Syndicate content
Get Religion is a national and global journalism site focusing on how the
mainstream press covers religion news in politics, entertainment, business
and sports.
Updated: 12 min 53 sec ago

Attacking graveyards: Washington Post probes unusual form of oppression in Pakistan

7 hours 29 min ago

This is how bad persecution gets in Pakistan: You can't escape it even if you're dead.

Denying a final resting place to a despised group is the topic of an enterprising newsfeature by the Washington Post. For Christians and other minorities there, enduring contempt even in death is a way of life.

"Bleak" seems hardly adequate to describe the picture painted by the article. Here's a painfully eloquent passage:

Christians say they earn less than $2 a day working in the sugarcane fields. They must shop at the sparsely stocked Christian-run rice and vegetable store. They are not allowed to draw water from wells tapped for Muslim neighbors. Now, in what many consider to be a final indignity, they and other Pakistani Christians are struggling to bury their dead.Pakistan, whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim, is nearly twice the size of California. But leaders of the tiny Christian minority say their burial sites are being illegally seized by developers at an alarming rate, while efforts to secure new land are rejected because of religious tenets barring Muslims from being buried near people of other faiths. Increasingly, the remaining Christian cemeteries are packed with bodies atop bodies.

The WaPo story is a textbook example of reporting both in breadth and depth. It reports from three towns, from a remote hamlet to Lahore, the nation's second-largest city. It quotes 12 sources, Muslim as well as Christian. And it armors itself against a possible complaint of pro-Christian myopia:

Christians in Pakistan have been targets of what human rights activists call an unprecedented wave of violence against religious minorities, including Shiites, Ahmadis, Sikhs and Hindus. Thousands of members of religious minority groups have been killed over the past five years. But the Christians’ dwindling burial space is an example of a less dramatic but more persistent battle they say takes place behind the bloody headlines: a daily struggle for what might seem to be basic rights.

The article presents numbers, anecdotes and individual quotes. A Pakistani Christian laments a move by a Muslim developer to take cemetery land for a park and a Muslim graveyard. "It's like a pain in our heart," he says.

The Post adds that most Pakistani Christians are "poorly educated and are relegated to living in slums and working menial jobs," although it doesn't attribute the assertion. It adds that the Christians are "frequently attacked," and it adds several anecdotes -- drawn from reports by NBC News and the Post itself.

So naked is the hatred illustrated by the stories, it's hard to believe they all happened in the 21st century:

In 2009, two Christian villagers in Punjab were shot dead and five others burned alive after a mob accused a Christian of burning a Koran. Last year, 127 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a Christian Church in Peshawar. In September, a police officer shot and killed a Christian while the man was in jail on blasphemy charges.The country’s blasphemy law forbids insults of any form — even by “innuendo” — against the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and makes the crime punishable by death, though there has yet to be a state-sponsored execution of a convicted blasphemer. On Thursday, a Pakistani court upheld a 2010 death sentence for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, whose case drew worldwide attention and condemnation from the Vatican.

Horrendous as they are, the anecdotes would have been amplified by total numbers; I'm sure that human rights groups must have compiled some. But you can judge a group not by its most extreme members, but by how everyone else reacts to them. And thus far, Pakistani society hasn't responded well. In fact, it “has been cultivated to develop indifference and animosity” toward Christians, says a rights advocate.

Why and when did the hostilities ramp up? This article doesn't answer what. It says that local shopkeepers in one town began encroaching on the Christian cemetery a decade ago. Was the action a byproduct of the United States' fight against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan? Is it a fruit of the many madrasas, or Muslim schools, across the nation? Perhaps a reaction to the Hindutva movement, which has led to persecution of Muslims and Christians in neighboring India?

And when did Christianity first come to the land? The Post says a Christian cemetery in Lahore may date to the 1800s. Perhaps the three writers didn't go into that because it would have added to the story length, already topping 1,300 words.  But a short paragraph on when and how Christians arrived would have added depth.

Those nitpicks aside, this article is a forceful account of a form of hatred so spiteful that it's hard to grasp. If this article had come out on, say, Fox News or Worldnet Daily, it might be easy to brush it off as conservative propaganda. But coming out in the Washington Post, the reporting shines even more brightly.

Categories: Main

After the synod: Was 'confusion' caused by the press, the pope or the devil?

10 hours 56 min ago

Let's walk into this minefield very slowly and carefully.

This week, "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about the recent Synod on the Family at the Vatican and some of the themes that emerged out of it. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Truth be told, that primarily meant discussing the tsunami of news coverage about a draft report earlier in the week that was hailed by a major gay-rights group, and thus the elite media, as a "seismic shift" in Catholic attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, the divorced, cohabiting couples, etc. By the end of the week, following blasts of input from cardinals and bishops from around the world, the synod's more modest official report placed a heavier emphasis on affirming Catholic doctrine and, thus, drew far less coverage.

Once again, many Catholics were asking a familiar question: Is there some way for the Catholic church to let the public, especially the world's Catholics, hear the full sweep of what the pope is actually saying? The pope keeps talking about sin, penitence, mercy and salvation, with a strong emphasis on the symbols and language of mercy, and elite news headlines usually report him as saying something like, "Who knows what sin is, anymore, let's show mercy -- period."

After that, criticism of what the press reported the pope as saying -- including attempts to note the content and context of whatever Pope Francis actually said -- is hailed in the same news outlets as criticism of the pope or a rejection of his alleged new direction for the church.

Rise. Cycle. Repeat.

Now we have a great example of this process to examine, in the latest clash between a news outlet and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who for years has been one of the most pointed critics of press coverage of Catholicism. For background, here are some links about an earlier clash with The New York Times, in which Chaput circulated a transcript of his actual words as a way of criticizing what the Times alleged that he said. Also check out this interesting 2009 Chaput speech and dialogue with reporters at the Pew Forum in Washington, D.C. As always, I will mention that I have known Chaput since his Denver days as a priest and campus minister, back in the mid-1980s. In the years since that stage in his career, we have become friends and I now write about his work in the context of columns and commentary (such as this).

Thus, we have a headline on Religion News Service piece by the liberal Catholic columnist David Gibson that states, "Archbishop Chaput ‘disturbed’ by Vatican synod debate, says ‘confusion is of the devil'. " The original headline apparently read, "Archbishop Chaput blasts Vatican debate on family, says ‘confusion is of the devil'."

Let's go to the transcript of part of the question-and-answer session that followed Chaput's Erasmus Lecture the other night in New York City (full video here). This is now being circulated online in an attempt to clarify what the archbishop actually said.

Audience member: I would be very grateful for your comments on the recent Synod on the Family in Rome.Chaput: Well, first of all, I wasn’t there. That’s very significant, because to claim you know what really happened when you weren’t there is foolish. To get your information from the press is a mistake because they don’t know well enough how to understand it so they can tell people what happened. I don’t think the press deliberately distorts, they just don’t have any background to be able to evaluate things. In some cases they’re certainly the enemy and they want to distort the Church.Now, having said all that, I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.

The archbishop then stressed what I have heard other Catholic insiders (left and right) express, which is that they really want to (a) talk to people who took part and (b) read the final translations of the key statements and documents. As opposed to what? As opposed to the tsunami of early "seismic change" reports.

Continuing in his answer to the synod question, Chaput added: 

There’s no doubt that the Church has a clear position: on what marriage means and that you don’t receive communion unless you’re in communion with the teachings of Christ, that gay marriage is not a possibility in God’s plan and therefore can’t be a reality in our lives. There’s no doubt about any of that. I think when it’s all said we have to be charitable toward people who disagree with us and we certainly welcome into the Church sinners. I’m one, and they usually welcome me when I come to the parishes. I think we have to be better at reaching out to divorced Catholics so they don’t think that they’re immediately excluded from the Church because they’ve been divorced and remarried. Some people think that even when they get a divorce they’re not welcome in the Church. So I think we need to work on that.We have deep respect for people with same-sex attraction, but we can’t pretend that they’re welcome on their own terms. None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’ terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian -- you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality.

Now, that is pretty nuanced material that, to me, sounds a lot like some of the language in the final synod statements and the pope's final synod sermon.

So what was the substance of the Gibson analysis that prompted that Chaput and the devil headline? Here are the key passages, starting with the lede:

NEW YORK (RNS) Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leading culture warrior in the U.S. hierarchy, says he was “very disturbed” by the debate over church teachings on gays and remarried Catholics at this month’s Vatican summit, saying it sent a confusing message and “confusion is of the devil.”

And later:

Chaput is expected to host Pope Francis in Philadelphia next September for a global World Meeting of Families, and his criticisms tracked complaints by other conservatives who were upset with Francis for encouraging a freewheeling discussion among the 190 cardinals and bishops at the Vatican’s two-week Synod on the Family. ...“I was very disturbed by what happened” at the synod, Chaput said. “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.”

So here is the question: What is missing from the Gibson analysis that played a central role in the full Chaput statement?

That would be the press coverage. When it comes to the confusion surrounding the synod, is the archbishop primarily pointing a critical finger at the synod or at the press coverage of the synod?

Let me stress that I am not saying that that readers need to agree with Chaput's analysis. I am asking a journalism question: In the quotes cited above, what did the archbishop actually say, in terms of the primary source of the confusion surrounding the synod and its work?

If the key was that the "public image" of the synod, to quote Chaput, was an image of confusion and that this "public image" of confusion was of the devil, then who or what was he saying was the primary source of the confusion seen by the public?

Again, you don't have to agree with him. But what did he actually say in his answer to this question about the synod, the answer that supposedly led to the headline?

Once again, was Chaput saying that Catholics and the public could not trust the synod, or was he saying that they should not trust the press coverage of the synod? One more time: you do not have to agree with him: But what did he say in his New York City remarks?

