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We’ve previously looked at media coverage of the rather public dispute between Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Bishop Thomas Tobin. Last week I suggested that reporters at least explain the Catholic understanding of scandal as it relates to the case. And this week, I noted the confusion many reporters have between banning a communicant and suggesting he refrain from taking communion.

There’s been a lot of coverage and much of it is inadequate. Take this Agence France Presse story’s incorrect description of what Roman Catholics teach about communion:

Communion is a church ritual that involves the sharing of bread and wine meant to represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

No, Catholics don’t believe that. They believe that they receive the body and blood of Christ, not representations of them.

Or note this lede to an Associated Press story:

A month of harsh words between Rep. Patrick Kennedy and a strident critic, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin, escalated Sunday when the bishop acknowledged asking Kennedy not to receive Holy Communion because of the Democratic lawmaker’s support for abortion rights.

The bishop’s attempt to publicly shame Kennedy comes just a few months after the death of his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Did the reporter even read Tobin’s statement acknowledging that he asked Kennedy not to receive Holy Communion? If so, how could he write that it was an attempt to publicly shame Kennedy since the request was made in a confidential letter from 2007 . . . that only came to light when Kennedy told the media about it? I also note that Kennedy is not strident but Tobin is. Why is that?

The article does have some helpful things, including a paragraph explaining that church teaching on abortion is definitive and unchanging whereas teaching about the death penalty is less definitive. It also references Gov. Mario Cuomo’s infamous “Religious Belief and Public Morality” speech at Notre Dame where he launched the “personally opposed, publicly supportive” stance on abortion rights.

But I’ve noticed this other trend in many of the stories. Reporters will get comments from, say, a Rev. Thomas Reese or Gov. Mario Cuomo. These people will speak against Bishop Tobin, which is certainly their right and it is absolutely important to get that perspective in the story. But I’ve yet to see any quotes from scholars, priests or observers who defend Tobin. And it’s laughable to think that this is because Tobin doesn’t have defenders.

This Associated Press story used the hook of Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Penn., defending Kennedy as a fellow Catholic who supports abortion rights. Murphy says that millions of Catholics across the country are disheartened at what happened to Kennedy and he says that Catholics who support legalized abortion agree with the Catholic Church on “99 percent” of the issues. There’s another reference to Cuomo but nobody is quoted defending Tobin.

Or take this CNN story headlined “Kennedy abortion debate puts politics, religion back in spotlight.” It explains the Tobin request and, unlike so many other stories, it notes that the request was made privately to Kennedy. In fact, it actually includes more of Tobin’s perspective than most stories and it explains some history of the Kennedy family and that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes the Senate version of the health care bill for lacking the Stupak Amendment provisions in the House bill.

But then there’s the section on how “other Catholics” feel about Tobin’s stance. We get the Rev. Thomas Reese calling Tobin more Catholic than the pope. And we hear from CNN’s senior Vatican analyst John Allen. He talks about how Tobin is using communion as a “political weapon.”

And also in the “other Catholics” category, we get the emergent movement’s Brian McLaren. He also opposes Tobin, saying that the Catholic Church is risking its moral authority by focusing on abortion. He also dislikes the church’s “binary” thinking on homosexuality. And then he says that the bishops are inconsistent because they don’t withhold the Eucharist to folks who support increasing nuclear stockpiles.

And that’s it. That’s how “other Catholics” feel about Tobin. Reese, Allen and, um, Brian McLaren. Reporters simply need to do a better job of getting perspective on this issue. Reporters should talk to Tim Townsend at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He always got great quotes from folks on all sides when he was covering Archbishop Raymond Burke. Or just read through his old articles and see if they can steal some of his sources.

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  • dalea

    One of the many virtues of NewMedia is that it allows people to speak directly to the public. Chris Matthew’s Hardball allowed Bishop Tobin to appear and address the public without filter:

    http://thepoliticalcarnival.blogspot.com/2009/11/video-abortion-rights-round-2-chris.html

    Contrast this with the confusions the MSM generates, as shown above.

  • dalea

    The full discussion and transcript can be found here:

    http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/11/24/143719/97

    Bishop Tobin speaks directly:

    REV. THOMAS TOBIN, BISHOP OF PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND: Sure. And that’s a good reference and a very famous quote, of course.

