Why was Archbishop Lori’s committee born?

Any discussion of when the U.S. Catholic bishops began to get more interested in religious liberty issues needs — at the very least — a flashback to March 10, 2006. That’s when Catholic Charities of Boston did the unthinkable.

To set the scene, here’s the opening of the unusually even-handed (honest, check out the balancing of the brilliant sources on the moral left and right) “Banned in Boston” cover story at The Weekly Standard:

CATHOLIC CHARITIES OF BOSTON made the announcement on March 10: It was getting out of the adoption business. “We have encountered a dilemma we cannot resolve. … The issue is adoption to same-sex couples.”

It was shocking news. Catholic Charities of Boston, one of the nation’s oldest adoption agencies, had long specialized in finding good homes for hard to place kids. “Catholic Charities was always at the top of the list,” Paula Wisnewski, director of adoption for the Home for Little Wanderers, told the Boston Globe. “It’s a shame because it is certainly going to mean that fewer children from foster care are going to find permanent homes.” Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said simply, “This is a tragedy for kids.”

How did this tragedy happen?

It’s a complicated story.

There were plenty of other warning signs of the First Amendment conflicts to come, so much so that I began writing about them back in 2000 or so. I first heard about the potential for the events we are now seeing in a rather liberal (in the old sense of the word) church-state separation seminar back in 1977.

But the 2006 headlines in Boston provided the Catholic establishment with a major wake-up call. That’s a fact, pure and simple.

If that is the case, then why is The Baltimore Sun publishing material about the city’s new archbishop, on the eve of a major national conference on religious liberty, that includes fact paragraphs such as these? Please read carefully.

Archbishop William E. Lori, who was installed this month as the 16th archbishop of Baltimore, said he would discuss “the roots of our own nation’s tradition of respect for religious freedom” — including the roles of Marylanders John Carroll, the first archbishop of Baltimore, and his cousin Charles Carroll, the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Lori chairs the committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that was created to challenge new rules written by the Department of Health and Human Services that require employers — including Catholic schools, hospitals and charities — to give workers access to insurance that covers birth control.

So the editorial team at the Sun believes that this committee was formed in response to the HHS rules, which, once again, moves its work into the context of a political showdown with the Obama White House. The birth of the committee had nothing to do with a decade or more of sobering events linked to military chaplains, campus religious groups, religious charities, the rights of religious counselors, etc., etc.

Please note that I am not saying that the looming HHS rules crisis played no role in this committee’s formation. What I am saying is that the Sun fact statement that it was “was created to challenge new rules written by the Department of Health and Human Services” is ridiculously shallow, if not totally inaccurate.

As for the bishops, at the time of the committee’s birth they did offer a short list of some of the issues that inspired this action. Yes, the list begins with the hot issue that was beginning to creep into the headlines — the looming HHS rules showdown. However the list also included the following:

* The Justice Department’s attack on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), presenting DOMA’s support for traditional marriage as bigotry. In July, the Department started filing briefs actively attacking DOMA’s constitutionality, claiming that supporters of the law could only have been motivated by bias and prejudice. “If the label of “bigot” sticks to us — especially in court — because of our teaching on marriage, we’ll have church-state conflicts for years to come as a result,” Archbishop Dolan said.

* The Justice Department’s recent attack on the critically important “ministerial exception,” a constitutional doctrine accepted by every court of appeals in the country that leaves to churches (not government) the power to make employment decisions concerning persons working in a ministerial capacity. In a case to be heard this term in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Department attacked the very existence of the exception.

* New York State’s new law redefining marriage, with only a very narrow religious exemption. Already, county clerks face legal action for refusing to participate in same-sex unions, and gay rights advocates are publicly emphasizing how little religious freedom protection people and groups will enjoy under the new law.

Once again, I am not saying that the press needs to downplay the HHS rules in its coverage and frame news coverage in terms of the religious-liberty concerns, alone. What I am saying is that this Sun story includes an inaccurate timeline, which then leads to an unattributed statement of fact that is simply wrong. In journalism, that’s bad.

It would have been very easy for the Sun team to have included a single sentence that said the committee was formed after a decade or more of rising concerns among the bishops after events such as X, Y and Z. Anyone who has followed events in meetings of the U.S. bishops knows that this is the case. The timeline must start in 2006 or even earlier.

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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.

  • Jeff

    “What I am saying is that this Sun story … is simply wrong. In journalism, that’s bad.”

    It’s bad in journalism, but journalism is no longer what the MSM do where two or three subjects are concerned: (1) Abortionism, (2) Homosexuality, and (3) sometimes Christianity — especially where Christianity conflicts with (1) and (2) or where (1) and (2) conflict with Christianity, as increasingly they do.