Categories: Main

Southern evangelicals dwindling?: RNS blogger examines the numbers behind The Atlantic's claims

13 hours 40 min ago

Is the South losing its "cultural Christianity," as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler describes it?

New research indicates that "the percentage of Alabamians not affiliated with a specific religion surpasses the percentage of white mainline Protestants, ranking it third among 'religious' groups," Alabama Godbeat pro Carol McPhail recently reported.

In #Alabama, the religiously #unaffiliated now surpasses a major religious group, says @publicreligion via @aldotcom

— Carol McPhail (@cmcphail) October 13, 2014

The numbers cited in that story prompted this opinion piece a few days later:

Are Alabamians losing their religion, or does it just look that way?: opinion - The Huntsville Times -…

— Religion time (@Religiontime) October 16, 2014

Meanwhile, The Atlantic made a big splash on social media this week with this provocative claim:

Southern Evangelicals: Dwindling—and Taking the GOP Edge With Them. @robertpjones for @TheAtlantic

— Public Religion Res. (@publicreligion) October 17, 2014

From The Atlantic article by Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute:

Compared to 2007, just after the 2006 midterm elections, the five southern states where there are tight Senate races have one thing in common: the proportion of white evangelical Protestants has dropped significantly.1. In Arkansas, where Republican and freshman Representative Tom Cotton is locked in a tight race with two-term Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, the white evangelical Protestant proportion of the population has dropped from 43 percent to 36 percent.2. In Georgia, where Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn is battling Republican candidate David Perdue for retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss’s seat, white evangelical Protestants made up 30 percent of the population in 2007 but that number is currently down to 24 percent.3. The proportion of white evangelicals in Kentucky has plunged 11 points, from 43 percent to 32 percent; here Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces the Democratic Alison Grimes, the secretary of state.4. In Louisiana, where Republican Representative Bill Cassidy is up against three-term Democrat Mary Landrieu, white evangelicals have slipped from being 24 percent of the population to 19 percent.5. Likewise, North Carolina has seen a dip in the white evangelical proportion of its population, from 37 percent to 30 percent; here incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan battles Republican Speaker of the North Carolina House Thom Tillis.

But what was it that Mark Twain said about "lies, damned lies and statistics?"

How many evangelicals are there? Depends on how you count them. It depends *a lot* on how you count them! @tobingrant

— Jacob Lupfer (@jlupf) October 22, 2014

The stats reported by Jones made Religion News Service blogger Tobin Grant's "spidey-sense start buzzing," as he put it. Grant decided to examine the numbers behind the numbers.

Dwindling evangelicals? Why you should be very skeptical @publicreligion's claims in @theatlantic via @RNS

— Tobin Grant (@TobinGrant) October 21, 2014

From Grant's RNS post:

Jones showed results from a massive survey PRRI completed last year and compared them to Pew Research Center’s 2007 Religious Landscape survey. White evangelicals have dropped from 22 percent of Americans to just 18 percent.Reading this, my spidey-sense started buzzing: that would be an 18 percent drop in just seven years! More than that, the numbers Jones were reporting didn’t match the 26 percent reported by the Landscape Survey. 18-22-26? The numbers didn’t make sense—at least not to me.Re-reading the piece, I figured out part of the problem. The headline was a bait-and-switch. This wasn’t about all southern evangelicals but white southern evangelicalsAnd “white” meant excluding anyone who was Latino, too.I ran the Pew data, moving anyone who was neither-white-nor-Latino out of the evangelical tradition.  That reduced the evangelical percentage down to the 22% PRRI reported, but some of the state percentages were still much higher than Jones was reporting.

And Grant is just getting his started. Before retweeting The Atlantic piece, be sure to read his analysis. Read it all.

Categories: Main

'Magic underwear' is offensive term, but AP uncritically accepts church's PR spin on Mormon undergarments

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On the positive side, an Associated Press story this week on Mormon underclothing — sacred attire derided by critics as "magic underwear" — handles the subject matter with discretion and respect.

On the negative side, the widely distributed wire service report uncritically accepts the church's public relations spin.

Let's start at the top:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Mormon church is addressing the mystery that has long surrounded undergarments worn by its faithful with a new video explaining the practice in-depth while admonishing ridicule from outsiders about what it considers a symbol of Latter-day Saints' devotion to God.The four-minute video on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' website compares the white, two-piece cotton "temple garments" to holy vestments worn in other religious faiths such as a Catholic nun's habit or a Muslim skullcap.The footage is part of a recent effort by the Salt Lake City-based religion to explain, expand or clarify on some of the faith's more sensitive beliefs. Articles posted on the church's website in the past two years have addressed the faith's past ban on black men in the lay clergy; its early history of polygamy; and the misconception that members are taught they'll get their own planet in the afterlife.The latest video dispels the notion that Latter-day Saints believe temple garments have special protective powers, a stereotype perpetuated on the Internet and in popular culture by those who refer to the sacred clothing as "magical Mormon underwear."

The video contains 90 seconds of explanation about the underclothing and does not address the reported markings on the garments. I'm not certain I would characterize that as "explaining the practice in-depth." 

The video describes temple robes "worn only inside Mormon temples and reserved for the highest sacraments of the faith" — robes, incidentally, that don't make the AP or Washington Post stories but do draw mention by Salt Lake Tribune Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack.

From there, the video notes that "there are no outer religious vestments in ordinary worship services":

However, many faithful Latter-day Saints wear a garment under their clothing that has deep religious significance. Similar in design to ordinary modest underclothing, it comes in two pieces and is usually referred to as the “temple garment.”Some people incorrectly refer to temple garments as magical or “magic underwear.” These words are not only inaccurate but also offensive to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is nothing magical or mystical about temple garments, and church members ask for the same degree of respect and sensitivity that would be afforded to any other faith by people of goodwill. ...To church members, the modest temple garment, worn under normal clothing, along with the symbolic vestments worn during temple worship, represent the sacred and personal aspect of their relationship with God and their commitment to live good, honorable lives.

But here's a question that goes unasked by AP: Isn't it true that for generations Mormon folklore has perpetuated stories of temple undergarments saving people's lives or otherwise having mystical properties?

On the "misconception" that faithful Mormons get their own planet, GetReligion's own Terry Mattingly recalls hearing that mentioned in a sermon at the funeral for a Mormon prophet in the mid-1980s. As tmatt points out, "That 'misconception' is highly debated — on the Mormon left as well as the right."

AP attempts to put the "temple garments" video into perspective with this statement:

The video and accompanying article feature more detailed information about the garments than has ever before been released to the public, Mormon scholars say.

Here's my pesky question: Do these Mormon scholars have names? AP doesn't bother to quote anybody to back up or elaborate on that broad statement. Yes, I know space is extremely tight in the modern AP, but the quality of journalism suffers from the lack of independent, expert analysis of the church's PR move.

On the other hand, give AP credit for quoting a Mormon blogger who writes for Religion News Service. Her real-person perspective adds authenticity to the story:

The church has some 15 million members worldwide.Latter-day Saints seem pleased by the refreshing transparency from the church on a topic that has been the source of much curiosity among outsiders, some whom are rude about it, said Jana Riess, who blogs about Mormonism for the Religion News Service.She wrote this week that she hopes the footage will "persuade gawkers that there's nothing to see here, folks.""They now have something official to point to if people ask questions," Riess said in an interview. "I love that they put it on YouTube for the entire world to see. I think that's very brave."

Please don't misunderstand my major point: The church's PR move definitely deserves coverage. It's certainly newsworthy.

But by failing to approach the PR spin with a healthy degree of journalistic skepticism, the AP story falls short. And not just in word count.

Categories: Main

Here we go again: What does 'moderate' mean in today's Syria warfare?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Several years ago, I was asked to travel to Prague to speak to the newsroom staff at Radio Liberty. The topic: Efforts to improve news coverage.

However, once I was there it became clear to me that some members of the staff wanted me to discuss a much more specific topic. Thus, I ended up in a small room with a circle of Muslim journalists linked to radio broadcasts into Afghanistan and surrounding regions. The key question: Why do American journalists insist on using "fundamentalist" and "moderate" as labels to describe Muslims, since these are terms never used by members of that faith? Don't they know these labels are offensive?

One journalist said, and I paraphrase: Do Americans basically use "fundamentalist" to describe Muslims that they don't like and "moderate" to describe Muslims that they do like?

I said: "Yes." What to do? Instead of accepting these labels, I urged them to try to use quotes that showed where different Muslim leaders stood in relation to the issue or issues being covered in a particular story. Show the spectrum of belief, in practice.

Oh, and I also read the following passage from that famous "Preserving Our Readers' Trust" self study of The New York Times self study published in 2005 (and quoted many times here at GetReligion):

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

I bring this up because of another Washington Post story that has punched my "moderate" alarm button. Here is the top of the report: 

BEIRUT -- Syrian government forces have dramatically intensified air and ground assaults on areas held by moderate rebels, attempting to deliver crippling blows as world attention shifts to airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.Since Monday, Syrian aircraft have targeted Aleppo in the north, the eastern suburbs of Damascus and southern areas near the Jordanian border, launching more than 210 airstrikes, said Rami Abdulrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the civil war.

Noting the Aleppo reference, I really want to ask -- as an Orthodox Christian -- what the word "moderate" means in this context. Is a "moderate" a Sunni soldier who only kidnaps bishops while a truly radical Muslim actually beheads them?

Just asking. Because those archbishops (Metropolitan Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Boulous Yazigi) who went missing in Aleppo long ago, before ISIS was a player anywhere near there, are still missing. I tried a #bringbackourbishops hashtag a few months ago, but it never caught on.

