Skeptical about 'stunned' sisters

Yesterday, as we were discussing a particularly helpful, if brief, discussion about the Vatican document regarding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, reader Martha wrote that she agreed that the PBS discussion I highlighted was good:

But how many news reports are going to take this approach to consideration of both sides? What newspaper has asked, for example, Sr. Simone Campbell, why exactly she was “stunned” by the CDF document, given that this whole process formally began back in 2008? So far, if your impression of the affair was garnered from the papers, you would imagine that some secret Vatican task force snooped around and suddenly sprang this smack-down on American nuns who had been innocently going about their business with no idea they were about to be censured - all tied in with the American bishops’ politicking in this election year, no doubt.

It reminded me that I, too, found this particular framing to be surprising. I mean, I'm not a sister and I'm not Catholic, but precisely nothing about this document stunned or surprised me. I'd like a little bit more explanation of why people in the biz claim surprise.

What are Martha and I talking about? How about the Sydney Morning Herald: Nuns left stunned by Vatican rebuke for 'radical feminist' tendencies and Chicago Tribune/Reuters: Catholic nuns group "stunned" by Vatican slap and Press Herald: Nuns group 'stunned' by Vatican order for overhaul? and MSNBC: Catholic nuns group 'stunned' by Vatican scolding for 'radical feminist' ideas and Bangor Daily News: American nuns stunned by Vatican crackdown. And that doesn't count the stories that merely mentioned up high that the nuns were "stunned," such as this one by the Los Angeles Times.

In fact, so many stories took this angle that many of the pieces all kind of blurred together. I remember thinking one was particularly bad but I can't even find it in the hundreds of stories that pop up when you do a Google search for "stunned" sisters and the Vatican.

The Washington Post had a piece headlined "American nuns stunned by Vatican accusation of ‘radical feminism,’ crackdown." And the article is actually great as a whole. But I want to focus mostly on how it handled this stunned business. The top of the story goes:

American nuns struggled to respond Friday to a Vatican crackdown on what it calls “radical feminism” among the women and their purported failure to sufficiently condemn such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Some nuns in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious characterized the disciplinary action announced Wednesday as an “ambush,” but others — including the leadership — said they couldn’t publicly comment on a system that mandates their obedience. The 1,500-member conference represents the vast majority of the country’s 57,000 nuns.

“People are stunned,” said Sister Pat McDermott, president of the 3,500-member Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, based in Silver Spring. “They’re outraged, angry, frustrated, they don’t know where this came from and how to hold it.”

OK, there is no doubt that this is the media response that some nuns in the LCWR are going with. And it's important that their side of the story be told, which is particularly difficult considering that many are not exactly speaking on the record about the specifics of what they oppose in the Vatican document.

But considering that the national media has for years been covering widespread concern with the theological drift on display among some women religious, I need more specifics about why this group was stunned. Are they saying they didn't know the Vatican was concerned? That people had reported many concerns about the speakers at various conferences? Are they saying they didn't realize they'd been silent about sanctity of life issues? Are they saying this is the first they heard about any theological disagreements between the “moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus" folks and the Vatican folks?

We get a couple of answers to this question. Here's the first:

Tensions have publicly flared recently between the bishops and the leadership conference — along with a few other large prominent nun-led groups — over public-policy issues. Some bishops were angry when the leadership conference supported the White House’s health-care reform, which the bishops’ conference had vigorously opposed. The bishops also have focused on opposing a White House mandate that employers, including religious ones, offer birth control, while the nuns accepted a compromise from President Obama.

The Vatican report didn’t focus on public positions the women took but rather on the private conversations they had at their own meetings and comments they made in private letters to Vatican officials about such issues as how to minister to gays and lesbians.

That seems to suggest we could use some follow-up questions to the sisters. If tensions have been flaring publicly, why is it a surprise that the Vatican cracked down? I'm sure they have a reason for surprise but I haven't seen it discussed, I don't think.

