Pope Francis has been preaching on marriage and family for a year, describing in increasingly vivid terms a global threat to what he has called "human ecology."
"We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment. This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable," he said last fall, at the Vatican's Humanum Conference on marriage.
"The crisis in the family has produced an ecological crisis, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection."
In his historic address to the U.S. Congress, the pope concluded with this same point: "I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family."
As a result, he warned, many young people are growing up "disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. … We might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family."
Ironically, while the world's attention was locked on Pope Francis during his U.S. visit, the event that brought him here -- The World Meeting of Families -- unfolded quietly in Philadelphia with 20,000 people in attendance, drawing little media attention.
There were some hot topics discussed during its many sessions. Gay, lesbian and transgender Catholics critical of church doctrines, for example, protested that they could not respond to the "Homosexuality in the Family" session, which featured a celibate gay Catholic who supports Catholic teachings on sex. There were presentations on divorce, interfaith marriages, the trauma of infertility, online threats to children and a host of other subjects. In one session, one of the 12 apostles atop the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hierarchy shared "techniques of family unity" practiced by Mormons.
In the final keynote session, a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor -- invited to speak by Pope Francis -- shared the stage with the Franciscan friar who leads the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, while serving as one of the pope's key American advisors.
Responding to the pope's words to Congress, the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, shared a handwritten list of current threats to modern families.
"Materialism is idolized, immorality is glamorized, truth is minimized, sin is normalized, divorce is rationalized and abortion is legalized. In TV and movies, crime is sensationalized, drugs are legitimized, comedy is vulgarized and sex is trivialized," he said, reading from a notecard. "In movies, the Bible is fictionalized, churches are satirized, God is marginalized and Christians are demonized. … The elderly are dehumanized, the sick are euthanized, the poor are victimized, the mentally ill are ostracized, immigrants are stigmatized and children are tranquilized.
"Then I wrote, our families now live in a world where manners are uncivilized, speech is vulgarized, education is secularized, advertising is sensualized and everything is commercialized. Unfortunately, Christians, you and I, we are often disorganized and we are demoralized, our faith is compartmentalized and our witness it compromised."
In response, Warren and Cardinal Sean O'Malley stressed that church must learn to be positive while celebrating strong marriages and families, offering future generations a chance to learn wisdom and skills from those whose faith has been proven by fire.
"Our task is to turn consumers into disciples and disciple-makers. We need to prepare men and women who witness to the faith, and not send people into the witness protection program," said O'Malley.
In real life, he added, the way "most of us become real Christians is by looking over someone else's shoulder, emulating an admired older member of our family or parish, saying yes and taking up a way of life that was made real and accessible through the witness of someone else. We learn to be disciples the way we learn to speak a language, by living in a community that speaks that language."
After avoiding "culture wars" quotes and fiery headlines during his historic U.S. visit, Pope Francis finally offered his blunt opinion about believers being asked to abandon their faith -- or else.
When doing so, he chose to talk about an epic Medieval poem that describes Muslims being forced to choose between Christian baptism and death. Or was that really what Francis was talking about on that flight to Rome?
Terry Moran of ABC News asked if Francis supported individuals "who say they cannot in good conscience … abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?"
Pope Francis said he could not address all such cases, thus avoiding a reference to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who secretly met with the pope in Washington, D.C.
"If a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right," said Francis. "Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying 'this right has merit, this one does not.' …
"If a government official is a human person, he has that right."
Rather than discuss current events, the pope added: "It always moved me when I read, and I read it many times, … the Chancon Roland, when the people were all in line and before them was the baptismal font -- the baptismal font or the sword. And, they had to choose. They weren't permitted conscientious objection. It is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights."
Flights of papal candor are becoming a tradition for reporters with the newsroom resources to pay business-class rates for seats on Shepherd One -- whatever plane is carrying the pope. Pope Francis made news flying into the United States and then flying home, after maintaining a disciplined focus on symbolic acts and pastoral messages inside the media-rich corridor between Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Reporters have always known that popes are open to interaction on these flights, noted veteran Vatican-beat specialist John L. Allen, Jr., of The Boston Globe's Crux website for Catholic news. Popes simply have their own styles. Take, for example, Pope John Paul II -- who spoke a dozen languages.
