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Updated: 36 min 39 sec ago

New York Times finds the usual suspects behind Anglican division

Friday, December 19, 2014

We have a positive ID on those shadowy villains who are wreaking havoc.

No, not the guys who hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment. Someone much worse: those who are dividing the Church of England over female bishops.

It's ... Dun-dun-DUNN! ... the Evangelicals!

Yep, those perennial bad guys popped up in a  New York Times' news article this week as the hardshell opponents against making the Rev. Libby Lane the first female Anglican bishop.

Much of the story is a bland, benign repackage of an announcement on the church's own website. It says Lane will be assigned to Stockport as an "assistant" to Bishop Peter Forster of Chester. (The actual title is "suffragan," as the church release says.) It has a statement from Lane and tells of her interests in saxophone and crossword puzzles.

Then it morphs into the treasured Times tradition of conflict journalism:

The halting process toward her consecration reflected deep divisions between liberals and conservatives that are likely to be cemented rather than resolved by the move.“Without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures,” the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who backed the push for female bishops, said after a final vote on the matter last month.

Ah, there's that classic political dualism of liberal / conservative, which domestic mainstream media try to impose on so many topics -- from the Middle East to the Roman Catholic Church -- downplaying shades of differences or counter-indications. (Many Catholics, for instance, favor welfare spending and immigration reform.)

But who are the conservatives, Anglican style? Well, the Times names the Rev. Rod Thomas, the head of a group called Reform, "which led opposition to the consecration of women as bishops." And Rod and his crew are hanging tough:

The church leadership agreed in July to make concessions to conservatives, permitting parishes that are reluctant to acknowledge a female bishop to request supervision by a man.That compromise is likely to be tested with the consecration of Ms. Lane in the diocese run by the bishop of Chester, the Right Rev. Peter Forster. Mr. Thomas said he urged the bishop to “enable the many thriving conservative evangelical churches in his diocese to continue to serve their communities with theological integrity under the oversight of a male bishop.”

There we are: Evangelicals are hidebound and change-allergic, straining attempts at compromise. Never mind that Archbishop Welby -- who, as the Times itself says, "backed the push for female bishops" -- is himself widely known as an evangelical.

There's also a glitch in the Times saying that Libby Lane's appointment will test the compromise. If Thomas' concern is male oversight for conservative churches, why wouldn't he be satisfied with a female suffragan who draws her authority from a male bishop? He should have been asked, don’t you think?

Nor does the article's grasp of history sound much better. Not when the story says, "The tradition of all-male bishops dates to the Church of England’s break with Rome five centuries ago, in the days of King Henry VIII."

Does this mean that before the break with Rome, the Church of England had female bishops? Or that churches elsewhere had them? As tmatt noted a month ago, "Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers, many Lutherans and millions and millions of Third World Anglicans also want to retain male-only bishops."

Moreover, historians are not unanimous on the final Anglican break with Rome. Some regard it as a longer process, starting with Henry VIII and ending with independence under Elizabeth I.

OK, I get it. The New York Times wants to report in ways that make sense to American readers. So you relate news elsewhere to events in the U.S. Just acknowledge not only where the categories fit, but where they don’t.

Otherwise, why not just keep it at the bland press release stage?

Categories: Main

An old ghost hidden in details of that New York Times story on shuttered Catholic churches

Friday, December 19, 2014

Here is a comment that I hear every now and then, either in private emails or when I meet veteran GetReligion readers out in the wilds of daily life: Why do you make some of the same comments over and over, when critiquing religion news in the mainstream press?

Whenever I hear that I think about one of my favorite college professors back in my days as a history major, who used to note how often the same mistakes happen over and over and over again in history. Are we supposed to stop studying them? And then he would note that he also applied this concept to grading our blue-book tests.

So, yes, here we go again with yet another look at a news report about Catholic church closings.

Right now, the wave of closings and mergers in the Archdiocese of New York is in the headlines and with good cause. For starters, think of this as a real estate story. Can you imagine what the land and the space above some of these properties are worth in the midst of an insane building spree in Manhattan?

Here is a key chunk of this very interesting and detailed story:

Church officials said in November that 112 of the archdiocese’s 368 parishes would be consolidated to create 55 new parishes, the largest realignment of the parish structure in the history of the archdiocese, which stretches from Staten Island to the Catskills. In 31 of those new parishes, one or more of the original churches would no longer be used for regular services, effectively shuttering those churches by August.But the documents show that Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan has now proposed that an additional 38 parishes merge, to create 16 new ones. ...The parish reorganization is being driven by a shortage of priests, financial troubles and declining weekly church attendance, which hovers at less than 15 percent of the archdiocese’s Catholics on an average Sunday, according to the archdiocese. But church officials have been reluctant to comment on the reasoning behind specific mergers, which can be especially frustrating to parishes that appear to be flourishing.

First, it is clear that the cardinal is looking at long-range trends in his flock and, as the old saying goes, "demographics is destiny." Here at GetReligion we also like to note that, in a wide variety of religious groups -- on left and right -- demographics also tend to be reveal theological trends. As I noted the other day, "babies are a statement of faith."

Thus, I do not question the Times statement that what is happening in this parish reorganization plan is being "driven by a shortage of priests, financial troubles and declining weekly church attendance."

Ah, but what are the realities behind those trends? Are there other factors, theological factors perhaps, that result in some parishes (and their schools) growing and others shrinking? What are the hidden factors in the declining number of priests?

In other words, this Times list is incomplete. Perhaps it is time for a piece on, oh, which parishes in this archdiocese are producing a higher than normal rate of priests? Which parishes have the highest rates of people going to Confession? Where would you find parishes with higher than normal rates of infant, and adult, baptisms?

One more thing. As I said, this really is a fascinating story, one of many coming out of the Times metro desk (which does a great job when working on topics other than the Sexual Revolution and other Kellerism topics). Consider the following passage, which may hint at other tensions in this story:

Among the parishes that are now endangered ... is the Church of St. Thomas More on the Upper East Side, which parishioners call vibrant and strong, with about 3,500 members and Sunday services that are filled with young families. The parish covers its costs and has $1.5 million in cash reserves. Its intimate sanctuary was the setting for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s memorial service, because it had been Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s parish.The parish has one of the highest per capita donor profiles in the entire archdiocese, Christopher E. Baldwin, a trustee, said. It recently finished an $800,000 round of improvements to the church’s buildings. Its community space hosts a highly regarded nursery school and accommodates some 400 community meetings per year.Shocked by the archdiocese’s recommendation, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Kevin Madigan, told his parishioners in a Nov. 23 letter that he pressed church officials for the reason St. Thomas was being recommended for closing. He was told, he said, that “since St. Thomas More will eventually close some day, it is better to do it now rather than later, when there is presently a momentum within the archdiocese to merge parishes.”

Since the parish will "eventually close"? Say what?

Stay tuned. I suspect there are plenty of chapters left in this drama. I am simply saying that the folks on the metro desk may want to back up a bit and look at the trends -- demographics are like the force of gravity, after all -- that are shaping the action. Might the cardinal being seeing some theological trends, as well as financial trends?

In other words, there are facts about faith, religion and doctrine to probe here, as well as finances and real estate.

Categories: Main

Religious freedom vs. gay rights: Have your cake and read both sides of the story, too

Friday, December 19, 2014

Jack Phillips — the Colorado baker who declined to make a cake for a same-sex wedding (see past GetReligion critiques of media coverage here, here and here) — is back in the news.

Not just back in the news, but he landed on the front page of the New York Times this week:

In today's paper, my story on the legal battles over wedding vendors who won't serve same-sex weddings: http://t.co/7GHUtnafqe

— Michael Paulson (@MichaelPaulson) December 16, 2014

The story by Godbeat pro Michael Paulson prompted an email to GetReligion from an evangelical advocate sensitive to the Colorado baker's refusal to violate his religious beliefs.

"This is how it's done," the advocate said.

I don't think he was talking about Phillips' cakes — but rather the balanced nature of the journalism by a publication ("Kellerism," anyone?) criticized by this website for too often leaning to the left its coverage of social issues.

From the start, Paulson's story fairly and accurately portrays Phillips:

LAKEWOOD, Colo. — Jack Phillips is a baker whose evangelical Protestant faith informs his business. There are no Halloween treats in his bakery — he does not see devils and witches as a laughing matter. He will not make erotic-themed pastries — they offend his sense of morality. And he declines cake orders for same-sex weddings because he believes Christianity teaches that homosexuality is wrong.Mr. Phillips, whose refusal two years ago to make a cake for a gay male couple has led to a court battle now getting underway, is one of a small number of wedding vendors across the country who are emerging as the unlikely face of faith-based resistance to same-sex marriage.The refusals by the religious merchants — bakers, florists and photographers, for example — have been taking place for several years. But now local governments are taking an increasingly hard line on the issue, as legislative debates over whether to protect religious shop owners are overtaken by administrative efforts to punish them.

