AP offers doctrinal soup on Mahony

One does not have to read GetReligion for long to realize that the scribes at this particular weblog are not very fond of news reports that use:

* Vague labels instead of detailed information.

* Political labels to describe people who are taking part in debates that are essentially about matters of doctrine.

* Vague political labels, in particular, to describe complex leaders in ancient traditions, ranging from Catholicism to Orthodox Judaism, from Eastern Orthodox Christianity to Buddhism (I am thinking about the Dalai Lama as I type that).

I mean, try to pick an appropriate political label to describe the life and faith of the Servant of God Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement. If you want to struggle with that, cruise around in this Google Search — pointing toward the work of those who are promoting her cause to be recognized as a saint — and look for evidence of her holding unorthodox beliefs on matters of church tradition, moral theology and the creeds. Good luck with that.

How about Pope John Paul II? Anyone want to pin an easy label on Mother Teresa? How about the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York? You may want to be careful with that one. How about Sargent Shriver and, especially, his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver? The late Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania?

I could go on and on.

However, coverage of the retirement of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles — see this previous GetReligion post — has offered some sterling examples of what happens when mainstream journalists do not really know what label to assign to a religious leader. Is this a progressive/reformer/liberal or is he a traditionalist/conservative/orthodox guy? Things can be so complicated.

Consider, for example, the opening paragraphs of this Associated Press report on Mahony. Let’s try to spot a few buzz words as we go along, shall we?

LOS ANGELES — When Cardinal Roger Mahony was ordained nearly a half-century ago, the Roman Catholic church was in the throes of a modernization and renewal — and the lanky young priest who grew up near his family’s poultry processing plant was seen as a leading liberal light for the times.

OK, one vote for “liberal.” You should also note that “liberal,” presumably, is another way of saying that Mahony is pro “modernization,” which, in his case, is a verdict on which a wide range of Catholics would agree. But is this the modernization of doctrine or liturgy or administration or what? Also note that “liberal” equals “renewal.” Note that well.

As a seminarian and young cleric, the Spanish-speaking Hollywood native celebrated Mass with Mexican fieldworkers, worked with Cesar Chavez to fight for better farmworker conditions and was appointed auxiliary bishop of Fresno, the heart of California’s bread basket, at the tender age of 38.

More logic here. The assumption is that his most important work is connected to politics and economics. So, in doctrinal terms, is Mahony being “liberal” or “traditionalist” when taking a stand on these matters of social justice? Let’s ask Dorothy Day about that one. Or how about John Paul II and the leaders of Poland’s Solidarity labor union.

More, you say?

Mahony retires Sunday and hopes to cement that legacy by dedicating himself fulltime to the fight for immigration reform. For many, though, the cardinal’s career will instead be defined — and irreparably tainted — by a devastating clergy abuse scandal that unfolded on his watch, first as bishop of Stockton and then as head of nation’s largest archdiocese.

The scandal, which resulted in a $660 million settlement with more than 500 plaintiffs, proved to be the biggest erosion of Mahony’s authority in a church that had already shifted around him with a revived emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition. In his final years in Los Angeles, Mahony has been dogged by hundreds of lawsuits, criminal investigations into clergy abuse in the archdiocese and a bitter legal fight over sealed church files on some of the church’s worst abusive priests.

Wow. How do you read that?

Here’s my take. It seems that Mahony was a good Catholic “liberal,” except that he fell short when it came time to carry that banner on matters of clergy sexual abuse.

More logic. That would mean that doctrinal conservatives would be, well, in favor of a lax approach on abuse and liberals would favor “reform” and public repentance. Really? Is that consistent? I don’t know about you, but I have seen plenty of sins on the left and the right during the clergy sexual-abuse era.

Also, note the story’s suggestion that his efforts to fight for immigration reform, workers’ rights, social justice and other causes were causing clashes with the “revived emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition” in the Church of Rome. So a renewed doctrinal orthodoxy in Rome (What else could “tradition” mean in this context?) clashes with Mahony’s history of activism on economic issues. Really? Again, let’s pose that one to Dorothy Day.

What? You want more?

The decades of Mahony’s service defined an arc of dramatic change that saw the church shift from the more liberal attitudes of the 1960s to a centralized hierarchy under Pope John Paul II and a renewed embrace of tradition under Pope Benedict XVI. The selection of Archbishop Jose Gomez to take over after Mahony’s 75th birthday underscores those changes: Gomez is a member of Opus Dei, the influential group favored by Pope John Paul II that fiercely defends church orthodoxy and authority.

There’s much, much more — including an appearance by the official ordained voice of American journalism.

