Pregnant nun embarrasses Church? Hardly so.

Phrases like “pregnant nun shocks Italy” or “pregnant nun embarrasses Catholic Church” are quite en vogue in English-language news stories over the last few days.  But if you read the more reasoned and level-headed coverage in the Italian press, such a high level of scandal as implied in Anglophone media seems certainly not the case.

Background story

A 32-year old nun from El Salvador, a sister of the Little Disciples of Jesus, lived in Rieti, Italy in community with her sisters where they managed a retirement home.  The nun, Roxana Rodriguez, apparently fell ill with what she thought were severe stomach pains.  Upon arrivng at the hospital, it was found that she actually experienced labor pains and was about to give birth; Rodriguez was allegedly unaware that she was indeed with child.  She gave birth to a healthy boy, weighing 7.7 pounds, and named him “Francesco” after our Latin American Pope.  It was soon discovered that the pregnancy occurred during a trip back to her native El Salvador where she reunited briefly with friends, family, and apparently an old flame.  Rodriguez has not identified the father as of yet.

Comparison of sample English and Italian news coverage

The Sydney Morning Herald, under the headline “Pregnant nun shocks church” [sic] wrote: “The pregnancy has embarrassed the Church, and the nun will be forced to leave her convent in Rieti, north of Rome, to ‘lead a secular life with her baby, away from religious institutions’, according to a spokesman from Delio Lucarelli, the bishop of Rieti.”

The Examiner put an even more sinister twist on the above quote: “Delio Lucarelli, the bishop of the town of Rieti, said that Sister Roxanne will be ‘forced to leave the Little Disciples of Jesus convent and lead a secular life with her infant, away from religious institutions because of the embarrassment her pregnancy caused,’ reports the IBT.”

The Washington Times reported, “The discovery of her pregnancy has embarrassed the Catholic Church in Italy, with the local bishop saying that she will have to leave her convent.”  (Note the language of coercion which, as we will see, is completely different from the original Italian quotations.)

From the same WT article: “The convent’s mother superior, Sister Erminia, said: ‘It seems she was not able to resist temptation.'”

The terse quotations and mischaracterizing commentary fail to paint an accurate picture of the attitudes of Rodriguez’s superior and the local bishop.  The Anglophone media is feeding the stereotype of an indignant Church quick to condemn.

In Italy’s La Reppublica (not a Church-friendly publication in the least), we read the bishop’s actual statement: “The Diocese [of Rieti] is near to the nun who has given birth.  It is very probable that she herself will leave the religious institute in order to take care of the little one.  It’s preferable that she lead a secular life.”  (La Diocesi è vicina alla sorella che ha partorito. E’ molto probabile che lei stessa lascerà l’istituto religioso per avere cura del piccolo. E’ preferibile che conduca una vita secolare.)

With regards to Sister Erminia’s comment quoted above, which in English-language sources seems like a simple, laconic insult, we find the actual quote in another Reppublica article: “…she didn’t know how to resist temptation, but she didn’t do harm to anyone.” (non ha saputo resistere alla tentazione, ma non ha fatto del male a nessuno; my emphasis)

Missing in large part from English-language coverage are words from the local pastor of Regina Pacis parish, Fabrizio Borello, who affirmed in Il Messagero: “Certainly, even if she made a mistake we will not leave her by herself.  Our Diocese will work to find a worthy arrangement for mother and son.  I understand the immediate reactions of Sister Erminia [Rodriguez’s superior], but I am nevertheless sure that, if she needs it, they will welcome her with open arms.”  (Di certo anche se ha sbagliato non la lasceremo sola. La nostra Diocesi si occuperà di trovare una sistemazione degna per mamma e figlio. Capisco le reazioni a caldo di suor Erminia… ma sono altrettanto certo che, se ce ne fosse bisogno, l’accoglieranno a braccia aperte.)

The Sisters have already agreed to help care for the child as Rodriguez adjusts to motherhood.

The actual words of the bishop, the local priest, and of the Sister Superior are much more reasoned and balanced than one might be led to believe on the basis of English-language news reports.  Compare the insinuations of the English-language stories with the actual quotes given in Italian sources. In an era of short attention spans which precipitate short sound bytes, snappy headlines, and easily digestible news articles, the Anglophone press has sacrificed accuracy and nuance for sensational brevity.  Perhaps it’s a result of a lingering anti-Catholic bias in Anglophone countries which has its roots in the English Reformation, or perhaps it’s part of a newly-found contemporary skepticism of religious institutions in general; in any case, the fact remains: to say that this story “shocks” or “embarrasses” the Church as a whole is a gross exaggeration that overlooks the substantive issues of this story.  The Romance languages treat the verb “to be embarrassed” as reflexive; hence, the Church can only be “embarrassed” if it allows itself to be embarrassed.  Since both the local pastor and the diocese are meeting this story head-on and have already pledged to help Rodriguez, it seems hardly the case that the whole Church is embarrassed for the mistake of one nun.

