Biden and nuns on the bus get (mostly) free ride from NYTimes

Biden and nuns on the bus get (mostly) free ride from NYTimes

Do nuns' habits have coattails? To read a New York Times story out of Des Moines, Iowa, the vice president is trying hard to hold onto them.

His latest effort, on Wednesday, was with the 2014 "Nuns on the Bus" tour -- not coincidentally, at a prime stop also for presidential campaigning. It was a natural for him to link arms with nuns who have promoted liberal causes like Obamacare.

Biden's reported attitude toward their boss, though, was another matter:

DES MOINES — At a Vatican meeting a few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly asked Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for some advice. “You are being entirely too hard on the American nuns,” Mr. Biden offered. “Lighten up.”
Last year, Mr. Biden seized on an audience with Pope Francis as another opportunity to praise the sisters who remained the target of a Vatican crackdown for their activism on issues like poverty and health care.
And on a visit to Iowa on Wednesday, Mr. Biden literally, as he might put it, got on board with the nuns.
“You’re looking at a kid who had 12 years of Catholic education,” Mr. Biden, wearing a white shirt and a red tie, said before a backdrop of the gold-domed Iowa statehouse and a “Nuns on the Bus” coach bus. “I woke up probably every morning saying: ‘Yes, Sister; no, Sister; yes, Sister; no, Sister.’ I just made it clear, I’m still obedient.”

In what ways he's been obedient after lecturing two popes isn't made clear. The story does note that obedience is the issue also with Network, the nuns' group on the tour. They're a subset of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which, as the Times reports, is under a Vatican crackdown.  

The newspaper tries to set the story as a conflict of values for Biden. It says that the outing also "put the nation’s first Roman Catholic vice president in the middle of a protracted political fight between the pope he admires and the American nuns he reveres."

But the article doesn't read so much like that. More like Biden trying to appeal to voters by sucking up to the nuns. He praises their "sense of justice and passion" and adds, "guess what, they are more popular than everybody else."

The Times story appears to take sides with a light but discernable sprinkle of codewords. Liberal Catholics are "progressive," a clever li'l hint at the direction the Church should be moving. (The story even links Obama with that wing of the Church, saying he began as a community organizer in Chicago "under the guidance of progressive priests.")

The opposition, of course, is "traditionalist," and its advocates are "powerful." Progressives are seldom called powerful, unless -- as in this article -- someone like Biden lends "star power" to an event.

Combining the labels can make for turgid sentences. An example from the Times story: "Many Catholic progressives have looked to Francis, who has stripped some of the American church’s most powerful traditionalists of their power in Rome."

Not that Times writer Jason Horowitz ignores the mood swings and verbal gaffes that make up the vice president's reputation as "Uncle Joe," the crazy relative who never self-edits. Horowitz picks up on Biden saying the nuns "fought like the devil for health care."  And there's more:

After praising the nuns in hushed tones, Mr. Biden abruptly switched to a shouting campaign mode on the bright afternoon, calling for respect for immigrants, protection of voting rights and restoring the middle class before a crowd of about 250 people.
“What happened? Things are out of whack!” he yelled to applause. (He also quoted Thomas Pynchon and, hours after apologizing for his use of the word “Shylocks” to portray craven bankers, described a Chinese leader as hailing from “the Orient.”)

But the Times wasn't as sharp in quoting Sister Simone Campbell, head of Network. For one, it let stand her assertion that "the president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, a Catholic whose brother is a priest, 'is like totally into' the nuns’ approach to the faith." Was that right, Uncle Joe? (shrug) Either Horowitz didn't ask, or some editor cut the answer.

It would also be worth the newspaper mentioning that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious doesn't represent all nuns. As tmatt pointed out earlier this month, there's also the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious of the United States, made of the top directors of the orders. And they're more comfortable with Vatican leadership than those who ride tour buses or get attention from Biden. 

And remember the lede, about those conversations Biden had with popes Benedict and Francis? Well, six paragraphs later, the Times owns up: It was Sister Campbell who "described Mr. Biden's papal conversations." This after reporting them as fact, without attribution. How did the sister know? Was she in the room? Did Biden tell her? Did the newspaper ask her or Biden?

You may have guessed the final missing piece: lack of response from those powerful traditionalists. All we get is, "The Holy See’s press office declined a request for comment. Privately, Vatican officials’ responses to Mr. Biden’s appearance ranged from indifference to annoyance."

So, those are the only Catholic leaders who ever talk? How about someone with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops? Even better, how about calling Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, where the story was datelined? C'mon, it's easy. Here's his info, with phone number 'n' everything.

Reporting, you know, is more than taking notes.  By all means, catalog Uncle Joe's affinity with nuns. But go on to ask some follow-up questions. To do less is to slip into, well, a bad habit.

Photo: Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in August 2011 following a trip through Asia.

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