    I really don’t mean to be snarky this time, but it honestly beggars credibility to think that the MSM is really trying hard to get this right and simply getting it wrong.

    I really don’t believe that they are trying anymore, and things like some of Bill Keller’s comments seem to indicate that.

  • Jeff

    If there is any incompetence involved it is at a meta-journalistic level. They aren’t trying and failing to cover these things in a professional way. Rather they are failing to recognize they even need to be.

  • Julia

    As I recall, Archbishop Lori was appointed head of that committee last September. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was subsequently appointed head of Baltimore to facilitate his access to the govt HQ in neighboring DC.

  • ceemac

    Presbyterian clergy type here.


    You never mention one of the biggest weaknesses of these stories: they focus too much on the preachers and not enough on the congregations. I am curious about how the members of the congregations are reacting to the actions of their preacher/bureaucrats. Those would be some interesting stories.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Julia wrote, “As I recall, Archbishop Lori was appointed head of that committee last September. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was subsequently appointed head of Baltimore to facilitate his access to the govt HQ in neighboring DC.”

    The reasons why bishops are appointed to their various sees are many and complex. Given his consistent outspoken views on religious liberty, esp. when the bill in Connecticut came up that would have forced Catholic parishes to become congregationalist in nature, it is possible that he was chosen because it is the primatial see of the U.S., and Pope Benedict may be trying to revive that status (which means that it could very well become a cardinatial see once again).

    But it could also be that there are issues in the Baltimore Archdiocese that need someone with a backbone to address them. Liturgical abuses, for instance, could be rampant there. That’s just one example.

    Bottom line: it’s a dangerous game for journalists — esp. American journalists with a political agenda — to play at Vaticanology.

  • Julia

    Baltimore may have been the first Catholic See in the US, but we don’t have a Primate here.

  • R.S.Newark

    But,but,but tmatt…”they don’t get religion”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    This is a basic issue of accuracy and journalistic craft.

    Mistakes are bad. That statement of fact is wrong.

  • kyle

    You never mention one of the biggest weaknesses of these stories: they focus too much on the preachers and not enough on the congregations. I am curious about how the members of the congregations are reacting to the actions of their preacher/bureaucrats. Those would be some interesting stories.

    Really? That’s funny. As a Catholic (who doesn’t believe in a congregational ecclesiology anyway) here I was thinking one of the biggest weaknesses with these stories was the obvious infatuation with presenting (usually skewed) polling results in an attempt to show lay Catholics don’t agree with the bishops on this or, well, pretty much anything else the New York Times disagrees with the church about.

    Or perhaps you are thinking of those rallies for religious freedom, with thousands of lay Catholics turning out to agree with the church’s pastors that our brave media managed to cover a little bit, sort of.

    Just an aside: You identify yourself as Presbyterian clergy, and then appear to call Catholic clergy “bureaucrats.” That seems a bit disrespectful, don’t you think? I guess one might also note that sometimes reporters also have a hard time distinguishing how Presbyterians in the pews are responding to the decisions of Presbyterian clergy too.

  • ceemac


    The term I used was preacher/bureaucrats. If it seemed I was referring only to your denomination I am sorry.

    I would have used the same term if the stories had been about Presbyterians or another denomination.

    I’m a preacher. There have been times when I have in roles that could be described as being a bureaucrat. I’ll be doing the bureaucrat thing when I chair a committee at our national assembly in a few weeks.

    A bishop is a preacher and bureaucrat just like me.

    I’d be critical of a story that focused on what Presbyterian preachers/bureaucrats had to say. I’d want the reporters to dig deeper. Figure out who the matriarchs and patriarchs of a congregation are and go interview them.

  • kyle

    Thanks for the clarification on what you meant by “bureaucrat,” ceemac. Even if you use it of yourself and of clergy from other Protestant ecclesial communities as well as for Catholic bishops, it still remains a word with pejorative connotations that find unwarranted here, given the serious principles and even doctrine at stake in these matters. But be that as it may. I think my earlier comments suffice in response to your contention about reporters digging deeper.

  • Julia


    The Catholic Church doesn’t call its clergy preachers; they are called priests and bishops.
    It’s really like fingernails on a chalkboard to read that term preachers/bureaucrats used for Catholic hierarchy. Only a small part of our liturgy is set aside for preaching (which we call a homily); priest is a much more accurate term.

  • ceemac


    And there is one of the challenges of journalism

    Differnt folks like different types of stories

    For me:

    Stories with clergy at the center = BOOOOORRRRRRRRRRIINNNNGGG

    Stories that center on the life of a congregation = more likely to be interesting. And much tougher to write since a reporter will need to have some skills in the field of congregational analysis/studies or at least some good contacts in that area to help guide them.