Keep reading, and the Times provides important background on Phillips' case — and similar legal battles nationwide — while citing the best arguments of each side:

The cases are largely being fought, and some say fueled, by two legal advocacy organizations: the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports same-sex marriage, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, which opposes it. Each side cites bedrock American principles: First Amendment rights of religion and speech versus prohibitions in 21 states against discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation.“It’s a clear, well-settled proposition that businesses who open the door to the public must serve the public,” said Evan Wolfson, the president of Freedom to Marry, an organization advocating same-sex marriage. “We don’t want Americans walking into businesses and being turned away because of who they are — that’s what nondiscrimination principles mean.”But the defenders of the shop owners argue that creating an artistically involved or personalized service for a same-sex wedding is a form of expression that should not be compelled by the government. They reject the discrimination charge, noting that many of the businesses have gay and lesbian customers, and, in some cases, employees.“Anyone who would suggest this is not about freedom of religion doesn’t know or understand what religious liberty is about, which is the freedom to do what your conscience directs,” said Alan Sears, the president of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Folks, this is a tasty piece of journalism: Have your cake and read both sides of the story, too. Kudos to Paulson and the Times.

Encourage your friends to follow @GetReligion & the GetReligionistas: @tweetmattingly, @mypeacebook, @scribefla, @bobbyross & @geoconger.

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) November 23, 2014


Categories: Main

Was Holy Communion really celebrated on the moon?

Friday, December 19, 2014

DAVID ASKS:

Do you know if it’s true Christian Communion was celebrated during the first moon landing?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Yes. And that Apollo 11 Communion followed a related event on Christmas Eve of 1968 during Apollo 8′s first manned flight to the moon. The earlier flight didn’t attempt a lunar landing but the astronauts transmitted a breathtaking live telecast of moon photographs while in orbit.

Then William Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman took turns reading the familiar account of God’s creation of the universe and planet Earth from Genesis 1:1-10 in the august King James translation. Commander Borman concluded, “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you -- all of you on the good Earth,” with the last phrase referring back to Scripture’s verse 10. Last year, the 85-year-old Lovell joined a Yuletide re-enactment of the lunar Bible reading at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

There’s something about such momentous events that makes mere mortals reach for transcendent themes. Think FDR’s D-day radio prayer for God to bless the invading Allied soldiers in their “struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization.”

Countless viewers were deeply moved by the Christmas Eve recitation but atheistic activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was angered. O’Hair had won fame by filing one of two lawsuits through which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed ceremonial Bible readings in U.S. public schools. After the Apollo 8 Bible incident she filed the “O’Hair v. Paine” federal lawsuit, akin to her earlier school case, accusing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of creating an “establishment of religion” that violated the Constitution.

That dispute played into the Communion during the historic moon landing on July 20, 1969. Astronaut “Buzz” Aldrin wanted the rite to be broadcast to the public but NASA required secrecy due to the legal snarl with O’Hair. Aldrin revealed the Communion in a 1970 article for the inspirational monthly Guideposts. The story was then picked up by other media.

Aldrin, then a lay elder of Webster (Texas) Presbyterian Church, had discussed ways to mark the lunar landing with his pastor, Dean Woodruff. Aldrin raised the Communion idea and Woodruff checked with Presbyterian headquarters, which said under those unusual circumstances it was proper for a solitary layman to serve himself the elements. (Catholicism allows priests to celebrate Mass by themselves but Protestants always perform sacraments during group worship.)

Two Sundays before liftoff, Aldrin received Communion in a private service where Woodruff gave him a second tiny bit of bread and a small silver chalice containing some of the wine that he included with personal items astronauts were allowed to take into space.

The Eagle landed on a Sunday.

Continue reading "Was Holy Communion really celebrated on the moon?" by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

5Q+1 interview, part 2: RNS writer David Gibson on what GetReligion doesn't 'get' about religion news coverage

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Second of two parts

In case you missed it, we ran the first — and my favorite — part of our interview with award-winning Religion News Service national reporter David Gibson on Wednesday:

Interview: RNS writer @GibsonWrites on the #Godbeat, falling into #journalism and his conversion to #Catholicism: http://t.co/7VLcHXPlz0

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) December 17, 2014

As part of my e-mail discussion with Gibson, I asked:

Is there anything GetReligion doesn't "get" about religion coverage in the mainstream media? Any tips or suggestions to help us improve what we do?

Gibson's reply:

In his answers in this space, Bob Smietana made good points about diversifying your stable of bloggers and also adopting a more charitable — let’s just say fair — attitude toward other journalists.
 
I would second those suggestions. I also think that GetReligion writers need to practice the journalistic customs that they preach — accuracy, fairness, balance and such. Too often those are cast aside. Perhaps hiring more writers with journalistic experience would help.
 
The site could also be open about its biases and its agenda. Not being transparent undermines your credibility and winds up limiting your audience, and you wind up preaching to a small choir of like-minded conservatives. That in turn undermines the wider goal (and greater good, I’d say) of highlighting religion coverage in the media and encouraging more and better coverage.
 
But would such changes mean that GetReligion wouldn’t be GetReligion any more? I don’t know the answer to that one.

Fair enough.

GetReligion readers can judge — and weigh in on — Gibson's statement.

I feel compelled to respond to just a couple of points:

1. The issue of accuracy, fairness, balance and such: GetReligion is a website that advocates quality journalism, but we are an opinion blog, not a reporting organization. We do media criticism. However, if Gibson or anyone else has specific examples where GetReligion has not been accurate or fair, we would welcome those. Please provide links. I myself have voiced frustration that "writing media criticism on short deadlines is like pulling a tooth a day" and that "you don't know the behind-the-scenes circumstances." 

2. The suggestion to hire more writers with journalistic experience: Everyone who writes for GetReligion has mainstream media experience. I wrote religion for The Oklahoman and The Associated Press. Our editor, Terry Mattingly, covered religion for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte News before launching his nationally syndicated "On Religion" column. Jim Davis served as religion editor for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Dawn Eden worked on the editorial staffs of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. George Conger served as a British correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, and his work has appeared in various British newspapers, such as The Times, Telegraph and Guardian. Richard N. Ostling probably needs no introduction, but he's a Religion Newswriters Association Lifetime Achievement Award winner known for his long career with AP and Time magazine.

I am extremely appreciative to Gibson for the interview.

Thank you, sir, for joining the conversation at GetReligion!

Categories: Main

Concerning 'holiday movies,' 'Christmas movies' and the civil religion found in shopping malls

Thursday, December 18, 2014

It was one of quieter moments in the Christmas classic "Home Alone," tucked in between the church-pew chat with the scary next door neighbor and the open warfare between young Kevin McCallister and the "wet bandits." Do you remember the line?

Bless this highly nutritious microwavable macaroni and cheese dinner and the people who sold it on sale. Amen.

As prayers go, it wasn't much. However, this iconic moment also featured an heroic America child making the sign of the cross as he blessed his food. That's not your typical Hollywood gesture, either.

It caught my attention and it also intrigued the conservative Jewish film critic Michael Medved, especially when the film became a (surprise!) runaway hit with a US box-office gross the came close to $300,000,000.

I talked to Medved about the film back in 1991 -- pre-WWW, so no URL to that full column -- and he told me that "Home Alone" was a perfect example of a typical "holiday movie" that, with just a few nods of respect for faith and family, turned into a box-office smash that is also known as a true "Christmas movie."

I've been interested in this phenomenon ever since and, this week, that served as the hook for the latest GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, there is much that can be said about that "holiday movie" tag. You know, as in the phrase, or variations on it, that you've heard in TV ads a few million times since Halloween -- "It's the perfect holiday movie for the whole family!" That phrase is attached to pretty much everything that comes out during The Holidays that is considered either wholesome, non-threatening, tame, lame or all of the above.

The "Christmas movie" tag seems to go, generation after generation, to classic films that seem to have something to say about family life, reconciliation, service who humankind and even, on rare occasions, faith. These are the movies that come close to grabbing the "It's A Wonderful Life" brass ring.

In a recent "On Religion" column, I had a chance to talk with one of my favorite pop-culture writers -- Hank Stuever of The Washington Post -- about the role of the generic "holiday" movies in television, shopping and American life. He is also the author of the snarky, but awesome, "Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present." Click here for an earlier column on that book.

Stuever offered a genuinely radical take on "The Holidays," arguing that this season of pilgrimage to the shopping mall has become a kind of civil ritual, a secular season of Advent in which Americans prepare for an explosion of joy and wonder -- defined in terms of gifts and cheer -- on Christmas morning. It's as close to transcendence as the mall can get.

And what do the movies on TV and at the local cinema have to do with the actual Christian season known as the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?

That misses the point, said Stuever. The rites depicted in these movies are not about Christmas, as much as they are evidence of how most Americans actually celebrate Christmas.Take the classic "A Christmas Story," with its tale of young Ralphie and his life-and-death quest for an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. This may be "the least religious Christmas movie ever made," he said.Instead, it tracks the preparatory rites for an American Christmas, such as worrying over the perfect Santa letter, struggling with tree decorations, facing the store Santa, preparing an epic meal and, of course, endless litanies of hints about must-have toys. Everything must be perfect in order to produce the explosion of joy and wonder that is supposed to surround the Christmas-morning extravaganza.For centuries, Christians prepared for the 12-day Christmas season – which begins on Dec. 25 – with four solemn weeks of Advent. "What we have now is a kind of secular Advent. ... That's what we see in 'A Christmas Story,' " noted Stuever. While believers used to fast and pray during Advent, now "we shop and watch television."

