Hopelessly devoted to fog

guade4I thought I would share a chunk of my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week — filed on the fly while dashing all over greater Los Angeles — because it grew directly out of posts and comments here at GetReligion.

I realize that it’s kinda “inside baseball” stuff for religion-beat warriors, but it includes some very helpful quotes from people who should get lots of respect from readers here. More to come on that.

The issue is the much-overused and abused word “devout,” especially as it is often married to the word “Catholic.” The result often makes ordinary, Sunday-in-the-pew Catholics scratch their heads.

For example, you may remember the tragic case of the “devout” Catholic who died in the three-day head-washing voodoo rite? By the way, yes, I know about the overlaps of cultural Catholicism and voodoo in Haiti.

The column also mentions the recent Chicago Tribune coverage of the death of nationally syndicated horoscope columnist Linda C. Black. Here’s a key piece of that:

Ms. Black was both a devout Catholic and a devoted follower of astrology, which holds that the position of the stars and planets has a direct effect on human affairs and personalities.

I noted that this is interesting, in light of the following passage in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“All forms of divination are to be rejected. … Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers.”

You see, for all too many journalists, “devout” seems to have nothing to do with doctrine and, often, this term does not even seem to be linked to religious practice (either that or journalists make no attempt to report any facts that demonstrate a devout practice of a given faith).

So where are we? Once again, we are back in the troubling land of foggy religion labels. There are times when you have to use labels, of course. But it’s clear that journalists fall back on them too much.

What to do? I contacted a number of religion-beat veterans and observers seeking some feedback and ended up printing practical advice from two. Here is a sizable chunk of the end of this column:

There is no question that the term “devout” is used far too often and in a sloppy manner, said Richard Ostling, a religion-beat veteran best known for his work with Time and the Associated Press. This fact could be a comment on how little exposure many mainstream journalists have to religious life and practice.

“Perhaps, to someone with only secularist experiences and friends, any level of religious interest of any type might seem ‘devout,’ ” he said. But, in the end, “reporters can only observe outward behavior, not the inner soul. … There’s usually a connection between observance and personal faith, so generally it makes sense to assess personal belief by externals.”

Many of these common labels used to describe believers — terms such as “serious,” “practicing,” “committed” and, yes, “devout” — are completely subjective, agreed Debra Mason, director of the Religion Newswriters Association at the University of Missouri.

Different people define these words in different ways. With the “devout” label, there is even the implication that these believers may be fanatics.

When in doubt, reporters should simply drop the vague labels and use plain information, she said, echoing advice offered by Ostling and others.

“Since journalists do not have a direct line into the soul to discern a person’s faith, it is far better to use precise descriptions of a person’s religious practice and observance,” said Mason. For example, a reporter could note that, “Joe Smith attended Mass every day” or that “Jane Smith attended worship every week, even when ill.”

The goal is to use clear facts instead of foggy labels, an approach that Mason admitted may require journalists to add a line or two of context or background information. Non-Catholics, for example, may not understand the importance of a Catholic choosing to attend Mass every day.

However, she stressed, this extra work is “a small price to pay for more accurate and precise reporting.”

So, reporting is better than labeling. It’s a journalism thing.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Forgive brother Terry, as I have sinned. I’ve used devout as an adjective 4 times in stories since coming to the Tennessean (according to our digital archives.) Though twice I followed devout up with a description of religious behavior.

    Thought the Journal’s first point was the most important:

    Especially in a story about wrongdoing, it is important to consider carefully whether a person’s religious persuasion is relevant enough to mention.

    Not sure that devout is completely subjective–it implies that religious behavior accompanies a faith group label.
    The word “devout” is helpful here in the Bible Belt, where people often join a church in their youth and then disappear from it– but get furious if that church tries to take them off the member rolls. Not everyone who uses a faith group as a demographic label — Baptist, Methodist, Orthodox,etc–and then practices the faith. We report on a spiritual but not religious world — and haven’t quite figured out what the right language is to use.

  • Susan

    As a RC, I flinch whenever I hear the term “devout Catholic” .. it is both meaningless but yet subtly insulting.