Also, is it true that the Vatican report didn't focus on public positions the women took but, rather, on their private conversations and letters? First off, I'm not entirely sure that conference meetings should be treated as private, although I am willing to be persuaded on that point. But the Vatican document said:

The documentation reveals that, while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, 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. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faithmorals, are not compatible with its purpose.

If the group took a public position of silence on important church teachings regarding abortion and euthanasia and family life and human sexuality and so on, and if they were called out specifically for that public position of silence, wouldn't you say that the Vatican report did focus on the public positions the women took rather than their private conversations and letters?

OK. The second thing that speaks to the "stunned" reaction of the sisters is here:

Sister Julie Vieira, a member of the Michigan-based Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, said the fact that the directive came without warning was jarring.

“Whatever we engage with in ministry ... we check in with others about it, and together as a sisterhood we make decisions,” she said. “To encounter this kind of action that did not come with that contemplative discernment that I, as a woman religious, am used to engaging with in all of my life was deeply disturbing to me.”

However, she said, “our vow of obedience applies to God ... it doesn’t reside in a bishop, a body of bishops or even the pope. For us, that sense of obedience has to do with listening deeply to the call of the spirit.”

First off, there are just some great quotes in this piece and kudos to the reporters for getting them. In some ways, that last paragraph explains more about the divide between the Vatican and some of the women in the LCWR than a thousand additional words could.

Anyway, I realize that the sisters are claiming to be stunned, and that is an extremely important thing to mention in reaction stories. I want to be clear about that. But for people like me -- who are more likely to be stunned by these sisters being stunned than by the Vatican document itself -- we need more of an explanation that makes sense, don't we? Otherwise, it's just kind of unfair to the sisters as well as to the Vatican, no? I'm curious what other readers think. Do you agree with Martha that reporters should have drilled down more on the "stunned" language? I should note that this article does a much better job on contextualizing those claims than other articles I read.

The WashPost story also has a bunch of interesting stuff about the weakening relationship between priests and nuns. There's a mention of the Twitter drive that used the hashtag #whatsistersmeantome as well as helpful context about how not all sisters took the Vatican document negatively. The shrinking and aging population of the LCWR is mentioned -- and not just that -- but that traditional, habit-wearing nun groups are growing.

Which brings us to another issue. I feel kind of badly about it because while I'm pointing fingers out there at others, some fingers are pointing right back at me.

Here's how one reader put it:

I know that some of your commenters have already noted this, but it really says a lot about shoddy editorial standards that so many press sites are using erroneous and misleading pictures to illustrate their stories about the Vatican action on the LCWR.

This one, for example. I know it's an opinion piece, so the problem isn't with the content. But the picture shows the Sisters of Life, who are not even members of the LCWR, and who are just about as far as you can get from being typical of LCWR members. They could have found that out with one phone call (either to LCWR or the Sisters of Life).

Seriously, in a sports story about the Yankees, would they show a picture of a Red Sox player?

There's no hard and fast rule here, but in general the women who are on the receiving end of the crackdown from the Vatican are not habited. They're wearing the clothes you would likely find on most women of their age group. The habited nuns tend to be younger and much more traditional.

We all know that it's much more fun and infinitely easier to illustrate a post with a habited sister than one wearing a cardigan and slacks, but it paints an inaccurate picture and it needs to stop.

To end on a high note,  I did find one awesome exception to the framing of stunned sisters. It came from Reuters -- with a byline of one Stephanie Simon(!) -- and the headline tells you much of what makes the story a cut above the rest "Vatican crackdown on U.S. nuns a long time brewing." Oh yeah. And we get some nice 40-year perspective on the whole battle with actual theological differences and anecdotes about sisters escorting women to their abortions and opposing the all-male priesthood. With proper names attached and everything. It's packed with context for the casual reader and is just a great and balanced piece that explains where this document came from.

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