Out of the Habit: Nets Favor Liberal Nuns 5-1

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious begins its annual assembly today in Orlando. The group of Catholic nuns from various orders is certain to be considering a response to the Vatican’s finding that LCWR’s liberal activism strays from Church doctrine on a variety of issues.

But the sisters probably aren’t too worried. They have something the Vactican doesn’t – a friendly news media.


Over the past year, Pope Benedict’s retirement, Pope Francis’ election and the hotly debated HHS mandate kept the Catholic Church in the headlines and gave plenty of opportunities for the media to spotlight American women religious. But when they did, the networks focused favorably on liberal nuns, only rarely balancing out their radical opinions with perspectives from traditional Catholic nuns.

It’s not that the media don’t like nuns – on the contrary, from June 2012 to June 2013, the three major networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) interviewed nuns a grand total of 19 times. But overwhelmingly, the nuns interviewed were liberal products of the 1960s and 70s who dissent from the Catholic Church on major doctrinal issues like same-sex marriage, contraception, or abortion.

Reporters didn’t leave any room for doubt about their bias, turning to nuns who want the ordination of women to be “very high on the church agenda,” asking “if not now, when,” decrying “enforcers of church orthodoxy,” and fawning over a nun who said women religious “never wanted the men to tell us what to do.”

Only Liberal Nuns?

So, if the media didn’t focus on traditional Catholic nuns, who exactly were the nuns the media didinterview? Interviews with nuns in the past year were almost exclusively with nuns involved in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which recently received an audit and warning from the Vatican for pushing liberal and feminist agendas.  Prominent Catholic Donna F. Bethel gave anice outline of the situation:

Over the years, the LCWR has shown a marked trend toward fringe – and even decidedly un-Catholic – positions and interests, such as ordaining women and encouraging the homosexual lifestyle … Speakers at LCWR annual assemblies have espoused New Age fads, politics reflective of our morally relative culture and “feminist theology,” but scarcely anyone could be found to speak out against the primary injustice of abortion … or affirm the Church’s teaching on family life and human sexuality.

In fact, certain nuns involved with the LCWR went campaigning for liberal “social justice” agendas—including Obamacare—in their “Nuns on the Bus” road tour, and even got a key speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention last year.  From a traditional Catholic perspective, these nuns are highly controversial.

But NBC, ABC, and CBS overwhelmingly focused on these non-traditional, not-so-Catholic nuns, both for comments on Pope Francis’ election and to paint the feminist nuns as martyrs for getting in trouble with the Vatican.

NBC interviewed Srs. Joan Chittister and Jennifer Gaeta, both active LCWR members who support the idea of women priests – and sought out only one more traditional nun. NBC’S Maria Shriver declared that “millions of women think it’s time for the hierarchy of this church to open its eyes” and allow women priests, and then turned to Chittister who asserted that she wants women’s ordination to be “very high on the church agenda.”  

ABC cheered on Sr. Pat Farrell, former President of the LCWR, and Sr. Christine Schenk, fan of the LCWR and executive director of “FutureChurch,” a group dedicated to undermining traditional Catholic teachings, while giving less quote time to a more conservative Sr. Angelus. After interviewing Schenk, ABC’s Terry Moran asked “if not now, when” would the Catholic Church have women priests or popes.

Of all three networks, however, CBS was undoubtedly the most slanted in its portrayal of American nuns. Out of the 12 nuns that CBS interviewed between June 2012 and June 2013, 11 were openly liberal, and the 12th, while she made no directly unorthodox comments, is tied to a group of nuns who wholeheartedly support women priests and the Nuns on the Bus.

Pushing Women Priests, Rejecting Sexual Morality

CBS’ favorite was Sr. Maureen Fiedler, radically liberal American nun who authored the feminist book Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in Their Own Words, which highlights feminist women ministers, non-Catholic women bishops, and other characters that go against the Catholic Church’s traditional grain. Fiedler publicly defended the LCWR and has written for left-wing outlets like Huffington Post.

With this aggressively anti-traditional stance, Fiedler was a mainstream-media favorite: CBS asked her back multiple times to comment on the resignation of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis. And her comments were little gems of agenda-pushing feminist trope.