Yes, that makes me want to shout, "Bah! Humbug!" However, it is impossible to argue against his logic, in light of the evidence at ground level.

So here is my final question: Is it realistic for religious believers to expect Hollywood, or local newspapers, to produce anything that is linked to the spiritual meaning of Christmas, Hanukkah or any other holy season? What do you see in newspapers and at the multiplex?

Try to enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

To the AP, there are no 'liberal' Catholics — just 'rank-and-file' faithful

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Readers of The Associated Press's coverage of the release of the Vatican's report on its probe of American religious sisters will note a curious juxtaposition, one that has, alas, become all too familiar in AP reporting on Catholic issues. Here are the relevant paragraphs; the italics and boldface are mine:

The probes also prompted an outpouring of support from rank-and-file American Catholics who viewed the investigations as a crackdown by a misogynistic, all-male Vatican hierarchy against the underpaid, underappreciated women who do the lion's share of work running Catholic hospitals, schools and services for the poor.Theological conservatives have long complained that after the reforms of the 1960s Second Vatican Council, women's congregations in the U.S. became secular and political while abandoning traditional prayer life and faith. The nuns insisted that prayer and Christ were central to their work.

Got that? The faithful who saw the probe of the sisters "as a crackdown by a misogynistic, all-male Vatican hierarchy" aren't liberals — they're just "rank-and-file American Catholics." On the other hand, those complainers who knock women's congregations for "abandoning traditional prayer life and faith" are "theological conservatives" who apparently don't even deserve to be called American.

Also, note that the opinion of the so-called "rank-and-file American Catholics" is presented in highly polemicized language, putting their ideological opponents in the worst possible light, unlike that of the "theological conservatives." Why not instead balance it out with an equivalent line? Something like, "Theological conservatives have long complained that after the reforms of the 1960s Second Vatican Council, many women's congregations in the U.S. started wearing ugly polyester pantsuits, putting the Enneagram above the Eucharist, and teaching children that the miracle of the loaves and fishes was really a 'miracle of sharing'?"

Yes, I'm joking — but only to show how the AP's polemical caricature of one side's position is out of place. Its effect, whether intended or not, is to plant the idea that the "all-male Vatican hierarchy" really is misogynistic. Moreover, it paints "rank-and-file American Catholics" as people who see themselves in opposition to the hierarchy, which is a slander upon the people in the pews.

For more nuanced and reasonably even-handed coverage of the Vatican report, see the articles that ran in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe's Crux.

null

Categories: Main

5Q+1 interview: RNS writer David Gibson on the Godbeat, falling into journalism and his conversion to Catholicism

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Coming soon to @getreligion: A 5Q+1 interview with award-winning @RNS writer @GibsonWrites. #religion #journalism pic.twitter.com/pNI65TMHtw

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) December 17, 2014

First of two parts

On his Twitter profile, Religion News Service national reporter David Gibson describes himself as a Catholic convert, a Vatican veteran, a faith fan and an alliteration addict.

His RNS bio notes that he has written two books on Catholic topics, including a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.

Gibson was honored recently as the Religion Newswriters Association's Religion Reporter of the Year for large newspapers and wire services. His winning entry included "The story behind Pope Francis' election," "Is 'Just War' doctrine another victim of the Syrian conflict?" and "The 'Breaking Bad' finale was great. But was it good?"

GetReligion has both praised Gibson's work and — sometimes — questioned why RNS publishes his "analysis" pieces without labels identifying them as such.

What I like about Gibson is that he seems to enjoy the give and take and not take it too personally.

Case in point: his willingness to do this interview.

Sorry, Fido, no new "dog-ma" -- Pope Francis did not say pets are going to heaven http://t.co/Ac7ERFbJUF @RNS

— David Gibson (@GibsonWrites) December 13, 2014

Q: Tell me about yourself: your background, education, past jobs, hobbies, etc.

A: I actually grew up as what I like to call a “Billy Graham evangelical” in the Bible Belt known as central New Jersey. My first visit to Madison Square Garden as a boy was to see a Billy Graham “crusade,” as we called them then. But I always wanted to check out the big wide world so I went to Furman University in South Carolina, in the actual Bible Belt.

I studied history but had no clue what I was going to do with my life. So like many clueless people I went to work on Capitol Hill for a while, then, still clueless, traveled around Europe and the Middle East for a year on a shoestring. After I came back, I still had no better ideas so I bought a one-way ticket to Rome figuring I’d stay for a few months. Italy isn’t such a bad place to figure things out.
 
I was lucky enough to fall into journalism, getting a job at an English-language daily — because they couldn’t find anyone else. The talent pool for ex-pats is very shallow. Then I lucked into a job at the English Program at Vatican Radio, even though I was still a Protestant. But again, they needed someone, and the Radio is run by the Jesuits, who now sort of run the whole church (thank you, Pope Francis). It was a great gig, and in the 1980s traveling with Pope (now Saint) John Paul II was a remarkable experience. So a few months turned into five years, as can happen in Rome.
 
When I returned in 1990 I got jobs at daily newspapers (remember those?) in New Jersey, starting with the local cop shop beat. That was the best journalism training I could ever have. I never went to J-school or took journalism courses, so one of my biases is to see journalism as a craft, a trade, and I was fortunate enough to be in great newsrooms with longtime reporters and editors who kicked my tail and taught me the ropes. That was an indispensable time, and it’s bad for the business that such newsrooms hardly exist any more.
 
In 2003, I had a chance to write a book and do a few documentaries on early Christianity for CNN so I went freelance — basically got a jump a few years before everyone else was pushed. I freelanced for several years, wrote another book, lots of magazine writing, and then got a job at AOL’s PoliticsDaily, until that shop got shuttered. For the past three years I have been a national reporter for Religion News Service.
 
I try to range as widely as possible in what I cover, but of course my default beat is the Catholic Church, and since the election of Pope Francis in 2013, that has been just about all I’ve done. Understandably.

It's past noon, so time to pull out a souvenir from my 1st and only time in Cuba, with that other Pope, c. 1998 @RNS pic.twitter.com/VRh4a79XAg

— David Gibson (@GibsonWrites) December 17, 2014

Q: Your Twitter profile describes you as a "Catholic convert." What can you tell me about your personal faith and how, if at all, it plays into your Godbeat duties?
 
A: Oh, yeah, and the other thing I “fell into” in Rome was the Catholic Church. I converted a few days before my return to the U.S., in late 1989, a few days after I had left the employ of Vatican Radio; I waited until then because I didn’t want a conflict of interest, or conscience. Each conversion story is different, and mine takes too long to unspool, but my faith is central to my life. How it plays out in my work is hard to say. I think the journalist’s search for truth, and the desire to communicate human experiences through storytelling, has much in common with the Christian vocation (and that’s true for other faiths, of course).
 
I also think that being a person of faith might give a reporter an added appreciation of the religious sensibility, and a special interest in the quest for meaning that is at the heart of the beat, and of the lives of so many people.
 
But it’s a double-edged sword, always: Your own faith tradition can create a subtle bias, or blind you to important aspects of another tradition. A bigger danger, perhaps, is that you assume you know what you need to know about your own tradition, and you don’t double check your facts or presumptions when writing about your own faith. The can lead to trouble.
 
I often find that I am extra attentive to the details and nuances of a story when writing about a faith different from my own because I want to be respectful and, of course, get it right, but I also know that I don’t know enough about other traditions. So I double and triple check.
 
The bottom line is that I am biased toward people who take faith and life seriously, whatever they believe or disbelieve. I have a hard time with slackers and apathy, and fortunately we don’t often encounter those types on the religion beat. We often find folks who may be too passionate, or too earnest. But most are serious, and humorous, both wonderful and complementary qualities.

This just in from the Humane Society, whose news feed apparently stopped 4 days ago @RNS pic.twitter.com/6DkwmtiZeE

— David Gibson (@GibsonWrites) December 15, 2014

Q: Where do you get your news about religion? Have blogs, social media, etc., changed how you read and then cover religion news?
 
A: It’s crazy. I still have several file cabinets stuffed with frayed folders full of yellowed clippings on all manner of topics. Haven’t looked at them in years. Twitter is my news feed, Facebook somewhat less so. Since the death of Google Reader (RIP), I have become a devotee of Feedly. The ocassional tip comes over the transom, or in conversation with sources. Alas, there is far too little of the latter anymore.

True RT @TheOnion: Pope Rummaging Through Vatican Basement For Plastic Nativity Scene Figures http://t.co/8QNbNf49Pt pic.twitter.com/hUNV804TOP

— David Gibson (@GibsonWrites) December 6, 2014

Q: How would you describe your work with RNS? News writing? Columns? Analysis?
 
A: I basically do straight news writing and analysis. I blog some, though not as much as I should, and blogging is a different voice. I’m on social media too, of course, and that’s a bit more unbuttoned. Journalists today have to deploy so many different voices, it’s energizing and enervating, and a bit perilous. But when writing for subscribers under the RNS brand I certainly try to play it straight.
 

