Nun wars: For Pete's sake, quote the Vatican

At the heart of the whole U.S. nuns vs. the Vatican media storm is the April 18th "doctrinal assessment" in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expressed its concerns about the theological orientation expressed by the leadership of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The report mentions a host of concerns about a decade or two of LCWR educational events, speeches, national conferences, etc. The document is not hard to find and it is only eight pages long. Click here to read it.

Since this story is going to be around for some time, it's important to note how many, if not most, mainstream reporters are framing the dispute.

Now, this is a story with two sides and there are articulate voices out there to quote representing the competing points of view. However, the actual Vatican document states many of the basic facts and, to my amazement, major news organizations have consistently been paraphrasing this document to say things that it does not, in fact, say.

That's a problem. It's hard to follow a debate when some of the key facts crucial to the contents of the debate have been twisted.

Consider, for example, the top of this new Reuters report, as it appeared in The Chicago Tribune:

(Reuters) -- In Washington, D.C., and Toledo, Ohio, in upstate New York and in south Texas, protesters have gathered in recent weeks with a simple message: Let the sisters be.

The vigils in cities across the United States are intended to express solidarity with American Roman Catholic nuns, who are struggling to formulate a response to a sharp rebuke from the Vatican.

The Vatican last month accused the leading organization of U.S. nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, of focusing too much on social-justice issues such as poverty and not enough on abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia. The Vatican also rapped the group for standing by as some nuns publicly challenged U.S. bishops on matters of church doctrine and public policy.

Readers who have followed this story closely will spot all kinds of familiar errors. For example, the story frames the conflict with the whole "let the sisters be" construct, backed with descriptions of the protests (with no factual material about the size of these efforts, other than a later reference to an online petition with 50,000 signatures) that are meant to "express solidarity with American Roman Catholic nuns."

Yes, way down in the story, there are voices that try to focus on what the Vatican document actually says:

Mary Ann Walsh, a nun who serves as spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said some protesters might have misinterpreted the Vatican's action. Church officials demanded reform of the nuns' leadership group, she said, but did not intend to criticize all 57,000 nuns in the United States.

There's a simple logic behind this argument by Walsh -- the Vatican document goes out of its way to focus on the leadership of some of these orders, as opposed to the rank-and-file members of the orders, in general. Thus, here's the crucial question for the editorial team behind the story: Where are the quotes from the actual document? More on this point in a moment.

However, the most important problem with the top of this story is its paraphrased quotation -- or statement of fact -- that the nuns are under Vatican attack for "focusing too much on social-justice issues such as poverty and not enough on abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia." The problem is with the first half of this statement, because the Vatican document simply does not say this. Instead, it praises the nuns for their work with the poor and needy, praises them for their application of the church's doctrines and teachings in these areas, and then questions why these same teachings have not been applied as rigorously to abortion, marriage, euthanasia, etc.

The critical issue is this: Where are reporters getting the statement that the Vatican thinks the nuns have focused "too much" on poverty and social justice? The document does criticize the leaders of some of these orders for ignoring or undercutting the church on some critical issues, but that is not the same as saying that they have spent too much time on the care of the sick and the needy.

Let's look at two chunks of the actual "doctrinal assessment," sections that should have provided the background material for this section of the Reuters report -- since it claims to be quoting material from the Vatican accusations ("The Vatican last month accused") themselves.

The Holy See acknowledges with gratitude the great contribution of women Religious to the Church in the United States as seen particularly in the many schools, hospitals, and institutions of support for the poor which have been founded and staffed by Religious over the years. Pope John Paul II expressed this gratitude well in his meeting with Religious from the United States in San Francisco on September 17, 1987, when he said: I rejoice because of your deep love of the Church and your generous service to God’s people. ... The extensive Catholic educational and health care systems, the highly developed network of social services in the Church -- none of this would exist today, were it not for your highly motivated dedication and the dedication of those who have gone before you. The spiritual vigor of so many Catholic people testifies to the efforts of generations of religious in this land. The history of the Church in this country is in large measure your history at the service of God’s people. The renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious which is the goal of this doctrinal Assessment is in support of this essential charism of Religious which has been so obvious in the life and growth of the Catholic Church in the United States.

While recognizing that this doctrinal Assessment concerns a particular conference of major superiors and therefore does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of Women Religious in the member Congregations which belong to that conference, nevertheless the Assessment reveals serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life. On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a “constant and lively sense of the Church” among some Religious.

Later on, members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith note that their research 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.

In other words, the social justice work has been done "in harmony with the Church's social doctrine," while work on the right-to-life and family issues have not been in harmony with those same teachings.

Once again let me stress that I am not criticizing mainstream -- at Reuters, or anywhere else -- journalists for quoting the claims of progressive Catholics about this document in stories in which voices on both sides are accurately covered. Their views, opinions and actions are a crucial part of the story.

I am asking a more basic question: Why do so many reporters insist on misquoting, or ignoring, the actual contents of the "doctrinal assessment" itself? Why not quote the actual document saying what it says and then go from there?

In particular, why do so many journalists keep insisting that all nuns are under attack because of they have spent too much time caring for the poor and the sick? Where does the document say that?

PHOTO COLLAGE: Portraits of some famous modern American nuns, care of the website.

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