Race and the Catholic Church

Anacostia churchA spat between 17 parishioners and the priest at Anacostia’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish landed on the front page of The Washington Post this morning. The parish, which has about 1,500 members, is engaged in a heated dispute, and the fact that the church is a historically black Catholic congregation and “is in mutiny against the white pastor,” propels this issue to the level of “major news story,” in the Post‘s opinion.

Reporter Robert E. Pierre’s nearly 2,000-word work product, no doubt the result of weeks of back-and-forth between the two sides, is interesting and well written. Eliminate the race factor and this story has back page metro section news value.

So is race an issue so important these days that it can vault a shouting match between a small number of church members and their leaders to the front page with a prominent photo? It’s certainly a story that is unique to Catholic parishes. Protestant churches that reach this level of dispute simply split or expel (leaders or members).

Here’s the gist of the story:

The story at Our Lady is one of clashing opinions and, for [parishioner Bill] Alston and his disgruntled brethren, an attempt to regain control of what they view as their church. Their ancestors built it, and generations since have maintained it, tithed to it, sent their children to its school.

What they have learned is that butting heads with a 2,000-year-old institution is no easy task. People at every level of church hierarchy have told them the same thing: The Catholic Church is no democracy.

Some denominations choose pastors and make decisions by popular vote, but the Catholic Church is among those in which church officials decide. Popes issue decrees. Higher-ups tell pastors when to move on. Parishioners, after having had their say, comply with the decisions of their priest.

But order has broken down so thoroughly in this case that the auxiliary bishop of Washington, the Rev. Martin Holley, has sent word that the upset group should obey the pastor or find another church.

Amy Welborn over at open book found it challenging to comment on this story, largely because she feels there is more to the story than what was reported. I agree and that’s too bad, because Pierre was certainly given the space and the prominence to do some serious explaining.

More from Welborn:

But from the outside, this conflict seems, on one level, shockingly needless, which means that it probably touches on something pretty deep. The story tries to make it a huge deal, but it seems to all come down to a religious brother (who’d been at the parish for 17 years anyway), a pastoral associate, being put in charge of managing use of the parish hall. His style is not appreciated by some, and he’s tightened up access to a much-coveted church hall space. The entire parish is not up-in-arms, and there is much talk of racism, since the pastor is white, although the brother in question is black. As is the bishop who’s dealing with the situation, although the story doesn’t mention that (the bishop’s race).

A commenter at open book found the story another example of the mainstream media’s “pre-programmed Catholic story” that focuses on “dissent” or “the Post‘s interest in deliberately stirring up trouble.” I don’t think a media organization should be condemned for stirring up trouble, as long as it tried to be fair and got its facts right (and it seems that Pierre accomplished both of these). The trouble obviously lies in the relationship between the leadership of this parish and its members, not the Post‘s desire to tell an interesting story.

Sometimes a little bit of sunshine from the outside can stop the festering and allow growth. Often that means a bit of stirring the pot. Racial and cultural differences are certainly an issue in all churches, and especially in a situation such like this. Even though the controversy directly involves only a handful of people, it’s a matter that affects all of us who are involved with a church.

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  • brian

    Having just read what’s in the blog post here, this sounds a bit like the recent story of St. Stanislaus Kostka in St. Louis, although possibly on a smaller scale.

  • http://dpulliam.com dpulliam

    Your right Brian and I neglected to link to Mollie’s post on the issue. Apologies to all.

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There is sporadic friction and some disputes in a few Catholic churches (and in every religious or any other type group) on the face of the earth. My biggest gripe with the media’s handling of such stories is that they rarely send a reporter to spend much time and effort to look into and give some in depth background to some of the good things organized religions of traditional values do. And when they do the rare positive story it sure doesn’t garner a featured, hard to miss spot on the front page. But, for example, the Boston Globe hereabouts seems to find no shortage of angles to run puff piece after puff piece about left-wing or radical social, religious, or activist groups and individuals.

  • brian

    Now that I’ve read the whole story, I don’t think it’s all that surprising the story landed on the front page of the Washington Post.

    It’s a very interesting Washington story. And when I think of cities with significant numbers of black Catholics, Washington is certainly one of them. I don’ t think it’s helpful at all to say this story has only back page Metro news value if race isn’t a factor.

    That’s just not a fair comparison for several reasons. One, black Catholics are a lot more newsworthy than black Baptists just because black Catholics are much rarer.

    But also, one thing the reporter doesn’t mention is that in the black church, politics has often been a big part of the experience. Now, this church’s social hall can no longer be used for political gatherings when it once was.

    I also wonder about the reporter’s beat and, more importantly, how often his editor works with religion copy. I had basic religion questions. What order does the priest belong to? The Josephites? The story doesn’t say.

    And the reference to Protestant -style sermons also struck me as odd.

    I’m assuming though that in the news meeting, the editors viewed this as an interesting local news story and only secondarily as a religion story.