Good story RT @Crux: As societal norms change, Catholic groups enforce the rules http://t.co/QBISOzCvG8 pic.twitter.com/6hRvx5dPXq

— David Gibson (@GibsonWrites) December 5, 2014

Q: What’s the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
 
A: Pope Francis. And did I say Pope Francis? Much as I try to broaden the range of stories I cover, Francis remains a huge deal, and he will be front and center in 2015 with his first U.S. trip and followed by another Vatican synod on the family.
 
That said, I think the larger story that Francis points to is the question of whether “religion,” in the traditional sense, can be perceived as able to reform itself and to become credible again. The alternatives seem to be an increasingly ugly fundamentalism or a dissipated spirituality. Can Francis help rescue religion?

Don't ever change, Bill Donohue http://t.co/e1pgc2ziPy @RNS pic.twitter.com/qGUFUVXwSi

— David Gibson (@GibsonWrites) December 3, 2014

Q: What's the best part of your job? The most challenging?
 
A: Best part of my job is writing about religion, which I love doing, in all its myriad manifestations. We get to cover anything and everything, really. The toughest part is the same one: there’s too much to cover. We can never get to it all. We’ve never been able to get to it all, but the Internet and social media show us every day, hour, minute and second how many good stories are out there to be covered. If only we could.

In part two (coming soon): I also asked Gibson for his feedback on GetReligion. He did not hold back. Hint: He thinks we might have some room for improvement. I want to give him a full opportunity to share his perspective while responding to just a few of his concerns. Stay tuned.

Thursday update: Here is part two.

5Q+1, part 2: @GibsonWrites of @RNS on what @GetReligion doesn't "get": http://t.co/YRwS2A2ARR #religion #journalism pic.twitter.com/WZWGDZhbf6

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) December 18, 2014


Categories: Main

Trying to figure out the 'Why?' in hellish reality of the school massacre in Pakistan

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

All school shootings force journalists to wrestle with images from hell and the information that poured out of Peshawar, Pakistan, was tragically familiar. Here is part of the barrage from the top of a long report in The Los Angeles Times:

When it was over, 132 children and nine staff members were dead ... at an army-run school in this northeastern city in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s troubled history. Many were shot in the temple at close range. One 9-year-old told his father that a classmate’s head was nearly blown off.

Seven assailants wearing explosives-laden suicide vests fought a daylong gun battle with Pakistani soldiers and police commandos, trapping hundreds of students and teachers in the Army Public School compound where the attackers planted bombs to deter the security forces.

The story is packed with the kinds of details news consumers expect in live, dateline reports from major news scenes. If you want the "who," "what," "when," "where" and "how" of this story, you are going to find it in this Los Angeles Times report and in many similar reports in the mainstream media.

But the "why" is another matter. Many journalists seem to assume that readers already know the "why" part of the equation and leave this crucial information unstated.

The key word in the earlier passage, of course, is "public." Why is this particular group of Islamists doing what it is doing? This particular report states the "why" in the following manner.

The Pakistani Taliban, a militant group seeking to overthrow the elected civilian government, claimed responsibility, saying it was retaliation for an army offensive against its hide-outs in the nation’s restive northern tribal areas. ...The Pakistani Taliban group opposes formal education, particularly of girls, and has attacked hundreds of schools in recent years and — most notably — attempted to assassinate student activist Malala Yousafzai in October 2012 while she was riding on a bus. Malala, now 17, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize last week.

What is the opposite of a "public" school? What is the opposite of a "civilian" government? What is the meaning of the word "formal" in the statement that this Taliban force "opposes formal education" in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation?

Readers who follow global news, of course, know that Pakistan lives under a form of Sharia law and, in particular, its infamous blasphemy laws -- with attempts to enforce the death penalty -- have received quite a bit of coverage, especially when used against members of the nation's tiny Christian minority.

So the "why" in this case is focused on a battle within the complex layers of Muslim culture inside Pakistan, with truly radicalized Muslims striking out against other members of their faith who do not share  their commitment to -- what? This is the missing "why" in the story. Why strike "public" schools? What is the alternative to a "civilian" government.

In this case, the brazen and brutal attack brought condemnation from an unusual source that was featured in many media reports. But read the following carefully:

Even the Afghan Taliban, a separate group that is ideologically allied with the Pakistani branch, condemned the attack. “The intentional killing of innocent people, children and women are against the basics of Islam and this criteria has to be considered by every Islamic party and government,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement reported by Reuters news service.

What is the goal in Pakistan? It is, of course, the creation of a truly -- in the eyes of those committed to this radical Islamist vision -- "Islamic government."

Thus, the videos and photographs from Peshawar show Muslim men and women, most in traditional dress, weeping over the bodies of their massacred children. Why are they dead? They were not Islamist enough.

Do readers understand this divide, which is also found in so many other crucial stories around the world, such as the horrors in northern Nigeria and Syria and elsewhere?

I have my doubts and, thus, I think it is crucial for journalists to cover the "why" element hiding in their coverage of these events. As your GetReligionistas have stressed in posts over the past decade, there is no one Islam and there are even life-and-death debates among the Islamist armies.

Categories: Main

Washington Post offers nuanced look at celibacy among gay Christians

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Celibate gay Christians -- those who feel the pull of same-sex attraction, yet abstain in order to stay faithful to their faith -- get a sensitive, nuanced look in the Washington Post. Though with a couple of flaws.

This gentle 1,600-word feature examines quiet emergence of gays like Eve Tushnet in Catholic and evangelical circles. Ace religion writer Michelle Boorstein explores their feelings toward churches, right or wrong. And the feelings of church folk toward them.

Here's an excellent "nut graph," actually two paragraphs:

Today, Tushnet is a leader in a small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate. She is busy speaking at conservative Christian conferences with other celibate Catholics and Protestants and is the most well-known of 20 bloggers who post on spiritualfriendship.org, a site for celibate gay and lesbian Christians that draws thousands of visitors each month.Celibacy “allows you to give yourself more freely to God,” said Tushnet (rhymes with RUSH-net), a 36-year-old writer and resident of Petworth in the District. The focus of celibacy, she says, should be not on the absence of sex but on deepening friendships and other relationships, a lesson valuable even for people in heterosexual marriages.

The Post article is timely enough. World magazine, a Christian news journal, on Dec. 11 posted an in-depth story on issues surrounding Julie Rodgers, a gay celibate counselor for students at Wheaton College.

The World article -- while in an advocacy publication -- is thoughtful, many-sided and full of background on shifting views among evangelical leaders toward homosexuality. But it sacrifices closeness and emotional depth for defense of doctrine, as noted by the GetReligion reader who gave us the story idea. And as a conservative evangelical magazine, it ends the article on a pro-heterosexual note.

The Washington Post article does more than outline the issues. It lets Tushnet suggest, if not a cure for homosexual feelings, at least some remedies:

She urges people not to focus so much on the sex they can’t have and instead find other places to pursue intimacy, such as deeper friendships that could be seen as spouselike, co-living arrangements, public service and the arts as ways to express intimacy.“I use the image of a kaleidoscope — the jewels inside are desires. If you turn it one way, it’s lesbianism. If you rearrange them, it can be community service or devotion to Mary,” she said during a recent interview.

We also get a glimpse at several other celibate gay Christians: Josh Gonnerman, a Catholic University student; Charleigh Linde, a young adult leader at a megachurch; and a lesbian couple in Washington, D.C. She even quotes Julie Rodgers, the Wheaton staffer in the World article.

The Post story includes the usual elements of gay religion stories, like social rejection and the obligatory diss of "reparative therapy." But the story goes beyond that, to discuss the new openness in which religious groups are engaging questions surrounding same-sex attraction.

There's also a nod toward the loyal opposition: Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a go-to guy for religiously conservative quotes.  He approves the willingness to discuss gays in evangelical churches, but still believes God can change their orientation.

"He said he is not comfortable with the way in which some celibate gay Christians proudly label themselves as gay or queer," the story says. He's also the only "straight" conservative Christian quoted here.

The article also points out a paradox: Although churches are growing more gay friendly, many gays and lesbians look down on the celibate gays. “There’s a perception that [LGBT] people who choose celibacy are not living authentic lives," Catholic leader Arthur Fitzmaurice tells the Post.

There is a lot to like in this article, but it misses at least one angle: talking with anyone in Courage, a movement for gay Catholics. The story does quote Fitzmaurice, of the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry. But Courage would seem to have much of what the celibate gays want: guidance in strengthening celibacy as part of a lifestyle of devotion and spirituality. Apparently, Tushnet, Gonnerman etal. didn't bring up that group.

And you may have noted the religious "ghost": Except for the above-mentioned devotion to Mary, there's not a lot of spirituality in the quotes from these celibate Christians. Tushnet does say that "you can see love, solidarity and beauty in gay communities and still believe there is even more love and beauty in Christianity."  But what that beauty is like, the story doesn't spell out. Maybe someone from Courage could added that part of the kaleidoscope.

The Post piece also lobs a couple of cheap shots that seem out of place with its tone of reconciliation. Julie Rodgers says evangelicals are in a "real panic" on how to deal with gays. Josh Gonnerman says church leaders in the mid-2000s weren't talking about celibacy because they had "sort of thrown their lot in with the Republican Party."

The shots may have been included to illustrate the continuing ambivalence of gays toward organized religions. Religious leaders, after all, are still figuring out the terms of their own relationship with them.