    As far as pejoratives you ought to see my attitude towards Presbyterian preacher types that insist on being called “Dr. so and so.” :-)

  • kyle

    What you seem to be overlooking, ceemac, is that there are doctrinal issues involved in the kind of coverage you’re describing. It is a difficult challenge for a journalist, because there are more than a few even among Catholics who actually go to Mass who wish Catholic ecclesiology were congregational and democratic, and journalists are naturally going to want to give them a voice. That’s fair enough. They don’t need to take sides in the intramural dispute.

    However, at a certain point the emphasis on those voices threatens to overwhelm the other side, the actual doctrine. A journalist should not present the Catholic Church as if it had the same doctrine as Presbyterians do about what it means when clergy say something and what it means when members of a congregation say something. In Catholic doctrine, bishops aren’t just another voice among many. In Catholic doctrine they have divinely given authority to teach and govern the Church.

    I assume that as a Presbyterian you disagree with that doctrine, and the sacrament of Holy Orders and apostolic succession and all the rest upon which it is based. That’s not a debate we need to have here, and I assume in charity you aren’t deliberately setting out to say secular journalists ought to cover the Catholic Church as if Protestant ecclesiology were true. But you seem to be overlooking the entire problem this doctrinal difference presents.

    It seems to me the challenge for reporters is to give voice to Catholics who dissent from this doctrine on the nature of the episcopal office without ignoring the existence of the doctrine or ignoring the Catholics who believe the doctrine. And in my view, that challenge is not being met: and not, to put it mildly, because they are so exclusively focused on the role of bishops as authoritative teachers and governors of local churches.

    I mean, seriously: If you think the voices of Catholics who are challenging the bishops on anything from the HHS mandate to contraception to same-sex “marriage” to abortion to the importance of doctrinal fidelity at Catholic schools and among women religious are not being heard, you simply cannot be encountering the same media coverage I am. Often it seems I hear nothing but that voice.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    its clergy preachers; they are called priests and bishops.

    Before Deacon John shows up, I’ll say it: AND DEACONS. I spent a while today explaining to my Baptist parents why Catholic deacons are clergy. :-)


    I pretty much agree with my Catholic confreres on the bureaucrat thing, although I have been a state bureaucrat myself.

    However, I agree with you that including the voices of lay leaders makes a story that much more interesting. The problem is that the Catholic Church (and Orthodoxy), there is a claim to teach authoritatively, through it’s bishops which is absent in the protestant churches of my acquaintance. That puts lay people who dissent in a different relationship to the Church, and we have too often seen journalists exploit their dissent.

  • Julia

    Passing By:

    I hesitated about leaving out deacons. But I think I heard that deacons are not considered clergy, so I erred on the side of leaving them out. Sorry.

  • Julia

    Here’s my excuse – I am old as dirt, so I probably learned that deacons are not clergy b/c there were no permanent deacons during my schooling days.

  • David Estrom

    I wonder if you think that the ridiculous bias in these posts is anything but blindingly obvious? A decade of “sobering events” relating to military chaplains? Really? A “tragedy” that a religious organization that chooses to take money to fulfill a government contract has to follow the rules of the contract? Right. This blog is clownish in its attempt to mask its conservative religious bias in the guise of “media analysis.”

    I wonder why you have no problem with any media analysis or coverage regarding the manner in which the Catholic Church has used its role as government contractor to create a bogus reason to oppose gay marriage. Why, for example, does “gay marriage” force an exit from govt contracts in MA, but not VT or NH or IA? Why was Catholic Charities able to operate in DC under a civil unions regime with no problem or controversy, even though civil unions pose exactly the same legal issues as marriage in the context of govt. contracting? Yet when marriage was passed in DC, suddenly a “crisis” developed? And at the same time, in RI and CO, the Catholic leadership told legislators that it was civil unions that would create the conflict.

    It would seem that adoption services contracts are being used as tools to create artificial crises – arbitrarily and as needed – so as to generate a reason to oppose gay marriage. Yet there is no media coverage of this cynical ploy. I look forward to an in-depth piece on this blog about that. I think I’ll be waiting a long time.

  • tmatt


    Oh, there is no question that (a) I am an Orthodox Christian and (b) I am in favor of the state not being able to edit the doctrines of religious believers. I am very pro-church-state separation on that point. I’m not hiding.

    However, if you can find a place where GetReligion has not directly advocated the accurate and balanced coverage of voices on both sides of these debates, please let me know — providing the relevant URL.

    My point remains intact: The Sun blew it in this inaccurate fact statement. It’s time line is simply wrong. That’s the issue, here.

    Now, do you agree or disagree on the JOURNALISM point in the post?