Proving the value of religion reporters

majerus biondiThere’s a controversy brewing in St. Louis that poses some interesting questions for journalists. St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus went to a Hillary Clinton campaign rally on Saturday night where he was interviewed by KMOV, a local television station. During the interview, he expressed some views that are not in line with Catholic teaching. Which wouldn’t be news if he weren’t also being paid $650,000 a year by a Catholic university.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s first story was written by a political reporter and a sports reporter and it showed:

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said this morning that St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus should be disciplined over his public comments supporting abortion rights and stem cell research.

Since when is the Catholic Church against stem cell research? The fact is that it’s not. It’s against stem cell research that kills embryos. I thought this media-perpetrated myth might be on the wane after November’s stem-cell breakthrough of obtaining pluripotent cells without destroying embryos. Apparently it’s not. Anyway, Burke’s position is that you can’t have a Catholic university with one of its prominent staff members making statements in conflict with the church.

The story doesn’t quote Majerus, although there’s a link to watch the interview here. It’s actually a really good off-the-cuff interview by an informed reporter. There’s also a video interview of Archbishop Burke at yesterday’s March for Life.

For its part, the university says Majerus’ comments weren’t made on behalf of the university. The story then tried to characterize the relationship between St. Louis University and the St. Louis Archdiocese:

Last year, St. Louis U. celebrated a legal victory that affirmed it is not controlled by the Catholic church or by its Catholic beliefs.

The Missouri Supreme Court agreed with the school in handing down a decision that the city of St. Louis did not violate state and federal constitutions by granting the university $8 million in tax increment financing for its new arena.

Opponents of the $80 million arena sued the school in 2004, halting construction.

The Missouri Constitution prohibits public funding to support any “… college, university, or other institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church or sectarian denomination whatever.”

The debate came down to two words: “control” and “creed.” Does the guiding mission of a Catholic university align with the specific system of religious faith espoused by the Catholic church? And if so, does that system of faith control the actions of the university?

In a 6-1 decision, the court said SLU “is not controlled by a religious creed.”

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So . . . what does that mean? I honestly have no idea. I feel like there are key details missing. Could we get someone to explain the significance of this?

Thankfully the St. Louis Post-Dispatch brought religion reporter Tim Townsend into the loop for this morning’s story. It’s like night and day — it’s got a more interesting lede, it doesn’t make the “stem cell” mistake, it quotes Majerus, and it provides context:

The archbishop said Majerus should be disciplined but did not say how. At issue is the Catholic concept of scandal, a perennial concern of Burke’s defined by the catechism of the Catholic church as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.”

Townsend has covered Burke and the concept of scandal before.

Also, compare the excerpt about SLU’s religious identity from the previous story with how Townsend handles it:

Burke has no direct control over SLU, and it is unclear what he will do if the university does not discipline Majerus.

SLU is nominally a Catholic institution, but last year the Missouri Supreme Court said, in a 6-1 decision, that SLU “is not controlled by a religious creed,” which cleared the way for public funding of the university’s new, $80 million arena. . . .

The school reminded the court of its decision to sell St. Louis University Hospital to Tenet Healthcare in 1998 “despite the strong and well-publicized objections of the Archbishop of St. Louis.”

Townsend explains that the school also claimed in its legal brief that the university doesn’t require employees to be Catholic, and that few employees are Jesuit and few students are Catholic. Townsend explains SLU’s governing structure as well as the history and governance of the Society of Jesus. The story also explains Burke’s interest in the school given that it resides within the borders of his archdiocese.

Townsend’s contributions to the second story prove why religion reporters are of such tremendous value in any newsroom.

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  • steve wintermute

    and all readers with an interest in religion said “amen.” Now if they would all write a letter to the editor of their local newspaper and demand local religion coverage by reporters who have a real interest in the subject.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Based on what I know of nonprofit governance (I used to work in this area), the “control” issue probably relates to who sits on SLU’s board and who has the authority to appoint and approve new board members. Among “Catholic” organizations, there’s a great deal of variety of governance structures, ranging from direct local control (i.e. the local archbishop or his representative appoints board members and has the ability to hire/fire executive staff) to control by a religious order (such as the Jesuits or Sisters of Charity) to affirmations of Catholic heritage, without any legal connection to the Catholic church. Anyone can call themselves a “Catholic such-and-such,” without necessarily having anything to do with the official structures of the Roman Catholic Church. On SLU’s history website ( they note that in 1967, the board of trustees was recomposed to include a majority of lay people. SLU’s current board has a relatively small number of Jesuits (9 out of 50 trustees), according to its website, and there don’t seem to be any non-Jesuit priests sitting on the current board. Finally, since SLU is a Jesuit university (i.e not a part of the local diocesan structure), I’m not sure if the archbishop would have any direct authority over its employees, even if it were still “controlled” by the Catholic Church. Any Catholics out there who could speak to the relationship between Jesuit schools and their local archbishops?