Meanwhile, the Post story later talks about the "moderates" and the bad guys in precisely the kind of language that so infuriated those Muslim journalists I met with in Prague. Read carefully: 

Rebels and analysts say Assad’s forces are increasing their attacks to exploit what the regime sees as a window of opportunity opened by a campaign that Washington and its allies launched last month against the Islamic State, a heavily armed al-Qaeda offshoot that is also known as ISIS or ISIL. ...The regime has stepped up aerial bombardment of the rebel-held suburbs of eastern Damascus, as well as in areas near the city of Idlib. ... Meanwhile, Assad’s military has largely avoided territory held by Islamic State militants, instead striking moderate rebel factions that could be slated to receive weapons and military training from the coalition, said Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

So what does the word "moderate" mean in this story?

Essentially, it appears to mean troops caught in between ISIS and Assad. "Moderates" are fighting with US coalition help, so they must be "moderates."

What is the content of this shallow label, in terms of Islamic beliefs and day-to-day practices? Your guess is as good as mine.

Categories: Main

By George, I think she's got it: Chicago Tribune reporter has in-depth questions for outgoing archbishop

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear Pashman, past subject of a GetReligion interview, asks all the right questions of Cardinal Francis George OMI, the soon-to-retire Chicago archbishop, and is rewarded with newsworthy answers.

Pashman starts with a punchy lede and then launches right into a quote in which the cardinal offers some potent media criticism:

In a sweeping interview weeks before he steps down, Cardinal Francis George expressed frustration that his defense of church doctrine has ever caused offense, discussed the story behind his successor's selection and voiced concerns that expectations placed upon the popular Pope Francis could backfire.

"They've got the pope in a box now. … The danger of that is he's like a Rorschach test, sort of," George, 77, said Monday during an hourlong conversation at the archbishop's Gold Coast residence in which he expressed both pride and remorse about his 17 years as archbishop.

"People project onto him their own desires, and so you've got people who are expecting all kinds of things. Some of them might happen. A large number of them won't and so there will be great disillusionment. … People will write him off."

George's observation about people projecting their own desires onto the pope will ring familiar to anyone who has read GetReligion's coverage of media misinterpretations of Francis, especially our reminders that context is essential to understanding "Who am I to judge?" 

Pashman then asks George about his "more inclusive" successor. I have criticized reporters in the past for using that term as a means to paint a sharp dichotomy between "inclusive," i.e. good, Cupich and "conservative," i.e. mean, George, but Pashman avoids caricaturing the cardinal. Instead, she wisely lets him describe the contrast between him and his successor in his own words:

George officially retires Nov. 18, when his successor, Archbishop Designate Blase Cupich, takes over. In September, George received word that the pope had consulted sources outside the typical process and planned to tap Cupich, a bishop known for a more inclusive manner than his predecessor.

"I would imagine, and hope, this is the case, that he'll have a different approach, a different tone," George said. "That's good because there are people who I couldn't reach that he'll be able to, and there are things that I perhaps didn't think important to tend to that he will think are. That's the advantage of a change."

I don't want to quote much more from the piece, because the entire interview is well worth your time, especially the thoughtful answers Pashman elicits on topics, some of which are quite personal: they range from George's cancer treatment to his regret over mistakes made in handling the abuse crisis. But one other quote is worth noting, given our recent discussion here over what constitutes a culture warrior:

"There are a lot of stories told about [Pope Francis] and some stories told about me that aren't always 100 percent reflective of reality," George said.

"Culture warrior," for example, is a label that vexes George and one that comes up often when people tell stories or compare him to Cupich.

"If 'culture warrior' just means that I'm eager to have a conflict, I'm not," he said. "No one asked for a conflict on gay marriage. … The wars, if you want to say that, have been picked always by people for whom suddenly this becomes very important and the church is in the way.

"It irks the heck out of me, to tell you the truth," George said.

Kudos to Pashman for not only avoiding using politically loaded labels ("liberal," "conservative," etc.) to describe religious beliefs, but also giving George the opportunity to air his discontent over such labels.

What we have in George is a rare bird indeed: a cardinal who refuses to be pigeonholed. You can tweet that.

Photo via Wikipedia.

Categories: Main

Why can't the pope just change everything? CNN gives (mostly) good answers

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The bishops "bickered" during the recent synod at the Vatican on families -- yes, the article by CNN said "bickered" -- and a lot of people wondered why Pope Francis doesn't just order changes, rather than call a two-week debatefest.

Good question, and CNN's Daniel Burke has a good answer. Actually, four good answers, highlighting the variety of sources and factions within the Roman Catholic Church. And he lays them out in mostly even-handed fashion. We'll look at the exceptions in a bit.

The Vatican synod, as you may know, was called to spot new ways of helping stressed-out families. The bishops also were charged with seeking out the possibility of providing Eucharist and other Church services to gay couples and to Catholics who had divorced and remarried.

Burke alertly reports Francis' silence throughout the quarrels, as a pope who wanted to encourage dialogue rather than hand down decrees. The reporter even quotes a Latin saying by a Vatican cardinal: Roma locuta, causa finita, or "Rome has spoken, the case is closed." Ergo, if Francis had volunteered opinions, the conferees would have fallen silent.

The bishops, as reports said, considered a passage on accepting gays as members, then watered it down and then erased it altogether. As Burke reports, Francis still tried to prod the meeting his way:

In a widely praised speech, he told them the church must find a middle path between showing mercy toward people on the margins and holding tight to church teachings.

What's more, he said, church leaders still have a year to find "concrete solutions" to the problems plaguing modern families -- from war and poverty to hostility toward nontraditional unions. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for next October in Rome.

I like Burke's word-crunching summary of Francis' double-edged admonition: to become neither hidebound in tradition nor forgetful of Church beliefs. I would have liked it better if he'd quoted the pope directly, as my colleague Dawn Eden did the other day. Perhaps Burke was worried about his story, already at more than 1,100 words, running too long.

I also admire the orderly way he lays out four restraints on papal fiat. They're clearly marked with subheads, with handy bites of 150-250 words each:

* WWJD?, or what does Jesus say in the New Testament.

* Tradition, aka established doctrine, aka the "deposit of the faith." Church leaders figure that their forebears must have known what they were talking about.

* The church universal, or the sensibilities of Catholics worldwide -- not just in Europe and the Americas, but in Asia and Africa, which are more conservative toward matters such as same-sex marriage and the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics.

* The old guard, the corps of traditionalist leaders appointed by previous popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For 35 years, they’ve steered the Church in traditional ways, Burke points out.

Thumbs-up on all that, but, the story still has a few flaws. One is buying into the mainstream media code of flagging conservative people, groups and comments. In this piece, "liberal" appears four times, relieved only by the synonym "progressive." By contrast, "conservative" appears eight times, including the curious "archconservative."

The CNN article also ends on a liberal slant -- something of a disappointment after its even-handed treatment of religious-social influences on the pope. It notes that although John Paul and Benedict packed bishop ranks with conservatives, Francis has been appointing "moderates" in several big dioceses, like Chicago -- and removed some "archconservatives" from their posts:

So, while many liberals expressed disappointment that the bishops' surprising welcome to gays was later retracted, others argue that at least the topic is still on the table for the next year's meeting, when the church will make final decisions on these issues.

Put another way, taking "three steps forward, two back, is still going forward," said Marx.

This story, in turn, is a few Marxian steps forward while retreating a couple of others. It takes an original approach to the synod, helping us understand why a pope can't just change things whenever he wants. But the article also falls into the secular media habit of scrutinizing conservative forces more than liberal ones.

And in ending with the liberal viewpoint, it appears to signal the direction the Church "should" move when it hears proposed solutions next year.

CNN did well with its fresh look at the synod and Catholic thought. It should also take a hard look at its own assumptions in coverage.

Categories: Main

Writing about religion news: Getting past Ben Bradlee's 'SMERSH' verdict

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

If you were looking for a quote that perfectly captured the attitude that crusty old-school newspaper editors used to have about religion news (see my 1983 Quill cover story on life in that era), then here it is.

And let's face it, the fact that the quote comes from an NPR piece about the death of the legendary editor Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post -- the ultimate symbol of the politics-is-the-only-reality school of journalism -- just makes it more perfect.

"Major regional newspapers mimicked the format he devised for the Post, with a Style section devoted to features involving politics, regional personalities, celebrity and popular culture and highbrow culture alike. He also insisted on a high profile for beats on the subjects he vigorously and vulgarly called "SMERSH -- science, medicine, education, religion and all that s - - -" -- the subjects from which Bradlee personally took little enjoyment."

So the low-prestige beats were covered, but were not on the radar of the powers that be that ran the big-city newsrooms of that day. This is precisely what I used to hear from the Godbeat scribes who were weary veterans in the 1980s, at the time I hit The Charlotte Observer and then The Rocky Mountain News.

Of course, it is also important that one of the key players who helped create the current religion-news marketplace -- in which, all too often, politics defines what is real and religion is essentially emotions and opinion -- is Beltway matriarch Sally "On Faith" Quinn, who was the talented and high-profile wife of Bradlee's mature years.

This brings me to two items of religion-beat news for the day, both care of friends of this weblog. The first comes from a former GetReligionista, who asked what would happen if everyone clicked into this piece -- "What topics do reporters need to get smarter about in 2015?" -- and answered, "Religion, of course." Here's the set-up:

We’re asking you to help pick next year’s training topics. What subjects do you predict will be in the news next year that reporters would benefit from learning more about? Poynter will carry out three of these news-driven workshops next year, and McCormick and Poynter will select three other organizations to carry out three additional workshops. One will be on the Iowa caucuses.Tweet your suggestions (hashtag #news15) or fill out a brief survey. Tell us one or two topics important enough to your audience that a reporter should go to a two-day workshop to learn more, then return to the newsroom to report and write.

