Get the Plain Dealer a rotary phone

I don’t know what the Roman Catholic Church did to anger Michael O’Malley and the editors of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer but I am curious. The reader who passed the story “Breakaway Catholic flock flourishing in New York” along wrote:

The linked article almost seemed to me to be the most perfect example of how a journalist does not “get” what makes a Catholic church Catholic. So close to April Fools, I had to check the date.

I read it and then tried to figure out if it was just a 1,600-word op-ed.

No, it really does appear that the paper has decided to write a lengthy article about how awful the Roman Catholic Church is and, by contrast, how wonderful a Protestant sect of one congregation, located in a different state, that broke away from the church is. Contained below is the pretext for why an Ohio newspaper would be writing about a church in Rochester, New York.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – At Spiritus Christi Church, the choir at Saturday night Mass sings the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” — a song about a brothel.

Surely, such a tune for a sacred service would never meet the approval of the Rochester Roman Catholic Diocese. Then again, nothing about Spiritus Christi meets the diocese’s approval.

Spiritus Christi, like the Community of St. Peter in Cleveland, is a breakaway Catholic parish at odds with its bishop.

The Rev. James Callan, 63, now assistant pastor of Spiritus Christi, has been fired from the Rochester diocese and excommunicated from the Roman rite.

Well, if all breakaways look alike to a reporter, I guess this is true. Except that Spiritus Christi broke away over serious doctrinal issues regarding same-sex relationships, female ordination and communion as open as communion can be. St. Peter, on the other hand, appears to have not liked that the bishop tried to close it in a consolidation.

Anyway, the article does a really poor job of getting anything other than the most cringe-inducing, self-aggrandizing quotes from one side. I mean, the congregation broke away a dozen years ago and so the Rochester diocese responds to media requests by pointing out that they’re not the best suited to address the doctrine or practice of the congregation on account that its not within its diocese. But the reporter is trying to do that thing where he passes them off as a Catholic congregation. Check out this tricky maneuver:

Some might say Spiritus Christi is not a real Catholic church because its pastor is a woman, it blesses gay unions and serves communion to anyone, regardless of their faith — three big sins in the eyes of the Holy See.

But don’t tell this rebel congregation it’s not real.

See what he did there? He pitted those that point out that, you know, legally and ecclesiastically this is not a church in communion with Rome with “don’t tell them they’re not real.” I mean, it’s not journalism, but it is crafty writing.

And if it’s your cup of tea and if you want to see a reporter attempt to denigrate all things Roman Catholic, you will probably love this article. If you’re wondering, again, why an Ohio paper is writing up something from a different state that happened 12 years ago and is using really unbalanced language and one-sided quotes and storytelling, well, you may want to avoid this one.

I have to share this one final example, in which the reporter demonstrates his profound grasp of how the Catholic Church understands excommunication:

The diocese said all [Father Callan’s} followers had excommunicated themselves as well.

But Callan said neither the diocese nor the Vatican presented the defectors with official excommunication documents.

“The church says a person excommunicates himself,” said Callan. “That’s nonsense. That’s like driving through a stop sign and giving myself a ticket.”

In an e-mail message responding to a request for an interview, a spokesman for the diocese said, “We are not in communion with Spiritus Christi Church and do not wish to comment.”

But interviews with Spiritus Christi members show the congregation is generally undaunted about its mass excommunication. Most shrug. Others call it a badge of honor.

“If we have the power to excommunicate ourselves, we certainly have the power to un-excommunicate ourselves,” said Sister Margie Henninger, 70, a St. Joseph nun who was ousted from her order for following the rebels.

And while there are a few more quotes like that last one, that’s it. That’s the entire conversation about excommunication.

I mean, I feel stupider having read this. Again, I don’t know what the reporter and his editors’ beefs are with the Catholic Church. But this is just not appropriate for a major metropolitan paper. It’s not that difficult to understand what the church teaches about excommunication. They’ve even put their catechism online and stuff. A reporter might even be able to find one or two Catholics who are not in the Rochester Diocese’s media office.

All that assumes the reporter and his editors want to have a balanced story instead of a hit piece, but these resources are out there for anyone with a dial-up connection and a rotary phone. I’m thinking the Plain Dealer still has those, right?