"JPII used to come back for chats with reporters by language groups," noted Allen, reached by email. With the bookish Pope Benedict XVI it "was a bit more formal and choreographed, having to submit questions in advance etc., not to mention shorter. This is how PF has chosen to do it, at the end and more freewheeling."
On the Sept. 22 flight from Cuba Francis was asked why some people worry that he may be a Communist, or perhaps not truly Catholic. He calmly explained why he is not the "anti-pope."
"I believe that I never said a thing that wasn't the social doctrine of the Church. Things can be explained, possibly an explanation gave an impression of being a little 'to the left,' but it would be an error of explanation. … And it if necessary, I'll recite the creed. I am available to do that. Eh?"
The flight to Rome included other newsy exchanges.
* On priests who "betray their vocations" through sexual abuse and refuse to repent: "We must forgive, because we were all forgiven. It is another thing to receive that forgiveness. If that priest is closed to forgiveness, he won't receive it, because he locked the door from the inside. … What I'm saying is hard."
* On "Catholic" divorce: "The synod fathers asked for it, the speeding up of the annulment processes. And I stop there. … It is not divorce because marriage is indissoluble when it is a sacrament. And this the church cannot change. It's doctrine. It's an indissoluble sacrament."
* On female priests: "That cannot be done. Pope St. John Paul II after long, long intense discussions, long reflection said so clearly. Not because women don't have the capacity. Look, in the church, women are more important than men. … The church is the bride of Jesus Christ. And the Madonna is more important than popes and bishops and priests."
It's the new papal normal: Wheels up? Recorders ready.
For the GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast on this topic, click here.
Christi Gibson knew that her husband, the Rev. John Gibson, was working himself to the point of physical collapse, while fighting depression at the same time.
There was his faculty work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he taught communication in the undergraduate Leavell College, including a "Ministry Through Life Crisis" class. He was served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pearlington, Miss.
As if that wasn't enough, he kept volunteering -- working in New Orleans' brutal heat and humidity -- to repair cars for seminary students and others who couldn't afford mechanics.
"John stayed busy to the point of absolute exhaustion," said Christi Gibson, in a telephone interview. "I often came home expecting to see signs that he had worked himself into the ground and collapsed."
She knew about his struggles, but didn't expect to come home on Aug. 24 and find his body, dead at age 56. There was a suicide note in which he confessed that his name was among thousands released after hackers hit the Ashley Madison website that promised to help customers arrange sexual affairs, with complete anonymity.
Since then, Christi Gibson and her grown-up children, Trey and Callie, have struggled to work through their grief. They have also tried to use their terrible, unwanted moment in the public spotlight -- including a CNN interview -- to urge fellow believers to be more honest about the pain and brokenness found in pews and pulpits.
Meanwhile, Christi Gibson has returned to work at the First Baptist Church of New Orleans, where for six years she has led its "discipleship and missions" programs. She helps people minister in prisons, in juvenile detention centers, in the troubled streets of the Lower 9th Ward and in short-term volunteer projects in Africa.
She also directs "Grace Works" classes that help members strive for spiritual growth while facing the joys, challenges and crises of daily life. Her commitment to those classes is greater now than ever before, said Gibson.
"We have to have people in our lives who have permission to ask the hard questions. … This is something that we have failed to do in many, but not all, of our churches," she said. "We have failed to create that safe place and a climate that lets people know they can be really transparent and open.
"There has always been that fear that if people open up they will be judged and even pushed out of fellowship. That fear may not be based on what our churches really believe, but that fear is out there and it's real."
Based on her own ministry work, and urgent lessons from her family's tragedy, Christi Gibson said she would urge religious leaders to:
* Model for their flocks what it means to be "real and transparent" when dealing with their own struggles, she said. Ministers also must learn that there are ways for them to get help "right at the very start, before things escalate and get out of control."
