Why not interview all sides in Catholic dispute?

One of the great things about reporting is that you never quite know where a story is going. You interview a disgruntled employee and you're totally convinced he's got the goods on his evil employer. And then you do more research and realize the story is a tad more complicated -- he's trying to cover up his own incompetence or corruption. Or he's merely trying to gain more power by throwing someone else under the bus. Or you'll get pitched on a story about a legislative reform that must be passed. And you're totally convinced by the activist group coming up with the plan until you talk to the people who would be affected by the legislation or regulation and realize that there are many unintended consequences.

Stories are rarely black and white. Frequently the people you talk to are making themselves out to be the hero and putting the worst construction on their opponents and their views. It can be a tangled mess to hear all these different perspectives and try to make sense of them, much less be fair to folks who have different ideas about how things should progress.

Yet it's so important to make those phone calls and talk to people on all sides. If you don't, your story will just read like propaganda instead of news.

Take this New York Times report, "Nuns Weigh Response to Scathing Vatican Rebuke."

In general, adjectives such as indicated here are in overuse. Rather than hearing anything specific about the rebuke, we're just told that it's "scathing." I read the rebuke (in fact, I just reread it while writing this) and while it was very clear, it is not fair to call it scathing or bitter or anything like that. I always found it funny stories about this rebuke of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious avoided quoting from it. If you read it, you'll find much praise of the women and language that is, well, not scathing at all. Reporters should probably ease up on the adjectives and just show us the relevant information rather than tell us what to think. Here's the lede:

American nuns are preparing to assemble in St. Louis next week for a pivotal meeting at which they will try to decide how to respond to a scathing critique of their doctrinal loyalty issued this spring by the Vatican — a report that has prompted Roman Catholics across the country to rally to the nuns’ defense.

The nuns will be weighing whether to cooperate with the three bishops appointed by the Vatican to supervise the overhaul of their organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of women’s Catholic religious orders in the United States.

The Leadership Conference says it is considering at least six options that range from submitting graciously to the takeover to forming a new organization independent of Vatican control, as well other possible courses of action that lie between those poles.

We get an excellent look at how the LCWR would like people to view what is going on. And there is definitely a place for that. But in a news story, there should be much more. Not just in terms of thoughtful criticism or skepticism of a given group but also just different perspectives. And I think the problem might just be that the reporter didn't talk to folks who aren't apologists for the LCWR. For instance, maybe the LCWR perspective is that there is a "takeover" in play. But even for me, a non-Catholic, I know enough about this story to know that the LCWR was founded by the Vatican in 1956. So naturally I want to know why we'd characterize the Vatican's concerns with the organization it founded as a "takeover."

Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the LCWR, was interviewed and her quotes match the angle chosen for telling the story. But maybe it would have been good to actually interview people who could explain whether the Vatican agrees or disagrees with this perspective and how and why. Maybe then disagreements wouldn't be presented in such a one-sided manner:

Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the Leadership Conference, said in an interview that the Vatican seems to regard questioning as defiance, while the sisters see it as a form of faithfulness.

“We have a differing perspective on obedience,” Sister Farrell said. “Our understanding is that we need to continue to respond to the signs of the times, and the new questions and issues that arise in the complexities of modern life are not something we see as a threat.”

These same conflicts are gripping the Catholic Church at large. Nearly 50 years after the start of Vatican II, which was intended to open the church to the modern world and respond to the “signs of the times,” the church is gravely polarized between a progressive wing still eager for change and reform and a traditionalist flank focused on returning to what it sees as doctrinal fundamentals.

The sisters have been caught in the riptide. Most of them have spent their lives serving the sick, the poor, children and immigrants — and not engaged in battles over theology. But when some sisters after Vatican II began to question church prohibitions on women serving as priests, artificial birth control or the acceptance of same-sex relationships, their religious orders did not shut down such discussion or treat it as apostasy. In fact, they have continued to insist on their right to debate and challenge church teaching, which has resulted in the Vatican’s reproof.

