In the unlikely event that administrative assistants behind the “For Dummies” book series are preparing galley proofs for a title called “Religion Reporting for Dummies,” complimentary copies of such a book ought to be shipped to the Washington, D.C. offices of U.S. News and World Report, which just this week published a thinly-disguised plea for help in that area.
A September 9 story by Tierney Sneed headlined “Vatican Criticisms of U.S. Nuns Keep Coming” used several tricks in the journalists’ tool box to make uninformed readers wonder whether American nuns have been ill-served by the Catholic hierarchy. The subtle appeal to patriotism in the story’s headline was reinforced by anonymous attribution in its first paragraph (“Now, many both within and outside of the church community are wondering whether [Pope] Francis will rein in the ongoing Vatican inquiry into the group representing more than three-quarters of American nuns.”)
Whoa, horsie. That the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, is not what got its more outspoken members noticed by several popes. Where a nun holds citizenship is much less important to Vatican officials than whether authority figures in the Catholic Church publicly subscribe to the tenets of the Catholic faith.
Good luck inferring that from a story headlined “the hits on U.S. nuns just keep on coming.” Whatever frisson the story can generate depends on raising anxiety among progressives of any faith over the fact that inquiry into doctrinal irregularity continues unchecked even under this Spanish-speaking pope with a gift for pastoral outreach. You can almost see the thought bubble in the air over the conference table at the meeting where Sneed got her assignment: That Pope Francis is a nice guy, but he’s also a Jesuit and a bishop. The man shook up the Vatican Bank, yet carries his own bags. Does that make him ignorant of “power politics” or scary good at “power politics”? Better put the Georgetown grad on that, and have her check with some nuns!
The result was predictable. Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s quip to an Italian newspaper that “we are not misogynists” got tagged as “the latest in a series of criticisms Müller has lobbed at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.” Got that? Self-deprecating humor is criticism.
While the reporter quotes a Vatican defender and notes, to her credit, that investigations of the kind she is writing about are not unprecedented, an unthinking “social justice at any cost” ethos has so permeated her newsroom that story selection itself seems driven by misty (water colored?) memory of a David and Goliath template, whether it fits or not. That Catholic leaders believe Catholic doctrine strongly enough to defend it seems somehow unfair. Worse, in some newsrooms, scrutiny itself seems unfair (irony dies hard in modern journalism).
Interestingly, the unnamed “many” in the first paragraph of the popes-versus-nuns story eventually morphs into “some,” and by the end of the piece, “some” has become two: One is a professor who faults the Vatican for using “antagonism” as “the doctrinal model” (that would be news to our current pope and the two before him, but they’ve never occupied Georgetown University’s Amaturo Chair in Catholic Studies). The other spokesperson for the nuns-are-victims lobby counts as an authority by dint of having written a book called “If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission,” and she gleefully suggests that Vatican officials are “tripping over themselves.”
I’m not as deep into opposition research as I used to be: Is “tripping over themselves” the new way to say “doing their jobs”?