In Their Own Voices

by Megan Sweas

Women religious, we've heard over the past week, are the backbone of the Roman Catholic Church, servers of the poor and radical feminists. But who are they really and what do they believe?

The Vatican released the results of its investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that has 1,500 members representing most of the 57,000 women religious in the United States.

The results might not have been a complete surprise for those who followed the beginning of the Vatican investigations into LCWR and the lives of women religious in 2009. But this is an “inside baseball” story, as U.S. Catholic's Bryan Cones (my former boss, and an astute commentator on church issues) likes to say.

Still, it appeals to a broad audience. As mainstream news media coverage has noted, women religious have shaped not only the U.S. church but also the country with their hospitals, schools and social services. The story deserves a deeper look, but the past weeks' coverage is also an example of how follow-up articles and analysis can clarify complex issues.

Initial reports might have left curious readers confused. In its first story, the Washington Post, for instance, paraphrased Simone Campbell of Network, a Catholic social justice organization, describing “the current tension between male and female Catholic clergy as a part of a post-Vatican II democratic evolution within the church.” Besides the fact that women religious are members of the laity, not the clergy, there's a lot of history to unpack in this sentence.

For this, many media outlets turned to perennial Catholic commentators John Allen and David Gibson. While both expertly explained the church dynamics, Reuters deserves credit for finding new and diverse sources—including female experts and women religious themselves—to show the back-story behind the Vatican's recent decision.

The Washington Post also improved its coverage with a follow-up piece on the reaction of women religious. Here we get a better picture of who women religious are in general and whom the LCWR represents. With the LCWR declining to respond (it will meet at the end of May to discuss the report), reporters have to work a little harder to find sisters willing to talk, but the Washington Post and others have proved that it's possible to do so.

National Catholic Reporter quoted Sister Joan Chittister. What about Sister Sandra Schneiders, who was vocal at the beginning of the investigation; Laurie Brink, whose speech the report mentions; or Mother Mary Clare Millea, in charge of the visitation of women religious? Those are just a few prominent names. When the investigations started, 800 women religious responded to a survey we conducted for U.S. Catholic.

Because Network was called out in the report, Campbell has been the go-to representative of women religious, but her focus is politics rather than doctrine. Many reports, even the Washington Post's follow-up and the New York Times' tight explanation, largely framed the doctrinal assessment as a political story about health care reform and gay marriage.

“More of the issue is not so much a question about our faithfulness to doctrine, because it is one faith. We share one faith,” Campbell said on NPR. Their experiences in ministry lead sisters from this one faith to different political results, she added.

It's easy for reporters to stay with the tangible political issues, but Campbell's observation hints that there are theological and personal dimensions left uncovered. What exactly do women religious believe? How have they come to certain conclusions about the church and society? And how they reconcile their ideas with those of the hierarchy?

These questions require continued follow-up and more conversations with women religious themselves.

Megan Sweas is an Annenberg Fellow studying the intersection of religion and politics in USC's Specialized Journalism program. She previously covered political and social issues as associate editor of U.S. Catholic magazine, where she also managed the website. After graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she spent a volunteer year at Free Spirit Media, a non-profit youth media organization on Chicago's West Side.

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