So one of the big stories of the day is this: Did the progressive nuns on the buses win or not?
I would argue that the key to reading the coverage today is linked to two other questions. The key, looking at the stories in the elite publications, is whether these other questions are even asked.
First, what was the dispute actually about? Do the stories contain any reference to the doctrinal issues involved and, especially, was any attempt made to describe them?
Second, did the discussions about what to do with women religious actually move back into the shadows of Vatican and episcopal oversight life, rather than being out in the glare of mass-media who were openly cheering for the progressives? In other words, do the stories mention the small hints in the Vatican actions -- aside from the glowing Pope Francis photo-op -- that this story is not over?
OK, third question: Did some Vatican officials simply decide that these religious orders are aging and dying anyway, so why have a war when demographics will settle the issue?
The Los Angeles Times story is a good place to start, in that it signals its bias right up front, ignores the doctrinal substance, yet also -- by quoting candid liberals -- signals that some prog-nuns are still worried. What does that look like? In the lede, note that the investigation was "controversial" while the content of the orders' theological innovations were not.
The Vatican ended its controversial takeover and investigation of U.S. nuns on Thursday, marking a quiet conclusion to a boisterous battle between the Holy See and the main umbrella group of American nuns.
A report noting the end of the Vatican’s years-long takeover described a collaborative relationship and conversations “marked by a spirit of prayer, love for the church, mutual respect, and cooperation.”
It was a sharp contrast to the Roman Catholic Church’s accusations that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious deviated from church doctrine and promoted “radical” feminist themes.
Group hug, everybody. Now, did the report actually say that there were no grounds for the doctrinal concerns? (click here)
The story is full of language straight out of a Nuns on the Bus press release, while offering zero space for critics who are familiar with the actual speeches and documents that caused this whole media storm. This part was choice:
Rome’s enforcer of orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also criticized the nuns for “protesting the Holy See's actions regarding the question of women's ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons.”
The nuns’ emphasis on social justice, however, falls in line with Pope Francis’ emphasis on austerity and serving the poor. After their censure, some sisters staged a cross-country road tour -- Nuns on the Bus -- to draw attention to their focus. They were often greeted by cheering crowds.
Now, would you know that the controversial report actually praised the nuns for their work on serving the poor, seeking social justice, etc.?
The whole point of the point was that these particular nuns were failing to apply this same theology to other moral -- primarily sexual -- issues in today's world.
Finally, there is -- in this voice from the left -- a fascinating note that I saw in few other stories. So an indirect "bravo" for the following, which is rather long. Read carefully:
Thursday’s report, issued jointly, did not detail the extent of any revisions to the nuns’ statutes but did say “measures are being taken” to ensure the group’s publications “avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it.” It also noted the Holy See’s expectations in the selection of programs and speakers at general assemblies and other LCWR-sponsored events.
“When exploring contemporary issues, particularly those which, while not explicitly theological nevertheless touch upon faith and morals, LCWR expects speakers and presenters to have due regard for the church’s faith and to pose questions for further reflection in a manner that suggests how faith might shed light on such issues,” the report said.
Mary E. Hunt, cofounder of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, said she was alarmed by some of the report’s language.
“‘Measures are being taken’ ... that’s an enormous red flag. Who’s taking the measures?” Hunt said. “When you see passive voice without any clarification, that’s alarming. I’m pleased to see there’s an end to this chapter, but I think it would be a mistake to say they’ve come away with anything new.”
Group hug, everybody?
So what about the all-important Bible, The New York Times? There is solid material, from the point of view of the prog-nuns. In other words, the story is framed from their point of view.
Is there a counterbalance of voices here in North America that are critical of their work and were linked to the research that led to the "controversial" investigation? What do you think? Here is the perfect summary:
Francis has shown in his two-year papacy that he is less interested in having the church police doctrinal boundaries than in demonstrating mercy and love for the poor and vulnerable -- the very work that most of the women’s religious orders under investigation have long been engaged in.
Ending the standoff with the nuns is one of several course corrections that Francis has set in motion. ...
He has made no changes in doctrine -- on Wednesday, he reiterated the church’s teaching that marriage can be only between a man and a woman -- but Catholics worldwide say he has done much to make the church’s tone more welcoming.
And the sources being quoted there?
As for the future, the paper of record basically punts, due to some strategic silence. That strategic silence, I would argue, may be the key to the story:
Ultimately, the report issued on Thursday said that the nuns’ group would take care in selecting the speakers and programs at its conferences, and have “competent theologians” review its publications. It did not specify who would select the theologians, and indeed, women’s religious orders are full of trained and competent theologians.
The report said the goal was “to promote a scholarly rigor that will ensure theological accuracy and help avoid statements that are ambiguous with regard to church doctrine or could be read as contrary to it.”
On Thursday, neither the nuns nor the bishops involved would grant interviews. The Vatican’s doctrinal office also would not speak. The nuns’ group said that the doctrinal office had asked all of those involved not to speak to the news media for 30 days.
As always, I think it's crucial that American newspapers continue to act as if the prog-nuns are THE nuns, period. Meanwhile, the conservative alternative -- the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious of the United States -- is small, but does contain some key orders that are growing and have relatively young nuns and sisters.
In the coverage you are seeing, does this group of nuns exist?
Also, here is an important name to search for -- Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink. It was her 2007 address entitled, "A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century (.pdf), that lit the flame on this whole story. Here is some key language from one of my "On Religion" columns, based primarily on her original text:
During this era of crisis and decline, some Catholic religious orders have chosen to enter a time of "sojourning" that involves "moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus," Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink told a 2007 national gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
"Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian," added Brink, a former journalist who is a biblical studies professor at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union. For these women, the "Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative. ... They still hold up and reverence the values of the Gospel, but they also recognize that these same values are not solely the property of Christianity. Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Judaism, Islam and others hold similar tenets for right behavior within the community, right relationship with the earth and right relationship with the Divine."
More, on the "Post-Christian" era for some nuns, and others choosing different strategies:
Sister Laurie began with this assumption: "Old concepts of how to live the Life are no longer valid."
The first option, she said, is "death with dignity and grace," as opposed to becoming a "zombie congregation" that staggers on with no purpose. This option must be taken seriously since the average age of the 67,000 sisters and nuns in the United States is 69. Many retreat ministries are closing and large "mother houses" are struggling with finances, while some congregations no longer invite or accept new candidates.
Meanwhile, Brink noted with sadness, some orders have chosen to turn back the clock -- thus winning the favor of Rome. "They are putting on the habit, or continuing to wear the habit with zest. ... Some would critique that they are the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed. But they are flourishing. Young adults are finding in these communities a living image of their romantic view of Religious Life. They are entering. And they are staying," she said.
Finally, some women are fighting on, hoping to achieve reconciliation someday with a changed, egalitarian church hierarchy. Thus, the current conflicts in American Catholicism cannot be hidden, she said.
"Theologians are denied academic freedom. Religious and laywomen feel scrutinized simply because of their biology. Gays and lesbians desire to participate as fully human, fully sexual Catholics within their parishes," said Brink. Many Catholics also oppose the "ecclesial deafness that refuses to hear the call of the Spirit summoning not only celibate males, but married men and women to serve" as priests.
Now, I am not asking if voices discussing these issues dominated the news-media reports today. That would have been out of line.
I am asking if these voices and these issues EVEN EXIST in the mainstream and elite reports that readers are seeing. In other words, what was this crisis about in the first place? Did journalists even stop and thing that there might be experts on both sides of that dispute that they could seek out and quote?
Or did reporters simply jump on the bus, again, and ride it?