And while we are on the topic of news coverage of religion, Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher recently blogged on the fact that he is one of the featured speakers in a program this week in Boston that will be of obvious interest to GetReligion readers. That would be:

... I’ll be at the Boisi Center at Boston College on Thursday evening for a panel discussion on writing about religion in a polarized age. I will be joined by actual smart people, including my longtime correspondent Mark Oppenheimer of The New York Times; I’m the comic relief, I think. Come if you can, or watch us livestreamed. ...As I’m thinking about the remarks I’ll make, I’d like to throw open the comments box to ask you readers what you think about religion writing in a polarized age. What qualities does the best religion writing you see nowadays have? What’s wrong with religion writing today? How could we who write about religion do a better job?

Yes, the event will be broadcast live online at 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday. 

I've been following some of the early comments at his blog (especially since Rod ended with a kind reference to GetReligion) and it's interesting to note that most of his readers seem to be interpreting "writing about religion" as, yes, essentially opinion writing and essay writing -- as opposed to writing for news publications that are committed to balanced, accurate, non-advocacy journalism. I find that sad, but not surprising.

Meanwhile, Dreher adds that he thinks the Internet is helping way more than its hurting:

I think that the tremendous job the media did on the Catholic abuse scandal wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet. Nor would it have been possible for Catholics, both conservative and liberal, to offer their own analyses that either contradicted or amplified what we were seeing in the mainstream media.Plus, I think it is a good thing that it’s harder for authorities within a religion, church or tradition to control the narrative. I’m a conservative, as you know, but I treasure the fact that I can read both a conservative and liberal take on certain issues. Though an ex-Catholic, I am still rather unlikely to agree with the National Catholic Reporter on any Catholic issue, but I still value its perspective as a reality check on what my preferred sources are saying.So that’s one good thing about religion writing in a polarized age: if you care to find alternative perspectives to inform your own, it’s not hard. ...Finally, one challenge we who write about religion (and who read about religion) face is that we downplay religious difference. Sometimes, religions really cannot be reconciled at the doctrinal level. There is a strong tendency, and not always a bad tendency, to try to find common ground to reduce conflict. But this is a bad thing when we fail to recognize that some things are not possible to agree on. When I was a Catholic, I thought that Catholicism and Orthodoxy were pretty close, doctrinally. Now that I’m Orthodox, I see that I was wrong. My error came in part because I wanted to see the similarities, not the differences, but also because I simply wasn’t as familiar with the differences as I am now that I am Orthodox. I would still love for the Catholic and Orthodox churches to cooperate more, but I don’t hold out much hope for any re-establishment of communion, simply because the differences between the churches are more profound than many Western Christians see.

So, head on over there and leave Dreher some questions and comments. I assume that Rod will also write about the event and his extended remarks. As you would expect, there will be live-tweeting from the event at #WritingAboutReligion and, again, the live broadcast of the event will be online.

The Media Project book "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion" is still available online.

Categories: Main

Religious liberty in Idaho: Going to the chapel, and we're going to get married ... maybe

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Earlier this month, I dinged Reuters for a "two-sided news story" that really only told one.

I argued that the piece on "a new battleground of religious freedom" was framed almost entirely from the perspective of same-sex marriage activists.

This week, Reuters reported on two Idaho pastors opposed to gay marriage:

(Reuters) - Two pastors in Idaho, who fear they could be penalized for refusing to perform newly legal gay marriages at their private wedding chapel, have filed a lawsuit, saying an Idaho anti-discrimination law violates their right to free speech and religious liberty.Donald and Evelyn Knapp, who run the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d'Alene, are asking a federal judge to temporarily bar the city from enforcing a local ordinance that bans discrimination tied to sexual orientation in businesses that are used by the public, their attorney said on Monday.The couple, both ordained Christian ministers, say that under the ordinance, they could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine each time they decline to wed same-sex couples in line with their religious beliefs."The government has no business compelling ministers to violate their beliefs and break their ordination vows or risk escalating jail time and fines," said the Knapps' attorney, Jeremy Tedesco.

Idaho pastors opposed to gay marriage sue city over law

— Reuters U.S. News (@ReutersUS) October 20, 2014

Later, the story provides more background:

The lawsuit said the city contends that because the chapel is not a church, it is not exempt from the ordinance and must afford gays the same rights as other couples seeking to wed.The Knapps on Friday "respectfully declined such a ceremony," Tedesco said. By Monday, they had not been charged with violating the non-discrimination ordinance, he said.The Knapps said in the lawsuit filed on Friday in U.S. District Court that their business was formed as an avenue to exercise their religious beliefs, which include helping people "create, celebrate and build lifetime, monogamous one-man one-woman marriages as defined by the Holy Bible."

Alas, Reuters does a much better job this time of fairly representing the arguments of those with religious freedom concerns.

What's missing? Once again, it's the other side. The Idaho story lacks any input from supporters of gay marriage. 

Christian ministers sue 'before' being forced to perform gay #Marriage @Mark_Kellner @MarriageReport @MarriagEqual

— Matthew Brown (@deseretbrown) October 21, 2014

Meanwhile, former GetReligionista Mark Kellner, writing for the Deseret News National Edition, provides a textbook example of how to quote both sides and let readers judge the facts for themselves:

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, blogging for The Washington Post, comes down on the side of the Knapps' claim that applying the nondiscrimination ordinance would be unconstitutional: "Compelling them to speak words in ceremonies that they think are immoral is an unconstitutional speech compulsion."Volokh said the move would also violate Idaho's 14-year-old Free Exercise of Religion Protected statute, which says "government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability," such as the local nondiscrimination ordinance.But Jennifer C. Pizer, a senior counsel with the Lambda Legal Foundation, a gay rights law firm in Los Angeles, told the Deseret News it's the nature of the Knapps' business that's at issue."If someone is operating a commercial business, the rules should apply in a fair and equal manner," Pizer said. "What is the nature of the activity? If it's a religious sacrament, it's constitutionally protected. If it's commercial, the state can regulate it to protect others."Because the Knapps were each ordained by the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, that may create an "interesting" legal issue, Pizer added.

Hey Reuters, see how easy that was?

Categories: Main

The protest beat at The New York Times? Silence from Paris

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

News reports on political demonstrations and protest marches have kept the New York Times busy this past week.

In the print and on the web it has run a least three dozen articles on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while also covering civil rights protests in Ferguson, Mo., student protests in Egypt, pro-Kurdish protests in Ankara, and Shia protests in Yemen.

Perhaps this surfeit of protests was what led the Times to ignore demonstrations in that far off place called France.

Paris police reported that over 78,000 “pro-family” demonstrators (organizers claim several hundred thousand) marched through Paris on Oct. 5, 2014, with tens of thousands marching in support in Bordeaux, denouncing the Socialist government’s support for same-sex marriage and IVF and surrogacy rights for same-sex couples.
The marches have dominated the headlines of the French newspapers and animated political discourse. The Friday before the rally organized by the Manif Pour Tous coalition, Prime Minister Manuel Valls caved into one of the groups key demands.

Radio France International (RFI), the government supported broadcaster, reported:

As hardline Catholics and family-values campaigners prepare to demonstrate in Paris this Sunday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has performed an about-face on surrogate motherhood, declaring that it will never be legal in France.

The report on the march by RFI was not charitably inclined towards the protestors, but the event did merit coverage from newspapers across the spectrum. The left-leaning newspaper Libération gave the story front page coverage -- taking the editorial line the protests were a waste of time as the government was not going to rescind its same-sex marriage laws.  However, Libé speculated the true purpose of the march was not to change current laws, but to signal the rising political power of the pro-family conservative vote. 

The center-left newspaper Le Monde also gave the march coverage on its front page on Oct. 6, and agreed with Libé that protesters were exercising their political muscle in the face of a vulnerable government.

Continue reading "Silence from Paris" by George Conger.

Categories: Main

Is Mormonism 'Christian'? (Cue the theme from 'Jaws')

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Is the Mormon religion considered Christian? There are radical doctrinal differences.


Depends on who’s talking.

The steadily expanding Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed “LDS” or “Mormon”) vigorously defends the Christian identity proclaimed in its very name and resents assertions to the contrary. However, the Catholic Church, virtually all evangelical Protestants, and major U.S. “mainline” Protestant denominations all find the label problematic because, as Kevin indicates, the LDS church disputes central beliefs the Christian religion has taught through history.

It’s not The Guy’s journalistic role to settle this, but to note some salient aspects of the debate.

One formula comes from a leading non-Mormon expert, historian Jan Shipps. She says Mormonism is to Christianity as Christianity is to Judaism, obviously related to the older religion that helped give it birth and yet a distinct new religious community.

On the other hand, Mormon insider Terryl Givens asserts that “the faith’s congruence with the essentials of Christian orthodoxy is unambiguous,” citing especially LDS belief in Jesus as the savior. Givens, a University of Richmond literature professor who has written 10 books about his church, says that in a blog item this month.  Yet he admits there are “undeniable” substantive differences in theology over against “the contemporary Christian mainstream.”

That word “contemporary” is significant because Mormons believe God established their church in these “latter days” to restore what was Jesus’ original religion, which only existed for a brief time until his apostles died off and all churches fell into permanent apostasy. Thus the church based in Salt Lake City believes it uniquely conveys God’s truth.

Givens sees LDS “adventuresomeness” in such distinctive concepts as: That the universe had no beginning so God is not the “creator” but “supreme organizer” of pre-existing matter, that “humans are co-eternal with God,” that “God himself is a material embodied being,” that God revealed holy books for the LDS church to add to the Bible, and that the Christian doctrines of original sin and God as the divine Trinity are huge errors.