* Point their people toward confidential programs -- in the church and outside of it -- for those seeking help with depression, eating disorders, alcohol, sexual addictions, workaholism and other personal issues. It's crucial for pastors to help people find professional counseling, rather than attempting to do that difficult work on their own.
In the wake of recent events, she noted, men in her church are working to find ways to "increase accountability and to support each other" on a wide range of hard issues, including stress, depression and pornography.
* Help members, especially parents, openly discuss the power of personal computers, tablets and smartphones in an age in which the first exposure to online pornography among American males is creeping out of the teen years and into childhood. People need positive input on these issues, as well as warnings.
"Talking about all of this is a privacy thing, for most people," said Gibson. "We've lost the scriptural image of the church as a body, a body in which we rejoice together and we suffer together and we grow together. People can't live on an island, anymore. We need each other. …
"People have to know that their church is a safe place, instead of thinking of it as the most judgmental place on the planet."
EDITOR'S NOTE: GetReligion podcast here.
Soon after same-sex marriage became law in Illinois, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield offered a highly symbolic liturgical response -- an exorcism rite.
"Our prayer service today and my words are not meant to demonize anyone, but are intended to call attention to the diabolical influences of the devil that have penetrated our culture," he said, in his sermon. "These demonic influences are not readily apparent to the undiscerning eye. … The deception of the Devil in same-sex marriage may be understood by recalling the words of Pope Francis when he faced a similar situation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2010."
So Paprocki quoted then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, facing the redefinition of civil marriage in Argentina: "Let us not be naive: it is not a simple political struggle; it is an intention (which is) destructive of the plan of God. It is not a mere legislative project … but rather a 'move' of the father of lies who wishes to confuse and deceive the children of God."
"Father of lies" is a biblical reference to Satan.
When it comes to gay-rights issues, this is probably not the first Pope Francis quotation that springs into the minds of most people following the news in preparation for his Sept. 23-27 visit to the media corridor between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The papal visit is linked to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
An Internet search-engine query for "Francis" and the precise phrase "Who am I to judge?" yielded nearly 200,000 hits, including 4,540 in current news articles.
A Washington Post guide to the pope's "most liberal statements" noted, about this 2013 remark: "On a flight back from his visit to Brazil, Francis struck a different note on homosexuality than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who had once described it as an 'intrinsic moral evil.' In contrast, Francis had this to say about homosexuals: 'If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?' "
The problem with the "Who am I to judge?" statement is that most people quoting it pull the phrase out the context in which it was used during a casual meeting (full transcript here) between Pope Francis and reporters, according to Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample.
The pope was "speaking about God's mercy and the call for all of us to allow a person, including ourselves, to convert and put his or her sins in the past," he noted, writing online. "These words of Pope Francis were delivered in response to a very specific question about a particular individual who was accused of inappropriate homosexual behavior in the past."
Thus, Archbishop Sample stressed these words from the pope's remarks.
"I see that many times in the Church people search for 'sins from youth,' for example, and then publish them. They are not crimes, right? No, sins. But if a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then converts, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives," said Pope Francis.
"When we confess our sins and we truly say, 'I have sinned in this,' the Lord forgets, and so we have no right not to forget, because otherwise we would run the risk of the Lord not forgetting our sins. That is a danger. This is important: a theology of sin. … If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?"
Thus, the pope affirmed church teachings that temptation is not in itself a sin. In fact, people facing temptations are children of God and should be "treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity," noted Sample.
"If someone sins in this regard, coverts, confesses his or her sins, they are forgiven and the Lord forgets their sins," he added. "So should we forgive and forget. Hence, 'Who am I to judge?'
"Understood in its proper context, Pope Francis simply repeats in a very striking way what the church has taught with regard to persons who experience deep-seated same sex attraction. He was really not breaking new ground, and was certainly not advocating support for same sex 'marriage,' as some have tried to assert."
NEW YORK -- When choirmaster John Scott looked into the future he saw a spectacular addition to St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue, a new organ at the heart of worship services, concerts and expanding efforts to train young musicians.
The 100-stop organ would blend past and present, preserving the delicately carved 1913 cabinet and some of it distinctive pipes, but as part of an expanded design that would add both grandeur and gentleness, as well as many new tones.
