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Sister Act

In this section of our previous issue we focused attention on the typical news coverage of the Vatican’s call for a deep reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a.k.a. the LCWR (“Femi-Nuns in the Echo-Chamber,” June). This liberal-leaning group has long served as a kind of trade association for a majority of congregations of American nuns. We noted that the media’s response to the Vatican rebuke was successfully controlled by the LCWR public-relations machine. The group’s leadership fired off its pre-emptive strike in a successful effort to turn the tables; consequently, news stories focused primarily on the LCWR’s criticism of the Vatican’s rebuke rather than on what the Vatican actually had to say on the matter. The disgruntled nuns successfully controlled the flow of information, turning this controversy into an assault on the Vatican, a remarkable media coup for the LCWR, no doubt about it.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this story is its familiarity. This media turn-of-events has repeated itself dozens, if not hundreds, of times in recent decades. The pattern: The Pope or the Vatican makes a pronouncement, rebuke, or other “controversial” remark; the media makes little attempt to understand the issue at hand; the media gives evidence that it isn’t going to bother to read the primary sources — too long or too deep or above their pay grade; lazy reporters and editors latch on to press releases from disgruntled critics whose liberal agendas as “change agents” in the Church are well known; news stories invariably focus on criticism of the Pope or Vatican rather than on what the Pope or Vatican actually had to say; hyperbolic terms such as “bullying” and “crackdown” pepper news reports; readers nationwide are swindled into believing that the group or person addressed by the Pope or Vatican is above criticism or rebuke. End result: A misinformed general public falls for the ruse that the Vatican amounts to a cabal of geezers running a medieval dictatorship, or that the Pope is himself a pompous geezer pretending to a medieval throne.

In the recent LCWR case, if reporters would have taken even a cursory look at the Vatican’s eight-page rebuke of the U.S. nuns and then compared it to the responses from the LCWR and supporting groups, even the dull-witted ones would have found that it’s the nuns’ verbiage that’s laced with vitriol and fallacy. As we noted, the LCWR leaders are masters at PR, and so far they have certainly won in the court of public opinion. But strip away all the public-relations rhetoric and bandwagonning (e.g., seven Franciscan provinces in the U.S. publicly backed the nuns) and we’re left with a reasonable Vatican critique of wayward nuns — and a whole lotta whining from some cantankerous gorgons.

After a much-ballyhooed summit this summer in Washington, D.C., the LCWR’s board of directors issued a statement calling the Vatican’s assessment “unsubstantiated,” claiming the rebuke has “caused scandal and pain and exacerbated polarization throughout the Catholic community.” The group complained that the “sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise [the nuns’] ability to fulfill their mission.” The Washington Post (June 1) characterized the nuns’ statement as “an unusually bold reaction to the Vatican’s doctrine-enforcing arm and seemed to imply the women may choose to rebel.”

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