Of course, there’s a flip side. From its beginnings Mormonism has cast official aspersions upon the Christian authenticity of all other churches.

Continue reading "Is Mormonism Christian?" by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

Modern Girl Scouts for a modern age: What about God, country and great outdoors?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The red numbers in a recent Associated Press report on the life and health of the Girl Scouts are pretty blunt. It's rare, these days, to see these kinds of crunch paragraphs right at the top of a report -- literally.

For the second straight year, youth and adult membership in the Girl Scouts has dropped sharply, intensifying pressure on the 102-year-old youth organization to find ways of reversing the trend.According to figures provided to The Associated Press, the total of youth members and adult volunteers dropped by 6 percent over the past year -- from 2,994,844 to 2,813,997. Over two years, total membership is down 11.6 percent, and it has fallen 27 percent from a peak of more than 3.8million in 2003.While the Girl Scouts of the USA have had an array of recent internal difficulties -- including rifts over programming and serious fiscal problems -- CEO Anna Maria Chavez attributed the membership drop primarily to broader societal factors that have affected many youth-serving organizations.

In other words, how do you keep them down on the farm (or at a campground) digging in the dirt (even when the goal is to earn environmental badges) after they have seen edgy fashion sites on their smart phones and tablet computers? 

This story interested me because I have friends who are active in the Girl Scouts, while they have concerns about the direction of the organization, and others who are not, because their concerns crossed the line into a danger zone. I know, from years of talking to them, that they have had concerns about a number of issues linked to morality, values and religion, to be blunt about it.

For example, there are religious groups that love Planned Parenthood and there are those that do not. And some people were concerned about the whole "define the god of your choice" decision a few years back, while other people were not as worried about that. Some atheists still think the group is too God-friendly.

There is just a hint of that side of the Girl Scout culture wars near the end of the AP report:

The Boy Scouts of America lost 6 percent of its membership last year; its youth membership has dropped from 3.3 million to about 2.5 million since 2002. The Boy Scouts alienated some conservatives last year by deciding to accept openly gay boys for the first time, while angering gay-rights supporters by maintaining a ban on gays serving as adult leadersBy contrast, the Girl Scouts have long had inclusive membership policies, although there have been some defections by families who felt the organization had become too liberal. American Heritage Girls, formed in 1995 as a Christian-oriented alternative, now claims more than 35,000 members. 

In other words, this may not be a huge element in the decline picture, but it is there. We live in a country in which many, many religious groups and nonprofits are going to be logical homes for Scouting efforts. Religious youth groups are also logical places to seek members, especially in places like, well, Utah and the Bible Belt.

Clearly, as the story rightly notes, there are crucial debates taking place about the rise of Barbie badges, Eating Local badges, computer badges, filmmaking badges and Eating For Beauty badges. Clearly there are debates about the decline of "legacy" subjects -- that's the Girl Scout word for them these days -- linked to camping and outdoorsy activities. Clearly, Scouting faces challenges in an age dominated by computer games and Facebook.

But I think the Scouting debates about sex, God and country have to be in there, too. That has been a factor in the small but steady stream of parents and girls over the years. 

Which brings me to a New York Times report on the same topic: "Girl Scouts Debate Their Place in a Changing World." The membership numbers are there, again. So are many of the other topics from the AP report. 

What is this fight all about?

Changing times and fashion are unlikely to alter the appeal of the Thin Mint, but that may not be as true for other aspects of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., an organization that some say has spent nearly a decade moving away from its tent-pitching, campfire-building roots to embrace the more modern-day themes of technology and science, media and social issues in order to keep girls interested.“They did need to transform the organization, and when they decided to focus on leadership opportunities, I said, ‘Hot-diggity, that’s exactly what we need,’ ” said Marty Woelfel of Louisville, who has spent 41 years working with the Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana Council. “But outdoors, as leadership, fell off the map at that point.”The change left out an important leadership opportunity for the 2.3 million girls who wear the well-known green vests and shiny, gold trefoil pins, said Ms. Woelfel, who was in Salt Lake City for the movement’s international convention. Ms. Woelfel is part of a yearslong grass-roots effort by scouts and their leaders nationwide to persuade the nation’s largest organization for young girls to rethink its priorities.

By all means, read it all.

What is missing from the Gray Lady's version of this drama? Want to guess?

Categories: Main

CBS News looks for 'LGBTQ Catholics,' finds schismatics instead

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In the wake of the Vatican family synod, as mainstream news outlets go searching for people angry over the failure of the bishops' meeting to produce hope 'n' change, CBS News joins the fray with a bizarre piece that attempts to represent the views of disgruntled "LGBTQ Catholics."

Just how disgruntled are these LGBTQ Catholics? So disgruntled that they attend a schismatic "Mass" at an Episcopalian church.

Although the story appears under the headline "We don't need Vatican affirmation, says gay Catholic congregationm" its URL reveals that it was originally headlined, "We don't need Vatican affirmation, says gay Catholic priests." That suggests that the story's original angle was to highlight the discontent of "gay Catholic priests" with the synod's conclusion, and its sourcing bears this out. Two out of its three sources are alleged priests, and the lone layman's quote comes last.

The lede betrays astonishing bias, presenting the pope seething with "frustration" against his hard, unyielding bishops:

NEW YORK -- After Roman Catholic bishops meeting at the Vatican failed to agree on issue of homosexuality in the church, Pope Francis appeared barely able to contain his frustration, cautioning the bishops Saturday not to cling to doctrine with "hostile rigidity" and saying the next day that "God is not afraid of new things."

Now, you may well ask, how can it be biased for the reporter to quote Francis speaking against "hostile rigidity" if those were the actual words he used? It is biased if the pope is being selectively quoted in a manner that excludes his overall message, which was more akin to "a pox on both your houses." 

The source of the quote is Francis's final speech to the synod, which warned of two temptations. The first one he cited was the one highlighted by the CBS report:

a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

But then Francis immediately warned against the opposite extreme:

 - The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

Got that? So Francis warns against the "deceptive mercy" that fails to acknowledge the reality of sin and the need for repentance.  (Incidentally, judging by the scare quotes, Francis is no more happy than I am with the press labeling Catholics "conservative" or "progressive.")

The CBS News piece completely ignores Francis's admonition against "progressive and liberals," instead entering into the perspective of "LGBTQ Catholics":

Back in the U.S., Catholics in one particular congregation were even more vocal.

"I think what we should do is to stop calling the American bishops 'bishops,' and start calling them homophobes," said the Rev. Joe Akus, a priest who ministers to a congregation called Dignity, a network of LGBTQ Catholics with dozens of branches and thousands of members across the country.

Note the curious reference to the "Rev. Joe Akus." He is described as "a priest who ministers to a congregation called Dignity, a network of LGBTQ Catholics." That looks like fancy footwork to me; it avoids calling Akus a Catholic priest (i.e. one who may licitly celebrate Mass) and it avoids calling Dignity a Catholic parish community (because, as we will see, it isn't; it is based at an Episcopal parish).

In fact, I seriously doubt Akus has priestly faculties at all. He may celebrate the sacraments licitly only if he has permission from the diocesan bishop, and it sure doesn't look like he does. The Archdiocese of New York banned Dignity from hosting liturgies in its churches all the way back in 1987 -- see this weepy postmortem from the Gray Lady -- and the CBS News report goes on to say that Dignity's "Mass" is in an Episcopal church:

For 33 years, Akus has been saying Mass at the Episcopal Church of St. John, which serves as the group's de facto parish and headquarters. Established in 1972 by Jesuit priest John MacNeill, Dignity New York is a leading chapter of Dignity USA, a nonprofit organization that supports LGBTQ people in accepting and expressing their sexuality as consistent with Catholic teachings. MacNeill's 1976 book "The Church and the Homosexual" is still considered by Dignity members to be 'the bible' on religion and sexuality.

Given the Archdiocese's ban, a "Catholic" Mass celebrated for Dignity NY at an Episcopal church would necessarily be illicit and, de facto, schismatic.

More error and fancy dancing: Not only does CBS News misspell McNeill's name, it fails to mention that McNeil was expelled from the Jesuit order in 1986 and lost his priestly faculties.

But wait -- CBS News finds another "gay priest" willing to speak on the record:

At last night's weekly meeting of the Dignity congregation, most people echoed Akus' view:"If they really follow through and are consistent, that's good, but I don't see how the church has any business dictating people's behavior, the business of the church is to proclaim the Kingdom of God," said the Rev. Dan McCarthy, who also performs liturgies for the Dignity congregation. 

"I've been homosexual for 75 years and a priest for about 48 years, it's no longer a novelty to me."

Again, the story appears to be carefully worded to avoid stating that the Rev. Dan McCarthy is a "Catholic priest," for that would imply he had priestly faculties. 

There really is no dancing around the truth: We have here a shoddily sourced, misleadingly worded report on "LGBTQ Catholics" who in fact are not engaged in life within the Catholic Church but rather worship at a schismatic liturgy. If that's how the CBS Eye sees same-sex-attracted Catholics (many of whom are striving  to remain in the heart of the Church), I'd say it needs glasses.

Image via Shutterstock.


Categories: Main

The truth is out there, but does Scientific American want to find it?

Monday, October 20, 2014

I recall Scientific American as a stodgy but respected journal. It bristled with challenging but intriguing titles like "The Large-Scale Streaming of Galaxies" and "Branching Phylogenies of the Paleozoic and the Fortunes of English Family Names."

But one of the newest titles -- "Did Jesus Save the Klingons?" -- just doesn't have the same ring. Nor, unfortunately, does the article: a Q&A of an astronomer pontificating on how religion -- meaning, of course, traditional Christianity -- would be undone by the discovery of life on other planets.

