The 'What's Happenin' Nuns

National Public Radio, like most media, find the Nashville Dominicans and their cohort of other traditional sisters, simply irresistable. The Nashvillians come gift wrapped in nostalgia and fading stereotype: flowing white habits, communing together like a spiritual summer camp, endlessly mirthful and dedicated to ideals that reporters are glad to see that a few, at least, are preserving.

The NPR suggests that these sisters are the "new radicals" for rejecting Facebook and Twitter for 5:30 a.m. mass and strict discipline. If clutching chords of the past, choosing the security and seeming stability of the old, subservient sisterhood is radical, then the label might have some validity. If joining a small movement of nuns bent on returning the majority of American sisters to a past they have consciously turned away from in the name of renewal, that sounds reactionary. It's not a holy spirit call toward a future but an invitation to seek solace in a past.

The media's magnetic attraction to the Nashville Dominicans is matched by the community's skill at calling attention to itself. It's public image has emerged as the one, vibrant, smiling, energetic, booming alternative to the array of "liberal" orders. The story line is that they are growing as the liberals are failing because they haven't abandoned the true meaning of consecrated life. In a not-always-so-subtle way they and other conservative groups imply that divine will is rewarding the devout and punishing the rebels.

Some of the responses to the NPR segment display the liberal instinct for self-criticism. Conservatives claim they have been shut out of mainstream religious life; liberals hasten to assure them that they have a legitimate place in that religious life. Which is fine, but doesn't go both ways. For the most part, conservatives don't consider the other camp, the product of the Second Vatican Council, as an equally valid expression of sisterhood.

The media's fascination with by-gone days is natural. It conjures up interesting history that is unknown to lots of readers and listeners and delivers the wonders of strangeness. Context is usually missing, however, and reasons why things go in and out of existence rarely explored.

One example: traditionalist convents do appeal to a small number of Catholic women. The numbers don't indicate anything like a significant trend, but the fact that more enter these groups than seek liberal ones is enough to draw media attention. In the midst of the NPR piece, it's noted that "a few leave" after a time. That never gets explored. Some research has indicated that a relatively large number leave -- that the flow entering is largely offset by the number leaving. But in the excitement of the story line, this key question goes unanswered.

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