60 Minutes's Inquisition

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Like many people, I'm a longtime fan of CBS's 60 Minutes. But even Homer nods, and this past weekend's piece on the dispute between the largest organization of American Catholic sisters vs. the Vatican reeked of needless bias.

To be clear: I've got no particular rooting interest in either side of the argument and I'm not close to being able to parse which side is right in any absolute sense. But the job of objective journalism, even investigative journalism, is to lay out the facts and even suggest conclusions -- without tipping the scales beyond where the facts go.

The piece, reported by Bob Simon, had no obvious time peg other than there was a new pope and CBS wanted something Catholic for Sunday's show. You can see the whole thing and read a transcript here.

What set me off was right at the top, the setup for the rest of the piece:

"The Vatican launched what some Catholics call a 'new Inquisition' when it accused the official group that represents most nuns in the United States of undermining the Church.

"The crackdown last year on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has sparked outrage -- creating yet another rift between those who want the Church to reform, and those who do not."

How many ways was this problematic? Start with the "new Inquisition" line. Invoking one of the most notorious periods in history of religion-fueled torture and oppression isn't quite as obvious as drawing a comparison to the Nazis. But it's close. It's raised by nobody with a name -- the famous "some Catholics" -- and goes unchallenged.

And then there's the "rift between those who want the Church to reform and those who do not." Let's look at a definition for "reform."

"To put or change into an improved form or condition."

Which side of this argument is pushing for change into an improved form, do you suppose?

One way of looking at it would be that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has drifted away from the doctrines and authoritative positions of the Catholic Church and are in need of, ahem, reform but do not want to reform. Which means the Vatican wants the American branch of the church to reform. Do you think that's what Simon was suggesting?

Me, either.

In this context, seems pretty clear that he wants us to understand that the push for reform lies with those supporting the sisters. Maybe so. And maybe not. But isn't that what reporting should reveal?

Simon sits down with Sr. Pat Ferrell, the now-former president of the LCWR, to discuss her view of the dispute. And we have this exchange:

She met with the enforcers of church orthodoxy who ordered the investigation that found her group had undermined the Church -- the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Bob Simon: This is the same group, is it not, that ran the Inquisition?

Pat Farrell: It is the same office, under a different name, that's right.

This, apparently, in case you missed the first reference.

Sigh. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, under exactly the same name, illegally investigated American citizens and interfered with civil rights and anti-war organizations not so many decades ago. What exactly does that tell us about the current agency? Maybe something. Maybe not. That's what reporting is supposed to reveal.

In this case, the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition wasn't even set up until 1542, decades after some of the worst abuses perpetrated in the name of the Vatican were committed. It became the Congregation of the Holy Office in 1908 and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1965. What, if anything, does that bit of historical trivia tell us about the relationship of the current organization and what happened more than 500 years ago?

Exactly nothing.

The purpose of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to act as quality control for official Catholic doctrine and practice. Which seems to me like a necessary function for any hierarchical organization. If it's abusing that power, that's the sort of thing that reporting should reveal.

To be fair, Simon's piece isn't all as bad as I'm cherry-picking. He gives Seattle's Archbishop Peter Sartain, appointed by the Vatican to oversee the sisters' organization, plenty of time to make his case. And Simon raises the dispute between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the LCWR about health care reform.

In this example, it looks like the bishops never came up with a convincing way to show how the argument was about theology.

But imagine if 60 Minutes had done a piece on soccer. Sympathetically interviewing leaders of an organization that suggested allowing players to hit the ball with their hands at midfield would help the game. Whether these "reformers" would be right or not (I'd vote yes) wouldn't exactly be the point. There's a league with a commissioner and rules committee who have the right and responsibility for defining the game of soccer.

Ditto, the Roman Catholic Church is a hierarchy with an unambiguous boss, currently a fascinating fellow named Francis.

I totally agree that there's an interesting story to be told -- without taking sides -- about the state of Catholic religious vocations in America, the tension between some nuns and some official church doctrine, and the efforts being made by the Vatican to bring everybody into line.

This 60 Minutes piece wasn't that.

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