Take, for instance, her comments on the College of Cardinals on March 2, 2013. “When I look at that gathering in Rome, all I can ask myself is where are the women?”

CBS’ Rebecca Jarvis and Anthony Mason both cheered on Fiedler while repeatedly droning that the church needs “reform and change,” and when Mason called the conclave “a long line of old men,” Fiedler simply agreed with him. Then she insisted that “social justice Catholics” want the pope to “not dwell on those issues of sexuality” because “people are sick of that” (a demand she repeated on March 16, when she was back to call for the pope to “change the emphasis from issues of sexuality”).

By March 9, Fiedler was welcomed back once more on CBS, this time to push for women priests and announce that if she had a candidate for the papacy,  “it would be Sister Simone Campbell … who led Nuns on the Bus in the United States … a champion of social justice and peace.” Article continues after the video.

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Simone Campbell’s “Retort to Rome”

Actually, infamously liberal Nuns on the Bus leader Sr. Simone Campbell was another popular face at CBS. Nuns on the Bus says its mission is “to be a Catholic leader in the global movement for justice and peace — that educates, organizes and lobbies for economic and social transformation.” The group also worries about “peacemaking, comprehensive immigration reform, housing, poverty, federal budget priorities, trade and hunger,” and campaigned against the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc, in 2012.

On June 21, 2012, CBS favorably spotlighted the Nuns on the Bus, but gave no balancing opinion from more traditional Catholics. Reporter Dean Reynolds started with fanfare for Campbell by calling her “a bit of a provocateur,” and declaring Campbell was “under siege.”

Campbell touted her defiance of church leaders: “Catholic sisters have always been out on the edge … we have a long history of kind of annoying the central authority,” she claimed. Playing into Campbell’s rhetoric by saying the Nuns on the Bus and the LCWR were “attacked” by the Vatican, Reynolds brought up the accusation of radical feminism, Campbell said she had “to laugh” at it.   

Reynolds lauded Campbell for having “doubled down” and “launching this bus tour in what can only be seen as a retort to Rome.”

After Pope Francis’ election, CBS gave Campbell the celebrity treatment yet again. On March 17, 2013, CBS’s Bob Simon spoke as if the relationship between all American nuns and the popes was adversarial.

BOB SIMON (voiceover): When Pope Francis first stood on that dock overlooking St. Peter’s Square, few were watching him more carefully than the nuns, especially nuns in the United States. Will the new pope follow his predecessor, Benedict, whose enforcers of church orthodoxy investigated American nuns for insubordination at the very same time that the pedophilia scandal raged?

With blatant editorializing like that, there was little chance Simon would consult traditional nuns who are passionately faithful to the papacy. Instead, he called on Campbell for perspective on the new pope and his (as yet potential) relationship with American nuns.

Hailing the nuns’ “populist movement” and their “own national road show,” Simon introduced Campbell and her group as martyrs “singled out in the Vatican’s investigation.”

Campbell took a victory lap on the health care issue by describing her defiance of the Catholic Church in schoolgirl terms: “One of the sisters … said, ‘Oh, Simone, don’t worry about this. The boys played the girls. And for once the girls won. And the boys are upset.’”

Simon spoke darkly of the Vatican’s “crackdown” and speculated on how Pope Francis would handle the so-called “standoff with American nuns.” Hyping the supposed “power struggle” between the Vatican and some of what he called “its most popular disciples,” Simon labeled the Vatican investigation into the dissenting nuns “a new Inquisition.”

Infamous Leaders of the LCWR

But Campbell wasn’t the only nun Simon interviewed. He also fawned over former president of the LCWR, Sr. Pat Farrell, another liberal nun, hailing her as a “rock star.” When he asked about her feelings regarding the Catholic Church’s rebuke of the LCWR, Farrell said“It feels to me like fear, what would happen if women really were given a place of equality in the church.” In fact, Farrell justified her work by surprisingly egotistical remarks: “It’s because I am church that I have been doing those things,” she said.  

“We have never wanted the men to tell us what to do,” Farrell added.  