“We really wish people could look past the black and white thinking,” one lesbian tells the Post.  This article helps to further that ideal.

 

Categories: Main

Fa la la la la, la la la la -- 'Tis the season (as always) for 'news' reports that debunk the Gospels

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

“Hail the new, ye lads and lasses. Fa la la la la, la la la la,” says that old carol. The journalism angle in that?

During the Christmas and Easter seasons, journalists have come to expect -- and perhaps to hail --  new, sensationalized and commercialized bids to debunk the New Testament Gospels, the earliest and best source we have about Jesus’ life. The Religion Guy himself has played that game, hopefully with some balance and accuracy.

The most lucrative example by far was “The Da Vinci Code,” an odd novel issued for Holy Week of 2003. In 2014 that  fictional tale about Jesus marrying his disciple Mary Magdalene has been supplanted by alleged non-fiction. Before Easter, a Harvard University press release announced: “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus Fragment to be Ancient.”  To the contrary, the testing showed this fragment wasn’t “ancient” but dates from the 7th or 8th Century A.D., and as for the “wife” business, see below.

Then, timed for Christmas the media have publicized a book entitled “The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene.” The  authors, filmmaker  Simcha Jacobovici and religion professor Barrie Wilson, are unlikely to win many converts beyond the newsrooms. Reason: They require  a massive leap of faith in supposed coded messages from a manuscript six centuries after Jesus’ time -- that never mentions Jesus!

Among the unimpressed academic bloggers is University of Iowa archaeologist Robert Cargill (who’s an agnostic). He thinks this “silly” book continues Jacobovici’s reputation for “speculation wrapped in hearsay couched in conspiracy masquerading as science ensconced in sensationalism slathered with misinformation,” all to boost book sales and a related pre-Christmas TV show.

The Harvard theory has more scholarly cachet but huge holes that The Guy analyzed previously. Note that chief proponent Karen L. King never said Jesus really married Mary or someone else, just that the problematic text  indicates some unknown group centuries later thought he did.

But is that so? The Atlantic magazine’s Yuletide edition thoroughly debunks the debunkers, in “The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife.”  (LINK TO http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-curious-case-of-jesuss-wife/382227)    With  this sort of story, magazine journalism has great advantages over daily newspapering thanks to bigger word counts and longer-term perspective. Television? Fuhgeddaboudit.

 Joel Baden of Yale University and Candida Moss of the University of Notre Dame wrote The Atlantic article.  The Religion Guy will avoid getting into all the technical problems with this text, but  Baden and Moss say here’s the bottom line: “Even though King herself has refused to declare the case closed, for all practical purposes, judgment has been passed on the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’; it’s a fake.”

Turning to media criticism, Baden and Moss complain that the Smithsonian Channel’s show about this text last Easter  “mentioned none of the objections” to authenticity. The magazine’s  re-examination amounts to a rebuke of print media sensationalism, TV superficiality, the Harvard Divinity School, scholarly faddism in general, and a gullible public’s itch for novelty.

The Religion Guy has a few quibbles with The Atlantic, however.  

This whole business depends on one Coptic word in a broken text line that proponents translate as Jesus’ mention of his “wife,” while  we’re never told an equally feasible translation is “woman,” something quite different.  The piece says 1 Timothy “is in fact a second-century work” but the best scholarship is mixed on that. And it states that the New Testament “was assembled long after Jesus’ death.”

True, it took a long time for the Testament as we know it to be “assembled.” But liberal and conservative experts agree the 1st Century Gospels were not written “long after” Jesus’ time but a mere 3 to 6 decades later when some of his contemporaries would still have been living.

Categories: Main

After the horrors in Sydney: How do journalists report the motives of a truly radical, fringe Muslim believer?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The horrors that surround hostage dramas are confusing enough on their own. Throw in complex questions about religious faith and terrorism and journalists and this kind of story pushes journalists -- in real time, under unbelievable amounts of pressure -- to their intellectual and personal limits.

Looking back on the Sydney crisis (following the early post by Bobby Ross., Jr.) I am struck by one interesting question that journalists faced and, for the most part, ducked: What was the motive? Why did gunman Man Haron Monis -- the most frequently used of his many names -- do what he did? Lacking the ability to read his mind, what concrete clues were offered during this act of symbolic violence?

A news report from The Daily Beast offered this interesting information, which I did not see repeated in most other mainstream reports:

Monis walked into the café on Monday and took everyone inside hostage. He used some of the captives as human shields and forced others to hold a black flag with white Arabic writing against the window. ...Monis had been convicted on charges related to offensive letters he sent to the families of Australian soldiers who died serving in Afghanistan. He was out on bail as an alleged accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, as well as a string of 50 indecent and sexual-assault charges in connection to his time as a self-proclaimed spiritual leader.Monis used a YouTube account to post a series of videos showing hostages reciting his demands, which included the delivery of the black flag of ISIS. He asked “to please broadcast on all media that this is an attack on Australia by the Islamic State,” and to speak to Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (YouTube has since removed the videos from the account.)

Yet at the end of this same report, readers were told:

The flag was the most striking symbol of the drama. A black banner with white Arabic lettering that appears to be the Shahada, a central tenet of Islam that states: “There is no god but the God, Mohammed is the messenger of God.” The banner might perhaps be the flag of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), according to a tweet from The Sydney Morning Herald. The group is not known for espousing violence in the manner of al Qaeda or ISIS, but it does support the establishment of a caliphate uniting Muslims around the world.Monis’s motive is still unknown.

So here is the question that haunted me: What is the difference between a terrorist's "motive" and his "demands"?

Numerous reports showed, beyond any doubt as far as I am concerned, that Monis appears to have been a "lone wolf" operator of some kind. It is also clear that his actions could have been linked, on way or another, to several events in his troubled life -- including the fact that he might be on his way to prison.

But why not quote the actual content of his demands? He may have been a lone wolf, but why not quote his own words linking the attack to support for the Islamic state? At the very least, his motives appear to have been linked to ISIS and its calls for violence.

Yet at the Washington Post, editors called Monis a "self-styled Muslim cleric" and, as many did, stated that his "motives for the hostage-taking at the Lindt Chocolate Cafe remain unclear." This report added:

The long showdown captured the world’s attention and raised questions about whether it was a “lone wolf” attack inspired by calls from militant groups such as the Islamic State. ...The Islamic State and other extremist groups have threatened Australia with violence for its participation in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria. Australia, in response, has imposed new security measures in recent months and made several arrests of suspects accused of plotting acts of violence.

Unless I missed it in later updates, the Post did not, however, quote the actual public demands made by the gunman, using his hostages as his public voice during the drama that unfolded live before the world's cameras.

Once again, don't demands point toward motive?

In a sidebar to its main report, The New York Times offered quite a bit of depth about this man's life and beliefs. However, once again, the public demands were missing.

The police have said that Mr. Monis presented himself as a spiritual healer and conducted business for a time on Station Street in Wentworthville, a western suburb of Sydney.A website apparently associated with Mr. Monis included condemnation of the United States and Australia for their military actions against Islamic militants in Iraq and Afghanistan. News reports said the site also contained a posting saying Mr. Monis had recently converted from Shia to Sunni Islam, and SITE, an organization that monitors Islamic extremist groups, said he posted a pledge of allegiance to the “Caliph of the Muslims.” The posting appeared to refer to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State militant group, SITE said, though the posting did not mention them by name.Mr. Monis apparently emigrated to Australia from Iran around 1996, and was previously known as Manteghi Boroujerdi or Mohammad Hassan Manteghi. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said he was granted political asylum. In a broadcast interview in 2001, he claimed to have worked for the Iranian intelligence ministry and to have fled the country in fear for his life, leaving behind a wife and family.

So once again, here is my question: Why not quote the actual words of the gunman's public demands in which he links his actions to the Islamic State? And if this is what he demanded, doesn't this point to motive? Or am I missing something, some other definition of the word "motive"?

Categories: Main

Listen now: How a fake story about Pope Francis landed the New York Times in the doghouse

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

At first glance, the New York Times story sounded like a pet lovers' dream. Upon closer examination, however, it wasn't even fit for lining a birdcage. 

In the latest GetReligion podcast, I talk about why, in my post here last Friday, I had a bone to pick with the Times story that claimed Pope Francis suggested pets go to heaven. Among other errors, the article included a made-up quote that the reporter attributed to John Paul II.

Shortly after I gave the interview and published the post, David Gibson did some more digging and found that the error I had noted was just the tip of the iceberg.

The headline of Gibson's story says it all: "Sorry, Fido. Pope Francis did NOT say our pets are going to heaven." I'm surprised, though, that RNS didn't go with the headline he used when he tweeted the story:

Sorry, Fido, no new "dog-ma" -- Pope Francis did not say pets are going to heaven http://t.co/Ac7ERFbJUF @RNS

— David Gibson (@GibsonWrites) December 13, 2014

As to whether the public shaming that the Times received for its shoddy reporting will teach the newspaper to work harder to "get" religion, I wish I could be optimistic, but you know what they say about old dogs, new tricks, etc.

 

Image via Shutterstock

Categories: Main

Your non-weekend think piece: Australian scribe Scott Stephens yearns for serious religion news

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Care to read some provocative thoughts on the state of religion-news coverage, care of pastor and theology teacher Scott Stephens, who is now the Religion and Ethics editor at ABC Online, way down under? I hope so.

