I'm so old that I remember when Catholic leaders getting involved in anything even slightly political meant that journalists would write hard-hitting pieces. Sometimes journalists would just follow the "too political" talking points of well-funded PR campaigns run by political opponents of the Catholic leaders. Why, I remember this one profile of a Catholic leader that described him as angry and confrontational, only quoted those who oppose him (without mentioning their political positions), misstated the level of opposition, and ran with the "too political" theme to the bitter end. Oh wait. That was last week.
Well, this is a new week. And so we have in the same paper with the same reporter a very, very, very different type of profile of another Catholic leader.
Gone is the critique thing. In is the hagiography.
The Washington Post loves, loves, LOVES! this nuns on the bus tour. Let's look at the gushy beginning for the piece headlined "The Nuns on the Bus tour promotes social justice — and turns a deaf ear to the Vatican." (Would you please join me, by the way, in noticing the complete lack of scare quotes around the term "social justice"? I can't be the only one to love that.)
The bus Sister Simone Campbell is using for her cross-country publicity tour is the type typically used by rock bands. To some, this seems appropriate. The D.C. nun was greeted in Jackson, Mich., with “Saint Simone” signs, and in Janesville, Wis., people inside a downtown office-building atrium lined the balconies chanting and snapping photos.
In the past couple of weeks, the dry-humored lobbyist has been on the “The Colbert Report.” “The Daily Show,” which will feature Campbell in July, made her a satiny, “Grease”-like jacket emblazoned with “Bad Habitz” on the back.
Why, even the liberal Colbert Report and Daily Show are cheering on Sister Simone? Well that certainly is news! Has NPR run a profile yet? (Ha, they have. Apparently 10 minutes for a piece headlined "Born To Be Wild: Catholic Nuns Hit The Road" during a week when the lawsuits against the HHS mandate received barely a mention.) Now, it's wonderful that political activists who support increasing taxpayer funding of social welfare programs have liberal fans. Of course, most activists have their fans. They just don't get all the fawning coverage.
With the number of U.S. nuns plummeting in recent decades, many people have never seen one in person. Even fewer have seen a nun do something that appears as defiant as Campbell’s “Nuns on the Bus” tour, which rolls into the D.C. area this weekend in its full-size, advertisement-wrapped, spokeswoman-staffed bus.
Really? I mean, it's an interesting world, isn't it? When an increasingly-powerful federal government comes up with a brand new rule that would force religious groups to violate their doctrines, the targets of the mandate are presented by the media as the perpetrators of a "war on women." And when a bus tour to protest a Republican-controlled House budget that will never even be voted on in the Senate -- and not just because the Democratic-controlled Senate hasn't passed a budget in over three years -- this is an act of brave defiance?
Again, I'm not talking about the merits of fighting for religious liberty vs. the merits for fighting for an increase in federal funding of social welfare programs. These are complex issues and there are folks on all sides of these issues. But isn't the framing distinction just staggering? By the way, there is no mention of the fact that the Senate hasn't passed a budget in three years and won't pass this budget that is being politically protested by activist nuns. Instead we're told that the tour is simply an attempt to "motivate opposition to a House budget" and also a response to the Vatican's April report:
The report said many nun leaders are focusing too much on social-justice issues and too little on same-sex marriage and abortion.
Actually, that's not true. Not true at all.
It's not true that the report said many nun leaders are focusing too much on social-justice issues. And this is an error that has been pointed out so much that it almost looks like it's willful misrepresentation at this point. I might be so bold as to suggest a few less hours of Colbert viewing and a few more seconds of Vatican-report-reading. Go head: Click here for the full text (.pdf). It's the journalistic thing to do.
The report, as informed readers (and a few journalists) know, praises the sisters for what they've done on social justice issues and then criticizes them for their silence on other similar doctrinal issues linked to the dignity of every person, from conception to natural death.
Anyway, the Post report goes on with hagiographic prose (and the reporter really is a talented writer, which makes almost everything she writes a joy to read, even if the pieces veer from hostile to cheerleading, depending on the subject).
We get many quotes about the "unspoken" message of the tour. Actually, they're not quotes but just copy from the reporter:
The tour’s unspoken, but nonetheless loud, message: The nuns’ moral compass is working just fine, thank you.
There are quotes from people supportive of Campbell and lots of positive descriptions of her and her work.
We get a mention of the Catholic Church's focus on religious liberty. One thing I found most curious was that Campbell's work advocating for the 2010 health care law was mentioned alongside Sister Carol Keehan's. But something was missing:
Campbell and Sister Carol Keehan, head of the huge Catholic Health Association, were considered key to the White House passing the health-care law; their approval helped balance bishops’ concern that the plan could provide federal funding for abortions. ...
Campbell also bucked the bishops on their efforts to overturn a part of the new law that requires employers — including faith-based ones — to provide access to contraception coverage for their employees. Campbell “trusts the word of the administration” that the details will be worked out, her spokeswoman said.
Of course Keehan has since switched sides on the HHS mandate mentioned here. It seems like it should be mentioned. Anyway, just two paragraphs before the lengthy piece ends, we get a brief if brutal quote from someone who isn't as rah-rah on the bus tour as the Post is. And guess what: He's identified as a "conservative."
The piece ends with a quote from Campbell ripping on Paul Ryan's Catholicism. Neither he nor any of his supporters are quoted in the piece.
A few final thoughts. I wish the piece would have mentioned whether Sister Simone differs from the Catholic bishops on her view regarding the House budget. And, if not (and the answer is that they also had harsh words for it), why is this being framed as awesome, courageous, so-cool-we-can-barely-contain-ourselves! nuns against the big, bad Catholic leaders? How many nuns are on this bus? Is it just Campbell? (Should just one nun get this much coverage? Should we be using the plural? Given how much coverage this tour has received, even apart from Colbert and Stewart and NPR and the rest, I assumed it must be hundreds of nuns. But another report I read said that it was just Campbell and couple-three others.) Shouldn't that be mentioned? Who is behind this bus tour? Who is paying for it? And are all sisters in these orders uniformly in agreement that this sort of partisan political activity is a good idea?
But other than that, a great yang to the yin of the Lori profile we saw last week.
IMAGE: Picture of the bus via a Catholic blog that did some non-gushy coverage of Campbell and her tour.