NPR ‘looks’ at role for Catholic women

NPR ‘looks’ at role for Catholic women March 4, 2013

Yesterday, reader Ivan (aka @SlavicPolymath) tweeted:

NPR Weekend Edition interviewing LCWR sister. Hoping beyond hope for balanced coverage, or I’ll sic @GetReligion on them.

I asked him how it went. He replied by linking to his subsequent tweet, which read, simply:


There was no transcript available at that time so I listened to the interview. You really have to listen to get the full Schweddy Balls effect. It is, if anything, even funnier than the Saturday Night Live sketch sending up public radio interviews. Both the host and the interviewee are so very quiet that I had to turn the volume up all the way on my computer. But it’s the pregnant pauses and exasperated sighs accompanying the questions that make them almost beyond parody.

There’s a transcript now, so let’s look at some of the questions asked in the piece headlined “With Papacy In Flux, A Look At The Role Of Women“:

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST: We just heard Sylvia outline some of the issues facing the Catholic Church during this leadership transition, including the role and status of women within the church. This past week, I spoke with Sister Pat Farrell, the former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It’s the most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States. Last spring, the Vatican publically reprimanded the group for promoting, quote, “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic Church.”

I asked Farrell about the role of women and what she describes as a critical moment for the Catholic Church.

MARTIN: What do you see as the role of women in the modern Catholic Church? Here we are in 2013, what is women’s place when it comes to leadership in the church right now?

MARTIN: Would you go as far as to support women’s ordination? Or is that something you think is too far?

MARTIN: It’s worth noting, here in this very momentous chapter of the church – the papal conclave – of course the cardinals taking part in the conclave are all men. I wonder, is that frustrating to be a woman who has dedicated her life so much to this church, yet women are excluded from the most important decisions at that level.

I find it intriguing how obsequious some in the media are to leadership of progressive religious groups, particularly in comparison to the devil’s advocate position they tend to take on leaders or even just members of traditional religious groups. For instance, when Farrell uses a lot of words to not answer the second question, there’s no follow-up.

What’s interesting off the bat is the choice of interview subject. It’s pretty much impossible to achieve balance on the topic of the role of women in the Catholic Church when you’re interviewing only one source and it’s someone who is part of a group that has been chastised by the Vatican for, among other things, teachings that contradict the church on this topic. It would be less of a problem, I guess, to interview someone supportive of official church teaching (say, Christendom College’s Donna Bethell) — and only her — on the same topic. And yet it would still limit the instruction of the listening audience unduly. And yet I highly doubt you’d see a one-source story with a conservative woman who supports Vatican teaching.

In the same vein, if NPR were facing a change in leadership, I highly doubt we’d see a story where only one highly interested taxpayer — say James O’Keefe or other committed critics — were interviewed for his thoughts on what the future would be for, say, media treatment of conservatives. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a similar situation, we wouldn’t see any critics interviewed at all.

But more than all that, it’s that last question that I found so telling. I get that the host and probably the vast majority of people in the media hold the doctrinal position that women should be ordained in Christian churches. I really do get that. But is it so much to expect that they understand that many of us don’t hold that doctrinal view? Now, maybe it’s because I’m in a church body (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) that retains the practice of male ordination, but I’m kind of shocked at how disdainfully some folks dismiss these beliefs held by Roman Catholics, Orthodox, confessional Protestants and others. I was at a sponsored talk at a religion newswriters conference and one of the panelists flat-out said that women weren’t represented in churches that have male-only clergy. My tablemates and I — who happened to belong to such churches — gave looks to each other and quietly ate another bite of food. It seems so obvious to me that I have trouble explaining it.

The media seem to hold the position that women can only be represented by women and not by men. They fail to explain how, exactly, that works. I mean, in the same way that Martin doesn’t represent me, even though she and I both have lady parts, my pastor does represent me, because we share a confession of faith that, among other things, requires him to represent me and all other members of our congregation. There are so many assumptions wrapped up in that last question. And that might be fine, but it happens without any seeming awareness of those assumptions and how they don’t make sense to those who don’t share that particular theology.

I did think the final question was better:

MARTIN: But I guess, Sister, there will be people out there who are not Catholics who may not even be religious, who would listen to this interview and say: She has just articulated some big issues that she has with her church, in terms of women’s roles and sexual abuse, inclusivity. Can you explain why you stay, why being a Catholic is as important as being a Christian?

I should note that “inclusivity” is not the word to use and, in fact, wasn’t used during the interview. And I should also note that the interview discussed sexual abuse as if it’s something that has only happened by males in the Catholic Church, thereby avoiding any difficult lines of question about sexual abuse by women in the LCWR. There’s no excuse for that.

But I have always wondered, at the end of some interview of serious dissenters, why journalists refrain from asking tough questions about why they stay. This was a good start. I really feel the answer given could have used a serious follow-up, but we’ll take things one day at a time here.

One last thing. Because I’m trying to keep the conversation focused on the journalism, I’m not including the answers from the interview subject. But the overall effect of this interview is thereby hidden. You really must listen to (or at least read) it to get a better picture.

It’s just another example of a serious problem we’re seeing in how some media are covering Roman Catholic issues in a narrow and parochial manner.

And lest I leave things on that sour note, I’ll point you to this piece from the same show this weekend that’s actually quite good — and even debunks the kind of misconceptions we sometimes see printed by the media. It’s all about The Devil’s Advocate.

