Can You Be Liberal and Catholic?

What happened to the liberal ‘c’atholic voice?

Sarah Posner’s excellent piece on the paucity 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.

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