"We are eager to hear our gallery horizontal trumpet put into first-class condition and just as excited that it will be joined by a new stentorian Tuba Mirabilis of imperial strength. These two stops will allow majestic fanfares to dialogue east and west," said Scott, in an enthusiastic May 31 update about the $11 million project.
"So, to sum up -- 2018 cannot come soon enough."
But Manhattan's famous Anglo-Catholic parish was stunned on August 12 when the 59-year-old Scott died of a heart attack, hours after returning from a European concert tour. Scott and his wife Lily were awaiting the birth of their first child in September.
Church leaders held a requiem Mass -- with no music -- the next day and began planning for a solemn funeral Mass on Sept. 12, allowing more people to travel to New York City for the rites. Many would come to honor an artist hailed by The New York Times and other prestigious publications, a man known for his recordings, compositions and concert-hall performances.
But people in the pews are mourning the loss of a fellow believer whose most cherished duty was to help lead others in worship, while teaching the faith and its musical heritage to their children, said the Rev. Canon Carl Turner.
"Here we are gathered in church," said the parish's rector, preaching the day after Scott's death. "Why have we come? We have come because John, our friend, believed in what we are doing now -- that in the Eucharist, in the Mass, we come close to Jesus, just as when John
performed, directed, composed and cajoled those choristers, it was because he wanted to be close to Jesus."
Scott knew the fame that came to a virtuoso who, as a teen-ager, became the youngest organist to perform in the BBC Proms. He won international competitions and, over 26 years, held a number of posts at St. Paul's Cathedral in London -- rising to organist and director of music. He composed the anthem "Behold, O God Our Defender" for the 2002 rites marking the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
But this was not the work that defined Scott's life, stressed Turner. To his colleagues he was known for his dedication and meticulous ability to grasp the complex liturgical details of worship services, especially during Holy Week.
It was symbolic that Scott wanted workers to, literally, carve one truth into the organ console. Turner recalled that the organist kept stressing, "I want on the new organ Bach's words. I want
to look at it like Bach would look at it -- 'Soli Deo gloria,' glory to God alone. …
"I have met many musicians in my life. Not that many of them that I have met, in church, have first talked about the glory of God and the need to have people discover Jesus in their lives -- but John did and he was remarkable in that."
The classical music world is mourning this loss. Contemporary composer Nico Muhly wrote on Facebook: "I think of his influence as a form of epidemic: a great choirmaster infects everybody
near him with an evangelical love for the music, the tradition, and the rigor required to get it done correctly but in the (liturgical) background: music for use, but music for the only use worth using."
Then again, this note from the father of a chorister captured Scott's Sunday to Sunday life: "Nearly one dozen church services every week, appearances around town, and performing Messiah on a scant two-weeks of practice are subordinate to the depth of the man, and his impact upon our sons, upon our faith, and upon our church," wrote Jon Paris, writing online.
"Our family cries at the loss, and then smiles from our soul at the image of John reflected in our son."
While it's hard to journey from the intellectual legacy of the Blessed John Henry Newman to the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it can be done.
This is a story worth hearing for those truly interested in centuries of Christian teachings about pain, suffering and loss, according to the social-media maven poised to become an auxiliary bishop in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
"God's providence is a mysterious and wonderful thing," noted Bishop-elect Robert Barron, founder of Word of Fire ministries. "One of the most potent insights of the spiritual masters is that our lives are not about us, that they are, in fact, ingredient in God's providential purposes, part of a story that stretches infinitely beyond what we can immediately grasp."
Thus, a story that ends with Colbert begins with Newman and the 19th Century Church of England. Newman's interest in ancient doctrines and worship led the famous scholar-priest into Roman Catholicism. Called a traitor by many Anglicans, Newman started over -- creating a humble oratory in industrial Birmingham. Eventually he became a cardinal and, today, many consider him a saint.
The next connection, noted Barron, writing online, was the Rev. Francis Xavier Morgan, a priest in that Birmingham oratory who shepherded two orphaned brothers after their mother died in 1904. Her family had disowned her when she became a Catholic.