  • Jerry

    Would “devout evangelical” be a double-whammy? Sigh.

  • Chris Jones

    I’m not that bothered by the word “devout” (although is should be applied equally to folks of all religions, not just Catholics). A religion can be either a specific set of beliefs and practices, or simply a social grouping. So it can be useful to distinguish between those who identify with the social grouping and those who have committed themselves to the religion’s belief and practices. Using “nominal” and “devout” as contrasting terms is a reasonable way to make that distinction.

    Of course, in some peoples’ minds the word “devout” has a connotation of hyper-piety or even self-righteousness. But in fact anyone who conforms to the basic teachings and practices of his or her faith is “devout,” even if his or her practice is no more intense than any other co-religionist. To use “devout” to hint that someone may be a religious fanatic is an abuse of language.

  • Cathy

    The word “observant” would be a much better choice than “devout” in most cases.

  • Dan Crawford

    I don’t believe I have ever come across the phrase “non-devout Catholic” in a newspaper or magazine. Hmm.

  • Jerry

    Dan Crawford, google found at least one reference to that phrase

    Here is a species previously unreported by the American media — the non-devout Catholic.)


  • http://www.mccamley.org Christopher

    Used to be “devout Catholic” and “staunch Protestant”. In media terms it usually means someone who makes a show of being a Catholic while living with their third husband and talking about their IVF treatment and support for women priests.

    One I hate more though is “Roman Catholic”. A term of abuse invented by Anglicans that more and more Catholics seem to be adopting. We aren’t Roman Catholics (unless we live in Rome).

  • Chris Jones


    One I hate more though is “Roman Catholic”

    I am afraid the horse has left the barn on that one. “Roman Catholic” and “Catholic” are pretty much interchangeable in referring to members of the Church headed up by Benedict XVI. And despite the fact that it originated as a term of abuse, it has entirely lost that connotation. At least where I live (near Boston — a thoroughly Catholic area), the Church itself has adopted it as a self-designation. Just about every Catholic Church has a sign out front saying “Saint So-and-So’s Roman Catholic Church.”

    My own Church got its name as a term of abuse given to us by the Catholics, but we Lutherans seem to have gotten over it.

    It could be worse. I know you don’t care for “Roman Catholic,” but it is not as bad as “Romanist,” “Papist,” and “mackeral-snapper.”

  • http://www.religital.com wandrew

    I don’t know if it’s that simple… in the ancient and medieval worlds it was usually Christian monks who were the ones writing spells to each other, invoking all manner of demons and pagan deities. Then they’d cap it off with something about the supremacy of “the one true God”. Devotion isn’t always necessarily married to the official doctrinal line.

  • Bern

    Pace, Chris, Christopher, but “Roman Catholic” and “Catholic” are not quite interchangeable. See Ukrainian Catholic, Coptic Catholic, etc.

  • Chris Jones


    Of course. But that is definitely “inside baseball” in this context. (And it was my awareness of the Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches that led me to use the mild qualifier “pretty much” in my comment.)

    In general, only “Church geeks” know that there is such a thing as an Eastern-Rite Catholic. When most Americans say “Catholic” they mean a Latin-Rite Catholic.

  • Julia

    When most Americans say “Catholic” they mean a Latin-Rite Catholic.

    Then what do you call the umbrella church that includes all the Catholic rites? You don’t really mean that “Roman Catholic” includes everybody, do you? We use Catholic for those in the universal church that are in union with the Pope, whatever their rite.

    There are lots of Anglican churches around the world – why not distinguish the one in the UK by calling it the British Anglican Church. Because it’s redundant & not necessary – it’s the mother church and needs no qualifier.

    Same with Catholic. Shame on you for calling people who know about Eastern-Rite Catholics “Church Geeks” and part of “inside baseball”. Are you praising ignorance?

    For those who think the British antipathy to Catholics is over, read this link to a very mainstream political-Anglican blog in London – check the recommendations from well-known UK personalities along the right side. Tell me if the anti-Catholic vitriol in the UK is over after reading the post and the comments about the Pope daring to visit Protestant England.