But here is the question that I really wanted to see answered here: If Mahony differed with Rome on issues of tradition and doctrine, as suggested by this report’s drumbeat of “liberal” vs. “orthodox” labels, what were the theological, doctrinal and liturgical issues that defined these divisions? I can’t find any concrete examples in this story. Can you?

Just asking.

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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.

  • Darrell Turner


    I didn’t know that New York had had a Cardinal Joseph O’Connor, but I remember a Cardinal John O’Connor who served until his death in 2000. :)

  • http://www.commonwealmagazine.org Grant Gallicho

    Terry: There’s no denying that the usual political labels don’t always fit religious leaders. Still, some fit better than others. Presumably you wouldn’t deny that there is such a thing as a liberal Catholic, and that Cardinal Mahony more or less fits that description (even if this story fails to provide one of the many examples it could have). Mahony is in fact the prime example of the fact that the sexual-abuse scandal knew no ideology (apart from clericalism, which is of course another form of guild mentality). From the beginning of the crisis, some conservative Catholics framed the issue as a question of orthodoxy: if these wayward priests had only taken their vows more seriously, if only they hadn’t fallen victim to the ’60s dissentfest, the Catholic Church wouldn’t be in this mess. Then it became clear that one conservative bishop shared a great deal of blame for the 2002 wave of scandals. Then some liberal Catholics thought that had something on those uptight procelibacy types. Then L.A. settled for $660 million–roughly one-quarter of all U.S. Catholic sexual-abuse payouts. And we’re still waiting for the archdiocese to release the priest personnel files it promised to.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Thank you. Yet more evidence that writing at night is more difficult as one ages….

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I have heard the Mahony case debated, left vs. right.

    My point was that — in terms of doctrine — the reasons he was called a “liberal” in this story were not matters of doctrine, they were issues — such a labor issues, or immigration — in which Catholics would be in agreement, with few exceptions. Now, the shape of the POLITICAL answers to those questions? Yes, you would see some debate there.

    To the story calls him a liberal Catholic and never lets us here any doctrinal reasons for why other Catholics might consider that judgment accurate. We just get his politics.

  • Tod Tamberg

    Well, folks, you’ve heard it said that AP is in the business of getting it first, if not always right. (Indeed, the first version of this story pegged me as the Archdiocese’s attorney! Never been near a law school.) In my ten years’ as spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, I can say that the two AP reporters who wrote this story tend to call only when there is a sex abuse issue in which they are interested. I don’t think Zoll (in NY) has called in the past year and a half or more, and Flaccus doesn’t even live in the Archdiocese.

    As for repeated requests for an interview with the cardinal, I count a total of two requests. As for “questions” about O’Grady, of which volumes have been written by all sides, there was only this from Flaccus:

    Cardinal Mahony has addressed his decisions with priests such as Baker and Wempe and O’Grady in past stories and in the Report to the People of God. Does he have anything new to offer as way of explanation for his handling of these cases?

    What bothered me most about the story was the statement about the archdiocese becoming more “orthodox” and “traditional” while the cardinal seemingly was lost in some sort of liberal, hippy time-warp. Apparently, Archbishop Gomez’s appointment is proof of this shift. (BTW, Archbishop Gomez met the Opus Dei question head-on in his introductory press conference. He said he was no longer in Opus Dei. He’s also repeatedly praised Cardinal Mahony’s ministry in very specific terms, adding that he hopes to continue it.)

    It seems to me that writing such as this is more indicative of AP’s basic unfamiliarity with the Catholic church, and specifically, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Hopefully, someday, that will change. But until then, thank goodness there are websites like Get Religion.

  • Julia

    Actually, Mahony’s politics are pretty much in sinc with Benedict’s speeches.

    Altho, Benedict would probably have a heart attack if he saw what went on in some Masses at the LA cathedral.

    or worse – the liturgies and speakers at the annual Religion Education Conference Mahony started staging some years ago.



    It will be interesting to see how the new Archbishop deals with the 2011 Conference which will begin in just a few weeks. Here’s the schedule set under Mahony’s regime with videos from last year’s event. A great compare and contrast subject for LA reporters.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The fact of the matter is political labels are usually NOT helpful when trying to give an adequate insight into the soul and beliefs of a Catholic leader. That is because they are usually not making their decisions on public or controversial religious issues based on some political theory or ideology, but on their understanding of Church doctrine, Church Tradition, and Biblical teachings.

  • Harold

    Since the Archdiocese spokesman is commenting, I’d be interested to hear him respond to the assertion by the LA Times, the largest newspaper in the Archdiocese, that they were frozen out by the archdiocese and were not granted interviews of Mahony because the Archdiocese didn’t like the Times’ coverage.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    In my ten years’ as spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, I can say that the two AP reporters who wrote this story tend to call only when there is a sex abuse issue in which they are interested. I don’t think Zoll (in NY) has called in the past year and a half or more, and Flaccus doesn’t even live in the Archdiocese.

