Can You Be Liberal and Catholic?

Sarah Posner’s excellent piece on the paucity of coverage of liberal religious voices in the media raises questions that are particularly pertinent to coverage of the Catholic Church. Case in point, my recent post about the National Coalition of American Nuns. I found it interesting that an established group of progressive nuns, whose work has in the past received coverage by the New York Times and the National Catholic Reporter, announces their support for contraceptive access under the Affordable Care Act and receives virtually no media coverage.

Yet when the Little Sisters of the Poor, an obscure order of nuns who run nursing homes, filed suit against the contraception mandate, it was front page news around the country.

Why? My theory is that to many who cover religion, the very idea of “feminist nuns” has become an oxymoron—and that’s by design. The Vatican has worked to suppress visible dissent against their teachings related to sexuality, especially by anyone who could be considered an “official” Catholic, like nuns.

In 1983 it forced Sister Agnes Mansour to leave the Sisters of Mercy because she defended her role as head of Michigan’s Medicaid program, which paid for abortions for poor women. When 24 nuns signed a statement that was printed in the New York Times in 1984 saying that there was a diversity of Catholic opinion on abortion, the Vatican hounded them until 22 recanted and the other two resigned. More recently, the Vatican disciplined the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its progressive views and for endorsing a version of the ACA that didn’t include the bishops’ prohibitions on abortion.

The conservative Catholic media is quick to try and discredit anyone who departs from the bishops’ orthodoxy. Brent Bozell’s Newsbusters.orgclaimed that a story about NCAN by MSNBC’s Irin Carmon was “misleading” because NCAN is “merely a liberal social change organization disguised as members of the Catholic Church.” According to Newsbusters:

the article falsely claimed that there is a split among Catholic nuns regarding the contraception mandate, when in reality, actual nuns who practice the Catholic faith oppose the mandate.

So the Little Sisters are legitimate because they agree with the bishops, while nuns who disagree aren’t “actual” nuns, therefore their views must be discounted, and voilá, no split within the church.

Under the headline “Nuns Gone Mad,” the National Catholic Register’s (not to be confused with the National Catholic Reporter) Ann Carey, a long-time critic of liberal nuns, asserts NCAN is a “paper organization” comprised of a “handful” of  “dysfunctional, heterodox” nuns like LGBT advocate Sister Jeannine Gramick. (For the record, a 2009 NCAN sign-on letter in support of a priest who was threatened with excommunication for supporting women’s ordination received the signature of well over 100 well known women religious social justice leaders, including Gramick, and Sisters Donna Quinn, Joan Chittister, Mary Ann Cunningham, Maureen Fiedler, Ivone Gebara, and Theresa Kane.)

What bothers Carey besides the fact that these dissident nuns are “grabbling headlines…in the mainstream media,” is that they are “allowing themselves to be used by people who clearly have an agenda … contrary to Catholic teaching.” As proof of this she offers NCAN’s association with the Rev. Debra Haffner, a well known reproductive health advocate.

So Cardinal Timothy Dolan can go on “Meet the Press” and promote an anti-contraception agenda that’s out of line with the 99 percent of Catholic women who have used birth control and no one questions it, but a group of nuns representing mainstream Catholic thought on contraception are dupes of the reproductive rights lobby? And does anyone really think that the Little Sisters of the Poor aren’t being used by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the conservative public interest law firm that’s working with the Catholic bishops to push the “religious freedom” agenda?

A priest blogging under the name of Father Z has a similar theory and he’s literally seeing red. You can practically feel the spittle flying off the page in his jeremiad against NCAN, Haffner and yours truly, whom he seems to think is a nun, which is very, very funny. He calls NCAN a “tiny, liberal loon crank group” and says they’re a front for some unnamed larger lefty group and also unnamed “dangerous initiatives.” The idea that liberal nuns should be ignored because they’re pawns of the shadowy left was used to try and discredit the “Vatican 24” in 1984.

Unconsciously or not, many in the media have bought into the idea that there’s only one “official” Catholic voice. Maybe it’s because the jovial Dolan, who’s no longer head of the bishops’ conference but frequently functions as its spokesperson, is right out of central casting’s idea of an old time Irish bishop. Or maybe it’s because dissenting voices are hard to find. Progressive nuns have been systematically marginalized. Now they’re dying off and aren’t being replaced; young women who want to do social justice work rarely turn to the life of a nun nowadays. Liberal bishops like Detroit’s Thomas Gumbleton who once provided a counterbalance to conservatives in the hierarchy are also a fading memory. A good number of the lay Catholics who a generation ago would have comprised the church’s left flank no longer call themselves Catholic.

It’s important for the media to understand this dynamic (especially because by definition women can’t be part of the church’s rulemaking leadership) and consider how to balance their coverage, especially on issues like the bishops’ opposition to the contraception mandate the effects of which would go well beyond the church.