But rather than talk to someone who could respond to these characterizations, we're instead given a line from a June interview of Cardinal William Levada with a different reporter from another publication. If you're going to go with previously drafted articles and documents, a quick re-read of the Vatican review shows three appeals to the Second Vatican Council. And the whole review is really about the Vatican's view that the LCWR has failed to get with the times in terms of having a Roman Catholic voice in the public square debates of abortion, euthanasia and sexuality (page 3).

We then have more effusive language in support of the sisters, with further defenses of their theological approach. And another quote from someone defending the LCWR who was interviewed by the Times. And then more defense of the LCWR, without the slightest hint that any difficult questions were posed to them. The kind of questions that, if they didn't come naturally, would be easy to form after a quick chat with folks who weren't apologists for the LCWR. And then another quote from an interview with a member of the LCWR.

That's followed by further effusive praise of the sisters as people seemingly without any legitimate problem whatsoever. So we get passages like this:

The sisters after Vatican II had access as never before to higher education, and they went on to become scholars and theologians, chief executives of hospitals, legal aid lawyers, social workers and martyrs in countries like El Salvador. They took on issues including economic injustice, racism, women’s rights, immigration, interfaith relations and environmentalism — which for many years put them in collegial working relationships with bishops who were also engaged in those causes.

But the two popes who reigned for the last 34 years — first John Paul II and now Benedict XVI — appointed bishops who are far more theologically and politically conservative than their predecessors. Drawing on these popes’ teachings, this new generation of American bishops has steered the church’s social priorities toward opposition to abortion, gay marriage and secularism.

I wonder how these priorities are measured. We talked yesterday about how even though the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops pushes out press releases on, say, economic issues or immigration, it's only the ones on the traditional family or the sanctity of human life that seem to get the press interested. I mean, I have no doubt where the media's priorities are. But what's the substantiation for the charge in that last sentence?

The whole article sort of broke down for me in the next paragraph. The whole time we're told that these women could not be more faithful Catholics. They are the embodiment of faithful Catholicism. All they're doing is asking really good questions. But then:

The Leadership Conference was a thorn in the Vatican’s side even before 1979, the year its president at the time, Sister Theresa Kane, welcomed John Paul to Washington with a public plea to ordain women in the priesthood. The group has remained unified despite pressure from the Vatican by making decisions only after consulting its membership. It is hardly the small splinter group that some conservative critics have recently tried to portray.

1979? I was five at the time. This sort of busts up that whole media narrative that we heard for months -- the one about how the Vatican was just upset with the LCWR for helping pass that new health care law a couple years back. (Note this April New York Times story that suggests that the reason for the crackdown was, according to Sister Simone Campbell: “I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”)

But mostly I wonder where that last line in the excerpt above came from. Who are these conservative critics? Do they have a name? What is that name? What did they actually say? Are they saying the LCWR is an aging group whose membership is dropping off? Or are they saying the LCWR is a "small splinter group"? I plugged that phrase into Google and the only thing that came up was the New York Times article we're looking at. Particularly in light of the fact that no critics of the LCWR were interviewed, this doesn't exactly build trust with the reader.

The article ends with a quote from an Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the papal nuncio to the United States. But he wasn't spoken to by the reporter, either. His quote came from a June address to bishops at their Atlanta meeting.

I can't help but think that the story wouldn't have been so puffy if the reporter would have simply interviewed a couple of people who could have helped round out the debate and give it some depth. It's great -- it's wonderful -- to get the perspective of the women religious who oppose the Vatican. It would also be good to speak with some who support it. How about someone from one of those growing orders of women of a traditional bent. Or go ahead and just talk to some of the bishops who are working on this project. The story is not improved by avoiding those conversations.

Photo of a phone chat via Shutterstock.

Please respect our Commenting Policy