Getting great quotes (updated)

quotesWhen I was a cub reporter lo many years ago, I was advised to get great quotes. Getting the full context of the story was important; ensuring that the story was accurate and fair was important; but nothing was quite as important as getting great quotes. Great quotes, and only great quotes, made the Story.

My editors pounded this message home; journalism experts pounded this message home; Tom Wolfe pounded this message home. This was in the era of journalism right before the dawn of the Internet, so the message has lost cachet. Yet the message is no less important or relevant, though perhaps not as critical as I was told.

As an example, consider the following story by Daniel Burke of Religion News Service. Burke wrote about the origins of the U.S. Catholic Bishops‘ decision to change a line in the Catholic Church’s catechism and the response of American Jewish leaders. Burke’s use of quotes elevated the story, turning what could have been a ho-hum article into an excellent one.

Most importantly, Burke’s quotes were revealing. The first half of his story addresses why Catholic bishops voted to change a line in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults about the Catholic Church’s interpretation of Jews’ relationship with God. As you might imagine, the topic is a sensitive one, and Burke’s quote from a top U.S. Catholic official highlights the political and social calculations involved:

Deleting the sentence allows U.S. bishops to dodge the controversy, said Monsignor Daniel Kutys, executive director of evangelization and catechesis at the USCCB’s committee on the catechism.

“Part of the decision was to skirt the issue rather than explain it,” said Kutys.

The second half of Burke’s story addresses the roots of the change. It discusses the role of Robert Sungenis, an amateur Catholic apologist. Burke got a great quote from Sungenis’ bishop questioning the apologists’ writings.

Sungenis’s writings on Jews have been sharply criticized by fellow Catholics, who accuse him of anti-Semitism. His local bishop, Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg, has demanded that Sungenis stop writing about Jews and made him stop using the word “Catholic” in his organization’s name.

“I had hoped that he would cease from speaking or writing about Judaism and the Jewish people in a hostile, uncharitable, and un-Christian manner,” Rhoades wrote to a former colleague of Sungenis last February.

In addition, Burke’s quotes had variety. He talked to top Catholic prelates; he talked to top Jewish leaders; he talked to Sungenis and quoted from Sungenis’ bishop. In all, he quoted from seven people. His story was not, in other words, a cut-and-paste job.

However, Burke’s use of quotes was not perfect.

His story suggests that Sungenis played a key role in changing a line in the catechism; the caption in the photo accompanying the story attributes a larger role to him, stating that Sungenis “helped lead the charge.” Yet Sungenis’ role is perhaps more ambiguous than Burke’s story implies. Burke quotes from an official with the Catholic bishops’ conference who suggests that Sungenis’ role was overstated:

Sungenis may have been the first to raise the issue, but he shouldn’t be given credit for revising the catechism, said the USCCB’s Kutys.

“It was changed, but not because of what he said,” Kutys said. “People were misunderstanding it, and through that blog spreading that misunderstanding to other people.”

Kutys’ quote, while revealing, throws into doubt Sungenis’ role. Does Kutys believe that Sungenis played any role at all? As is, Kutys’ quote implies that Sungenis did not play a major role. The reader is left scratching his or her head.

Despite this one misstep, Burke’s story deserves praise. As a rule, Catholic prelates are wary of the press and so don’t give interesting quotes, let alone revealing ones. Yet somehow Burke got them.

UPDATE: I should have described the dispute in question. The USCCB voted to remove the following passage from the adult catechism:

Pending Vatican approval, this sentence will be deleted from the text: “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.”

In its place, the USCCB approved this passage:

“To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his word, belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.”

Also, I should have explained the reason that some Catholics consider Sungenis’ writing anti-Semitic. Below is Burke’s evidence:

[Sungenis] also asserts that “an anti-Christian, Jewish influence has infiltrated the Catholic Church at the very highest levels.”

