Hits and misses in media coverage of nuns

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization that represents leadership of most of the sisters in the United States, is having its big annual meeting in St. Louis this week. And today is the big day where we learn how they've decided to proceed in response to the Vatican crackdown on them. In the past few months, we've seen a lot of glowing and puffy and rather one-sided coverage of the sisters. In the dispute, the Vatican was more rarely actually quoted than inaccurately summarized. So how are things going this week? Well, some are doing better than others.

A reader submitted this St. Louis Beacon story by Patricia Rice. The reader described it as a "really informative and even-handed report on the LCWR meeting, its keynote speaker, the presence of the local archbishop, and the general atmosphere. Excellent." It's nice and long and covers all the bases. I particularly liked how it captured the atmosphere, from the "comfortably dressed" sisters and their seating arrangements to the warm welcome between the local archbishop and the sister who introduced him. So often reporters try to paint an event dramatically at expense of reporting a more nuanced reality of what even the most contentious convention is actually like.

On the other end of the spectrum would be this NBCNews.com piece headlined "'We're with you, sisters': Nuns amazed by outpouring of support." I'll note that the focus of the picture for the article is a sister wearing her habit. Blurred in the background are a couple dozen other attendees -- none of them wearing a habit. I always find these photos interesting.

It includes passages such as this:

The Leadership Conference, which represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, is holding its yearly national assembly this week following scathing criticism from the Vatican of the nuns' alleged lack of fidelity to Catholic teachings.

Their supporters say they were shocked by the crackdown.

We hear from a group called "The Nun Justice Project, a grassroots coalition of Catholic organizations." Here's how the Nun Justice Project describes itself on its fairly savvy web site (not sure if it's this savvy):

The Nun Justice Project is a grassroots movement supported by the following organizations: American Catholic Council, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, Call To Action, Catholics for Choice, CORPUS, DignityUSA, FutureChurch, New Ways Ministry, Quixote Center, RAPPORT (Renewing a Priestly People, Ordination Reconsidered Today), Voice of the Faithful, WATER: Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, Women's Ordination Conference.

Is "coalition of Catholic organizations" the anodyne way you'd describe that collection of groups? There is no balance at all whatsoever to the article, only including quotes from people who are opposed to the Vatican's take on the LCWR and even then failing to explain where they stand in general. The word for whatever happened there is not journalism.

Much better is this piece from the New York Times, headlined "Nuns, at Juncture, Meet to Weigh Their Reply to the Vatican." It's extremely well written and what amazes me, again, is how it's done with an economy of words. The lede refers to a "biting Vatican assessment." I'll take biting over scathing! We're also told:

The nuns’ meeting on Wednesday in a vast hotel ballroom here exemplified the melding of traditional Catholicism and modern innovations that has so perturbed the Vatican. They sat in silence for a long stretch, sang songs about truth and mystery accompanied by a guitar and a choir, and heard a keynote address by a futurist who was escorted to the podium by seven liturgical dancers waving diaphanous scarves of pink and tangerine.

I'm not entirely sure where the "traditional Catholicism" is in that imagery but the theme is continued here:

The nuns, most dressed informally in pants or skirts, gave a standing ovation to Ms. Hubbard, a beatific presence with a mantle of white hair who quoted Jesus, Buckminster Fuller, the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the current pope, Benedict XVI.

I don't know about this characterization. If you read various reports in Catholic media, I saw no reference to Jesus or Benedict quotes but quite a bit about the influence from Teilhard and New Age movements. Quoting Benedict is one thing but saying this about the Vatican is another.

All that being said, the article explains how the speaker highlights the conflict between the Vatican and the LCWR. I mean, some people hear that this group of female Catholic leaders invited a non-Christian futurist with no regard for the Vatican to keynote an annual conference for religious discussion and they get the Vatican's problem right there. (Speaking of, while fully acknowledging that I can only barely understand what a futurist is, is it just me or do they always seem to envision a future that is very much like the 1960s?)

The Times, however, explains it:

But if the nuns submit to the Vatican’s plan to overhaul their organization, it is doubtful that their meetings will feature a keynote speaker like Ms. Hubbard, who grew up a nonreligious Jew in a Scarsdale, N.Y., mansion (her father founded the Marx toy company) and is now acclaimed by New Age luminaries like Deepak Chopra for helping to lead what she calls the “conscious evolution” movement.

Precisely! The media have been very, very busy writing stories about LCWR sisters being awesome. I get that. But they've penned all those stories at the cost of failing to really explain the conflict simply. So this mention in the Times is helpful.

The publication of the Archdiocese of St. Louis took it a step further by quoting the Hubbard speech, explaining how it differed from Catholic teaching, and then providing an absolutely brutal listing of ideas discussed by previous speakers and writing that they dramatically differ from Catholic teaching. It's striking how so many in the media herded behind the "Gasp! The Vatican said "radical feminism"! Bring us to our fainting couches!" angles and how few focused on the radical teachings described in that Archdiocese of St. Louis piece.

The article goes on to give quite a bit of time to the public relations campaign involving letters of support to the sisters and doesn't mention that attendees are not supposed to talk to the media about the Vatican document.

The picture accompanying the story features St. Louis' famous arch ... and two sisters wearing habits. The story does mention, again, that most attendees were dressed informally. The St. Louis Archdiocese site has some good pictures of the event, if you're interested.

Photo of a swing and miss via Aspen Photo/Shutterstock.com.

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