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  • Jeff

    Plus, singing “Amazing Grace” to “House of the Rising Sun” is an oldy-but-moldy senior high camp schtick. Presenting that as cutting edge progressivism . . . wow, and next, we’ll sing “Amazing Grace” to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as a nod to racial diversity & radical inclusion.

  • Martha

    With a name like “Michael O’Malley”, I’m going to take a wild leap here and guess that he’s Irish-American, lapsed Catholic, and though probably not quite old enough to be of the generation who got slapped across the knuckles with a ruler by nuns, he was offended by some priest somewhere for some reason (and I won’t speculate in depth as to what it could have been, because how do I know what sins he may or may not have committed?)

    End result: hasn’t darkened the door of a church outside family funerals for the past twenty years, and would rather say a good word for Adolf Hitler than the current Pope (whom he probably considers one and the same). Therefor, any community group sticking it to The Man in Rome (or more pertinently, the local bishop in Cleveland) is nothing less than a gathering of saints and apostles in the mould of the original Eleven after Pentecost.

  • Michel

    The other thing about singing Amazing Grace to the melody of House of the Rising Sun is that the two melodies are very closely related. Musically speaking they are very close and are almost certainly derived from the same source (along with Greensleeves).

    Speaking of great religious music, there is a famous piece with a chorus that begins, “My God is real for I can feel Him in my soul.” Well, if my “Catholic”church is real because me and my pals in the congregation know we’re real, doesn’t it follow that anybody’s God would also exist so long as they felt it? Clever writing as Mollie says but not anything you could reasonably call reporting.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Thanks for analyzing this story. This is the typical type story that convinces many Catholics–and others–that there is an anti-Catholic streak that runs through the media, with the incompetence of the writing making the situation worse.

  • Doc B

    I mean, it’s not journalism, but it is crafty writing.

    I think you are being generous. It’s not even crafty.

    By the way, did you know that ‘Amazing Grace’ fits perfectly to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island”?

  • gfe

    The first time I heard “Amazing Grace” sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” was in the early 1970s when I accepted the invitation of a friend to go to a meeting of charismatic Catholics. This is hardly cutting-edge stuff.

    The tune works with “O for a Thousand Tongues To Sing” as well.

  • Kyle

    I think what’s most disconcerting is not so much how egregious this particular piece of alleged journalism is, it’s the fact that Mr. O’Malley doesn’t seem to even care to pretend he’s being a reporter. He’s not even pretending to think it matters what the actual facts of the doctrines he’s stumbling over are, or what they’re based on, or why someone disagrees with the heroes of his story on women’s ordination and closed Communion and homosexuality. He’s not even going to pretend he finds the other side of this story anything but contemptible.

    It’s an unfortunate but understandable thing when someone tries to do decent journalism and fails. It’s a worse thing when people use their privilege and power as a journalist to advance some agenda they have hidden from the reader while trying to cover their tracks with a halfhearted nods to the tenets of journalism like balance. But this is neither of those things. It’s saying, “Who cares about the standards of journalism. Take this, you @#$#.”

    Unfortunately I don’t think that’s unique to Mr. O’Malley these days, or even to religion coverage.

  • Dave

    I’ve been reading the Plain Dealer for fifty years or so and this is the oddest story I’ve seen there. When I read it I figured it would pop up in GR. I have no idea what the point was; contra the Deacon above, I find it too muddled even to be clearly anti-Catholic.

  • Mollie


    Is there some special tie between Rochester and Cleveland? That was the weirdest thing for me — I couldn’t figure out why some Rochester breakaway from a dozen years ago was newsworthy to Cleveland readers. But perhaps there’s some regional tie that I’m unsure of? Let us know, if you have any insight.

  • Julia

    Checking into other things written by this reporter I discovered that he also has an article comparing St Peter’s to St Stanislaus in St Louis which split from the church.

    The Rev. Marek Bozek of St. Stanislaus has been excommunicated and defrocked.

    “There is no greater crime in the Catholic church than standing up to your bishop,” said Bozek, 36, a native of Poland.

    Breakaway Catholic churches are not uncommon, church watchers say, though it’s hard to get an exact number because many of them quietly organize and don’t want publicity.

    So – it seems there may be more of these break-away churches that the reporter is going to uncover for Cleveland readers. His sources of comment in this article all appear to be dissidents except for the canon lawyer in St Louis representing the Archdiocese who speaks of trying to heal the rift with St Stan’s.