CBS also spotlighted the current president of the misbehaving LCWR, Sr. Florence Deacon, whom the New York Times touted as the “rebel nun.” When she appeared on CBS on March 12, 2013, CBS’ Anthony Mason touted “winds of change” in the church and Gayle King lauded the LCWR as “challenging the Vatican” before introducing Deacon.

Deacon tried to backpedal by saying that the LCWR wasn’t challenging the Vatican (though that wasexactly what it looked like they were doing), but then dived into her personal feminist vision for the papacy: “In particular it’s time to be … including women more … in key leadership roles, women in some of the offices of the Vatican … even official counselors …There could be a … council of women.”

Deacon declared she would accept the label of “radical feminist” if the Vatican accepted herdefinition of feminism.  She also took a jab at priestly celibacy, saying it would be a “good idea” for priests to marry because celibacy “doesn’t seem to be working anymore” – an idea which is highly contentious. 

Other nuns interviewed by CBS were Sr. Judy Park, cited as “sticking with” the nuns of the LCWR, Sr. Peg Maloney, used for a slanted anti-celibacy piece, and Sr. Christine Schenk (head of the afore-mentioned liberal organization FutureChurch), whom CBS’ Barry Petersen used to label celibacy “a fading tradition.”

The One Exception?

CBS interviewed one nun who didn’t talk feminist agitprop: Sister Mary Alice Hannan, spotlighted for her involvement in a soup kitchen. Yet a little research yields that Hannan appears to be of the same breed as Fiedler, Farrell, and Campbell. Hannan doesn’t wear a habit, and belongs to an order that betrays her probable liberal leanings: its Facebook page is plastered with environmentalist articles, works by other liberal nuns like Sr. Joan Chittister, and an article“redefining” the three traditional vows of a religious – not to mention a promotional video for the Nuns on the Bus.

A Little Perspective

One crucial fact was absent from the networks’ perspective on nuns: that liberal nuns are in no way the only Catholic women religious in the United States, or even the majority.  There are larger, thriving, and younger communities in the United States like the Nashville Dominicans, the Poor Clares in Alabama, and the Carmelites of the Sacred Heart in Los Angeles.  Why did they get the media blackout treatment? Were they never sought out for comment on such momentous events as the election of a new pope?

Part of the problem may be the LCWR’s oft-cited claim that it represents 80% of Catholic women religious in the United States, a claim that the networks parroted when they brought up the LCWR. But as the National Catholic Register explained, this number was highly debatable:

“With some 1,500 members, the LCWR consists of about 3 percent of the 57,000 women religious in the United States. Because its members are leaders of their respective religious communities, the group says that it represents 80 percent of American sisters. The average age of its members is 74.”

The problem with this tally is that the nuns who flock to the LCWR are mostly liberal and radically feminist, making it highly unlikely that they represent 80 percent of all women religious in the United States, which include large and passionately-traditional communities who supported the Vatican’s initiative to rectify LCWR abuses.

In fact, the LCWR’s long record of promoting controversial agendas led to the creation of a younger, more vibrant, and much less beloved-of-the-press group called the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which represents more than 100 different religious communities in the United States. The groups are often considered rivals.

So how did faithful Catholic nuns react to the Vatican move and the antics of the LCWR?  Mother Mary Assumpta Long, O.P., explained that the Vatican document “identifies that the doctrinal issues of the LCWR reflect a deeper crisis of identity among her members, both in terms of the very essentials of consecrated life and the inseparable communion of consecrated life with the Church.” A far cry from Bob Simon’s fretting about a “new Inquisition,” Mother Mary Assumpta’s article concluded by explaining the “acute” need for just such a movement on the part of the church when “integrity of consecrated life begins to diminish, evidenced in this case by clear examples of dissent from the hierarchy and lack of authentic ecclesial communion.”

The media loves to look at the Catholic Church through its own twisted lens, and the numbers betray their slant. Since the networks’ treatment of Catholic issues in the past usually involvessupporting the liberal agenda and bashing the Church for being Catholic, the media’s exclusive focus on dissident nuns may well be just another bad habit.