On the media’s habit of showing habited nuns

On the media’s habit of showing habited nuns March 24, 2013

Quick follow-up to a recent post highlighting some problems with 60 Minutes’ coverage of Roman Catholic women religious in the United States. Commenter Deacon John M. Bresnahan wrote:

Most of the media can’t seem to find traditional type Catholics to interview. There is a group of conservative-traditional nuns called the Council of Major Superiors of women religious that is almost never called on by the media. And it is the radical nuns group that 60 Minutes loves whose religious orders are sinking into oblivion as very few women seem interested in the radicalism they are selling. Meanwhile more traditional groups are growing rapidly–but little news coverage seems to find them.

Or as Creative Minority Report put it:

I noticed something odd (or maybe not so odd) in the anti-Catholic rants in the media recently. While they talk about things like the “stained glass ceiling” to refer to the fact that women can’t become priests they use images of nuns that don’t exactly correlate with their message.

60 Minutes used a graphic of a habited nun in their story blasting the Church for misogyny. And just yesterday, NBC’s The Today show extensively used footage of the Sisters of Mary from Ann Arbor in connection with an argument for women becoming priests from Joan Chittister.

Journalistically speaking, this is problematic. We’ve talked about it before, but the error keeps happening.

This is not to say that one can know everything about a book by the cover. Traditionally habited women aren’t necessarily making a point about their adherence to traditional teaching.

But in this regard, I found the introductory visuals to the preview of the 60 Minutes segment a bit better. We saw casually attired women in an informal liturgical procession. It may not have be the stunning imagery of more traditional orders but it is more honest for everyone involved, no matter their particular doctrinal views.

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  • Jay

    Yep, it would also be nice if there were some journalists who actually decided to seriously address the theological issues of why the Catholic Church has come to this conclusion and why arguments for the ordination of women have been rejected. Generally speaking, it appears to me that when this topic surfaces, it comes across more as a women’s rights/equality issue. The theological concerns are turned into an afterthought that’s pretty irrelevant to the debate.

  • Darren Blair

    As I noted earlier about the seeming lack of Mormon clergy in Newton after the shooting, it’s entirely possible that we have individual reporters and camera crews who are simply oblivious to the fact that there are nuns who do not dress in habits and so they do not know to look for them.

    In that case, it goes to “lack of knowledge” rather than any deliberate attempt to keep a stereotype in place.

    • Jay

      For the most part, I disagree with your statement. Look at the news report that Mollie put onto this article. It starts out showing pictures of these habited nuns/sisters (can’t tell which), and then they start interviewing a sister who is not wearing a habit. I’m not going to argue with you that there is a certain degree of ignorance and obliviousness, but through simply interviewing sisters and/ nuns you’re going to find that the majority of those pushing for female ordination are not wearing the habits. I think there is a significantly greater level of culpability with this particular issue than there was with the Newton shooting. Newton was a one time thing. This has been going on and on for a long time.

  • MaryMargaret

    It is amazing, then, that they manage to find them when they want a quote.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Darren, I would seriously doubt that reporters and camera crews don’t know by now that there are many unhabited nuns. Think “The Nuns on the Bus” and the nuns who supported ObamaCare. Sister Simone Campbell, Sister Carol Keehan and Sister Marlene Weisenbeck have all achieved some level of fame for their political involvement. The only problem is that they don’t look like nuns. They look like run-of-the-mill, generic older American women (no offense intended). They may have some kind of symbol on their clothing, like a cross; but otherwise, they are indistinguishable. And that’s a news problem because news stories are supposed to be about something different.

    Mollie, you said, “Traditionally habited women aren’t necessarily making a point about their adherence to traditional teaching.” I disagree. They are doing just that, and it’s part of why they’re getting the numerous vocations and having to build new convents and the others aren’t.

  • “Traditionally habited women aren’t necessarily making a point about their adherence to traditional teaching.”

    The habited nuns who teach in my parish are very much making a point about their adherence to traditional teaching through their traditional attire.

  • Marty

    “Traditionally habited women aren’t necessarily making a point about their adherence to traditional teaching.”

    Mollie, you missed on this point as several have already noted; the habit is a sign of Catholic orthodoxy and adherence to the Magisterium.

    • mollie

      I think people are missing the word “necessarily” in my post. I don’t want reporters to avoid asking the doctrinal questions of women religious based on looking at their attire. It certainly can give an indication — that’s the WHOLE point of my post — but there are women in LCWR groups that don’t support LCWR teaching and etc. We don’t want to assume based on attire so much as not use imagery without asking key questions.

  • jcs

    Wearing the habit isn’t necessarily a sign of doctrinal traditionalism. The sisters teaching at my childhood parish (in the 90s) were all habited, and they taught that women were going to become priests someday.

  • Anne

    The media insistence on showing habited nuns reminds me of how nearly every generic photo or video showing Middle Eastern or Muslim women will depict them in burkas, despite the fact that many of them dress exactly like Westerners. I think both tendencies come from the same place – the general public has a single, set picture of what those groups are “supposed” to look like, and the media is generally content to play into that rather than meaningfully complicate the narrative.

    • JoFro

      many of them dress exactly like Westerners – depends on which Muslim majority country you are talking about. If you talking about Azerbaijan or Albania, yes. If you talking about Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, then no

      • Anne

        I wasn’t talking about any Muslim majority country – I was talking about Muslims, period. Many of them live in the West. Even if I had been discussing Muslim majority countries, I could have been referring to Azerbaijan, Albania, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Indonesia, Turkey, Kuwait, the UAE…I could go on. Even in places like Saudi Arabia, plenty of women dress like Westerners when they’re in private. To be fair, that’s not when journalists would be snapping photos, but again, I wasn’t talking about specific countries, just like the issue with the nuns isn’t the fact that habited nuns are depicted as habited. The issue is that when they want to show “nuns” as a group, they’re always shown dressed that way, even if that isn’t accurate to the specific nuns being discussed or interviewed. I was just pointing out that it seems to be a problem journalists have in general, when trying to portray groups that are largely defined by their religion and largely pictured in a single way, even if that picture isn’t accurate.

  • Julia

    Perhaps the fallout of the movie “Sister Act”. Anachronistic when it first came out and even moreso now, but this is how non-Catholics perceives sisters. Then there’s Mary Catherin McGregor on SNL – with all the habited sisters in the background – even including Whitney Houston once. It’s a cliche that won’t go away because it’s useful and iconic – although inaccurate.

  • Julia

    Mary Catherine Gallagher, I should have said. Mea culpa, mea maximum culpa.