  • Dave

    Mollie, there is no particular tie between the two cities. If it had been Pittsburgh, at least we have a long-standing sports rivalry going, but Rochester? Nope.

  • Julia

    I’m guessing that the reporter will soon discover the Phoenix church started by the former Vicar General of the Catholic diocese, who is also the disgraced founder of Life Teen. The excommunicated former priest was originally from Cleveland.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Plus, singing “Amazing Grace” to “House of the Rising Sun” is an oldy-but-moldy senior high camp schtick. Presenting that as cutting edge progressivism … wow, and next, we’ll sing “Amazing Grace” to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as a nod to racial diversity & radical inclusion.

    My impression was that a fair number of classic hymns had tunes based on drinking songs (and a fair number of others were based on Celtic and/or English folk tunes). The traditional practice was to fit many different sets of lyrics to a single tune, which is why I know of at least three different religious songs, one secular song, and a Ralph Vaughan Williams instrumental piece based on, for example, ‘Kingsfold’. That’s why tune names are listed differently than hymn names in the back of Anglican or Catholic hymnals. ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is, itself, a folk song (I think) based on a folk tune, so there’s nothing untoward about using that tune for religious lyrics.

    In other words, the bit about the music is a total non-story, that only would occur to someone totally unfamiliar with Anglo-American hymnody.

  • astorian

    I’m old enough to remember when hippie nuns thought they were cool for setting “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” We wise guy kids preferred to sing it to the “Gilligan’s Island” theme.

  • Mollie

    Not that this is terribly on topic, but that drinking song meme is based on a misunderstanding of what “bar tune” means.

    But if the church HAD used bar tunes, then I guess the song about a brothel would be the best example of it. Generally speaking, not that the article in any way considered this possibility, the church considers the context of music to be very important for whether it should be included in sacred music or is too distracting to worship.

    This is something that many scholars, theologians and church musicians have given a great deal of thought to over the years. And is yet another thing the reporter could have learned by speaking to, well, a single one of them.

  • Mollie

    Okay, so the Cleveland Plain Dealer flubbing this is one thing, but why in the world is Religion News Service leading its budget with this story today?


  • Fr Bill

    The answer to the columnist is simple. The media writes about the Catholic church ALWAYS portraying it as a parental or authoritarian organization that is out of touch with the times. The breakaway folks are ALWAYS portrayed as having the newly discovered truth and who are (of course) the favored underdog.

    The concept is fully described in the 1960s pop song about bringing flowers to San Francisco, where the singer says, “there’s a new generation with a new explanation…”
    Most so-called reporters these days are products of that lost generation and still think that way.

    It has little to do with news and a lot to do with “the story”.

  • Will

    Imagine the response to this:

    “Some would say that ______ ______ is not a real Jewish synagogue because they proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and accept the New Testament. But don’t tell them they aren’t real.”

    I have no trouble envisioning what would fill the letter columns, probably including some from my “friends”.

    Hector: Actually, church history tells us that the earliest example of using popular tunes for promotion was done by Arius… and we know the response to THAT.

    I mean, I feel stupider having read this.

    Shea’s Law strikes again.

  • joye

    What strikes me as most amazing here is that the Diocese of Rochester has the reputation as one of the most liberal in the USA. We’re talking about the same Bishop Clark who was named one of the most gay-friendly bishops by the Rainbow Sash Movement in 2004.

    So to see the Diocese of Rochester cast as authoritarian fun-time-cracking-down-upon mustache-twirling repressive reactionary fascists is… I don’t even know.

    Gotta love the scare quotes around “liturgical abuse” throughout the piece.

  • Martha

    I really don’t get the sense that this is anti-Catholic so much as a bit of personal axe-grinding on Mr. O’Malley’s part against The Big Bad Church Hierarchy.

    I have no idea why a newspaper ran it as a story, but then again, this is the state of religion reporting nowadays?

  • Ann Rodgers

    This is sad, because, in the not-too-distant past — the Plain Dealer has had both a highly competent religion reporter (David Briggs) and at least some editors who understood what good religion reporting was.