    A little bit of a difference, though. I think what the president, the ex-president, was talking about was the establishment of a national religion. In fact, what we’re trying to do is not dictate what the public policy should be in the United States from a purely Catholic doctrinal point of view.

    What we’re trying to do, most of all, is instill good human values, but also have Catholics who are in political office be faithful to the dictates of the church and the dictates of their conscience and the teachings of the church.

  • Kyle

    Reporters simply need to do a better job of getting perspective on this issue.

    One gets the distinct impression they are genuinely, actively not interested in other perspectives at this point.

  • Ed

    In MSMspeak:
    A. Any Kennedy is above reproach.
    B. Anyone who thinks otherwise is an ogre.
    C. Ergo, Bishop Tobin is an ogre.
    Case closed.

  • Brian Walden

    This isn’t particularly related to this topic, but why is the Catholic Church in the news so much? It seems like every other post on this blog is about Catholics?

    More on point, there’s a dichotomy in the Catholic Church which I don’t think many reporters understand. I don’t know if these are the best words to describe it, but in society in general the practice is more “real” than the rule. If a group’s official policy is X but most members do Y instead, Y is considered to be “real” position of that group. But, in the Catholic Church the rule is more “real” than the practice. So in this case, it’s true that many (probably most) bishops do not enforce the restriction against publicly unrepentant sinners receiving communion as strictly as they should. But that doesn’t change the “reality” of the rule.

    It seems that reporters are looking to get quotes from people describing the beliefs and practices of average Catholics at the expense of explaining the rule and the reasoning behind it. I think it’s important to cover both (and the relationship between the two) when covering the Catholic Church.

  • Corita Stull

    Well, I guess I am getting old and cranky, because here are my comments:

    To Brian Walden: I think the Catholic Church is in the news a lot lately because they are (1) in fashion as the bad guy, and (2) speaking out a lot on issues dominating the news: health care and abortion.

    Also, I am afraid that I have come to the conclusion that reporters are just too lazy to go looking for good sources. Especially on certain topics.

  • Corita Stull

    Um , I meant *some* reporters are too lazy…

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The choice of words is very telling. Even when the issue is the Church’s teaching on the sacredness of innocent human life and its willful extermination, the AP here and in most of the liberal news media frames it as a “rights” issue–which automatically prejudices the typical American reader who is brought up to revere anything that pops up under the guise of “rights.”
    The whole tone of the AP story would have been different if the sentence that ended ” the Democratic lawmaker’s support for abortion rights” ended with the words “the Democratic lawmaker’s support for tax financing of the extermination of innocent human life” (or something similar.
    The media makes sure the Church is forced to play on the pro-abort’s vocabulary playing field.
    Also, since many, many politicians-especially Catholic ones–claim they are personally opposed to abortion but must vote the way they claim their constituents want, when is a reporter going to use some history analogies in their questions??? Like, if your district became pro-Nazi or pro-racist, would you then also feel compelled to vote their way??? Or would you, should you follow your “personally opposed” opinion and take the consequences at the next election???

  • Julia

    I saw that Chris Matthews clip. The bishop was given about 5% of the air time – it played like a typical Bill O’Reilly slap down. Most of it was a truly angry Matthews lecturing and browbeating the bishop.

    UPDATE: I just watched the video of the bishop with Bill O’Reilly who also asked tough questions, but gave the bishop time to answer and didn’t angrily lecture the bishop. I think hell just froze over.

    http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2009/11/tobintv-tour-continues.html

    Re: One aspect of this which might confuse a reporter who is not Catholic. Half of my family is Protestant and I have been at services where communion in passed around in the pews, mostly as little, individual cups with grape juice in them. In the Catholic Mass, a person leaves his or her pew and walks up to the front of church, gets in a line and is individually given communion by the priest or designated lay person.

    So – Kennedy is being told not to “present himself” for communion – not to walk up and get in line for communion. (Canon 916). If the bishop instructs his priests to ban Kennedy from Communion – the responsibility is on the person distributing Communion to not give it to Kennedy. (Canon 915). The bishop is still reminding Kennedy of his responsibilities under 916. He has not moved to 916.

    Can. 916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.

    Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

    Source: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P39.HTM

  • Julia

    I meant the bishop has not moved to 915.