One of the brothers was J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote "The Lord of the Rings." As an adult, the Oxford don wrote a letter in which he addressed pain and suffering. A key point in the letter directly links this story to Colbert, an outspoken Catholic who is one of the most outrageous, controversial figures in American popular culture.
The comedian -- youngest of 11 children in a devout Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. -- has frequently discussed the deaths of his father, a former Yale Medical School dean, and two of his brothers in a 1974 plane crash. But Barron noted that, in a wrenching new GQ interview, Colbert dug much deeper than before.
During his work with Chicago's Second City troupe, Colbert was taught to risk failure, to push comedy to the point of transforming pain. A mentor told him: "You gotta learn to love the bomb."
Ultimately, Colbert learned to link that concept to the 1974 crash.
"It was just me and Mom for a long time. And by her example am I not bitter. By HER example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no," Colbert explained.
"It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering. Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness. … 'You gotta learn to love the bomb.' Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. … That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened."
Colbert then quoted Tolkien's letter to a priest who questioned a theme in his fiction -- that while death can be a punishment for sin, it is also a gift.
Tolkien responded: "What punishments of God are not gifts?"
The comedian struck the table for emphasis and writer Joel Lovell noted that Colbert's eyes filled with tears as he added: "What punishments of God are not gifts? … So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn't mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head."
This is, noted Bishop-elect Barron, the final act in a mysterious drama.
"Were it not for John Henry Newman's establishment, through much suffering, of the Birmingham Oratory, there would never have been a Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan," he argued. Without that priest the "young Tolkien boys might easily have drifted into unbelief or spiritual indifference, and if J.R.R. Tolkien had not taken in the lessons he learned from his mentor, he would never have shared the insight about God's gift that brought such comfort to a young Stephen Colbert in his moment of doubt and pain. …
"The line that runs from Newman to Morgan to Tolkien to Colbert was not dumb chance, a mere coincidence; rather, it was an instance of the slow but sure unfolding of the divine plan."
When it became clear that normal venues were too small, Donald Trump met his Mobile, Ala., flock in the ultimate Deep South sanctuary -- a football stadium.
"Wow! Wow! Wow! Unbelievable. Unbelievable," shouted the candidate that polls keep calling the early Republican frontrunner. "That's so beautiful. You know, now I know how the great Billy Graham felt, because this is the same feeling. We all love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."
The thrice-married New York billionaire didn't elaborate, but apparently thought he was channeling what the world's most famous preacher would feel facing a Bible Belt crowd. Participants in evangelistic crusades, however, don't bounce up and down screaming while wearing licensed merchandise and waving single-name banners.
Adjusting his red "Make America Great Again" baseball cap, Trump quoted Rush Limbaugh, mocked Jeb Bush, prophesized the demise of Hillary Clinton and shared sordid details of crimes by an illegal immigrant. He offered -- in the rain -- to prove that his legendary hair was indeed his own.
One photo went viral, showing the candidate greeting supporters in front of a homemade sign that proclaimed, "Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump."
"Donald Trump comes across as a blunt, savvy, can-do man and that kind of leader has always been popular" down South, noted church historian Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary near Philadelphia. "He is the prototypical celebrity and has his own brand of populism. That seems to appeal to many modern evangelicals."
Problems arise, however, when journalists and politicos start calling Trump the "evangelical" favorite. In one much-discussed Washington Post-ABC News poll, he was leading -- in the giant Republican pack -- with 20 percent of white, evangelical, GOP-leaning voters. Other polls show similar or greater "evangelical" support, but his numbers are weaker among those who attend church once a week or more.
"If you ask why Trump's beliefs appeal to many evangelicals, then you face an old problem," noted Trueman, in a telephone interview. "If you put 12 evangelicals in a room, you are going to get 10 or 11 -- at least -- definitions of what the word 'evangelical' means."
The journalism bible -- The Associated Press Stylebook -- notes that "evangelical" the adjective has evolved, commonly becoming a noun. The term refers to a "category of doctrinally conservative Christians. They emphasize the need for a definite, adult commitment or conversion to faith in Christ. ... Evangelicals stress both doctrinal absolutes and vigorous efforts to win others to belief."