    That said, when I was in seminary we shot a video satire of Christian TV, including a childrens’show in which “Amazing Grace” was sung to the original Mickey Mouse Club tune. It works, including the spelling.

  • Joel

    Oh, my word.

    “If we have the power to excommunicate ourselves, we certainly have the power to un-excommunicate ourselves,” said Sister Margie Henninger…

    I think we have a winner for this year’s “Most Fatuous Statement” award.

    I could forgive saying that “the Catholic faith forbids women priests,” as the distinction between discipline and dogma escapes a lot of people. But this line:

    Spiritus Christi, like the Community of St. Peter in Cleveland, is a breakaway Catholic parish at odds with its bishop.

    At odds? By definition, since it’s a “breakaway,” he’s not Spiritus Christi’s bishop at all. That’s not religious esoterica; it’s simple logic.

  • Dave

    Julia, at least the disputes over St Stan’s and St Pete’s are parallel in that they center on concerns of this world. Spiritus Christi is in dissent, as Mollie pointed out, over at least three primary doctrinal points.

    Ann, it is indeed amazing grace to fall out of one’s chair laughing. Thank you.

  • Joel

    Irish-American, lapsed Catholic, and though probably not quite old enough to be of the generation who got slapped across the knuckles with a ruler by nuns..

    Martha, that applies to a lot of reporters, I’m sure. But a dollop of professionalism should make it irrelevant. My own small-town paper, back in better times that allowed us to have an actual church beat, invariably had an atheist covering it.

  • Julia


    The St Stan’s situation has morphed into one of dissent. The rogue parish has attracted all kinds of dissatisfied “Catholics” from the St Louis area, on both sides of the Mississippi, who now outnumber the original parishioners.

    Since 2005, when former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke declared the church no longer Roman Catholic, it has attracted members from a pool of religious seekers who have become disillusioned with the Catholic hierarchy and church doctrine. Their Pied Piper is a former Catholic priest, the Rev. Marek Bozek, an activist fighting for Catholic approval of issues antithetical to church teaching — female priests, homosexual behavior.

    On Sunday, 442 members of St. Stanislaus voted on how to proceed in their lay board’s legal fight with the archdiocese. Just as it seemed the two sides were getting closer to a resolution to the 2-year-old lawsuit, Bozek and his board called for a vote, or a ‘survey” as it was renamed by St. Stanislaus attorneys.

    On Sunday, 58 percent of those voting rejected their board’s direction toward settling the lawsuit, and Carlson publicly expressed his disappointment.

    Almost immediately, the vote was challenged by those unhappy with the results. Absentee ballots were lost in the mail, some parishioners said. Others claimed they were turned away on the day of the vote. Why? They weren’t on the membership rolls.

    Bozek says it is still a Catholic church but he has been accepted as a priest in two heretical “churches”. The problems are much deeper than a dispute over property.

    The following had been at the Post Dispatch site, but I can’t find it- the link below has a copy of another article by Mr Townsend.

    … according to documents obtained by the Post-Dispatch, Bozek a year ago requested — and was granted — priesthood in two Catholic organizations independent from the Vatican.

    One of them, Married Priests Now!, is funded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and is led by an excommunicated former Roman Catholic archbishop from Zambia.

    The documents also show that Bozek also was granted priestly authority in the Reformed Catholic Church on Jan. 16, 2008. The church describes itself as “an open, affirming, progressive community, alternative to the rigid structure and doctrines of the Roman church.”

    In the vernacular of the church, Bozek was “incardinated” into both organizations, with the authority to perform his religious functions under the supervision of their bishops.


  • Passing By

    Summer, 1971, Mount Wesley Methodist Encampment, Kerrville, Texas. I’m the youth leader having us sing “Amazing Grace” to “House of the Rising Sun”. I’m cheered to know it works with the Mickey Mouse Club theme. Somehow that seems to fit the article under review.

    Good comments (starting with Mollie’s post) taking apart a dreadful article. But no one has mentioned Minneapolis’ St Joan of Arc parish, so I will.

  • tioedong

    We are used to Catholic church bashing, but the bad reporting goes beyond that part of the story.

    For example, do they still meet in a “rented Presbyterian church”? If so, what do the Presbyterians think of that? If not, where do they meet? How much do they pay for rent? Is it in a suburban or inner city neighborhood? Do they rent the church or do all those activities they list in the rented annex of the Presbyterian church?

