Perhaps this is the rare GetReligion post that should begin with a biblical reference. Grab that Bible off your newsroom reference shelf and turn to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 18. Catholic readers are encouraged to quote this from memory:
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
With that in mind, please watch the short CNN clip atop this post (hat tip to the American Papist). The exchange looks like this in print, starting with anchor Kyra Phillips asking Bishop Joseph Malone of Maine:
Phillips: So, Bishop, times are changing. Views are changing. You’re changing your tactics even. Or your — I guess you say your strategy. So, why not get on board with the 43 percent of Catholics?
Bishop Malone: The 43 percent who …
Phillips: Who have no problem with gay marriage.
Bishop Malone: Well their thinking is outside the realm of Catholic teaching for 2,000 years. And those are the folks that we want to focus on so they’ll perhaps be able to have what I would call an intellectual conversion about a very key building-block of society, that is the nature of marriage as the union of one man, one woman.
This exchange, for me, raises a basic question linked to mainstream coverage of religion news: Is it a good thing — good for ratings, even — to assign journalists to cover subjects that they clearly know nothing about?
Even if Phillips had poll numbers on her side that were up in the 75 percent range, one would still have to ask why the global Catholic church would decide to change 2,000 years worth of doctrine in the wake of a bad set of poll numbers in North America, in one part of the world (with echoes over in Europe, of course). I am not saying this as a matter of doctrinal prejudice, on my part. I am asking if Phillips has any understanding of how the Roman Catholic Church works. Do many mainstream news reporters, in effect, believe that the Catholic church is a democracy or that it should somehow become one?
Again, I am asking this as a matter of history. No matter what a reporter believes on these issues, isn’t it important to know what Catholic clergy, what Catholic bishops, can and cannot do in the structure of the church in which they have taken vows?
Moments later, she also seems to have suffered a brain freeze related to a pro-marriage website that has been launched by Malone and his diocese.
Phillips: So, Bishop, let me ask. … You know, this plan of action has changed quite drastically since 2009, you know, where you had very active campaign. And now you’re moving toward education and putting funds towards that. Are you softening your stance on same-sex marriage?
Bishop Malone: Not at all. It will be even stronger and more vigorous. One of our discoveries in 2009 was that really, many of our Catholic people in Maine could use a bit more profound understanding of how the church has understood marriage for 2,000 years. So, I decided, while we will certainly be in close contact with our allies who will lead the political battle, we intend to focus on the education and formation of consciences of our people.
Now, let me stress that this “43 percent of Catholics” are pro-gay marriage number is very significant and it is TOTALLY VALID for journalists to ask bishops tough questions about it. More on that in a moment.
However, once again we face an issue that is very similar to the whole “Catholic vote” mythology. When we say that 43 percent of Catholics are pro-gay marriage, what brand of Catholics are we talking about? Is that 43 percent located in a solid belt on the doctrinal left? Are these ex-Catholics? Once again, that familiar GetReligion Catholic voter typology (now tweaked) is relevant. Here it is, for those with short memories (we will, alas, be using this voter framework a bunch in a national election year):
* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (including some Latinos) may lean to GOP.
* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter … depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.
* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.
* The “Sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie.
So, here is my question for GetReligion readers.
If you were a CNN anchor, what question would you have asked Bishop Malone in this exchange, while using that 43 percent number as a reference point? Here’s my two-part offering: Bishop Malone, can you cite any example of the American Catholic hierarchy managing to convince a significant percentage of modern Catholics to change their views on this kind of Sexual Revolution issue? Would it help the church, in the long run, to simply encourage them to act on their convictions in other, more liberal pews?
Now, fill that reporter role and ask a question that might produce information that adds light as well as heat.