Says David Weintraub, author of the new book Religion and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?:

I think at bottom most people have this idea that we humans are pretty special creatures and that God is paying attention to us. If we find somebody else, then there are lots of somebodies, most likely. And if there are lots of somebodies, that somehow would seem to make us less important. I think that is, psychologically, what has happened a number of times in human history. When Copernicus first said the Earth goes around the sun, theologically that meant we’re not the center of the universe anymore. Later on when astronomers said the sun isn’t the center of the universe, it’s just a silly star out in the suburbs of the galaxy, that threatened our well-being again. Suddenly if there are other beings out there, I think it changes completely the way we think about our place in the universe. I think it would be truly profound to know that.

As you read this article, keep in mind that it has little to do with science. You'll find nothing of cause and effect or the scientific method or rules of proof. The article is simply a bit of triumphalistic rhetoric, thinly papered over with an appeal to the authority of science. You could hear opinions at least as urbane over beers at a college rathskeller.

One guess on which religions Weintraub says will have the most trouble adjusting to the news of E.T.s:

The ones that have decided that we humans are the sole focus of God’s attention. The religions that see the world through that viewpoint tend to be some of the Christian evangelicals. The Eastern Orthodox Church, a branch of Catholicism, also has that view.There are some people who claim that if God had created extraterrestrials, then there clearly would be words in the Old and New testaments, which we would have already found, that would have said explicitly that God created extraterrestrials -- and since those words don’t exist, there can’t be. Well, there’s nothing in the Old and New testaments that talks about telephones either, and telephones do seem to exist.

We'll pause to note that while commenting on religion, both Weintraub and his interviewer seem fine with the erroneous notion that the Eastern Orthodox are "a branch of Catholicism." What's more, the quote is linked to another SciAm article that debunks the old "Chariots of the Gods" hypothesis -- an article that says nothing about whether God created aliens.

Another touch of ignorance: Weintraub mentions "the idea that Adam and Eve shouldn't have eaten the apple." The Bible, of course, doesn't name the forbidden fruit. 

The interviewer then asks if Christians believe Jesus would have to visit each planet separately. Weintraub is ready with an opinion:

Right. That’s a serious theological problem. Most theologians are pretty seriously averse to the idea that the son of God will have to visit every planet and get crucified on every planet.What if there’s another planet that’s been in existence for 100 million years before us? Do all of those creatures not get to go to heaven because the Jesus event didn’t happen until 2,000 years ago? Is that fair? It’s not for me to say.Some Catholic theologians are wiling to wave their hands and say it’s simply not a problem; God will take care of it. Some say it’s a serious problem. But theologically it’s a pretty interesting problem. These questions have been sitting out there for several hundred years. Two hundred years ago [American revolutionary and political philosopher] Thomas Paine put these questions out there very eloquently, and theologians started to address this and decided, yeah, this is a problem.

Leaving aside whether Paine was a Catholic, let alone a theologian: How is it a "serious theological problem" if most theologians don't buy it?

You won't be astonished to know that Weintraub lets off nearly every other religion easier than Catholic and evangelical Christianity. He says the founder of Seventh-day Adventists (Who? Doesn't say) had "visions of extraterrestrials." He says Mormons believe they will one day rule their own worlds. Quakers and Jews, he says, don’t say much about extraterrestrials. That somehow gets them off the hook in Weintraub's eyes, although they use the same Hebrew scriptures as the allegedly clueless Catholics and evangelicals do.

None of this is new; many scientists and even science fiction writers have long taken swats at Christianity. Back in 1962, Harry Harrison wrote "The Streets of Ashkelon," in which a misguided missionary preaches to aliens, with deadly results.  In "The Star," scientist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke had a priest on an interstellar ship making a faith-bruising discovery. And in his nonfiction writings, like Profiles of the Future, Clarke often said the belief that God created man in his image was "ticking like a time bomb at the foundations of many faiths."

But Weintraub and his SciAm interviewer seem blissfully oblivious of the many conversations by Christian thinkers on extraterrestrial life. It goes way beyond the statement by Pope Francis this past May, when he said that if little green Martians landed, he would have no problem baptizing them. Six years before then, Father Jose Gabriel Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, told L’Osservatore Romano:

As a multiplicity of creatures exist on earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God. This does not contrast with our faith because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God. To say it with Saint Francis, if we consider earthly creatures as “brother” and “sister,” why cannot we also speak of an “extraterrestrial brother?” It would therefore be a part of creation.

And in 2009, Funes hosted an international conference on the possibility of life on other planets. Attending were 30 scientists, including non-Catholics, from several countries.

Even Christian sci-fi and fantasy writers have tried creative approaches. There's the Space Trilogy -- Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength -- in which C. S. Lewis spun a yarn of Mars and Venus, suggesting how life elsewhere could have a spiritual arrangement different from that on Earth, yet consistent with Christianity.

There's also the trilogy by Madeleine L'Engle -- A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet -- which works spiritual themes into a story of a young girl learning about intergalactic civilization.

As pedestrian a publication as Our Sunday Visitor published a long history of western thought about life in the universe -- including Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C.E., the medieval Bishop Etienne Tempier of Paris, freethinkers Descartes and Voltaire, even philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Even without about Funes and Francis and L'Engle and Lewis, Weintraub and Scientific American could have simply read history. Sure, momentous discoveries have always shaken up societies, including religious ones. Then they adjusted. The church survived Copernicus, despite what Weintraub says. Christian belief has also survived Darwin, Freud, Marx, even Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher. In fact, it has become the faith of 32 percent of everyone alive.

Maybe the Scientific American article is just clever marketing. I'm tempted to buy Weintraub's book myself, just to see if it's really as ignorant as this article makes it sound.

Categories: Main

None dare call it 'free speech'? Who actually used the term 'hate speech'?

Monday, October 20, 2014

This is a strange one.

In the following story, it's hard to tell if we are dealing with with an ordinary advocacy journalism, or an outbreak of religion-specific "Kellerism" (click here for background), or maybe a case of a sloppy journalist, or two, not being specific enough in noting the origin of a particularly loaded phrase -- "hate speech."

As a former GetReligionista said, when sending in the URL for this one:

Did the judge call it "hate speech" or is the reporter deciding/siding with one side? I honestly can't tell...

Me neither, to be blunt. So here is the top of the story:

A controversial group of black street preachers who spew hate speech at whites, Asians, gays, women and some blacks they find objectionable, has a right to continue preaching, the state Superior Court has ruled.The Oct. 14 decision affirmed Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Ellen Ceisler's ruling from July 2013, and is another blow to the Shops at Liberty Place, which sued the preachers.Operating under the name Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, the preachers since 2012 have held semi-regular Friday-afternoon demonstrations on the public sidewalk at 16th and Chestnut streets, which is near the main entrance to the Center City retail complex. During these demonstrations, Israelite members stand on a makeshift stage espousing their religious beliefs and denouncing those they don't like.

Note the lack of quotation marks around the actual term "hate speech."

Yes, it is hard to know if this term is being used on connection with an actual civic ordinance -- a "hate speech" law, for example -- which would mean that it would have legal content (which could be cited in the story, hint, hint). Then again, perhaps the reporter is simply improvising?

It does help that the story lets readers -- using material that is inside quote marks -- hear what some of these activists are saying. 

"May the white man die today. May the Chinese man die today. May the east Indian man die today," one Israelite member said during a demonstration.In its lawsuit, lawyers for Liberty Place stated that the demonstrations constitute a nuisance and trespassing because passersby stand on Liberty Place property to watch and listen.

So we have a clash between commerce and the First Amendment. That part of the story makes sense.

What is missing?

Of course, it's the religion ghost. What is missing is any sense of what the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge is or what its leaders believe. If they hate people, why is that the case? What do they believe? If they are "preachers," then why are they preaching what they are preaching? Are they secularists? Are they heretical Christians?

In other words, do these "preachers" have a story? It may be a very ugly story, but I bet there is a story in there somewhere. First Amendment cases are about words, but they are also about people.

Yes, and who actually used the term "hate speech"?

Categories: Main

As the Hillsong world turns, questions about sex, the media and what a pastor said

Monday, October 20, 2014

Leaders of the Australia-based Hillsong Church — described by Religion News Service as "one of the most influential religious brands across the globe" and by The New York Times as "one of the more influential global megachurches" — held a news conference in New York last week.

The Christian Post apparently didn't like the questions asked by mainstream reporters:

NEW YORK — Brian Houston, senior pastor of Australia-based Hillsong Church, was hit with a series of critical questions during a press conference in New York City on Thursday, just hours before he was to take the stage at Madison Square Garden to preach before more than 5,000 Hillsong Conference attendees.Houston, 60, appeared visibly nervous as he sat alongside his wife and Hillsong Church co-pastor Bobbie Houston and his son and Hillsong United frontman Joel Houston, who also pastors at Hillsong NYC with Carl Lentz. Lentz rounded out the quartet of church representatives at the press conference, where the group welcomed local media to probe them about the conference kicking off that night and issues related to their ministry work through the multi-city megachurch.Once the floor was opened up for questions, however, it became clear that some members of the press were more interested in hearing about the sex abuse committed by Brian Houston's father in the 1970s, how Hillsong Church spends its money, and how the senior pastor handles cultural relevancy, specifically when it comes to issues of sexuality.

Presumably, The Christian Post expected major news organizations to pursue a story such as this one:

Founder Brian Houston Wants to Help Build The Kind of Local Churches 'That Bring Glory to God'

— The Christian Post (@ChristianPost) October 17, 2014

As regular GetReligion readers may recall, The New York Times just last month published a front-page story on Hillsong's international appeal and its place in the modern American religious scene:

The religion beat: Hillsong rocks the evangelical world, and the NYTimes' front page

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) September 10, 2014

Based on the news conference, RNS reported that Brian Houston "denied allegations that he had tried to cover up his father’s sexual abuse, saying the victim asked him not to go to the police."