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  • James

    I am no fan of Robert Sungenis, but I don’t understand your reference to him as an “amateur Catholic apologist”. As far as I know, his only source of income is his apologetics work. Would not this make him a “professional?” If you disagree with his brand of Catholocism (as most people do), perhaps you could have put “scare quotes” around Catholic and referred to him as a “Catholic” apologist.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into this.

  • Ed Mechmann

    Just a correction: the catechism that is being changed is not the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, but rather the United States Catechism for Adults. The link in your fourth paragraph is to the wrong catechism.

  • Brian Walden

    The one thing lacking is an explanation of the two (or more) sides this paradox:

    On the one hand, God’s promises to the Jews don’t expire, according to the Bible. But Christians believe Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s covenants.

    We don’t really get any details of what the proper interpretation is. We get the impression that while Sungenis was right in pointing out that Catholics were misunderstanding it to mean that Jews could be saved without Jesus, his overall understanding of this mystery was wrong. Yet we don’t hear what his understanding of it is, nor do we hear what the bishops’ teaching is either. From the article it sounds like none of the Bishops wanted to get down to the nitty gritty and give a definitive answer.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    James, Ed, and Brian,

    Each of you make good points.

  • Jerry

    Nit: I assume you mean cachet not cache.

    message has lost cache.

    . Otherwise, this is a nice piece.

  • http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/ RSATJ

    Mr. Stricherz,

    You write:

    “However, Burke’s use of quotes was not perfect. His story suggests that Sungenis played a key role in changing a line in the catechism; the caption in the photo accompanying the story attributes a larger role to him, stating that Sungenis “helped lead the charge.” Yet Sungenis’ role is perhaps more ambiguous than Burke’s story implies. Burke quotes from an official with the Catholic bishops’ conference who suggests that Sungenis’ role was overstated…Kutys’ quote, while revealing, throws into doubt Sungenis’ role. Does Kutys believe that Sungenis played any role at all? As is, Kutys’ quote implies that Sungenis did not play a major role. The reader is left scratching his or her head.”

    This is a very astute observation. Perhaps what we have posted below at the RNS website and the Washington Post website will shed some additional light on the situation. As to who is exaggerating Sungenis’ influence, we cannot say for certain. However, it is certain that it has indeed been exaggerated, and perhaps with a purpose.

    Comment:

    The fact is that good, responsible Catholics like Suprenant and Catholics United for the Faith had been in contact with the USCCB about this sentence in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults before Robert Sungenis ever got wind of it. He was not the first to raise this issue. Period. The attempt some are making to exaggerate the role Sungenis played in effecting this improvement seems to be little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to establish guilt by association. It is difficult not to notice that Sungenis’s name is mentioned **eleven times** and his picture is placed front and center.

    The change to the USCCA had nothing to do with the kind of offensive, anti-Jewish rhetoric that Sungenis publishes and everything to do with Catholic orthodoxy. Jewish Catholics like those at the Association of Hebrew Catholics (http://hebrewcatholic.org/files/THC77.pdf ) and author Roy Schoeman (http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features/schoemanintvw1_july04.asp ) have long opposed the dual covenant error as well. Many other responsible Catholics, such as Karl Keating (http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2002/0210fr.asp ) and Dr. Scott Hahn (http://www.post-gazette.com/nation/20020814catholicsjews0814p4.asp ) have also made their opposition clear. And as this article correctly conveys, the Church has unequivocally repudiated Sungenis’ offensive, anti-Jewish views. He has been rebuked by lay Catholics and by his own bishop. (http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/2008/02/bishop-rhoades-sets-record-straight_21.html and http://www.sungenisandthejews.com/ ) Additionally, Archbishop Burke – who was recently elevated to the Church’s highest canonical court – intervened a few months ago to stop Sungenis from making a presentation in his diocese (St. Louis, MO).