    Given the extent of the sex-abuse scandal in the Los Angeles Archdiocese — $660 million settlement with more than 500 plaintiffs, according to the AP story — I can see where it would dominate reporters’ attention and where the archdiocese’s PR folks would get tired of talking about it/taking calls about it.

    I worked with Zoll in my time with AP. I respected her work then and now, the specific criticisms of this post aside. Zoll covers all religions on a national (and sometimes international) level, which might explain her limited calls to a particular archdiocese.

    As for Flaccus, I don’t guess I understand why a reporter needs to live in the archdiocese to report on it.

  • Tod Tamberg

    Bobby, I should have said that the media attention surrounding sexual abuse was understandable. Tired of speaking about it or not, it was and is news.

    And Rachel Zoll is a decent writer with a large beat to cover.

    That said, this is the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. More than five million Catholics (bigger than NY and CHI combined) celebrating Mass in 42 different languages. As North America’s largest Archdiocese it seems reasonable that we would have a larger signature on the religion beat radar than, say, Idaho.

    I guess in this era of journalism by telephone and Google, we have to settle for reporters who live and work outside of the beat they are supposed to cover. But I can and will still hope for more.

  • Marie

    I think that it is correct to say that political labels are not accurate when it comes to religious classifications. When I see “liberal Catholic” I see “Catholic who doesn’t actually believe in Catholicism.” Because of the religious context I see liberal as someone who doesn’t wish to be constrained by traditional belief. My mind automatically goes to wondering what maters of doctrine or big “T” Traditions did the individual not believe in. My mind does not go to political and social issues, especially with regard to the Catholic church because of their longstanding history of concern with regard to social issues. In fact, as their evolvement is longstanding, that would make it a traditional/conservative/orthodox involvement, which of course is in conflict with the political assumptions at all such involvement’s are progressive/reformer/liberal.
    THese labels can be as loaded as the “fundamentalist” label because they come with all sorts of political assumptions. Add to this the fact that, depending on where the reader falls in the political spectrum, the individual terms have positive and negative connotations.

  • Asshur

    If the qualifiying word were suspicion of modernism (in the Pascendi sense), rather than “liberal”, some of the issues regarding Roger Card. Mahoney were perhaps most clear.

    Beside his missteps in the abuse scandal, there are other conflictive issues related to him:The percived widespread (and officialy encouraged, it is claimed) liturgical abuse in his Archdiocesis; his arquitectural “tastes”; and a percieved too compromising pastoral -in matters doctrinal and moral- approach, f.i. his duell with Sr. Angelica -of ETWN fame. about the Real Presence was momentuous.
    With his exalted rank in the Church, it has made him the symbol of the “Spirit of VII” Church in the USA and the favorite linchpin for everybody not on that boat

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I agree with Bobby in my respect for Zoll’s work, as a rule.

    I also would rather have my church covered by a religion beat pro than a general assignment writer in my zip code.

    Tragically, those appear to be the only options. A religion pro IN LA? Don’t hold your breath.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    One and all:

    This is not the place to simply bash Archbishop Mahony. We’re trying to stay focused on the press coverage of him and the AP piece, in particular.

  • Ben

    Is there data to show that traditional Catholics share mostly the same political viewpoints on immigration and welfare as progressive Catholics? That’s partly what’s being asserted here in the commentary but I am just curious if that is really a known fact?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I didn’t say that they had the same POLITICAL beliefs in terms of strategies. I said they had the same DOCTRINAL beliefs in terms of how the church requires care for the poor, the homeless, refugees, etc. You misread what I wrote.

  • Tod Tamberg

    Harold, LA Times writer Tim Rutten spent nearly two hours interviewing the cardinal. You can search the Times’ website to read the first of Rutten’s two columns from the interview. Thanks.

  • Harold

    Rutten is a columnist/opinion writer who has always been pro-Mahony. The news writers at the paper say that they aren’t granted interviews.

  • Bain Wellington

    Deeper in the story the journalists make the connection liberal=60′s=decentralized/ modernized Church, and they contrast it with a more centralized hierarchy (sic) under JPII and a renewed embrace of tradition under Benedict XVI. It is not obvious what these characterizations might mean for the average reader, but at least the journalists are striving to avoid quasi-political labels.

    So far it would seem clear that Cardinal Mahony is being located in the decentralized/ modernizing/ non-traditional camp which is disinclined to ground itself in institutional structures.

    The reason the piece is unable to connect Mahony’s “liberal” outlook and the sex abuse scandal lies in the misuse of the word “authority” in the line: ” . . the erosion of Mahony’s authority in a church that had already shifted around him with a revived emphasis on orthodoxy and tradition”.