More from the RNS report:

Fifteen years ago, Brian Houston found out that his father, who was a minister in New Zealand, admitted he sexually abused a boy in Sydney.“It was the darkest day of my life because he was my hero, and suddenly he was a pedophile,” Houston said at a news conference.Houston, who was president of the Assemblies of God in Australia in 1999, fired his father, took control of the church and merged it with Hillsong, now a sprawling megachurch on the outskirts of Sydney.His father, Frank Houston, was never prosecuted, received a retirement package (which Houston said was more for his mother who also worked for the church) before he died in 2004.Houston said that the victim who came forward to him asked him not to tell the police. He said he has since learned that Australian law requires someone to report a crime that could be punishable by five years in jail. “I would’ve gone to the police,” he said, if he had known about the reporting requirements.The victim, who was 7 years old at the time of the abuse, has claimed that the younger Houston accused him of “tempting” his father.Houston flatly denied the charge.

Sorry, Christian Post, but that reads like fair, solid reporting to me.

And as RNS explains later in the piece, there's a reason these questions are being raised now:

Hillsong is part of a larger Australian government investigation, called a royal commission, that is probing how institutions handle abuse claims. The high-level probe is expected to last another four years.

Meanwhile, The New York Times focused on a different angle — one that, if accurate, certainly seems newsworthy:

Megachurch Pastor of Hillsong Church Signals Shift in Tone on Gay Marriage via @michaelpaulson @nytimes

— Laurie Goodstein (@lauriegnyt) October 18, 2014

The Times reported that Brian Houston "has declared that his church is in 'an ongoing conversation' about same-sex marriage — saying that it is appropriate to consider the words of the Bible alongside the changing culture and the experience of people in the pews."

More from the Times: 

The comments ... immediately attracted concern from the right and applause from the left, coming as many Christian denominations and congregations are struggling with how to respond to rapid expansion of gay rights and legalization of same-sex marriage. ...Leaders of Hillsong have been avoiding condemnation of homosexuality for some time, and the pastor of Hillsong’s New York City campus, Carl Lentz, has declined to take a public position on same-sex marriage. But Mr. Houston’s comments, made at a news conference Thursday in New York, were striking for their assertion that Christian churches have caused pain for some gay Christians, and for their suggestion that the issue of same-sex marriage is not settled.“The world we live in, whether we like it or not, is changing around and about us,” he said. “The world’s changing, and we want to stay relevant as a church, so that’s a vexing thing.”

But Houston issued a statement on Hillsong's website taking issue with the story (a portion of the statement is copied below):

I encourage people not to assume a media headline accurately represents what I said at a recent press conference.Nowhere in my answer did I diminish biblical truth or suggest that I or Hillsong Church supported gay marriage. I challenge people to read what I actually said, rather than what was reported that I said. My personal view on the subject of homosexuality would line up with most traditionally held Christian views. I believe the writings of Paul are clear on this subject.

So once again, we appear to have a church leader eager to change the "tone" of the conversation while still — if I understand his follow-up statement correctly — declaring homosexual behavior sinful.

Categories: Main

And in the end, some Vatican synod news reports hint that 'sin' exists after all

Sunday, October 19, 2014

I promise -- honest -- that the following post is not a covert Sunday school lesson. You see, I have a journalistic reason for taking us into the Gospel of St. John, chapter 8.

As you read the following passage, journalists, try to figure out who might be who, in terms of interpreting the Vatican synod that has dominated the Godbeat this week. The story begins with Jesus arriving at the Jewish Temple in the morning:

... (All) the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. 

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 

Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”

Now, the reason I brought this up was because a reference to this passage showed up -- imagine that -- in the New York Times story about the end of the synod.

I thought this was interesting because it was one of the rare journalistic references to a very important word, in terms of basic Christian doctrines, a word that may or may not have played a major role in the synod debates. We don't know, however, because most of what we know about the meetings has come through press reports and the word in question is not commonly used in the news.

The word, of course, is "sin."

Here is the context for this reference, in the holy writ of the Times (which helped ignite a media firestorm earlier in the week by using the term "lenient" to describe the synod's new approach to marriage, divorce, gay unions, etc.):

The preliminary version of the report set off a furor, with phrases implying that the church was shifting toward understanding and acceptance of gay couples. Earlier on Saturday, before the final report was issued, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi of Italy said it would be “welcoming” to gays, but not approving of them.“Like Christ with the adulteress, his response is to welcome her, but then he tells her not to sin again,” Cardinal Ravasi said.The final document drops the language in the preliminary draft that spoke of “welcoming” gays and that they had “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” The final version says that gays must be met with “respect and sensitivity,” phrasing also in the church’s catechism, but emphatically asserts there is no basis whatsoever for comparing same-sex unions to marriage between a man and a woman.

The image used in many of the synod discussions was that the church should not be a place for picky Pharisees who have the law nailed down tight, but a hospital to bring healing to those who are hurting and sick. These are powerful images. However, it does help if everyone shares a common definition of what it means to be sick or to agree that, in the eyes of faith, certain types of behavior are sinful and cause damage and pain.

My impression is that the most controversial aspects of the synod, the parts focusing on doctrine, boiled down to whether or not leaders from the postmodern West wanted to send signals that it was possible for millions of wayward Catholics -- in the eyes of the Catholic Catechism -- to find their way back into the embrace of the Church (key issue: taking part in Holy Communion) without confessing their sins and seeking healing.

Everyone agreed that doctrine would not be changed. There seemed to be disagreement about whether doctrine, in the name of kindness and good PR, would be ignored. Guess which side the assembled press seemed to favor?

You can see the "sinner" issue again in the following Washington Post article about the final address by Pope Francis (full text here) which was said to have drawn a four-to-five minute ovation from the much-divided participants.

This includes some important material paraphrase, with spots of crucial direct quotes from @Pontifex. Let us attend:

In a 10-minute speech at the end of the closed meeting, Pope Francis sought to walk a middle line. He said the church can neither “throw stones” at sinners nor be too accommodating to “a worldly spirit.” ...Some longtime Vatican-watchers saw reports of bitter politics inside the synod as a proxy for feelings about Francis. The pope approved the small group of top clergy -- which included Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl -- who on Monday released the mid-meeting summary paper, which said the church must “turn respectfully” to people in relationships it once labeled “disordered,” such as unmarried couples who live together or same-sex couples who are raising children.The document at times used language that echoed a therapeutic, self-help style: People must “take care of themselves, to know their inner being, and to live in greater harmony with their emotions and sentiments.”The backlash from conservatives was swift. “The message that has gone out is not true,” South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier told reporters Tuesday.

The politics of the meeting gets lots of attention in the rest of the article. I was curious about what the pope said (full text here), since the only quotes attributed to him were actually pretty interesting and pointed toward the Pope Francis mix that some conservatives have actually applauded -- a warmer, more flexible approach to pastoral care paired with an ultimate goal of getting Catholics into Confession and a renewed practice of the Sacraments.

There is some evidence, you see, that this pope doesn't seem to think that mercy is separated from the confession of, yes, sins. But is that element of his work getting into news reports, as opposed to the waves of coverage of the new "tone" of church work with cohabiting couples, gays, the divorced, etc.

Does the pope still believes in sin and confession? That may be the heart of this story.

First there is the full passage mentioned earlier, the sort-of pox on both warring camps passage:

- One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility [trans: rigidity], that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called -- today -- “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.- The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

So, in the eyes of the pope, what was all of the fighting about, the divisions in the house? Pope Francis said he welcomed the days of strong talk, even as he watched various groups of bishops struggling with different temptations.

While the fighting got all the digital ink, the pope stressed the ultimate goal. Read this passage carefully. I know it's hard to spot headlines in this, but this sounds, to me, like the passage that drew the applause. He starts with a quick reference to the arguments during the synod:

... (This) always -- we have said it here, in the Hall -- without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48).

And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wounds; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Once again: Open the doors to those who are seeking forgiveness. Ah, but what if modern Catholics do not agree with the church on whether they have any sins to confess? 

Stay tuned. And keep digging beyond what makes it into the first stories in the usual newspapers and wire services.

Categories: Main

Listen now: Concerning the Vatican synod's midterm report & media's wishful thinking

Saturday, October 18, 2014

It was, of course, the story of the week. And now the weekend.

In the latest GetReligion podcast, Todd Wilken interviews me about my post on the mainstream media's reaction to the Vatican Extraordinary Synod on the Family's midterm report.  

Among other things, I talk about how, amid the mainstream media's wishful thinking for hope-'n'-change in Catholic teaching -- which you can see in headlines asking whether the Church is "evolving" on same-sex marriage -- some mischaracterized the Vatican document as being focused on gay issues.

Witness this tweet from CNN Belief Blog:

An "earthquake." "Revolutionary." "Stunning." What people are saying about the Vatican's new report on #LGBT people

— Belief Blog editors (@CNNbelief) October 13, 2014

As I wrote in this space, among mainstream reporters, only Time's Elizabeth Dias recognized the report for what it was: It's descriptive, not prescriptive, reflecting topics that are under discussion but are far from being resolved.

In comparison with Dias's level-headed analysis, even the usually reliable John L. Allen Jr. overemphasized the importance of the report. Although he noted it was not a definitive statement, he claimed, without evidence, that it reflected the views of a "majority" of the synod's participants:

A midterm report in a synod of bishops has no official standing in Catholic theology as a statement of binding church teaching, and it’s also possible that the meeting’s approach could evolve before the synod closes at the end of the week.Moreover, this synod will reach no final conclusions, as Francis has designed it to lay the groundwork for another, larger summit of bishops in October 2015. In any event, in the Catholic system a synod of bishops has no power of its own, but merely makes recommendations to the pope.Nonetheless, Monday’s report is indicative of where a majority of the roughly 200 bishops gathered in Rome presently stand, most of whom are the elected presidents of bishops’ conferences around the world.