You see, Stephens once stuck his finger in the eye of the mainstream press with a blunt working hypothesis that he says has guided his journalistic work ever since. It went like this, and he has unfolded it a bit:

The more widely reported the remarks of a significant religious leader are, the less consequent they are likely to be.I've since come to the conclusion that the likelihood of this hypothesis being true increases exponentially if the religious leader in question happens to be the pope.

The perfect example of this (no, no, no, this was before the dogs go to heaven row), he argues, was the remarks by Pope Francis on the Big Bang, science, evolution and faith -- all of which were completely compatible with the statements of earlier popes. The key is that most journalists seem to have decided that the pope's words are "newsworthy" to the degree that they can be framed in such a way as to confirm the "putatively progressive agenda they've assigned to him." Wash, rinse, repeat.

Now, Stephens has flipped his theory inside out. As in:

... Sstatements that truly are significant rarely receive the public attention they deserve. Consider the pope's recent address to the European Parliament. The media's coverage, such as it was, fixated on his admittedly impressionistic, rather cliche quip that Europe today seems "somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion." Meanwhile, his more urgent appeal for European society to reforge the bond between human dignity and transcendence was passed over as a perfunctory nod to certain "hot button" issues.

While the pope is everywhere at the moment, in terms of news coverage, Stephens stressed that it's crucial to see the trends here as being larger than warped coverage of one media superstar.

This leads us to one long passage -- under the headline "Doomed to banality?" -- in this think piece that I want to share, while urging GetReligion readers to, yes, read it all.

... It would be a mistake to think that this is somehow all about Pope Francis, that he has received unfair treatment at the hands of what his predecessor less than affectionately termed "the tribunal of the newspapers." In fact, strictly in terms of publicity, this pope has benefitted tremendously from the media's inattentiveness and its predictable, almost Pavlovian, response to any seeming departure from Church teaching. (I am not suggesting that this is a good thing, mind you. At best, the pope has - intentionally or not - entered into a kind of Faustian pact with the media. To what extent this will have a corrosive effect on the public witness of the Catholic Church remains to be seen.)There is more at stake here than the popularity of the pope, or the fortunes of any particular church or religious community. But the specific examples I have selected from Francis's public remarks are not merely illustrative, either. They go to the heart of what I take to be the most pertinent issue: Is the media able to provide a forum in which serious ideas are treated seriously and made available to all -- even those ideas that run counter to its ideological creed? Or, as Hilaire Belloc claimed as far back as 1929, can the media do little more than confirm "the Modern Mind" in its imbecility, plunging liberal individualism "lower than it would otherwise have fallen" by insulating it against every serious suggestion that the way things are is not the way things are meant to be?I think there is little doubt that the media is too intellectually impaired, or simply too feckless, to perform the task of fostering sustained self-critical moral deliberation. This is due, in no small measure, to the fact that after Watergate and with the rise of digital social networks, the media was emboldened to conflate a self-righteous brand of "gotcha" journalism with brazen whoring after audience share. And then there is way that the astringent scepticism of the likes of H.L. Mencken or the disciplined curiosity of Ben Bradlee have been replaced by a cheap and all pervasive cynicism, which attempts to legitimate its nihilistic insouciance by crowning disbelief as the chiefest of journalistic virtues. Not even the emergence of so-called "ideas journalism" and the ever proliferating "ideas festivals" can disguise journalism's steady descent into what David Bentley Hart has rather ungraciously, but not wholly inaccurately, described as "the art of translating abysmal ignorance into execrable prose."

Too nasty? Right on? Please leave some constructive comments.

Categories: Main

The real 'Exodus': media coverage that goes beyond the dollar signs

Monday, December 15, 2014

Ridley Scott mustered $140 million for Exodus, his epic on the biblical Passover story, only to see it reap a mediocre $24.5 million last weekend. But the real-life plagues struck media reports: plagues of blindness and deafness to the religious and spiritual causes for the tepid opening receipts.

But we'll start with the two bright spots I saw.

To my surprise, the best report appears in Variety, not your typically spiritual journal. Its 500-word story reads like an indepth, but refreshingly without blatant opinion or obvious attempts to steer our viewpoint. Its three expert sources prove the points of the article.

Noting that this was supposed to be "the year that Hollywood found religion," writer Brent Lang traces the uneven record for faith-based films in 2014. Big-budget spectacles, like Exodus and Noah, have stumbled, while smaller films like God's Not Dead and Heaven is for Real have triumphed. And Lang asks his sources why:

With 77% of Americans identifying as Christians, Hollywood sees a big audience for these kind of films.“The Bible is a hot commodity,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “The secret is to start small, keep the budget manageable and get into grassroots marketing.”

Nor is this a new trend. Variety notes that The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's 2004 film, grossed $612 million on a $30 million budget. And its opening weekend reaped $83.8 million.

Again, an expert source explains:

Christian-themed films without the plagues and floods also largely avoided the questions of biblical accuracy that bedeviled the Old Testament adaptations.“Hollywood needs to do what they do for any market segment,” said Chris Stone, founder of the market research firm Faith Driven Consumer. “Just as they would for a Hispanic or African-American or LGBT market, they need to have an intimate understanding of our group and need to engage us where we are and tell our story in a way that resonates with us.”

For runner-up in postmortems, I nominate the Los Angeles Times, which made Exodus the top 38 percent in a weekend roundup. The rest of the article is about other seasonal films, like Mockingjay and Penguins of Madagascar.

The Times starts with a positive spin, reporting that the $24.5 million opening met expectations of the studio, 20th Century Fox.  Like a few other media, it also reports on the diversity of the Exodus audience, with sizable blocs of Latinos, African Americans and people under 25.

But the article adds that with its $140 million production budget, Exodus lags behind the much smaller Son of God, which opened in February at $25.6 million -- on a $22 million budget. The Times reports also that Exodus got a B-minus from an audience polling firm.

For the "whys," the Times asks Stone but doesn't get as strong an answer as did Variety:

“Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus’ represents a strong departure from the Bible and will likely fail to resonate with millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, said in a statement. “Ultimately, the movie misses the central point of the story.”

Still, both of those stories run several lengths ahead of what I read in most secular media. Some, like IGN, note simply that Exodus opened weaker than Noah and Son of God.

Oddly, some articles, like the International Business Times, identify the director as "Ridley Scott of Blade Runner fame." A closer comparison would be Kingdom of Heaven, Scott's 2005 epic about cynical Christian crusaders and righteous Muslim warriors.

Many media, like the otherwise insightful Wall Street Journal, make a big deal of Exodus earning more last weekend than Mockingjay, the third film in the Hunger Games trilogy. This despite the fact that Mockingjay has grossed an estimated $277.4 million over four weeks.

CBS News does take the time to quote a "media analyst," Paul Dergarabedian: "I think Hollywood is learning that putting epic, biblical stories on the big screen comes at a pretty heavy price. It's not easy to do this." CBS doesn't have him explain that cost, though. Just in dollars? Audience expectations? Fidelity to the original story? Going outside the comfort zone of secular films? Other?

The Inquisitr concentrates on the racial/ethnic flap kicked up by Scott and his film:

The talent and artistic choices of director Ridley Scott are where Exodus: Gods and Kings has taken the bulk of it’s criticism. While the characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings are all either Egyptian or Hebrew, the bulk of the cast is comprised of Caucasian actors. There are some actors of color, most notably Ben Kingsley, almost all of the female cast, and many of the extras, but none of them have a substantial part to play or get much screen time.

The article has little on the religious reaction to an inherently religious film. Although the unbylined story suggests there were more problems than "racially insensitive casting," little else is discussed at length here.

Maybe the tone-deaf majority of the media could use a little Variety in their lives.

Categories: Main

Hezbollah, Israel, media silence and the PCUSA

Monday, December 15, 2014

Nowhere has it surfaced in mainstream American press that an Israeli civil rights organization filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS, accusing the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) of violating its tax-exempt status through overt political lobbying, and by violating US anti-terror laws through links with Hezbollah.

Reports have been printed in the religious press (Jewish and Christian), but save for English-language stories in Israeli press, Arutz Sheva 7 and the Jerusalem Post, this story has not captured the interests of editors.

Perhaps the extensive coverage of the Catholic Church and conservative Protestant lobbying against the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) or the Houston sermon scandal has satiated the editors' appetites for First Amendment church/state stories. But it remains odd nonetheless that no one else is discussing a politics-and-religion story that has arisen this time from the “left."

What has been written is pretty good, however. The Jerusalem Post story is a well-crafted piece that shows how one writes a story when one side will not play ball, the reporter has limited information, and is working within space and deadline constraints.

(As an aside, I wrote for the Jerusalem Post for a number of years as one of their London correspondents, but am not now affiliated with the newspaper and do not know the author of the article in question.)

The kernel of the various stories comes from the same, not very well written, press release

Where the Jerusalem Post stands out is in the value it added to the press release. It begins its story in a matter-of-fact tone.

Shurat Hadin (the Israel Law Center) has filed a legal complaint against the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), alleging violations of the US tax code for unlawful political lobbying and contact with Hezbollah, a US-designated terrorist organization.

