Late nominee for worst story on Catholic battles

It’s not just the national media outlets that struggle to report on religious liberty issues without hackery. Some regional outlets share that struggle.

Thus, my nominee for worst regional story about this ongoing story (feel free to send along your nominations) comes from the Columbus Dispatch. Apart from the content itself, which is weak, the story is poorly written and poorly edited. But that didn’t keep it from running above the fold on the front page of the Sunday paper.

Headlined “‘Moral schism’ worries Catholics: Critics say bishops out of touch with modern society,” the piece begins (really):

Some Roman Catholic nuns are being compared to Martin Luther and referred to as radical feminists for their views on sexuality and the ordination of women.

President Barack Obama is being likened to Henry VIII over a contraception provision in the federal health-care law. (The British king was excommunicated from the church because of his struggles with Rome.)

And bishops are being criticized as out of touch with their flocks for upholding traditional Catholic views despite society’s shifting morality.

Theologians say the disputes have led to what could be an irreparable break between Rome and some U.S. Catholics even as the church recovers from the priest sex-abuse scandal.

Yes. “Some” nuns (who?) are “being compared to Luther” (by whom?) for their “views on sexuality” (what are their views?). And I don’t even know what to make of the second graph. Who is comparing Obama to Henry VIII? And why in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks would they see a comparison with an excommunicated king and Obama? Is Obama a member of the Roman Catholic church? What? Hunh? And where is this “contraception provision” in the federal health insurance law? Are they referring, instead, to the HHS mandate that was drafted in response to one of the provisions in the law? And who is criticizing the bishops? And which theologians say the disputed have led to “what could be” a break? All of them? Are this reporter and her editor in a contest to see who can publish the highest density of weasel words in a barely comprehensible lede? If so, I think they may have won.

Then we get this quote:

“There’s a moral schism going on in the Catholic church, and the bishops are the schismatics, broken from the laity and theologians,” said Daniel Maguire, a theology professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee.Such breaks often lead to membership upticks for other faiths, he said. “As long as the bishops are behaving this way, there are going to be more Unitarians.”

Maguire is great for quotes. He once said, “Right-wingers like Paul Ryan grab that one word, ‘subsidiarity’ and claim it supports their maniacal hatred of government. It doesn’t.” Great for quotes. Probably not the person to build an entire story and headline around, however. Or, if you’re going to, maybe position him as someone with a particular, if not extreme, viewpoint.

Part of what has led to the current dissension is an April assessment by the Vatican of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group of nuns that provides guidance to the leaders of about 80 percent of U.S. sisters. The report criticized them for challenging the pope on women’s ordination, for their positions on sexuality and for paying short shrift to right-to-life issues.

Again, what in the world are their “positions in sexuality”? Is it a secret? If so, why? Are these the nuns referenced in the first four words of the article? If so, now might be a good time to explain who is comparing them to Luther and why. But first, let’s return to the weasel-words contest:

Some Catholics also question the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom religious-liberty movement that runs through Independence Day and was sparked by a federal health-care mandate that requires employee-provided insurance plans to pay for birth control. Using artificial contraception runs afoul of the church’s teachings; although churches are exempt from the mandate, other religious institutions, such as hospitals and schools, are not.

Some Catholics. There can’t be too many less meaningful phrases in the world. As for the reporter’s decision to ignore that the mandate will require coverage of abortion drugs and sterilization, I’m sure she has a good reason.

We get a quote from the local bishop and then:

Marie Sweeney, a former nun who lives in Clintonville, helped organize a group that gathered weekly this spring to support nuns with prayer vigils outside St. Joseph Cathedral, the diocese’s home church Downtown. She said the Second Vatican Council that updated the church in the 1960s allowed more participation by women and encouraged the church to read the signs of the times in light of the Gospel.

“I am Catholic to my core, but I look at Rome and I am heartbroken because they are squandering what could be authority for power,” Sweeney said. “It’s a medieval mindset, and that just isn’t the world we live in anymore.”

I just had to excerpt this so you could learn that the Second Vatican Council “updated the church.” I’m also thinking of putting together an “I’m Catholic to the core” Tumblr that collects all of the comments people make after professing their Catholicism. It’s certainly not the fault of the reporter that such quotes are abundant, but I always want a follow-up question that helps the speaker explain their Catholicism with more substance.