Historically speaking, it's crucial that evangelicalism is a movement of believers in a wide variety of churches and, thus, has no comprehensive set of shared doctrines, noted Nancy Pearcey, who leads the Center for Christian Worldview at Houston Baptist University.
When specific issues arise that cause division, evangelicals usually fall back on confessions, covenants or traditions in their own individual flocks. This can make it hard to find unity in painful debates, she said, reached by email. As a rule, American evangelicals are united by shared emotions, cultural experiences, a strong sense of individualism and loyalty to charismatic leaders and their causes.
"Evangelicalism arose as a renewal movement within the established churches … and therefore it was inherently opposed to structure, history, tradition, ritual and anything that could be characterized as mere 'externalism,' " she noted. When evangelicals have formed independent organizations, causes and churches "they were weak in precisely those areas."
This makes it hard, Trueman agreed, for evangelicals facing debates on issues such as same-sex marriage to decide when preachers, activists or even educational institutions have modernized their beliefs too much and, thus, no longer fit under the "evangelical" banner.
It may also make it hard for "evangelicals" to seriously evaluate the faith claims of politicians who urgently need votes in Bible Belt primaries.
"All kinds of legal and political issues will be putting new pressures on churches in this nation," he said. "At some point, simply calling yourself an 'evangelical' is not going to be enough. People are going to need clarity. …
"Our churches and our institutions are going to have to clearly state what they believe on specific issues -- such as the definition of marriage -- or they are not going to be able to stand together. The cultural ties that worked in the past are not going to be enough."
It was a story guaranteed to inspire a blitz of mouse-clicks in social media in the days just after the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision proclaiming that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.
"Gay man sues publishers over Bible verses," said a USA Today headline. A Michigan man was seeking $70 million from two Christian giants, claiming they -- by publishing editions of the Bible referring to homosexuality as sin -- caused "me or anyone who is a homosexual to endure verbal abuse, discrimination, episodes of hate, and physical violence ... including murder."
But there was a problem. The vast majority of those who recently read this story, commented on it or clicked "forward" and sent it to others failed to notice a crucial fact -- it was published in 2008. (Confession: I fell for it, because the version I received didn't contain the date in the actual text.)
In religious circles, the abuse of partial facts and anonymous anecdotes is as old as preachers searching for Saturday night inspiration. However, the Internet age has encouraged global distribution, making it easier for flawed or exaggerated information to go viral in microseconds.
Once these stories lodge in memory banks -- human or digital -- they live on and on. This problem is especially bad among many religious believers who tend to distrust mainstream sources of news.
"Most of the fake news I see doesn't reach people through the mainstream," said Ed Stetzer, the online evangelical maven who leads LifeWay Research in Nashville. Instead, it comes "through what I call the 'angry Christian sites.' …
"There are a lot of people out there who feel very put upon. They're going to believe whatever feeds into that perception that they've been marginalized in public life."
That religious and moral traditionalists have suffered numerous stinging defeats in the public square only strengthens the temptation to believe, and pass along, "faux news" that supports their fears, he said, in a telephone interview.
Many people are thinking "they're after us for our beliefs on marriage. They're after us for our beliefs on religious liberty," he said. "But if there's so much bad stuff out there, it doesn't make sense to make new stuff up."
Truth is, the problem is rooted in technology as well as human temptation, according to a 2012 paper -- "Plausible Quotations and Reverse Credibility in Online Vernacular Communities" -- published by professors Quentin Schultze and Randall Bytwerk of Calvin College. Digital networks have, at the very least, created legions of self-publishers who, working without editors, preach to their choirs to day after day.
In a sense, they argued, fake quotes and information "can become like Internet-spread urban legends, which sometimes reference and even quote well-known persons. As with all previous media, the person who does the initial quoting has the advantage of first say -- as well, now, the advantage of initial Google indexing."
Theoretically, modern readers also have virtually unlimited access to digital tools -- weblogs, search engines and online libraries -- with which to verify or refute these shaky viral anecdotes, noted Bytwerk and Schultze. Alas, "Corrections, too, can become viral -- but not as easily."