The second sentence fills out the who/what/where and when questions before taking a quote from the press release that explains why.

The Tel Aviv-based organization publicized the submission of its 38-page complaint with the US Internal Revenue Service on Tuesday.

“It is high time the IRS took a long look at the Presbyterian Church and investigated its meeting with the designated- terrorist organization Hezbollah, its lobbying activities, and its anti-Israel divestment policies,” said Shurat Hadin spokesman attorney Robert Tolchin.

“The PCUSA is obsessed with attacking the Jewish state and has moved far from the activities which it presented to the IRS to secure its tax-free status in the United States.”

Continue reading "Hezbollah and PCUSA" by George Conger

Categories: Main

Islamic extremism role in Australia? Facts sketchy in Sydney hostage crisis

Monday, December 15, 2014

WATCH: The moment two women escaped the #sydneysiege. https://t.co/WeFAZGu5Fm

— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) December 15, 2014

As I type this, the possible role of Islamic extremism in the Sydney hostage crisis remains unclear.

Latest in the #Sydneysiege: Police mum on hostages and gunman's motivation: http://t.co/xGCpMV1FE0 (Rob Griffith, AP) pic.twitter.com/kZlLI7lI5V

— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) December 15, 2014

VIDEO: Australian police say they are talking to gunman holding hostages inside cafe in Sydney: http://t.co/lHNXgtPj7B

— The Associated Press (@AP) December 15, 2014

The latest from The Associated Press:

SYDNEY (AP) -- Five people escaped from a Sydney cafe where a gunman took an unknown number of hostages during Monday morning rush hour. Two people inside the cafe earlier held up a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith that has often been used by extremists, raising fears that a terrorist incident was playing out in the heart of Australia's biggest city.The first three people ran out of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in downtown Sydney six hours into the hostage crisis, and two women sprinted from a fire exit into the arms of waiting police shortly afterward. Both women were wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo, indicating they were cafe employees.As the siege entered its 12th hour Monday night, basic questions remained unanswered. Police refused to say how many hostages were inside the cafe, what they believed the gunman's motives might be, whether he had made any demands or whether the hostages who fled the cafe escaped or were released."I would like to give you as much as I can but right now that is as much as I can," New South Wales state police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said. "First and foremost, we have to make sure we do nothing that could in any way jeopardize those still in the building."

The AP report notes:

Television video shot through the cafe's windows showed several people with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the glass, and two people holding up a black flag with the Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it.The Shahada translates as "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger." It is considered the first of Islam's five pillars of faith, and is similar to the Lord's Prayer in Christianity. It is pervasive throughout Islamic culture, including the green flag of Saudi Arabia. Jihadis have used the Shahada in their own black flag.

A gunman holding hostages in a Sydney cafe is said to be demanding an #ISIS flag http://t.co/39zCkBTOvF #sydneysiege pic.twitter.com/Z8QH4xssOc

— CNN (@CNN) December 15, 2014

Meanwhile, CNN reports:

Sydney (CNN) -- A gunman holding hostages in a Sydney cafe is said to be demanding an ISIS flag and a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.The reported demands emerged after five hostages managed to flee the building, leaving an unconfirmed number of people still trapped inside during a standoff that has lasted more than 12 hours so far.Hours into the siege, the gunman's requests were made through hostages who contacted several media organizations, CNN affiliate Sky News Australia reported.Police said they were aware of the reports but declined to confirm what demands had been made.Amid the crisis, hundreds of police officers, some of them armed with sniper rifles, shut down a usually bustling area in Australia's most populous city.

More from CNN:

Footage showed (hostages) holding up a black flag with Arabic writing on it that reads: "There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God." That flag was different from the one used by the terrorist group ISIS.

CNN also quotes Muslim leaders:

Muslim leaders in Australia condemned the hostage taking, calling it "a criminal act.""Such actions are denounced in part and in whole in Islam," the Grand Mufti of Australia and the Australian National Imams Council said in a statement on Facebook.

#IllRideWithYou: Australians show solidarity with Muslims amid the Sydney siege http://t.co/5hFgbIp2C3 pic.twitter.com/czDCx7OdM4

— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) December 15, 2014

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Australians came together in a social expression of solidarity with Australian Muslims, using the #IllRideWithYou hashtag to offer to accompany people wearing Muslim dress who were concerned about a backlash amid the Sydney cafe siege.Armed police shut down central Sydney Monday after a suspected gunman took several people hostage in a cafe and placed an Islamic flag in the window.The social gesture started with this tweet, with this person offering to support and walk with a woman wearing a hijab.

This, this is what good people do. #sydneyseige #MartinPlace pic.twitter.com/zxbHLWzxEp

— Michael James (@MichaelJames_TV) December 15, 2014

Even as facts on the hostage situation remain sketchy, AP provides this insight:

The Islamic State group, which now holds a third of Syria and Iraq, has threatened Australia in the past. In September, Islamic State group spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued an audio message urging so-called "lone wolf" attacks abroad, specifically mentioning Australia. Al-Adnani told Muslims to kill all "disbelievers," whether they be civilians or soldiers.One terrorism expert said the situation appeared to be that of a "lone wolf" making his own demands, rather than an attack orchestrated by a foreign jihadist group."There haven't been statements from overseas linking this to extremist groups outside the country - that is quite positive," said Charles Knight, lecturer in the Department of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism at Australia's Macquarie University. "The individual or individuals involved didn't kill early, which is part of the pattern of some recent international attacks. ... It seems to be shifting more into the model of a traditional hostage situation, rather than the sort of brutal attacks we've seen overseas."

#SydneySiege is likely being carried out by a 'lone wolf' with minimal links to organized terror groups, expert says http://t.co/mFayhCVfpy

— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) December 15, 2014

Stay tuned.

Categories: Main

Sports Illustrated wrestles with tough, tender NFL star Steve Smith, while missing faith clues

Sunday, December 14, 2014

If you follow the National Football League at all, then you know that wide receiver Steve Smith -- formerly of the Carolina Panthers, now with the Baltimore Ravens -- has a reputation. He's small, but really tough. Some people say he's arrogant. He has been known to fly into a competitive rage and punch people, even his own teammates.

This is not the NFL player you expect to be walking around with a study Bible.

So I was fascinated, the other day, when Sports Illustrated ran one of its patented player profiles that hint at faith themes and realities -- but the team then drops the ball on specifics. For example, read the following overture:

Smith leaves football at the team facility. “I actually love to read,” he says, citing business texts such as The Richest Man in Babylon and motivational works like A Tale of Three Kings and The Last Lecture among his favorite books. He collects passport stamps, traveling through China, Italy, Australia and all over Africa; he’s been to Jerusalem, Barcelona, London and Paris. He says things like “Tanzania is known for tanzanite.” At one point Smith pauses because he knows this all sounds strange coming from, well, Steve Smith. “There’s a perception of me that I’m a hothead and an idiot,” he says. “That because I’m aggressive on the football field, I’m a thug. But look, just because you see me [doing one thing] in my workplace doesn’t mean I walk around stiff-arming people and spinning cantaloupe in the grocery store.”That, of course, is what the 35-year-old Smith is known for, a career spent in perpetual combat: three documented fistfights with teammates, scores of altercations with opponents, countless spins of the football in defiant celebration after every catch, even in practice.

So the story lists many of Smith's tips for success, such as "play angry." That's the thug hothead, right?

But then readers hit the following short passage:

The fifth trick: collect quotes. Smith stores dozens of them in a folder on his smartphone, from the Bible and football coaches and philosophers, and he will glance at them in moments that require inspiration, affirmation, guidance. The origin of his favorite quote is unknown: “Never be ashamed of a scar. It simply means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.”

The Bible?

And then there is this anecdote about Smith the man and his friends in unusual places:

In the 2010 off-season Smith traveled to Australia, and on the flight he was seated next to the agent for one of his own celebrity superfans: John Isner. A 6’ 10” professional tennis player, and now the highest-ranked American male, Isner (who grew up in Greensboro, N.C.) had been a die-hard Panthers supporter since the team’s inception, in 1995. The agent played matchmaker, and Smith watched the Australian Open that year from Isner’s box. Isner later attended Smith’s practices, and they swapped tennis rackets for game-worn cleats. Isner says that his signed number 89 Panthers jersey is among the first things he would grab if his house ever caught on fire.For all that separated Smith and Isner -- 13 inches in height and about 2,500 miles, from Greensboro to Smith’s hometown of Los Angeles -- the two men weren’t so different. They shared faith and family and Carolina football.

Faith and family? That angry guy spiking a defensive back into the turf?

But what about his personal life?

The calming influence, the driver behind Smith’s evolution, is Angie. The 11th trick: marry well. The couple met at Utah, married soon after and had four children. “The way my wife makes me feel is that she should be the one on the field, and I should be in the stands,” Smith says. Before his high school reunion, Smith got excited about rubbing his success in the faces of his doubters. Angie is the one who asked, Are you going with the right motives? “I can embarrass her sometimes,” he confesses when asked about the time he broke a teammate’s nose. “There have been some things in my career, in my life, where I’ve let her down.”

Now that's what you were expecting, right? You were expecting Smith to talk about his life as a path of redemption? You were expecting him to be committed to faith-based work with street people, right?