    I would recast it as “the erosion of Mahony’s leadership in a Church that had already shifted around him with a revived emphasis on authority.” The word “authority” in this context can only mean hierarchical government and the teaching authority of the Church (deriving from Mt.28:18-20) on faith and morals.

    Does this tie in with the malignant efflorescence of sexual abuse by clergy (most prevalent in the 1960′s and 1970′s) and the lax response by diocesan bishops in certain jurisdictions (including LA) in the 1980′s and 1990′s?

    During the revision of Canon Law between 1965 and 1983 there was a debate (reflecting the prevailing culture-shift in the “West”) as to:-

    “the scope of canonical penal law and the need for a de-centralized approach to cases with emphasis on the authority and discretion of the local bishops. A ‘pastoral attitude’ to misconduct was preferred and canonical processes were thought by some to be anachronistic. A ‘therapeutic model’ often prevailed in dealing with clerical misconduct. The bishop was expected to ‘heal’ rather than ‘punish’. An over-optimistic idea of the benefits of psychological therapy guided many decisions . .” [Historical Introduction to the Norms of the executive decree "Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela", 2001]

    Trust in decentralized decision-making in this area was evidently misplaced, and bishops initially had no sufficient expertise for dealing with the few cases that came before them, and were then overwhelmed when the flood-gates first opened in the 1990′s. We might add for good measure the destructive effect of the sexual revolution (still in progress) that encourages the view that continence is nothing but the unhealthy repression of the natural sex urge. It’s the old story: law vs. licence. This is where the “liberal” outlook and the clergy sexual abuse scandal intersect.

  • Bain Wellington
  • Asshur

    It was not my intention to bash anyone. I thougth you were asking why he is considered the “liberal” par excelence of the Church in America, and what was lacking on the picture of the AP article. While for a secular audience the abuse scandal and his social engagement can be the most interesting part, the allegations i did put on the table (with one exception, I talk about “percieved”, “it is claimed”) are the most widely spoken about him when perusing hostile catholical sources (from EWTN down to “Rorate Caeli”).
    What I wanted to point (and missed) is that putting him as the “star” of this area which MSM call “liberal” is as much a product of his critics as of himself, in areas wide below the radar of the AP article.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I agree that the piece is fuzzy, at best, on where Mahony fits into the Catholic spectrum. I did not have time to read the whole story, but I can tell you that references to him as a theological liberal refer to a celebrated fight with Mother Angelica at EWTN. I don’t recall the details, but sometimes in the late 1990s she basically called him a heretic, claiming that a pastoral letter he wrote had an incorrect teaching on the Eucharist. Mahony, who shared the concerns of other bishops that EWTN was becoming an alternate magesterium, complained to Rome that she was not only incorrect about the doctrinal error, but was usurping his teaching role as a bishop. She was forced to apologize. But, regarding labels, you could argue that Mahony was the conservative one in that case since he was defending the teaching role of bishops as it is taught in the magesterium.

  • http://www.religionnews.com Daniel Burke

    So, now PR personnel are going to publicize their interactions with reporters on blogs? Even when the reporters in question can’t respond because of company policy?

    Dangerous game, folks.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby


    I, too, was surprised to see Tod Tamberg’s comments. But if the organization he represents is getting what it considers inadequate coverage, what’s his incentive not to publicize his interactions with the reporters? What’s dangerous about it? I ask in all seriousness as I try to understand where you’re coming from.

  • Ira Rifkin

    The problem is Tod’s being indiscreet, which he should know undercuts his ability to function with all reporters. If he has a complaint about a reporter or news outlet he should be discussing it with the alleged offender directly and off-the-record.

    If a pr guy/gal was badmouthing me publicly I’d be pissed. To publicly diss an operation with the AP’s reach invites payback.

    Daniel is correct here.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    To publicly diss an operation with the AP’s reach invites payback.

    What’s that old saying: “Don’t pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Certainly, I understand that, and AP claims to reach half the world’s population on any given day.

    But I do wonder if that old-media adage still holds true in the Internet age?
    For good or bad, have the old rules changed?

  • Ira Rifkin


    No. Only the mode of delivery has.

  • Passing By

    What? Is this the third post on Card. Mahoney, and Mother Angelica finally came into the discussion? Here’s the pastoral in question. Make up your own mind if it’s heretical.

    Thank goodness the Religious Education conference get some mention, although I didn’t see it in the articles (glazed over after awhile, to be honest). This is a huge event that says more about Card. Mahoney’s churchmanship – his theology, really – than the pastoral letter that exercised Mother Anglica so thoroughly.

    But has anyone mentioned the kerfluffle between the cardinal and Gov. Keating? It’s Fox News, so some will dismiss it, but you have to admire an article that manages quotes from both Fr. Thomas Reese and Deal Hudson.