As to Rodriguez herself, it is absolutely clear in the Italian sources that she, the local pastor, and the local bishop know that she must leave the convent; of this there is zero doubt.  She is not fighting to “keep her job”, so to speak, because she understands that she broke her vocational vows.  Now that Rodriguez is a parent, continued monastic life would mean fleeing from her maternal responsibilities which have now taken precedence.  Most admirable is her wholehearted acceptance of the consequences of her actions and her enthusiastic willingness to care for little Francesco.

Appeals to a Fantasy Francis

In one of the more low-quality articles on Rodriguez’s situation, the Examiner makes some risible comments that lean on the idea of a Fantasy Francis, that is, the caricature of Pope Francis as a good-ol’-grampa figure who treats everybody oh-so-nicely, unlike the previous Popes and the rest of the Church.  Consider this gem:

The local pastor and the mayor of Rieti have offered to help Sister Roxanne. It is believed that Pope Francis, who has not publicly reacted to the nun’s birth as of yet, will not condemn the child. His teachings of love over tradition will most likely hold true in this case.

and another:

Pope Francis, who the nun named her baby boy after, will hopefully agree with the local church’s decision to help the woman because his words could make life much easier. He has already surprised the world with his modern thinking.

Other than the horrendous pronoun-preposition usage in the second quotation, more substantive errors are just waiting to be addressed.  The article expresses hope that the Pope “will not condemn the child”, as if condemnation were an option.  Well of course the Pope won’t condemn the child!  No child, much less a newborn infant, is ever ipso facto condemned by the situation through which it came into the world.  While a child may be born into an irregular status, this has zero effect on its dignity as a human being. Even insinuating that the Church or the Pope could condemn a child simply for the circumstances of its birth is careless at best and insulting at worst.  Christ himself wasn’t born of a normal human marriage, and both Joseph and Mary were well aware of the potential scandal of their situation (cf. Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38).

The Examiner asserts that “[Pope Francis’] teachings of love over tradition will most likely hold true in this case.”  Comparing love and tradition is like comparing apples and oranges; setting up a false dichotomy between the two is surely a sign of the author’s less-than-sophisticated understanding of anything Christian (not to mention that this quote is also an abomination of syntax).  Such an unqualified assertion certainly deserves little attention, but for the sake of thorough criticism we’ll examine it.  Frankly, there is no contradiction between “tradition” and “love”; in fact, the Catholic tradition is, at its very core, a tradition of love.  It consists of being faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, rooted in their direct experience with Christ. The only way for the Church to reject tradition in Rodriguez’s case would be to deny her and her child the love and charity to which they are entitled.  Furthermore, this is not based on “Francis’ teachings”; this is based on the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church.  Francis merely considers himself, as he told Cardinal Meisner of Cologne, “a son of the Church who said nothing other than to reaffirm the teachings of the Church” (figlio della Chiesa che non ha detto nulla se non ribadito gli insegnamenti della Chiesa).

The Examiner then hopes that Francis will “agree with the local church’s decision to help the woman because his words could make life much easier”.  This is pretty much a foregone conclusion.  As we can infer from Francis’ consistent affirmation of local diocesan competencies, continued internationalization of the College of Cardinals, and hands-off approach to the Conferenza Episcopale Italiana (CEI, the Italian bishops’ conference), there is no reason to doubt that he will apply the principle of subsidiarity, that is, to allow those at the lowest level to resolve their own issues to the best of their ability before appealing to higher authorities.

“He has already surprised the world with his modern thinking”.  Of what “modern thinking” consists in the author’s mind is left unqualified.  If by “modern thinking” she means support of abortion, same-sex unions, women’s ordination, and a weakened ecclesiastical voice in the public forum, she is certainly mistaken.  But if by “modern thinking” she means adherence to the ancient Judeo-Christian concepts of compassion and responsibility for one’s free choices (the doctrine of free will), then I guess one could count that as the singular positive insight in an otherwise misleading and inaccurate article.

Instead of being embarrassed by the birth of a child, the Church can rightly be proud that at all levels– from the local parish, to the order of the Little Disciples of Jesus, to the Diocese of Rieti, and even perhaps to the Holy See itself– the Lord’s mercy, robust as it is broad, will certainly bear fruit for Roxana and little Francesco.

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