17 months after the censure, Pope Francis said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” Since he took office in March, the pontiff has also repeatedly spoken about the need for economic justice, which would seem to match the nuns’ emphasis on serving the poor.

Meanwhile, I can’t find a single conservative or centrist Catholic voice quoted in the piece. Did I miss someone?

Instead, the story does a fine job of repeating the mantra that “some observers” think this and that “some actions” of the new pope can be interpreted as favorable to the progressive nuns by these clusters of nameless observers at the Vatican.

Meanwhile, there are — as there should be — on the record quotes from some academics who back the editorial viewpoint of this story.

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Nice art (but few facts) about Baltimore Carmel nuns

Every now and then, the editors who run major newspapers get this urge to run a story that simply jumps out at readers and proclaims, “This Is A Religion Story!”

These stories are especially popular if they feature beautiful art of religious people wearing religious clothing walking around doing clearly religious things. This is one reason why you see way more A1 feature stories about Hindus and Episcopalians than you do about Southern Baptists and Mormons, even in newspapers in places like Dallas or Atlanta. Ever tried to take colorful photos for a story about a Baptist preaching conference? Ah, but that Catholic conference on Latino liturgical dance? Bingo.

Often, this journalistic fact of life yields good stories.

Often, this journalistic fact of life yields bad/weak stories.

When small evangelical magazines and/or public-relations offices run this kind of story, journalists have been known to call them “happy little Jesus stories.”

When major newspapers run these stories, the result is often PR for a group that is in favor with the editors.

I returned from my recent trip to the Southern Highlands and discovered, in my large stack of Baltimore Sun newspapers, an A1 story in the publication’s “Hidden Maryland” series that contained some interesting material, some nice details and an unusual lack of facts related (just maybe) to some major news stories. This was surprising, for me, because the reporter (I know from experience) likes to ask a lot of questions. Maybe news was not part of this assignment as envisioned by the Sun editors?

Anyway, this feature ran under a headline that tells you quite a bit about the approach and the photography:

All work and all prayer at Baltimore Carmel

The nuns at the Towson area monastery aim to ‘share contemplation with the people’

Here is a key piece of background material:

Turn left at a little white sign south of Seminary Avenue, cruise up a wooded lane and park near a fieldstone mansion, and you’ll find yourself on the 27 quiet acres that serve as home to Baltimore Carmel, which descends from the first community of religious women formed in the 13 colonies.

“Oh, there’s a whole other world back here — that’s one way to put it,” says Sister Monika Bies, a German native who joined the community in 2001. “It’s more interesting than you might guess.” …

One of 65 Carmelite monasteries in the nation, Baltimore Carmel houses 18 nuns and two postulants (aspiring members), women ranging in age from 33 to 93. Their ex-professions include dentistry, nursing, education and the law. Their spiritual focus is prayer, and their roots go a long way back.

Now, numbers are important in a story like this, as are long-range trends in an era when many Catholic orders are aging and, in some cases, veering close to extinction.

It’s good to know something about the present, and the story includes a few facts that describe the present — a few, but not the key ones.

How many of the sisters are, let’s say, under 60? How large was this community, let’s say, in the years between 1950 and ’60? What are the statistical trends that describe it’s future? In some cases, 20 would be a solid community. In some cases, 20 would be a dangerously small number in comparison with the past. Which scenario is unfolding here?

As you would expect, the story does deal — a bit — with the impact of the Second Vatican Council.

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Media MIA: Mother Dolores Hart’s love for Jesus

It’s the question that echoes between the lines of mainstream news features about the life and work of Mother Dolores Hart, the cloistered nun (yes, she gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss) who walked away from her promising future in Hollywood.

The question, stated simply, is this: Why did she do it?

The answer? I’m not really clear on that, but based on reading a number of mainstream press reports on this subject I can say that her decision — if the mainstream media is to be believed — had very little to do with her love for Jesus or his church.

Let’s set this question up, via some material from a new Religion News Service piece (it’s much better than the norm) about Hart:

As if to test her resolve in those weeks before she left Hollywood, Universal Studios offered her a role opposite Marlon Brando, a role she turned down shortly after she broke off her engagement to Don Robinson, a kind and handsome businessman who loved her intensely.

“Even my best friend, who was a priest, Father Doody, said, ‘You’re crazy. This is absolutely insane to do this,’” Mother Delores Hart remembered in a recent interview, conducted 50 years after she entered the Order of St. Benedict. To try to explain her decision to a world that’s perhaps even more enamored of celebrity than it was a half century ago, Hart, 74, has written “The Ear of the Heart,” a memoir of her life on screen and behind the convent walls.

Even though she wasn’t raised Catholic, 9-year-old Dolores decided to convert when she found meaning and comfort in the rituals of her Catholic school. At 24, she quit Hollywood to answer a call she heard from God. “I left the world I knew in order to reenter it on a more profound level,” she writes.

So, a “call from God” and that is that.

Now, the story dedicates all kinds of space to her life before that decision and to her connections to Hollywood. All well and good.

But, again, what was the nature of the life-changing spiritual tug that led her to spend decades working in an abbey laundry room, or roughing up her hands in a wood shop making coffins? She took the divine call. What did Hart hear on the line?

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A nun, some nukes and a haunted holy ghost story

So a nun and two peace activists walk into a nuclear facility …

It’s not the start of a bad joke, but the start of what could turn out to be a bad dream for a trio of protestors convicted of trespassing and defacing a nuclear weapons site.

A few weeks ago tmatt mentioned the activists in his post on the massive 14-part feature entitled “The Prophets of Oak Ridge.” As tmatt noted, the engaging profile was pure hagiography: “That’s exactly what we are dealing with here, in this feature that runs 9,000-plus words and is illustrated with cartoonish, yet powerfully iconic, drawings and photos.”

While that feature certainly created an idealized version of the protestors, it also painted a clear picture of what motivated the activists: religion.

Compare that with the recent CNN story about how the activists are now facing decades in prison for breaching the nuclear site. Although the story identifies them as a “nun and two peace activists” the article almost completely ignores the religion angle. The closest it comes is a mention of the activists singing hymns:

When the guilty verdict was read Wednesday evening, the three defendants appeared content, even singing along with protest hymns before they were taken into custody, according to WATE.

What exactly is a protest hymn? Is it merely a protest song that is sung by a nun, or is there some religious content to the songs? That should have been a tip off that more needs to be said about the religion in a story that includes a nun. Also, since the term “nun” could apply to a variety of Christian traditions (Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.) as well as other religions (Jains, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, etc.) it’s helpful to clarify what religious order the woman belongs to rather than assuming that all nuns are Catholic.

Clarifying what type of protestors they are would have also been helpful. While the trio is shown in a video wearing anti-war t-shirts and are described by their attorney as “peace makers,” the CNN feature refers to them as “environmental protesters.” The only reason I could find for the description is that in the video clip the (Catholic) nun, Sister Megan Rice, says the real sabotage wasn’t any act committed by the protestors but rather the “sabotage to the planet.” While the use of nuclear weapons would certainly harm the environment, I suspect the sister had a broader, more human-centric, meaning in mind.

Had I not read the previous Washington Post feature, though, I would have had no clue there was a strong religious aspect to the story (even activism by nuns — of whatever religion — can be mostly politically motivated). The CNN article treats the activists mainly as pawns in a broader story about the security of nuclear materials.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the national security aspects, of course.

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