    Months ago, several of us who have opposed Sungenis’s anti-Jewish extremism were perhaps more prescient than we would have liked:

    “Sungenis has made some good points about the dual covenant error. But as much as Sungenis supporters might try, it is simply impossible to divorce him from all of his ugly baggage, which now includes his slander of and public rebellion against Bishop Rhoades. These serious problems, combined with his continuing lack of humility, wisdom and discernment make it extremely imprudent to publicly enlist Sungenis’ aid in this legitimate cause. His presence only serves to discredit and undermine it.” (March, 2008: By Sungenis Alone: http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/2008/03/by-sungenis-alone_29.html#five)

    Ironically, Sungenis’s few supporters seem to find themselves with strange allies: those who dislike the Church and proponents of the dual covenant error. All three groups would certainly benefit were Sungenis to be singled out for attention in relation to the change in the U.S. Catechism for Adults– albeit for extremely different reasons.

    Leon Suprenant was right (in his comment at the RNS website). Genuine dialogue is not served by ambiguity. Neither is it served by the use of such illegitimate tactics as guilt by association (http://www.fallacyfiles.org/guiltbya.html)

    If you want to read a helpful treatment of the issues related to the Old and New Covenants, try the following article:

    http://www.catholicexchange.com/2007/04/26/94502/

    Sungenis’s theology in regard to Jews is tainted by his prejudice against them:

    http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/2008/02/theology-of-prejudice.html

    http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/2008/09/open-invitation-to-bob-sungenis.html

    http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/2008/09/proverbs-2611.html

  • http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/ RSATJ

    Mr. Stricherz,

    You write:

    “However, Burke’s use of quotes was not perfect. His story suggests that Sungenis played a key role in changing a line in the catechism; the caption in the photo accompanying the story attributes a larger role to him, stating that Sungenis “helped lead the charge.” Yet Sungenis’ role is perhaps more ambiguous than Burke’s story implies. Burke quotes from an official with the Catholic bishops’ conference who suggests that Sungenis’ role was overstated…Kutys’ quote, while revealing, throws into doubt Sungenis’ role. Does Kutys believe that Sungenis played any role at all? As is, Kutys’ quote implies that Sungenis did not play a major role. The reader is left scratching his or her head.”

    This is a very astute observation. Perhaps what we have posted below at the RNS website and the Washington Post website will shed some additional light on the situation. As to who is exaggerating Sungenis’ influence, we cannot say for certain. However, it is certain that it has indeed been exaggerated, and perhaps with a purpose.

    (cont’d below)

  • http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/ RSATJ – Michael, David and Jacob

    Comment (from RNS):

    The fact is that good, responsible Catholics like Suprenant and Catholics United for the Faith had been in contact with the USCCB about this sentence in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults before Robert Sungenis ever got wind of it. He was not the first to raise this issue. Period. The attempt some are making to exaggerate the role Sungenis played in effecting this improvement seems to be little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to establish guilt by association. It is difficult not to notice that Sungenis’s name is mentioned **eleven times** and his picture is placed front and center.

    The change to the USCCA had nothing to do with the kind of offensive, anti-Jewish rhetoric that Sungenis publishes and everything to do with Catholic orthodoxy. Jewish Catholics like those at the Association of Hebrew Catholics (http://hebrewcatholic.org/files/THC77.pdf ) and author Roy Schoeman (http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features/schoemanintvw1_july04.asp ) have long opposed the dual covenant error as well. Many other responsible Catholics, such as Karl Keating (http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2002/0210fr.asp ) and Dr. Scott Hahn (http://www.post-gazette.com/nation/20020814catholicsjews0814p4.asp ) have also made their opposition clear. And as this article correctly conveys, the Church has unequivocally repudiated Sungenis’ offensive, anti-Jewish views. He has been rebuked by lay Catholics and by his own bishop. (http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/2008/02/bishop-rhoades-sets-record-straight_21.html and http://www.sungenisandthejews.com/ ) Additionally, Archbishop Burke – who was recently elevated to the Church’s highest canonical court – intervened a few months ago to stop Sungenis from making a presentation in his diocese (St. Louis, MO).

