Making sense of nun-sensical, controversial headlines

Did you read the news? The Vatican caved in! No, wait, the sisters caved in! Or did they both win? Well, something happened!

“In journalism,” stated Abp. Fulton Sheen wrote 60 years ago in Thinking Life Through, “the modern man wants controversy, not truth.” Plenty of examples abound. Take, for instance, the news that—as one Catholic news outlet described it—“American Sisters accept Vatican reforms on doctrine, theology”. This bit of news is quite interesting, in part, because it lacks the sort of crackling controversy that seemed almost inevitable, considering all of the turbulent water under the ecclesial bridge. As John Allen, Jr. observed in his piece on the matter:

Sometimes in the news business, stories run their course without the explosive ending their dramatic arc would seem to merit. Think a nasty lawsuit, for instance, which ends with an amicable settlement, or the early years of the Super Bowl when a matchup that looked like a heavyweight collision on paper ended with a blowout.

Such would appear to be the case with the conclusion announced Thursday of the Vatican’s now six-year-old investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the main umbrella group for the leaders of women’s religious orders in the United States. …

Purely at the level of perception, this was a made-for-Hollywood standoff between rigid male hierarchs and feisty progressive nuns. Most media outlets and a solid chunk of Catholic opinion at the grassroots, naturally, sided with the nuns.

As Allen admits, “Despite all of that, the whole thing ended on Thursday with a whimper rather than a bang.”

Of course, headlines sell newspapers—or, more accurately, drive traffic—so the headline of Allen’s piece avoided the whimper and went for bang: “Why the Vatican’s crackdown on nuns ended happily”.

It’s a clever juxtoposition: the harshness of a “Vatican crackdown” (ooh!) and the uplift of nuns and happiness (aah!). Associated Press reporters, Nicole Winfield and Rachel Zoll, went for a combination of surprise and conflict: “Vatican unexpectedly ends crackdown of US nun group”. After all, no one really expects the angry old men in the Vatican to get along with the sweet old nuns on the bus. That piece indicated that “social justice-minded” Pope Francis had saved the day:

The Vatican has unexpectedly ended its controversial overhaul of the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, cementing a shift in tone and treatment of the U.S. sisters under the social justice-minded Pope Francis.

There are, however, several ways of skinning the controversial Catholic cat, as Reuters reporter Philip Pullella makes evident in a piece titled “Activist U.S. nuns make concessions after Vatican investigation”. Instead of reconciliation, Pullella apparently smells capitulation and oppression. And guess who the Bad Guys are?

A six-year row between activist American nuns and Vatican officials who had branded them radical feminists ended on Thursday with the nuns conceding to demands that they keep within the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church.

The clash with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an umbrella group representing 80 percent of U.S. nuns, became a national issue in America, with many supporters accusing the Vatican of bullying them.

The Vatican investigated the group for three years and then in 2012 issued a stinging report saying the LCWR had “serious doctrinal problems” and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the (Roman) Catholic faith”.

The Vatican criticized the group for taking a soft line on issues such as birth control and homosexual activity. (emphasis added for fun)

Goodness! It’s as if the sweet little nuns had been doing nothing but putting band-aids on skinned knees and singing sweet, lilting songs of sisterhood when—wham!—those nasty guys in Rome went all patriarchal on them. Of course, the truth about the history of the LCWR and its various actions in recent years suggest a rather different story. But I don’t expect Reuters to tell it.

The New York Times says a “battle” has ended, says the “the nuns stand tall”, and Slate claims the Vatican tacitly admitted the entire matter was a waste of time.

Slate demonstrates its tenuous grasp on the story by illustrating it with a photo (see below) of habit-wearing youthful members of Sisters of Life—an order that belongs to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, not the Leadership Conference of Women Religious  (LCWR), which is the (aging) body in question and which is not known for wearing habits (see photo above, thank you). For those not versed in these matters, it is analogous to illustrating a story about a Hillary Clinton campaign stop with photos from a Tea Party convention.

A far better balance it struck by veteran reporter Francis Rocca, writing for the Wall Street Journal:

The Vatican brought to an end a three-year overhaul of a U.S. nuns’ group stemming from a controversial investigation that found the sisters had neglected church teachings on abortion and other issues.

In a final document released Thursday, the Vatican went lightly on the nuns, effectively sparing them from any sanction or further oversight. The outcome represented a markedly more conciliatory tone in a controversy that saw the Vatican widely criticized for its treatment of the sisters.

His title? “Vatican Ends Overhaul of U.S. Nuns’ Group”.

One final thought: Are matters with the LCWR really resolved—with a whimper? Maybe. Frankly, I doubt it. I have a hard time believing that a group whose leadership has thumbed its nose at the CDF and bishops and has  so often ignored (or even denied) Church teaching is going to so suddenly change its spots. I’d like to be wrong on that count. But, time will tell. In the meantime, let’s hear it for more truth in headlines and the stories beneath them. 

A screen shot from (Apr 16, 2015).

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.