    There are many in the UK who are paranoid about the new Catholic convert Tony Blair becoming the first president of the UK – they think it’s part of a Vatican plot to take over Europe. The following is only one of the latest on this subject.


    And here an entire US article from New York Magazine about the Catholic Tony Blair is reprinted

    How Roman Catholic Blair is positioning himself to be Emperor of a secular European Union


    Papist is a better term than Roman Catholic.

  • Chris Jones


    I apologise if I gave offense with the term “Church geek.” I only meant those who take a stronger interest in Church history and theology than most people do. I emphatically include myself in that designation.

    It is simply a fact that not many people (particularly non-Catholics) know about Eastern Catholicism. I don’t call people “ignorant” because they don’t know something that they are unlikely to have been exposed to and has little relevance to their lives. The fact that there is such a thing as a “Coptic Catholic Church” is just such a fact.

    Then what do you call the umbrella church that includes all the Catholic rites?

    I call it the Roman Catholic Church, because its defining characteristic is being in communion with, and subject to, the bishop of Rome. I also call it simply “the Catholic Church” because everyone will know what I mean by that. Linguistically, either term is correct.

  • Mr Aukema

    Is it just me, or is “devout” usually used in conjunction with “in-good-standing”? The terms have been so overused that they infer a person who continues to attend services in that particular religious group, but disagree quite vocally on some key issues that group happens to hold quite dear.

    It has led me to assume that both “devout” and “in-good-standing” essentially refer to the fact that the person being referred to hasn’t been formally excommunicated, yet, but should be. I hope I am never called a “Catholic in-good-standing” in that respect…

  • Mr Aukema


    Not every Catholic monk throughout the ages has been particularly saintly. Take for instance Peter Abelard…who entered the monastery because he was sleeping with his pupil, Heloise, and her dad sent his goons after him. Being thusly castrated, he could not marry her, and they both entered into the religious life.

    While their correspondence does not have any overt sexual overtones one might expect from two former lovers whose relationship was forcibly and unwillingly ended, there also lacks much deep devotion that one finds in the writings of Catherine of Sienna, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, etc.

    Perhaps the fact that many rich barons and lords made their younger children enter the religious life (in hopes of furthering their control over their local church) had something to do with what you describe.

  • http://www.religital.com wandrew

    I think there is a not-entirely illogical – but perhaps ill-founded – conflation here between the ideas of personal devotion to God and adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy. Throughout the ages there have been people from different denominations, sects and ‘heresies’ that in most cases simply thought they were being good Christians.

    The fact that people in other places or times disagreed with them doesn’t have to change the validity of their devotion.

  • Julia

    Then what do you call the umbrella church that includes all the Catholic rites?

    I call it the Roman Catholic Church, because its defining characteristic is being in communion with, and subject to, the bishop of Rome. I also call it simply “the Catholic Church” because everyone will know what I mean by that. Linguistically, either term is correct.

    Technically, you are incorrect. If everybody knows what you mean by “the Catholic Church”, then why not drop the “Roman”?

    Do you call the Anglican Communion the Canterbury Anglican Communion? If not, why not?

    You probably started using the term Roman Catholic because that’s what you heard and read and assumed that’s what the name is. The source is England and it spread to areas where English is spoken. You will not find it used at the Vatican except for a few documents concerning joint ventures with the Anglicans out of deference to their usage. In the Victorian era (when Catholic bishops were again allowed in England), there were stand-offs between those bishops and the government over this very thing. I think the Catholic bishops finally got tired and gave up.

    Please go to that link I provided to see the continuing attitude that prevails in the UK. And recall that most of what you read about Rome and the Pope in your newspaper comes by way of the Times of London, whose two main religion reporters now and then give away their negative attitude toward Catholics, and particularly Rome and the Pope.

  • Xenophore

    In the Middle East, “Rum” or Roman refers to what we would in the West call Greek Orthodox. What we would refer to here as Roman Catholic is referred to there as Latin. In Turkish, for example, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople is called “Rum Patrikhanesi.”