  • michael

    I don’t know why Chris Matthews bothers having guests.

    He should just shout into a mirror.

    And I don’t know why Bishop Tobin would consent to appear on that show.

  • Julia

    Here’s a good source for reporters: Ed Peters, a Catholic canon lawyer.

    Here’s a link to his blog where he analyzes canon law issues in the news. Note the books he has written that would also be a good source for reporters.

    http://www.canonlaw.info/blog.html

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Matthews is either too clueless or too disingenuous to acknowledge what Bp. Tobin is actually doing. He says:
    You’ve gone into the area of lawmaking, and condemned the behavior of public officials who have to write public policy.

    No, actually, Bp Tobin has not. He has done two entirely different things. First, he has spoken, as a citizen, to his elected official. Second, and more importantly, he has spoken as a clergyman to a parishioner, telling him very clearly what is right and what is wrong. As the bishop of the diocese in which Kennedy lives, Bp. Tobin has that absolute right. Kennedy may act contrary to that, but if so, he is defying the Church. The Church, which Bp. Tobin embodies, is not obligated to continue to treat him as a member in good standing if he defies its moral strictures. Period.

    As a citizen, Tobin can condemn the behavior of any elected official he likes, and particularly the one representing him. As a bishop, he not only can but must draw the line between right and wrong for his flock. The one thing Tobin is not doing is trying to legislate, any more than Kennedy is trying to celebrate Mass.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Based upon my extensive experience with the media, they are getting just the perspective that they want to.

    An accurate presentation on the realities of the Church’s position is very easy to get.

    There has to be the will to get it.

  • Dudley Sharp

    I was only a year ago that this was a very big deal in many stories around the wrorld.

    This is a very clear article which is very easy to understand, for anyone, inclusive of the media, on religous beats or not.

    Fr. John De Celles, “What Ardent Practicing Catholics Do”

    “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is … a grave and clear obligation to oppose them … [I]t is therefore never licit to … “take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.” “In other words: it is always a grave or mortal sin for a politician to support abortion.”

    “Now, some will want to say that these bishops-and I- are crossing the line from Religion into to politics. But it was the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) who started this. The bishops, and I, are not crossing into politics; she, and other pro-abortion Catholic politicians, regularly cross over into teaching theology and doctrine, And it’s our job to try clean up their mess.”

    “Some would say, well Father, what about those people who support the war in Iraq, or the death penalty, or oppose undocumented aliens? Aren’t those just as important, and aren’t Catholic politicians who support those “bad Catholics” too?

    “Simple answer: no. Not one of those issues, or any other similar issues, except for the attack on traditional marriage is a matter of absolute intrinsic evil in itself. Not all wars are unjust — and good Catholics can disagree on facts and judgments. Same thing with the other issues: facts are debatable, as are solutions to problems.”

    “Imagine if someone came in here and said “I’m a mafia hit man and I’m proud of it.” Or “I deal drugs to little children.” Or “I think black people are animals and it’s okay to make them slaves, or at least keep them out of my children’s school.”

    “Are these ‘ardent practicing Catholics’? No, they are not.”

    “And neither is a person who ardently supports and votes to fund killing 1 to 1.5 million unborn babies every single year. Especially if that person is in a position of great power trying to get others to follow her. Someone, for example, like a Catholic Speaker of the House, or a Catholic candidate for Vice President of the United States, or a Catholic senior Senator who is stands as the leading icon his political party. Like the proud and unrepentant murderer or drug dealer, they are not ardent Catholics. They are, in very plain terms, very bad Catholics.”

    “But the reason I say all this is not because I want to embarrass them or even correct them — they’re not even here. It’s because of you. Because back in the 1850’s when Catholic bishops, priests, and politicians were either silent or on the wrong side of the slavery debate, they risked not only their souls, but the souls of every other Catholic they influenced. I cannot do that, and I won’t do that.”

    “What Ardent Practicing Catholics Do: Correcting Pelosi”, National Review Online, 9/1/2008 6:00AM
    http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=NTY1MzAwOTc5MmViMzUyYzM5YmY3OWFkYzdkMzY0YzM=

  • http://churchfurnitureguy.com/ cfguy

    Matthews has little ability to understand the real issues, let alone do a fair interview with the Bishop.