Pod people: Colorado Presbys and abuse in Ireland

In this week’s podcast Issues Etc. host Todd Wilkin and I discussed two recent GetReligion stories: the withdrawal of First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs from the PC(USA) and the latest developments in the Irish abuse scandals.

As Nathaniel Campbell noted in his comment on the Colorado Springs article, the press frequently conflates the disputes within the mainline denominations into a single issue — homosexuality.

Campbell writes:

there are deeper but acknowledged issues here over hermeneutics and the evangelical insistence on privileging (often exclusionarily) a literal reading of Scripture.

In my estimation, at least, that is the major “ghost” behind a lot of mainstream/evangelical friction. While on the surface level it manifests as doctrinal disputes, I think it is at root a problem over how to read and understand Scripture.

Wilkin and I discuss the issue of press blindness, noting the divisions within the mainline churches do not stop at homosexuality as the breakaway groups are divided over another Scripture-driven issue: women clergy.

We also look at the coverage in the Irish Times over the fallout from the 1 May 2012 documentary “The Shame of the Catholic Church”, where the BBC claimed that as a young priest in the early 1970’s Cardinal Sean Brady failed to take sufficient action in the case of pedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

I argued that the advocacy journalism approach taken by the Irish Times in its reporting on the Catholic Church was self-defeating. By adopting a relentlessly hostile approach to coverage of the Catholic Church,the Irish Times was preaching to the choir. Those ill-disposed to the church would find confirmation of their views, while those supportive of the church would see their reporting as biased.

The comments to the story demonstrated this. As one commentator noted:

The Irish establishment, including their media, has long been anti Catholic, because the church stood in the way of Ireland becoming “modern” (read divorce, birth control and abortion). The “abuse” saga is a godsend to them to destroy the influence of the church, which was standing in the way of a modern forward looking culture. Perhaps this is why the story is made to sound as if the church is again being it’s old stubborn old fashioned self.

In its simplest sense, the problem with advocacy journalism is that it is based on the supposition that there is no one truth. Truth is subjective, or relative — I have my truth, you have yours. Why then should the journalist strive for balance or fairness, when at heart there is no single point of reference in which to frame a story?

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  • Darrell Turner

    George, I don’t follow the reasoning in your last paragraph. If advocacy journalism advances a viewpoint, how can that be based on the supposition that there is no one truth? In my understanding, balanced journalism presents multiple viewpoints and lets the readers reach their own conclusions, while advocacy journalism frames a story on the basis of a particular viewpoint.

    • geoconger

      In a very small nutshell — Advocacy journalism is a form of relativism. Relativism posits there is no one truth — that truth is subjective. The pursuit of traditional journalism, which seeks through the presentation of differing viewpoints to find the truth, is not the aim of the practitioners of advocacy journalism. In this school of thought the attempt to find a universal truth through the presentation of multiple viewpoints is doomed to failure — my truth, your truth, etc. Thus the attempt to be balanced at the outset is a waste of time for it will not lead anywhere.

  • Stan

    I am always surprised here. “The ‘abuse’ saga is a godsend to them to destroy the influence of the church, which was standing in the way of a modern forward looking culture.” Yes, it is the Irish establishment’s saga that has destroyed the Catholic Church’s influence, not the abuse itself. The Church’s influence remained decisive in Irish life during the years and years of abuse. As long as abuse was covered up and not reported, life was good. Those bad reporters!

    • geoconger

      Setting Stan’s snarkiness to one side, the argument being put forward by supporters of the Catholic Church in Ireland is that the country’s elites have sought to damage the authority of the Catholic Church through an exaggeration of the abuse story. See the link to Spike provided in the original story in the comments — This argument is that while there were 300 cases of abuse uncovered by a ten year long state inquiry — the rate of abuse per the population of Catholic institutions was very small. And the question need be asked how many incidents of abuse took place in secular institutions over the same period of time.

      This argument does not seek to diminish the sufferings of those abused at the hands of child molesters and abuses in the ranks of the church, but asks for this to be placed in a wider context. This is something the press has not done to their discredit.

  • sari

    Short of living in a country (or society) where everyone shares the same values and belief system (note: not systems), media should strive to present provable facts. Iow, it should be data, not opinion, driven. Universal truth(s) suggests a religion which stipulates and seeks to impose its truths on all. In a pluralistic setting, the drawbacks are obvious.

    From an anthropological viewpoint, one might state that all societies address particular categories of behaviors. All have laws pertaining to marriage, legitimating children, kinship, incest, murder, gender roles, sexuality, and adultery. However, the specifics vary greatly, even here, between states.


    Imagine, the age of legal consent in many U.S. states was 10-12 years in 1880 and, in some European countries, as low as 12 in the 1920′s (including Scotland and Denmark). We would now call that child molestation. Likewise, what constitutes adultery to Christians is technically very different from adultery as defined by the Jewish halakhah or Muslim sharia, because the latter still validate, at least on paper, polygyny.

    I think the most you can say is that every society defines and expects its citizens to live by a certain set of behavioral expectations.

  • http://nathaniel-campbell.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel Campbell

    While I thank you for noting my analysis of the PCUSA story, I’d like add a bit of nuance to my point. In the podcast, you reduce the issue of hermeneutics to a question of whether the Bible is “trustworthy” on issues of sexuality, abortion, etc.

    The distinction I was trying to draw was not whether Scripture is trustworthy (I wholeheartedly believe it is) but what interpretation of it is trustworthy. That is, the conflict is over what types of interpretation are to be accepted–only the literal? Or are more complex allegorical and tropological interpretations acceptable? For I believe those deeper levels of scriptural interpretation are (1) a rich part of the Christ tradition; (2) extraordinarily useful for charting a modern and future course for the Church that recognizes, e.g., gender equality rather than hierarchy (i.e. if restricted to the letter, there’s not much we can do about some of St. Paul’s misogyny; but if we allow a deeper meaning to be uncovered, we can find fertile ways to promote gender equality through Scripture); and (3) ignored by fundamentalists.

  • Stan

    “This argument does not seek to diminish the sufferings of those abused at the hands of child molesters and abuses in the ranks of the church, but asks for this to be placed in a wider context. This is something the press has not done to their discredit.”

    The real argument seems to be that ignorance is bliss and we would all be better off thinking that the Church had the moral authority to control people’s lives. Those bad journalists shouldn’t have reported the scandal in the first place, and if they did they should have explained that as horrible as it was in Ireland, it was worse in lots of other places. That would certainly restore the moral authority of the Church.

    It seems to me that you want journalists to be apologists rather than reporters.

    • geoconger

      Stan, your being silly here. Let’s not put words in people’s mouths. No one has said the church abuse scandals should not have been reported. What is being said is that the way in which the abuse scandals were reported was incomplete.