    He claims 1500 in his congregation, but how many actually attend services (few Presbyterian churches hold that many folks).

    So how many services does he hold on Sundays? Does the “catholic” service interfere with the Presbyterian services, or is an unused presbyterian church being rented out by that organization? If s, is the Presbyterian church “subsidizing” this man’s church by giving them low rent?

    As for the part in the end of the story, about the church planning to build an apartment complex: where would it be built, why is this considered part of a church outreach, does anyone in the church have an expertise in real estate, and (of course) why is the church building an apartment complex while they don’t have a church yet?

  • sharon d.

    All these songs can be sung to each others’ melodies for the very prosaic reason that they are all in common meter or ballad meter: iambic tetrameter alternativing with iambic trimeter for four lines, using an abab (common) or abcb (ballad) rhyme scheme. Emily Dickinson’s poems are mostly in ballad meter, which is why you can sing them to “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” or to just about anything else. It’s just the way we traditionally put together songs in English.

  • Will

    Actually, in this week’s mailing Cecil “Straight Dope” Adams reprinted his cogent and lucid explanation to the man who was LOOKING for a way to get excommunicated
    Straight Dope

    Strictly speaking, excommunication doesn’t render you a non-Catholic. It merely means you’re a Catholic who’s been damned to hell. What’s more, it isn’t intended to permanently separate you from the church; rather, it’s a “medicinal” procedure, meant to make you see the error of your ways. If in fact you do become reconciled later, you won’t be rebaptized, just forgiven. In the eyes of the church, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Irritating, I know, but as I say, this wasn’t set up to accommodate you.

  • Kyle

    Strictly speaking, excommunication doesn’t render you a non-Catholic. It merely means you’re a Catholic who’s been damned to hell. What’s more, it isn’t intended to permanently separate you from the church; rather, it’s a “medicinal” procedure, meant to make you see the error of your ways.
    No, no, no, no, no. It says nothing about damning anyone to hell. It is visible separation from the Church – indeed meant to be medicinal and to invite one back into full communion — but it does NOT render any judgment at all on whether one will be damned to Hell. If I recall correctly there are canonized saints who died excommunicated, perhaps even St. Joan of Arc. It’s not even an infallible act.

  • Kyle

    Sorry for the poor formatting there. But just to be absolutely clear, excommunication does not mean a person has been damned to hell. That’s absolutely wrong.

  • Will

    On the other hand, I think I can safely say that there will never be a Saint Tertullian.

  • Kyle

    On the other hand, I think I can safely say that there will never be a Saint Tertullian.

    Sorry to keep doing this, but you’re off base there too. “Saint” has a variety of meanings, but the most essential one for purposes of your discussion of excommunication is simply “someone in heaven.” It’s true that almost certainly Tertullian will never be recognized as a canonized saint, i.e. one officially declared by the pope to be such and venerated by the Church Militant as such. But the same thing is true for millions and millions of people who are saints in heaven without being officially canonized by the Church. I hope someday we will be Saint Will and Saint Kyle, but I doubt either of us will ever be the subject of a formal canonization process. The bottom line is that the Church has never formally declared Tertullian (or anyone else) to be in Hell.

  • Dave

    The bottom line is that the Church has never formally declared Tertullian (or anyone else) to be in Hell.

    Does that make Dante a heretic?

  • Kyle

    Does that make Dante a heretic?

    No, not at all. In fact, I’m thinking that one of the people Dante put in Hell was subsequently canonized a saint? My memory may be fuzzy there. But regardless, I don’t think Dante was claiming to know for sure who was in Hell, much less claiming the Church has said such-and-such a person is in Hell. There’s a lot of theology in Dante, but he wasn’t writing a theological treatise; his goals were otherwise. Aside from the question of whether it’s a loving thing to do, I don’t think there’s anything per se heretical about speculating about who might be in Hell.

    Maybe an example will clarify. I think most serious Catholics would conclude Judas is in Hell, not so much because of the horror of his sin (which is forgivable) but because of passages in the Gospels that are hard to read any other way. But even there we have no formal declaration of the Church that it’s so, in the same way we have that St. Peter is in heaven, and there are faithful Catholic theologians who try to find a way to reconcile the possibility of Judas in heaven with Scripture.