So the Detroit Free Press has a huge article about the Apostolic Visitation of women religious orders here in the United States. What's that? Well, a year or two ago, the Vatican's Congregation for Religious ordered a review of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. That's the group recently in the news for being involved in the 11th hour endorsement of health care legislation. You never would have learned from the media coverage at the time, but this group is known for having leadership that openly opposes Roman Catholic doctrine on a variety of matters (more on that later). The media instead presented the women religious who signed off on the health care package as unassailable when it came to adhering to church teaching.
The reader who sent the story in said he thought the article was fairer than most but that's because he gave them "bonus points for not using the word 'inquisition'."
Now that's a pretty low bar, isn't it? I actually think that if you made it through the entire article, it was better than most. But it definitely began with a particular viewpoint:
The investigation hits at a time when the Vatican is dealing with escalating criticism of its oversight of priests accused of sexually abusing children.
While church officials have said the study is necessary to account for the shrinking number of American nuns, the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, called it a "disastrous PR move by the Vatican."
"When American Catholics find out (nuns) are being investigated by the Vatican, they scratch their heads and say, 'What is this all about?' " said Reese, a Catholic commentator. "There has always been at the Vatican a deep suspicion of U.S. nuns because they are educated, outspoken and don't like to be pushed around."
One by one, several people deeply touched by the work of the Adrian Dominican nuns told a Vatican-sanctioned panel of investigators about the ways the Michigan-based order of Catholic sisters serves people in need and honors God.
The shorter version would be "Vatican mean, sisters awesome on every level." The thing is that church officials have explained why they're doing the study and I don't think they even mentioned that the LCWR is facing precipitous declines in membership (particularly when compared to the increases seen by the smaller, more traditional Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious). They explained that the LCWR was facing investigation because of its doctrinal differences with the Holy See. Remember the New York Times/Laurie Goodstein story last year about this visit? Here's how she put it:
Cardinal [William] Levada sent a letter to the Leadership Conference saying an investigation was warranted because it appeared that the organization had done little since it was warned eight years ago that it had failed to "promote" the church's teachings on three issues: the male-only priesthood, homosexuality and the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church as the means to salvation.
Two of those three things are given the briefest mention possible a few paragraphs later. But, of course, these things are part of a fascinating story -- one that must be included to give more balance to the piece. There's no mention of specific practices that the Vatican has asked the nuns to stop (such as Reiki) or general trends toward radical feminism. Or who can forget the 2007 LCWR speech given by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink praising the many nuns who have moved "beyond the church, even beyond Jesus" and into an interfaith approach to their work and theology.
That simply has to be mentioned in order to give an appropriate understanding of the array of doctrinal issues at stake. Yes, the Vatican considers its doctrines on the priesthood and homosexuality to be important. But to not include the battles over the essential, creedal issues of ancient Christianity -- such as the uniqueness of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ -- is irresponsible.
And the mention of female priests and homosexuality -- to the exclusion of the other issues -- also makes the story more about politics than about doctrine. For example:
The Vatican's inquiry plays into the debate about women's roles in many denominations and illustrates the conservative-liberal polarization that permeates American politics.
"This visit is part of the longer-term tensions between the liberals and the conservatives in the Catholic Church, and also is part of the tensions between the Vatican and the American Catholic Church," said Professor John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and a scholar on religion's impact in America. "I expect this visitation will create more negative reactions from those on the liberal side and more positive reactions from those on the conservative side."
Of course, Green isn't talking about politics -- American or otherwise. The reader who submitted the story pointed out how the words "liberal" and "progressive" (another word used in the story) mean different things in politics than in religious discussions. A political liberal could be a religious traditionalist, for instance. But this story conflates some political orientations with religious orientations. It's important to clarify which sphere is being discussed.
Now, the story also includes some absolutely wonderful perspective from the sisters being investigated. Many of them -- and many of their defenders -- speak candidly about the process and how it makes them feel. That is truly a mark in the story's favor. But we also need the rest of the story -- and the voices from the other side to help personalize the Vatican perspective.