  • Jerry

    I’m confused. Is SJU a Jesuit school or a secular school with a Catholic heritage? If it’s secular, then what the coach said was not a school issue at all. If it’s a religious school, then it got federal funds under false pretenses. It strikes me that this is a case of a Catholic school which was trying to have its cake and eat it too, but I’m really not sure.

  • Chris Bolinger

    “I’m confident (SLU) will deal with the question of a public representative making declarations that are inconsistent with the Catholic faith,” Burke said. “When you take a position in a Catholic university, you don’t have to embrace everything the Catholic church teaches. But you can’t make statements which call into question that identity and mission of the Catholic church.”

    When I took a coaching position with a Christian school (grades 7-12), I had to sign a document stating that I would support and uphold the school’s stated beliefs and conduct. Coaches at at least some Christian colleges and universities must sign similar documents. Did Majerus have to sign such a document? None of the articles mention the school’s policy in this area.

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  • Tom Heneghan

    Fascinating story. There are a few thoughts on the Jesuit connection in my FaithWorld post.

  • Julia

    Any Catholics out there who could speak to the relationship between Jesuit schools and their local archbishops?

    Technically, Jesuits report directly to the Pope and the head of the Jesuits in Rome. However, there is also the principal that the local bishop has the right to approve official Catholic professors within their boundaries. Jesuits and other university thoeologians in other parts of the US have been failing to present their credentials to the archbishop in order that he can review them. Jesuits particularly are big now on “academic freedom.” If a theology professor is judged not to be teaching correct Catholic beliefs, he/she is not banned from the university; instead, he/she can no longer claim that he/she is authoritatively teaching Catholic doctrine. Technically, the bishop does not have authority over the rest of the university, but it’s a very muddled area, especially since the medical school is involved in many ethical matters these days. Burke takes his responsibilities seriously, but many bishops are letting all of this slide.

    On the other hand, the bishop as teacher, is well within his authority to bring to the attention of the Catholic people that somebody like Majerus is not representing Catholic teaching correctly. He has no authority to fire him.

    I’m particularly happy that Mr Townsend explained the concept of “scandal”, which is the concept at issue here and not “freedom of speech” which was bandied about by the sports writer who is clueless that it only applies to government inhibiting speech.

    This is like the exchange between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama in the debate last week. Clinton chided Obama for praising Ronald Reagan. It turns out that she misrepresented Obama’s statements about Reagan somewhat, but both of them implicitly affirmed that good Democrats don’t speak well of Republican heroes. It might shock the voters into thinking that maybe Reagan wasn’t all that bad. A perfect example of “scandal”.

  • Katherine

    Burke has no legal authority over SLU anymore than he has legal responsibility if someone slips and falls on campus (that’s not meant to be snide. The two really do go together). It’s unlikely too many Catholics look to a university basketball coach for moral guidance on the beginning of life, so there is not much issue of “scandal” here. Burke has managed to pick fights with Polish-Americans, Black Catholics, the deaf, the Jewish community and charity givers. He is now to the point where his adversaries consider him a gift and his friends are embarrassed for him.

  • Asinus Gravis

    It might have put this story more in perspective for the reporter to have included attention to Burke’s history of acting as something of a right-wing bully, especially during election seasons.

  • Julia

    Although an alumna of SLU and the relative of several Jesuits, I can’t help but relate the following:

    SLU is currently running a PR campaign on the radio and billboards bragging about being a Jesuit university at the same time it is claiming to not be controlled by either the Jesuits or the Catholic Church. I always wondered what “Jesuitical” meant. I think I got it, now.