Now, these are the hints. Did anyone involved in reporting this profile stop and connect the dots? Did anyone say, "What?!?" Where are the facts? Where are the details that flesh out the hints?

Or is religious faith, again, something that just isn't REAL ENOUGH to take seriously?

Categories: Main

Take the Pope Francis and the cardinals journalism test: Which story is news? Which is analysis?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

It is getting harder and harder to explain to many GetReligion readers why we see a bright red line between basic hard-news journalism and advocacy/analysis journalism.

In the latter, select journalists are allowed to make obvious leaps of logic, to use "editorial" language that passes judgment, to lean in one editorial direction (as opposed to being fair to voices on both sides) and to use fewer attributions telling readers about the sources that shaped the reporting. In other words, analysis writing offers a blend of information and opinion. Reporters who are given the liberty to do this tend to be experienced, trusted specialty reporters.

In the past, editors tended to be rather careful and let readers know what they were reading -- flying an analysis flag or logo right out in the open so that readers were not confused. (For example, I am a columnist with the Universal syndicate. By definition I do analysis writing every week.)

The problem is that the line between hard news and advocacy journalism is increasingly vanishing and editors have stopped using clear labels. Your GetReligionistas are constantly sent URLs for stories that are clearly works of advocacy journalism, in which no attempts have been made to quote articulate voices on both sides of hot-button issues, yet they are not clearly labeled as analysis. We are left asking, "What is this?"

Want to see what I mean? Well, in the near future, Pope Francis will name some new cardinals. Right now, editors want journalists to produce stories -- modeled on political campaign coverage, of course -- ranking the American candidates.

So here are crucial passages from brilliant writers at two major religion-news outlets. Your task is to figure out which is a hard-news story and which one was labeled "analysis."

Ready? Example No. 1 is:

So if he were to choose an American -- or two -- who might it be? Here are four options, listed in order of likelihood:1. Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los AngelesLos Angeles is far and away the largest diocese in the U.S. church, with more than 4 million baptized members. Gomez, who turns 63 this month, is Mexican-born and, like his flock, represents the Latino future of the church. Although he hews to doctrinal orthodoxy, Gomez is increasingly outspoken on social justice issues such as immigration — a priority for Francis.2. Archbishop Blase Cupich of ChicagoCupich, 65, was only appointed to Chicago in September, but he was Francis’ first major U.S. nomination and one the pope took a personal role in. Cupich is seen as much more in line with Francis’ agenda than the retired archbishop, Cardinal Francis George. George is nearly 78 so has two more years of conclave eligibility, but he is also seriously ill with cancer.3. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of AtlantaGregory, 67, was considered a contender for the Chicago spot, but a red hat would be a nice consolation prize. It would also make some sense: Atlanta is a fast-growing diocese, unlike shrinking dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest, and although it has never had a cardinal as archbishop it may be time. Also, Gregory is one of a handful of African-American bishops and making him a cardinal would be like, well, electing a black president.4. Archbishop Charles Chaput of PhiladelphiaChaput, 70, is widely seen as a leader of the culture warrior wing of the U.S. hierarchy, and not particularly in sync with Francis. But Chaput is hosting the church’s World Day of Families next September, which will serve as the main venue for Francis’ first U.S. visit. The retired archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali, turns 80 in April. On the downside, Philadelphia -- like many other dioceses in the declining “Rust Belt” of Catholicism -- may no longer be considered an automatic red hat as it once was.

Now, here is example No. 2:

In terms of candidates from the United States, there are three prelates from archdioceses traditionally led by a cardinal who are currently in line. In order of how long they’ve been waiting, they are: Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who took over in March 2011; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who was appointed three months later in July 2011; and Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, tapped by Francis in September 2014 and installed in November. ...Francis could skip the United States altogether, citing the tradition that a new cardinal isn’t appointed for an archdiocese while its retired cardinal remains under the age of 80. (The reason is that it would seem odd if one archdiocese got two votes in a papal election.)In Los Angeles, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony is 78; in Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali is 79; and in Chicago, Cardinal Francis George is 77.However, Francis has already demonstrated a willingness to break with protocol. So the question would still be asked of why he chose not to in this case. Moreover, Rigali turns 80 in February and George is in ill health, so there would be a clear logic for setting tradition aside in at least those two cases.No matter what Francis does, many Americans will be tempted to read it as a statement.If a red hat goes to Gomez, it will be seen as history’s first pope from Latin America creating the first Hispanic cardinal in the United States, thereby giving a shout-out to the country’s burgeoning Latino Catholic population.If it’s Chaput, it will be styled as a sign of confidence ahead of the pope’s trip to Philadelphia next September for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families.It would also probably be seen as an indirect rebuttal to perceptions of a rift between the “liberal” Francis and the “conservative” Chaput, as well as to the idea that Francis is conducting an ideological purge at senior levels of the church.If it’s Cupich, the perception may be that Francis is moving quickly to ensure that his hand-picked allies occupy the Church’s most senior posts. Critics may resurrect charges familiar from the John Paul era, albeit in a different ideological direction, that the pope is “stacking the deck” in the College of Cardinals.

Which is which? Which is being circulated as hard news and which is labeled "analysis"? What differences do you see?

No. 1 is here. No. 2 is here.

Categories: Main

Tin foil hats at NYTimes as fake JP2 quote on animals becomes conspiracy fodder

Friday, December 12, 2014

The problems with the New York Times story "Dogs in Heaven? Pope Francis Leaves Pearly Gates Open" begin with the fact that the article itself is a mutt. Although reporter Rick Gladstone uses a recent quote from Pope Francis as a news hook, the body of the piece reads like a domestic rewrite of the U.K. Guardian's Nov. 27 article "It’s a dog’s afterlife: Pope Francis hints that animals go to heaven."

Both the Times and Guardian's main point may be gathered from the satirical headline of Mark Shea's excellent rebuttal to the Guardian"Pope Discusses New Heaven and New Earth for Very First Time in Catholic History." The Times, however, adds a new, conspiratorial wrinkle: John Paul II said that animals had souls, but the Vatican failed to "widely publicize" this, perhaps because it contradicted Pius IX, under whose pontificate the doctrine of papal infallibility was defined.

You can't make this stuff up. Or, rather, you can, and Rick Gladstone, or his editor, has done so.

Saith the Times:

The question of whether animals go to heaven has been debated for much of the church’s history. Pope Pius IX, who led the church from 1846 to 1878, longer than any other pope, strongly supported the doctrine that dogs and other animals have no consciousness. ...Pope John Paul II appeared to reverse Pius in 1990 when he proclaimed that animals do have souls and are “as near to God as men are.” But the Vatican did not widely publicize his assertion, perhaps because it so directly contradicted Pius, who was the first to declare the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1854.

Let us put aside the error on who declared the doctrine of papal infallibility (the First Vatican Council, not Pius IX alone), and when it was declared (1870, not 1854 -- the latter was the date of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception). Let us also put aside the fact that the Times cites as its source for papal infallibility CatholicBible101.com, which is not exactly the most reliable source, being just some earnest member of the faithful's home page (with 1990s-style animated graphics).

Let us also put aside whether Pius IX literally said that "animals have no consciousness," as we don't want to be here until Christmas fact-checking the Times. Let us simply look at the purported 1990 claim from John Paul II that "animals do have souls and are 'as near to God as men are.'" Did the pope really say that?

Gladstone does not cite a source for the claim, though it may easily be found by putting "popes" and "animals" into an online search, which turns up items by animal advocates like this:

In 1990, His Holiness proclaimed that "the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with our smaller brethren." He went on to say that all animals are "fruit of the creative action of the Holy Spirit and merit respect" and that they are "as near to God as men are." Animal lovers everywhere were overjoyed!

Had Gladstone searched for the source of the quotation, however, he would have learned that the reason it was not "widely publicized" by the Vatican was not because it "contradicted" a previous papal pronouncement. It was not widely publicized because Pope John Paul II never said it.

A writer for the U.K. magazine Faith did the legwork:

This citation and quotation, as well as the conclusions drawn from it, are acutely problematic. The words are at best a very rough translation and they convey a sense which is in tension with Church Tradition concerning the uniquely spiritual (non-physical) human soul. ...Translating from the official Italian version on the Vatican website we see that the Pope actually stated: "Other texts, however, admit that animals too have a breath or vital spirit received from God. In this regard, man, coming from God's hands, appears in solidarity with all living beings" (n. 4). He was speaking of Psalm 104, which focuses upon the shared dignity of all living creatures. The Pope also affirms that "when Genesis chapter two speaks of the creation of the animals (Gen 2:19), it doesn't mention such a close relation with the breath of God" (n. 3).Furthermore, the sentence about animals being "as near to God as men are" simply does not appear in the Pope's text at all. (This phrase, and the above rough translations, are in fact in an online translation of a Roman priest's apparent paraphrasing of the audience, just after it took place, as quoted by Genre magazine.)

If the Times wants assurance of permanent residency in circulation heaven, it would be wise for the paper's editorial staff to check their facts and sources, instead of positing conspiracy theories for cover-ups of quotes that don't exist.

Update, 12/13/14: David Gibson says, "Sorry, Fido, Pope Francis did NOT say pets are going to heaven."

 

Image via Shutterstock

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