Image of NPR treatment of traditionalist women in the Catholic Church via Shutterstock.

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13 responses to “NPR ‘looks’ at role for Catholic women”

  1. One group of women that remains completely voiceless in pieces like these are those who belong to traditional orders, carrying out their daily lives of work and prayer. Nobody asks them what they think.

    And it is possible to argue that they are much more “influential” than the LCWR.

    • I’m glad someone picked up on that descriptor. I think it’s fair to say that LCWR is definitely more politically influential. But is that the only way to measure influence? It becomes something of a subjective value judgment and one that may not be best suited for journalists to perform.

      • Yes, I think it is much more obvious what influential means when you are describing someone whose job is influence-involved, like a politician, lobbyist, or even media person.
        But it is less obvious what it means when the person is the head of a religious women’s organization, even if you describe them a bit. “Influential” does , in this context, convey something approving but not exactly what, or why.

  2. Another group of women whose voice is often missing is the mothers and sisters of the traditional, conservative male clerics. Do they feel betrayed by their own family? Excluded? Oppressed? Some of the cardinals surely have living sisters, while some are quite young enough to have mothers still in good health.

    I also think that the perspective of women of other Christian groups whose churches practice male-only ordination would be good to include.

  3. Reminder to keep comments focused on journalism and not, say, oddly personal attacks on me or defenses/critiques of a particular church position. You are welcome to defend the journalism or critique it further, but keep comments focused on journalism.

  4. This interview showed a clear bias that completed avoided mentioning the theological foundation behind ordination in the Catholic Church in favor of the “It’s not fair!” fallacy used with organizations and membership restrictions. To take an analogy: Is is just for the president of the National Organization for Women to be available to men? Understandably not, for it goes against the ideology of the organization. A ridiculous second example would be a suit for the KKK to allow a black leader of the group.

    The interview made itself into a political “women’s rights” advocacy piece, making more assertions as fact in matters that would be answered–albeit not acceptable to its foes–in the religious context. The 800-pound religious elephant was clearly in the room and purposely ignored.

  5. One of the problems that we see in these debates over the role of men and women in the church is that our culture is so ingrained with the culture of “women’s movement” they automatically assume that any institution that practices male-only ordination with disdain. In this element, the liberal media has become what they’ve often accused the right of: being cruel and intolerable, and not wanting to learn about the other side’s perspective, only to conform them to their own standard.

  6. I found NPR’s Martin curiously incurious in this exchange:

    “FARELL: . . . So the places where young women today can experience greater leadership typically are not within the Catholic Church.

    MARTIN: Why is that? I know that’s a big question but why is that?

    FARRELL: I wish I knew.”

    Uh, what?

    The former leader of the “most influential” American organization of Catholic Women Religious doesn’t know why there aren’t more women in leadership in the Roman Catholic Church?

    Yet there’s no follow up questions by Martin, like “Are there any unordained leadership positions in the Catholic Church not open to women?” and further , “Doesn’t the Catholic Church restrict priestly ordination to males? Why is that?”

    This is one of those situations where “I dunno” isn’t a credible answer. I have a feeling that if Farrell was candid, she’d undermine the “Who? Us? Ideological Feminists?” defense previously offered to the Vatican’s reprimand. So the questions go unasked.

  7. I’m not a journalist, but it seems to me that a Sr. Pat is a player in the story and legitimately an interview subject. I’m also comfortable with not making it a Mike Wallace grilling. Adversarial interviewing is not necessarily the best easy to get helpful answers. BUT… fluffy questions got fluffy answers, so maybe that want the best approach, either.

  8. I wonder why there was no push for Sr. Pat to respond to the particular issues of religious sisters who abused children sexually. The interviewer either hasn’t done the research to know that has been an issue, or wouldn’t want to ruin the “priests bad, LCWR sisters good” storyline that she was creating.

    Have any NPR journalists ever contacted and interviewed the head of the CNSWR? That is the other organization of sisters here in America… but they tend to be the habit wearing variety rather than the polyester pantsuit variety of nuns. It seems that if a journalist was really interested in understanding the issues that impact women in the Catholic Church today then a few different points of view would be good.

  9. “The church is greatly impoverished if the ideas of women and the presence of women do not have effect in the future direction of the church.”

    What ideas are missing? We should be told, not ‘told of”. The media often seems profoundly incurious about the details of all this women’s-empowerment talk, where the faithful are most likely to want to know just exactly what these women stand for. Martin assumes – as if no other assumption is possible – that this lady has something that Catholics need, just because she says so.

    The double-standard is interesting, though; celibate priests get no credibility when talking publicly about marriage and love, but our nuns are supposed by the media to be great teachers and reformers on these topics, vow of celibacy notwithstanding.

    Well, we HOPE their vow is withstanding, anyways.

  10. Yes, they were both so quiet I thought maybe they were trying to hold a secret conversation!

  11. Here’s Sr. Pat’s answer to the question, “Can you explain why you stay, why being a Catholic is as important as being a Christian?”

    “Well, the church is against part of my identity, the Catholic Church is. It is my spiritual home. And, of course, there are problems. But I am absolutely committed to continuing to open spaces within my own tradition where all people can feel welcome.”

    What she doesn’t say is more instructive than what she says. Notice the lack of any mention of God, or Jesus, or sacraments. In fact, there’s no mention at all of any of the actual teachings of the church.

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