National Catholic Reporter

The Independent News Source

When A Stranger Comes to Call

 |  NCR Today

In her erudite piece on the history of apostolic religious life, Sister Sandra Schneiders notes at the outset that she is writing to correct those who write "dogmatically" about the subject but have "no lived experience of or academic competence" to back up what they say.

Nothing she says points to me, who has written quite a bit about that topic, but I certainly fit the description. Obviously I've never been a sister in apostolic life nor do I consider myself a scholar of it.

On the other hand, it's perfectly legitimate to debate whether or not what I or anyone else writing about the current crisis is dogmatic, which I assume means rigid conviction untempered by reason or knowledge. That's fair game.

But her comment indirectly raises another issue: the role of the outsider.

For decades I've written about religion and often have found myself suspect because I don't belong to the religious group I'm writing about. During most of American history, religion was protected from journalistic scrutiny, except for the most explosive scandals or curious phenomena. When that began to change in the 1960s, and religion was beginning to be covered like other subjects, many religious groups bristled.

screen-shot_FB-video-promo-11.21.jpgOur Nov. 21-Dec. 5 edition is out. Take a look inside. Not a subscriber? Become one today!

As a non-Catholic, I've encountered a mix of responses from Catholics I've covered. Some have been open and cooperative; others dismissive, even hostile. Sometimes Catholics assume I couldn't possibly get it right because I haven't grown up in it (though I was raised in a thoroughly Catholic working class culture)and others consider my presence an intrusion into an area I should regard as foreign and off-limits.

That all goes with the territory. Sisters have had many good reasons for protecting their privacy. I respect those motivations. The price of even appearing to voice dissent can be considerable and they share a common trait with most tight-knit religious communities: wariness of accepting an outsider's views as valid.

Written work should indeed be judged as to its soundness. Nothing protects any outsider from tough scrutiny and if something is empty dogmatism it should be labeled as such.

But I'd also maintain that Catholics and every religious group need outsiders with a detached, objective look at their own practices and beliefs in order to keep them honest. It doesn't make those writings all right, but it does offer some balance in institutions that have survived forever on their own unchecked mythologies.

Outsiders are essential, I believe, but they shouldn't expect to hear much from those they write about. Either the subjects think the accounts go against, dare I say, their own dogmatic interpretations, or they say they're in agreement but must remain silent.

NCR Comment code: (Comments can be found below)

Before you can post a comment, you must verify your email address at Disqus.com/verify.
Comments from unverified email addresses will be deleted.

  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the original idea will be deleted. NCR reserves the right to close comment threads when discussions are no longer productive.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report abuse" button. Once a comment has been flagged, an NCR staff member will investigate.

For more detailed guidelines, visit our User Guidelines page.

For help on how to post a comment, visit our reference page.

 

Feature-flag_GSR_start-reading.jpg

NCR Email Alerts

 

In This Issue

November 21-December 5, 2014

11-21-2014.jpg

Not all of our content is online. Subscribe to receive all the news and features you won't find anywhere else.