The scowling, scolding, dogmatic nun is among the few stereotypes that persist in otherwise sensitive, all-accepting society. So it's important for media to guard against perpetuating such images. This is true especially when reporting public complaints against nuns, as in a recent story in The Charlotte Observer. On one level, the article merely reported a furor over an address by a Dominican sister at Charlotte Catholic School.
Parents were angry that Sister Jane Dominic Laurel was said to have spoken against gays and lesbians and -- according to students and parents -- "made inflammatory remarks about single and divorced parents."
Mind you, the complaining parents weren't there, and "a record of the comments was not available," the article reports. But they were still angry:
The petition, which has drawn more than 2,000 supporters, listed 10 objections to her remarks, including this: “We resent the fact that a schoolwide assembly became a stage to blast the issue of homosexuality after Pope Francis said in an interview this past fall that ‘we can not insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.’ We are angry that someone decided they knew better than our Holy Father and invited (this) speaker.”
Some students told their parents that a few teachers left the assembly in tears.
In addition, parents called for a letter-writing campaign, sending out emails that listed the addresses of the Diocese of Charlotte, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, even the pope in the Vatican.
Other parents complained to the Observer that the school didn’t tell them in advance what Sister Jane would talk about. Remember: Catholic school, Catholic nun, Catholic doctrine. And they were surprised?
To its credit, the paper quoted a spokesman for the Diocese of Charlotte defending the nun. He noted that she has a doctorate in sacred theology and has spoken in the diocese before.
The newspaper also quoted a priest who said she "represented well the Catholic positions on marriage, sex, same-sex attraction and proper gender roles."
Still, the Observer story has holes.
So no one recorded exactly what Sister Jane said. Did the paper ask her? Did it ask any students who were in the room? Why not ask: "Could you put Sally on the phone? I'd like to talk to her directly about this, if it's OK with you." Has this nun spoken on these topics in the past? What is her style when doing so?
Did the reporter ask any teachers, for that matter? "Some students told their parents that a few teachers left the assembly in tears," the article said. Meaning, of course, that the parents told the Observer what their kids allegedly said about what the teachers allegedly did because of what the nun allegedly said.
From the 10-point petition itself, we can guess at some of the speech, or at least the impression the writer(s) inferred.
They thought Sister Jane said that only traditional nuclear families embody positive role models and raise healthy children. They objected to the phrase "homosexual lifestyle" and the assertion that gays can't live in monogamy. And they thought the sister claimed that men turn gay by "masturbating in the presence of one another."
Interestingly, the petition has nothing about single and divorced parents, which, as you recall, parents found inflammatory. They should have been asked about that, too. But some of the above remarks would still have been good context for the Observer article.
As Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher comments, Sister Jane "may have said some bizarre things. It is possible to present orthodox Catholic teaching in an offensive way. On the other hand ... it could be that these Catholic students were being told the Catholic truth, and they thought she was giving them hell."
The Observer article did try some contexting:
The division over Laurel’s speech is a reflection of the culture wars being waged within Catholicism and in society at large. Conservatives point to the denomination’s traditional teachings against homosexual behavior and divorce.
Liberals look to Pope Francis, who has called for less emphasis on those issues and a more welcoming church that focuses on helping the poor.
Many U.S. dioceses, including Charlotte’s, are led by conservative bishops who were appointed by Pope Francis’ more conservative predecessors.
But where is the "division" over the speech? The Observer article quotes two indignant parents, their petition and their e-mail campaign. The other side is represented only by a priest and a diocesan flack. That's two "real" people versus two talking heads.
Did any parents and students support Sister Jane's speech and the school's decision in hosting her? I'll bet they're out there. I'll bet the school would have been more than willing to supply a few.
Because nuns aren't the only ones who suffer from stereotypes, you know. So do newspapers that appear to favor one side.