  • Dale

    Sports reporters covering religion stories is like Amish reporters covering technology news. This is why I love sites like GetReligion and CrossFeed News. They actually know something about the subject.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As I understand it there are two things Archbishop Burke can do. First,although he can’t interfere with the internal workings of the Jesuits, the Archbishop can kick the Jesuit order out of his diocese. Second, he can declare the school is no longer a Catholic institution (which will send Catholic parents elsewhere who are looking for a genuinely Catholic school.)
    Someone here called the Archbishop a “right-wing” bully, but the alternative to a Church having strong orthodox leadership seems to be the internal doctrinal decay that has been afflicting parts of the Methodist and Episcopal churches. And, of course, most of those who believe in liberal religion clearly wish the same for the Catholic Church. Unorthodox Catholics like Kennedy and Kerry are free in this land of ours to join another Christian religion instead of using their political “bully pulpit” to lead others into anti-Catholic beliefs or behaviour.

  • Peggy

    Also, let’s not forget that Majerus is a Roman Catholic. He said so in the KMOV interview. So, on that basis alone, the archbishop has the authority to point out that the coach, who is a local public figure, cannot hold such views as a Roman Catholic. We dont’ even have to reach the issue of a bishop’s authority over Jesuit universities. Even if Majerus were employed by Wash U or some other local non-Catholic university, Abp. Burke has some authority to speak on the matter. Abp. Burke is the shepherd of all Catholic souls in his diocese.

  • dido

    It might have put this story more in perspective for the reporter to have included attention to Burke’s history of acting as something of a right-wing bully, especially during election seasons.

    Is that like a “right-wing bully” or like a Roman Catholic pastor and bishop?

  • Asinus Gravis


    A concerned pastor must first approach the person privately to examine his concerns about the problems he sees with the conduct of his parishoner. In tht way, some genuine reconstructive action (if required) has a possibility.

    Publicly remonstrating a parishoner. without first trying to correct them privately, is far from pastoral. Nor is it sensibly intended to bring about genuine reform. It is being a BULLY.

  • Mollie

    Folks, let’s keep the comments focused on journalism, not our personal religious views.

  • dido

    It’s the journalism that Asinus has swallowed whole that produces abusive comment like that. Bully for him!

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Mollie, I think you got something wrong in your statement about Catholics and embryonic stem cell research. You stated, “It’s against stem cell research that kills embryos.”

    However, if I’m not mistaken, the Catholic Church completely opposes any research on embryos, even if the embryo is not destroyed. An embryo is a human being and must be treated as any other human being when doing medical experiments. Only those who have the ability to give their full and fully-informed consent can have experiments done on them and, last I checked, embryos have not yet reached the age of reason.

    Now some may point to the claims of researchers who state that they have extracted stem cells from embryos without destroying the embryos themselves. The problem with that is the number of embryos they did destroy in order to get to that point. It’s comparable to the Nazi experiments on prisoners, or the syphilis experiments done to Blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama, or obtaining organs from death row prisoners in China. Interesting and useful information was gathered and organ recipients might benefit, but the manner in which these procedures were done is completely illicit and evil. (Some Scriptural saying about doing evil to achieve good comes to mind.) So the Church would not accept the results of that research as morally licit.

    The fact is that the Church is quite happy with research on stem cells derived from any other source but human embryos. And if scientists can take a skin stem cell and step it back to its pluripotent stage without destroying any human life in the process (it has been stated by some that with the details of the Cell and Nature articles coming out, there appears to have been some illicit intervention with embryonic stem cells – sorry, can’t provide a reference at the moment), then that’s great.

  • James

    The legal relationship between the archdiocese and the University is an interesting one.

    In 1967, control of the university was transferred to a lay-dominant board of trustees. However, the Jesuits never secured an indult of alienation from the Vatican. That means that the Holy See views the lay board of trustees as a mechanism of indirect control necessitated by American law. However, the Jesuits have enough seats on the board to effectively be able to veto any measure that requires a 2/3 vote, which most major changes would.

    In the eyes of the Vatican, control is exercised thus:
    The Jesuit superior, along with all Jesuits takes a vow of obedience to the Pope. Thus the Pope can instruct the Jesuit superior or individual Jesuits to take particular actions and they must comply. So he could instruct the Jesuit particular to give Fr. Biondi particular orders or to recall Fr. Biondi from the university. The Pope also could withdraw the Jesuits from the University, if the board refused to bend to the Jesuit Superior. So there’s control of executive governance by having a Jesuit superior. There’s control of legislative governance by the Jesuits having veto power.

    Neither of these are “control by a religious creed” according to American law, but they are effective control over the university.

  • Mollie


    I wrote sloppily. What I meant is that the church supports stem cell research on human sources other than embryos.

    Thanks for clarifying.