Allen did, however, follow up with a report, co-written with Inés San-Martín, in which he acknowledged that some bishops said the impression that the document gave of a consensus was mistaken:

The Vatican today released a summary of the discussion that followed release of the document, though without identifying speakers by name. ...One cardinal taking part in the synod told reporters today that some media coverage distorted a proper understanding of the document, falsely suggesting that it contained firm conclusions of the whole body.

“We’re now working from a position that’s virtually irredeemable,” said Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of South Africa.

“The message has gone out that this is what synod is saying, that this is what the Catholic Church is saying,” he said. “Whatever we say hereafter will seem like we’re doing damage control.” ...Inside the synod, 41 prelates took part in the debate after the presentation of the document, including German Cardinals Walter Kasper and Gerhard Müller, Americans Timothy Dolan and Raymond Burke, Ghana Peter Turkson and the Patriarch Gregorio III Laham.

Although in general the Vatican summary said Erdo’s landmark document was appreciated for accurately capturing the synod’s conversation, warnings were issued that it might “give rise to confusion.”

"Might" give rise to confusion? Based on mainstream-media coverage, that's the understatement of the week.

Categories: Main

'Bucket list baby' inspired prayers, compassion and sensitive coverage

Friday, October 17, 2014

Shane Francis Haley's life lasted less than four hours, cut short by a birth defect. Yet he and his parents reached hundreds of thousands of people through social media -- people who were first touched by the "bucket list" of experiences they gave their son before he was ever born.

That's one marvel of the drama that played out in Media, Pa., as Jenna and Don Haley updated their 700,000 Facebook friends over the prenatal months. Another marvel: the simple news narratives by Reuters and the Christian Science Monitor that tell the story without adding some religio-socio-politico-economic payload.

With a story about a doomed infant, it's hard to resist the urge to add tear-jerking prose. Remarkably, the writers of these stories do resist. In the best tradition of journalism, they let the details carry the emotional weight. Closest to any gimmicky writing is the headline on the Monitor article: " 'Bucket list baby' inspires thousands. Here’s what his parents did."

When the Haleys heard the diagnosis of anencephaly -- in which the baby lacks part of its brain and skull -- they knew it was a death sentence for Shane. Yet instead of planning an abortion, or sinking into grief or rage at God, the parents decided to give their son the time of his life before he was even born.

From the Monitor's account:

Meticulous scrapbook entries document days with their unborn, spent at Strasburg Railroad, a Zac Brown Band concert, a boardwalk, numerous sporting events, and in true Philly fashion – cheesesteaks. There is also a collage of photos from a “shower of love.” On Mother’s Day, Jenna wrote in the book: “This was the best day ever. Thanks to Shane I am the luckiest mommy in the whole wide world.”Each photo they posted – at the pumpkin patch, an aquarium, meeting Phillies players, at landmarks in New York City – received thousands of Likes and hundreds of comments of encouragement and hope.“Bless you guys you are both so brave!!” wrote one commenter. “No matter what happens he knows he is Soooo loved in these Lil 9 months that he has already spent with you guys.”

Reuters typically favors a newswriting style that may be even terser than the Associated Press; but its story on Shane was evocative enough for McCall magazine to use it. Perhaps it was for personal details such as:

In one post, the family celebrated Halloween in September by painting the mother's belly to look like a jack-o-lantern.Shane's parents, who live outside Philadelphia, started the page to raise awareness about anencephaly and to ask others to pray that they might be given as much time as possible with the baby.

Religious "ghosting" is minimal: Both articles have the Haleys asking for prayers, even naming their Facebook page Prayers for Shane. The Monitor quotes one comment of admiration for the parents' courage, whose writer adds, “I pray for you and your baby boy, and I am truly hoping for a miracle. God bless.”

I say minimal because neither story reveals why the Haleys lavished so much love on someone that, in many peoples eyes, wasn't even a someone yet. Why didn't the couple just abort the fetus -- a term, BTW, that doesn't appear in either article? Why did they instead name it and give it a range of family-type experiences as if it were a full-fledged human?

You'll no doubt guess the answer when you learn that Shane had a Catholic baptism. The Roman Catholic Church, through both its Catechism and its magisterial teachings, says that a human life starts at conception, not birth. This may well be the basis for how the Haleys treated the unborn Shane. Reuters and the Monitor should have found out.

{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}The hoped-for miracle, of course, didn't come: Shane was born by induced labor at 2:25 a.m. Oct. 9, then died shortly thereafter. Both articles carried the family's report: "Today at 6:15 a.m., after meeting his entire family and being baptized into the Catholic faith, baby Shane died peacefully in his Mother's arms." The parents thanked their many readers for their prayers and support.

You could, if you wished, grind several axes with this sweet, tragic story. Some might use it as a parable of the value of abortion to reduce neonatal deaths. Some might say it shows the personhood of the fetus and the need to fight abortion. Some might retell it as an example of the need to fund more medical research. And some would dust off the old "Why would a loving God ...?"

At the risk of sounding callous, I would answer to all of it, "So what?" Those questions are always with us. Shane Francis Haley is not.  His parents showed him all the love and joy they could for the scant nine months they had them. They were buoyed by prayers and good wishes from 700,000 friends, which they returned with gratitude.

The Haleys took the road of compassion and bittersweet consolation. So did their friends. So did Reuters and the Monitor. This time, they all took time to be human.

Categories: Main

WPost nails the crucial details in icky Orthodox mikvah cam scandal

Friday, October 17, 2014

When you hear or read the words "Orthodox rabbi," what is the image that immediately pops into your mind's eye?

Right. That would be this one (mandatory click).

The problem is that, in this day and age, there are many different brands of "Orthodox rabbis," running from progressive Orthodox rabbis to, well, orthodox and ultra-orthodox Orthodox rabbis. The public may or may not know all of that, however.

Thus, when covering a story about a rather sleazy sex scandal linked to an Orthodox rabbi, it is very important -- especially in Washington, D.C., for reasons we will discuss -- for journalists to provide enough factual information to erase the Woody Allen movie stereotypes and let readers know what brand of Orthodox Judaism is involved, this time around.

This is precisely what Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein did in her first Washington Post story about what could be called mikvah-gate.

The precision began right in the lede:

A prominent modern Orthodox rabbi at a Georgetown synagogue was arrested by D.C. police on Tuesday morning and charged with voyeurism, according to a department spokeswoman.Barry Freundel, 62, of the Kesher Israel Congregation, was being held in police custody Tuesday and was likely to have an initial appearance in D.C. Superior Court on Wednesday. Within hours, the synagogue’s board of directors suspended him without pay.D.C. police confirmed that his arrest came during a search of his home on O Street NW, about five blocks from the synagogue in the 2800 block of N Street NW that he has led since 1989. ...Law enforcement authorities said the case involves a hidden camera but gave conflicting accounts of where the alleged voyeurism took place. Both the synagogue bathroom and the mikvah, where ritual bathing takes place, were mentioned.

Now, I know what some of your might be thinking: GetReligion is praising this story because it involves the fall of a "modern," or progressive, rabbi.

Actually, in the context of modern Washington, it would have been just as important to nail the cultural context in the lede if these alleged crimes had been committed by a traditional Orthodox rabbi. Why? Frankly, because the modern Orthodox presence in this city's cultural and political marketplace is so prominent that many readers, but not all, would automatically think "modern" Judaism, not old-school.

This crime is horrible, either way. Liberal feminist rabbi peeps at women? Horrible. Traditional Orthodox (read doctrinally conservative) rabbi peeps at women? Equally horrible. But maybe horrible for somewhat different reasons, in the eyes of their flocks?

When dealing with scandals, I think it is always wise to use enough details so that the public is not left guessing or, worse, jumping to the wrong conclusions.

Long ago, in Denver days, I covered the fall of a prominent Episcopal priest, one whose image was rather conservative, but his work was surprisingly liberal. In the story, noting police-report details, editors had me mention that he was arrested (while wearing clericals, in a public bathroom) for soliciting sex from a male under-cover policeman.

Some people cried "foul," saying this was a cheap shot. Editors decided that we needed to include that criminal charge, so that readers -- seeing the word "priest" -- would not be tempted to think that the alleged crime was sex with a child.

Boorstein provides very precise information about the background of this rabbi, which presses home the bitter irony of the accusations against one of Beltway-land's most respected rabbis. 

Kesher Israel is a modern Orthodox synagogue, part of a denomination that emphasizes Jewish law and tradition while trying to accommodate modern trends such as the rise of women in leadership. Kesher’s board is led by a woman. ...In the realm of Orthodox Judaism, Kesher is on the progressive side. It has all-women study and prayer sessions in which women can read from the Torah, and girls in the congregation can celebrate their bat mitzvahs. Women and men can give sermons at services on Saturday mornings, and women for years have served on the board of directors. Like all Orthodox synagogues, Kesher has a mechitza, a barrier separating men and women in the sanctuary, and women do not lead prayers in mixed-gender settings or count in the 10-person quorum required for a prayer service.In 2005, Freundel was a leader in pushing for the creation of a mikvah, or ritual bath, near Kesher. A mikvah is used primarily for people converting to Judaism and by observant Jewish women at very intimate times, including after menstruation, as a way of purifying themselves.

All in all, a tricky and complex subject for a hard-news report, yet very, very well handled in this case. It required precise language and telling details and that's what the Post team delivered.

Categories: Main
The Media Project
Customize This