    And of course, at most papers, the front page is always a mix of stories of varying styles and levels of importance. If I were in Washington as a tourist or in the airport and I saw this on the newstand, I might have bought the paper because of it.

  • Michael

    I actually think these are the kinds of stories the Post does very well. As Brian pointed out, this is a very “Washington” story. Like many predominately-Black cities, race is a constant undercurrent in almost everything that happens in this town and questions of racism color (pun intended) most issues. In that context, a white priest leading an African American congregation in the most traditionally Black portion of the city is going to be big news.

    The Washington Post has written extensively about the intercene battles in Episcopal parishes in the town’s whitest, richest and most conservative suburbs, so a story where the players haven’t hired public relations consultants is a rather refreshing change.

  • http://www.urbanangel.net andy chamberlain

    This story contains what is, for me, the biggest issue that I have with the media. Dan says this:

    I don’t think a media organization should be condemned for stirring up trouble as long as they tried to be fair and got their facts right (and it seems that Pierre accomplished both of these in my opinion).

    Maybe I’m being a cynic here, but media people are not there to be fair. The Post, like any other media outlet, doesn’t want to present the truth, it wants to sell a story; the two are different. Like most other media outlets the Post will skew a story to emphasise some things and ignore others, and to give it as much shock factor as possible. The fact that people are hurt, or the issues are misrepresented is not something that many parts of the media care about.

    My perception (and this is a data set of one, and there is nothing implied personally at anyone in the media) is that journalists will deliberately misrepresent the truth to sell their output, and for me that amounts to lying. I am guessing that many other people will feel the same way. In fact, my ‘default setting’ for media stories about religion is that the journalist is lying, and will have no qualms about damaging the people, misrepresenting the facts, and using the dreaded “quote marks” to rubbish someone or soemthing, if it suits them.

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with a national news paper journalist once. We talked about my approach (as a pastor)to issues and people, and the approach of his paper. We came to the conclusion that we had completely opposite approaches. Caring for people is not entertainment, it doesn’t sell copy, and it doesn’t give the readers a cheap thrill for a few seconds.

    Clearly, large parts of the media do not get religion…….

  • brian

    Wow. Do you have anything to back up your perception that the reporter in this story lied? Or is it just a hunch you have that reporters just can’t be trusted?

    I have never misrepresented the truth during my career as a journalist and I hardly ever thought about “selling my output.” That’s one of the most offensive and clueless posts I’ve read in a long time.

    Here’s a column my paper ran recently that debunks your notion that reporters don’t care about people.

  • http://www.urbanangel.net andy chamberlain


    I am sorry if you are offended but I happen to believe that what I said was true. What I said was:

    “journalists will deliberately misrepresent the truth to sell their output, and for me that amounts to lying”

    I am not saying all journalists do this, and the story behind your link is good. And I do not question your character or your work, I have no basis and therefore no right to do that. But the fact is, there are stories that consistently appear across the media here in the UK, and from what I have seen on this website, in the US as well, and those stories are presented in such a way as to either emphasise or omit certain facts to heighten the drama and shock value.

    Anyone who wants to come to an understanding of what is really happening needs to look through all that to make a judgement based on the facts. I happen to believe that, where a journalist has undertaken deliberate distortions or omissions within a story to heighten that shock value and sell copy, that amounts to lying.

    There are plenty of people out there who do not trust journalists to tell the truth. I did a random search on google to try to find a poll showing the percentage of people who would trust, or distrust, journalists. I found this link:


    We could argue about the validity of the poll, and its age (2002) but the sample size was about 1,000 adults, and when asked the question:

    “Would you generally trust each of the following types of people to tell the truth, or not?”

    53% said they would not trust journalists, and 39% said they would. The split was 46/46 for TV news casters (the rest were undecided).

    The data from this 2005 poll for UK based respondents was even worse:


    I would hope that this would make journalists, who deal in issues of truth and integrity, sit up and take notice.

    Once again, Brian, no offense to you was intended, and please lets talk. I happen to think that this is a valuable forum for giving people from the media, and from within the church, (and from both) an opportunity for dialogue.

    As a postscript, as a ‘clergyman’ I am in no position to gloat or feel smug (which I am not!) The poll shows that for our profession trust dropped from 85% to 64% in four years.

  • brian

    A poll may show that a low number of the public trusts journalists but if pastors are telling people, with little to back it up, that journalists are untrustworthy than I’m not shocked.

    And the numbers about clergy are fairly irrelevant to that statement too. Because while clergy may not be trusted, “my pastor” is.

    My view, when I was a beat reporter, is that it doesn’t matter what people think about the media, journalists or reporters. It matters that they know me and they can trust me.

    I don’t know much about the UK, but like I said, most reporters I know are more interested in getting the facts right and trusting that if they do that and their story warrants it, people will read it. It’s not about selling their output.