  • http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/ RSATJ

    Comment (from RNS):

    The fact is that good, responsible Catholics like Suprenant and Catholics United for the Faith had been in contact with the USCCB about this sentence in the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults before Robert Sungenis ever got wind of it. He was not the first to raise this issue. Period. The attempt some are making to exaggerate the role Sungenis played in effecting this improvement seems to be little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to establish guilt by association. It is difficult not to notice that Sungenis’s name is mentioned **eleven times** and his picture is placed front and center.

    cont’d

  • http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/ RSATJ

    The rest of this comment can be read here, at the very bottom: (apologies for taking up so much space):

    http://www.religionnews.com/index.php?/rnstext/comments/jews_perplexed_by_change_to_catholic_catechism/

    If you want to read a helpful treatment of the issues related to the Old and New Covenants, try the following article:

    http://www.catholicexchange.com/2007/04/26/94502/

    Sungenis’s theology in regard to Jews is tainted by his prejudice against them:

    http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/2008/02/theology-of-prejudice.html

    http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/2008/09/open-invitation-to-bob-sungenis.html

    http://sungenisandthejews.blogspot.com/2008/09/proverbs-2611.html

  • http://www.schooloffaith.com Leon Suprenant

    James makes a good point. I assume the term “amateur” was taken uncritically from Burke’s article. I don’t know why Burke characterized him in that manner; from the context it appears that Burke was highlighting the fact that Sungenis’ doctorate is from a questionable source. Be that as it may, calling him an “amateur” was something of a gratuitous slight and Burke would have been better off characterizing his occupation in a more even-handed way.

    As I’ve written elsewhere and as RSATJ notes above, there are other more substantive difficulties with the article, especially the patently inaccurate statement that Robert Sungenis “led the charge” in obtaining the change in the U.S. Catechism.

    I suppose there are negative inferences that may be drawn when Burke first puts Sungenis in an unfavorable light and then credits him, at least in part, for the bishops’ action in this matter. But as a Catholic and not an investigative reporter, I’m happy that the bishops finally got rid of the ambiguous sentence in the Catechism, and that there are plenty of voices out there that clearly affirm Catholic teaching on the unicity of salvation through Jesus Christ without rancor or animosity toward Jewish people.

  • Daniel Burke

    There seems to be some confusion about why I referred to Sungenis as an amateur apologist. It has nothing to do with where he was educated or whether he is paid for his work. It was not meant as a slight, nor to present him in an unfavorable light.

    While the term “apologist” is now taken to refer to anyone who defends a given faith, for Catholics it implies that their work is commissioned, sanctioned, or affiliated with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

    With Sungenis, this is not the case. His local bishop, Kevin Rhoades, has refused to grant his sanction to Sungenis’s work, and, in fact, told Sungenis not refer to his organization as “Catholic,” as the story mentions.

    I hope this clears up any misunderstanding.

    best,
    Daniel

  • http://www.schooloffaith.com Leon Suprenant

    Fair enough, Dan.

    As someone who has been an “apologist” and lay leader the past fourteen years, I can say that the vast majority of Catholic apologists are lay people whose work is not commissioned, sanctioned, or affiliated with the hierarchy of the Church. You don’t typically see “diocesan offices of apologetics.”

    Some apologists have day jobs, others do it full-time and more/less make a living doing it. Bob Sungenis is in the second category.

    But aside from all that, since apologists and most Catholic organizations (“lay apostolates”) have a certain autonomy, they have a real responsibility to be faithful to the Church, especially their local bishop, so that their work complements rather than complicates the efforts of the diocese. That certainly has always been a priority to me.

    Also, while the clarification regarding Sungenis’ “amateur” status was helpful, really the more problematic aspect is the undue credit Burke gives to this “amateur apologist.” As noted elsewhere, Sungenis is not a reliable “amateur apologist” on this subject and it simply is not true to say that he had a role in the change that was made in the U.S. Catechism.


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