Thus, it's important for clergy and laypeople to, at the very least, do no harm when handling cyber-news, stressed Stetzer, in an impassioned essay that is approaching a half-million page views at Christianity Today online.
Believers looking at viral news from alternative sources, he said, must learn to check with credible religious publications -- from Christian Century to Christianity Today to World Magazine -- to see if they have published similar reports. They also need, yes, to check publication dates and to examine questionable online addresses, noticing the difference between NBC.com and NBC.com.co, for example.
Religious leaders who have been hoaxed will also need to learn how to repent and print corrections. Their credibility is at stake, stressed Stetzer.
"Christians do believe a lot of stuff that, to people on the outside, seems pretty strange -- from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection. … But we believe that these things are real and they're at the center of our faith," he said. "We don't need to keep believing lots of strange stuff that's fake. … It's not in our interest to fall for faux news and to spread it around."
Nearly a decade ago, leaders of the St. Mary's Catholic Center next to the giant Texas A&M University campus began having an unusual problem -- they had too many students coming to Confession.
The priests were offering what was, in this day and age, a rather robust schedule for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, with 60 minutes or more time on Wednesday nights and Saturdays before Mass.
Students were queuing up and waiting. So a young priest suggested offering daily Confession, with two priests available for an hour-plus or one priest for two or three hours. But that wasn't enough, either. Now this parish dedicated to campus ministry -- with 50 full-time and part-time staffers -- offers Confession at least 10 times every week, plus by appointment.
"We still have some lines and sometimes, most days even, our priests don't have time to hear all the confessions," said Marcel LeJeune, the parish's assistant campus ministry director. "The priests don't have time to chat. … It seems that whenever we offer more opportunities for Confession, we have more people show up."
Parish leaders know all about modern campus trends with alcohol, pornography and "hooking up." They know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the average age at which young Americans lose their virginities is 17 and that, between ages 20 and 24, 86 percent of males and 88 percent of females are sexually active, to varying degrees.
But the statistic LeJeune stresses is that nearly 80 percent of Catholics who leave the church do so by age 23. In other words, he thinks that if Catholics are serious about influencing young people before they join the growing ranks of the so-called "Nones" -- the religiously unaffiliated -- they must invest more time and resources into campus ministries.
Texas A&M has more than 58,000 students and 25 percent of them, to one degree or another, are Catholics. Do the math. That's a big parish.
"It's a shame that only 25 to 30 percent of our secular campuses nationwide have Catholic campus ministries of any kind," said LeJeune, reached by telephone. "There may be a parish somewhere nearby where some kids are going to Mass, but there's nobody there who is reaching out to college students day after day. …
"That constant one-on-one work and small groups are crucial. You have to have people who are getting their hands dirty by being involved in the real lives of students. Many people are scared to do that."
Evangelical Protestant ministries have for decades demonstrated that college is a prime time to reach young people who are confused, hurting or simply open to new ideas, noted LeJeune. This is also when Catholics need to reach those who are straying before they make permanent exits from the church.
"We have seen plenty of people return to the sacramental life of the church late in their lives, as adults of all ages," he said. "But the simple fact is that you are much more likely to see this happen in college because this is a time when students are searching and open to making changes in their lives."
Obviously, students can make changes that are good or bad, from the church's viewpoint, he said. Many dive into alcohol and sex -- creating trends that have made headlines -- while others worship the less controversial gods of success and money.
In other words, students have solid reasons to go to Confession. However, a 2008 poll by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 87 percent of self-identified American Catholics go to Confession once a year or less, with 45 percent admitting that they "never" go.
While the St. Mary's team is glad to see students lining up for Confession, that cannot be the first goal, stressed LeJeune.
"For too long, Catholics have been guilty of preaching the church rather than preaching Jesus," he said. "Now, we preach Catholic stuff here and doctrine matters. But if we don't stir up a desire to know God then we're not doing Job 1. …
"You can't just keep talking about what's wrong with people and expect them to listen. … Once students are driven to know God, that's when they will get interested in Confession and forgiveness and going deeper."