    But hey, I clicked on the link with your name and I see you are selling a book. Great. You go ahead and sell it.

    I don’t think you have much to base your statement – “journalists will deliberately misrepresent the truth to sell their output, and for me that amounts to lying” – on other than conjecture.

  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    One of the biggest problems I have in reading so many mainstream media stories about the Catholic religion is caused by the obvious fact (confirmed by reputable polls) there are hardly any practicing Christians working in the media–let alone Catholics. In fact, those same polls show widespread disdain and negativity toward religion among media personnel) Yet one Church Father almost 2000 years ago said it is impossible to understand the Faith unless one is practicing it.
    Would the media have someone who hates baseball covering the World Series or a football hater covering the Super Bowl????
    So most of the time we read anything about religion in the mass media it has come from someone who is religiously “deaf, dumb, and blind” and their negative flailing about is glaringly obvious to those who have some spiritual and knowledgeable insight into the religion the journalist is covering.
    The media is always belaboring the issue of diversity for various groups, but the groups most needing “affirmative action” in the media are sincere, practicing Catholics and Christians.

  • http://www.urbanangel.net andy chamberlain


    I have clearly upset you, and I am sorry for that, however I stand by what I said.

    I am indeed selling a book; I have added the website for my book because the comments page for this website gives space for a website address to be included.

    One final thought, which I share with honesty: if as a beat reporter you were able to build up a constituency of people who trusted you, and therefore trusted what you said, then I think what you did should stand as a role model for others in your profession,and I hope others will follow your lead.

    I think any further discussion on this between us will be counterporductive, so I will finish things here. Thanks.

  • Michael

    there are hardly any practicing Christians working in the media—let alone Catholics.

    I know this is hyperbole, but I’ve tried like the dickens to actually find this study, and can’t seem to find the actual study and not just the analysis of the study. Given that you can’t turn on a TV pundit without finding a practicing Catholic, I just can’t believe Catholics are dramatically underrpresented in the media.

  • http://www.maintour.com/socal/newsblog.htm Bryce

    Just yesterday I saw a similar article from Scotland where the Catholic church is having a difficult time retaining control of one of their schools that is in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood.


  • http://BUSY Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Michael-try the Lichter-Rothman surveys, backed up by L.A. Times surveys. One columnist, after reading these surveys called the American mainstream media, “wretchedly anti-Christian.”
    Also the just released UCLA surveys. Some of the surveys don’t go into religion per se, but survey the moral opinions of the media personnel which, as a group, by traditional Christian standards are decadent, hedonistic, corrupt, perverse. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how such journalists would portray a Church which tries to strongly uphold traditional morality and thereby gores their moral attitudes.
    Also, how about the WWII memorial in Washington. The memorial includes the dramatic final words of FDR’s Day of Infamy speech making it look like it ends before his real final words: “So help us God!”
    This rape of history and bigotry against using the word God has now apparently even infected memorials in Washington. Is it any coincidence that an anti-Christian, anti-religious media couldn’t be bothered with raising a scandal and a stink over this censorship. Yet there has been a roiling, seething, major UNREPORTED, UNNOTICED by the religionless media, anger among many believers who served in WWII over this God-phobia. (I have been getting repeated e-mails on this issue, but the media–because they’re so unconnected to the world of religion (America’s majority) that the story is still in the internet “underground.” as far as I can tell.)

  • http://dpulliam.com dpulliam

    Dean John,

    I am going to go check out the WWII Memorial sometime, take a photo, and get back to everyone. Thanks for pointing this out.

    I did want to address a point you raised earlier. You asked if “the media have someone who hates baseball covering the World Series or a football hater covering the Super Bowl” and I would say yes, it does happen. In fact, those are often the best reporters, ones who are skeptical about the event and ask questions.

    Sports departments in media organizations for decades have been criticized for their bias in covering the teams. The reporters they hired were HUGE FANS of the team and they did not cover the team objectively. This has happened in Ohio, where scandals at Ohio State University were overlooked by many sports reporters because they attended the school and hoped to see it do well. Well the NCAA has cracked down and people are suffering. It is my opinion that the sports reporters did not do their jobs.

    While this analogy doesn’t apply directly to the case of someone with God-phobia covering religion, I do not believe that faith in the religion you are covering is a requirement for a religion reporter.

  • http://www.blackphi.co.uk/webitorial.php Phil Blackburn

    To add to Daniel’s post: if churches cannot effectively communicate with religion reporters, who – irrespective of their own faith or lack of it – have a vested interest in listening to them, what hope have they got with the rest of the world. Yet surely a primary job of the church is communication?

    I was once a member of a church where the vicar made an effort to find out how local newspapers worked, then provided them with information in a form that was useful to them. Suddenly the coverage of local church activities in the media improved dramatically. It’s not rocket science, yet few churches seem to bother; they would apparently rather complain about media bias.