The Leadership Conference has received wide support from the public, with a lobbying group’s Nuns on the Bus tour drawing crowds throughout the Midwest, receiving support from non-Catholic religious leaders and prompting a nonprofit group to sell tour T-shirts. It has a less-vocal group of detractors, including some fellow nuns, who say some sisters have politicized faith issues and misinterpreted Vatican II to embrace themes incompatible with the faith.

What does “wide support from the public mean,” exactly? And what are “crowds”? And what do these detractors say, exactly, about theme that are incompatible with the faith? But first, we’re back to filling copy with as many uses of the word “some” as possible:

The religious-freedom issue has prompted some parishioners to walk out of Masses and question why the church holds fast to its contraception ban when most other faiths have deemed birth control moral. But it also has drawn the backing of several other religious groups, including some that don’t oppose birth control, as well as the hundreds of Catholics who’ve attended rallies and other events.

Is that the most ridiculous paragraph ever? Parishioners — sorry, “some parishioners — have walked out of Mass because they oppose religious freedom? Really? I doubt that if such parishioners even exist (hard to tell from the lack of substantiation in this story) that they would claim they staged a protest for that reason. And are there really people who oppose the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception on the grounds of “everyone else is doing it”? That seems to mistreat their actual opposition to the teaching, though I could be wrong since the story never explains who these people are. Also, are the same mystical people walking out of mass because they oppose religious liberty also supportive of contraception? And who the heck are these “hundreds of Catholics”? Are we talking about rallies for religious freedom? If so, the “hundreds” descriptor is off by more than a little bit.

At this point, I hope that this article was part of a special “Give A Sixth-Grader The Front Page Story” project run by the Columbus Dispatch. If not, I am not entirely sure how such embarrassing copy ever made it into the reporter’s computer, much less out of it and onto the page.

Meter image via Shutterstock.

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  • Ann Rodgers

    This is in no way to defend a truly poor example of religion journalism, but I do know where the Henry VIII comparison comes from. Many people in the HHS mandate debate, including one of the speakers who addressed last month’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have cited St. Thomas More as an example of someone who stood up to the state when it usurped the rights of the church. His feast day was one of the end points of the Fortnight for Freedom. His conflict was with Henry VIII, who ultimately executed him. The writer is making an inference that since Henry persecuted Thomas More, that Obama can be plugged into the equation. I never heard the bishops say as much.
    I noted elsewhere on this blog that at that same Atlanta meeting of the bishops, Cardinal George of Chicago cautioned about the dangers of invoking St. Thomas More in this debate, given that he opposed the religious freedom of non-Catholics. I would suggest that this is another example of where writers can go astray when drawing analogies from More’slife and witness.

  • Jon in the Nati

    “There’s a moral schism going on in the Catholic church, and the bishops are the schismatics, broken from the laity and theologians[...]”

    There is so much wrong with this statement, I am having a hard time handling it. Not just mistaken or incorrect, but flat-out wrong.

    I know this isn’t the place for it and I am sorry.

  • Rachel K

    Hoo boy. Take a drink every time this reporter says “some,” then die of alcohol poisoning about halfway through the article.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Omigosh, Mollie, you know how to find them. But, where is the gratuitous reference to the scandal? Maguire really missed an opportunity when mentioning the bishops to get a dig or two in.

    Sunday, page 1, huh? Must not be much happening in Columbus.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I didn’t click to St. Thomas More, but I can see a connection between Henry 8 and Pres. Obama. Pres. Obama is at work imposing his religious viewpoint (liberal protestantism) on the whole country, as Henry imposed his viewpoint that church headship is mutable on the whole English people. Both impositions have/had significant opposition in the two countries.

    Forgive the pedantry, but Henry was excommunicated in 1538 after declaring himself the head of the Church in England in 1534, which sort of guts the line about excommunication because of struggles with Rome. Moreover, I’ve heard some direct sermons on contraception and religious freedom lately and did not see any walk-outs. You could argue that folks weren’t paying attention, but not that they walked out. So my anecdotal information contradicts Viviano’s anecdotes about “some Catholics”.

    I’ll give the reporter points for several thing: she at least refers to hospitals and schools as “religious institutions”, contra some commentary that health care and education are “secular activities”. It’s also good that she got a quote from the local bishop, and a pretty good one at that. And she does balance the quote from McGuire with one (the last word, in fact) from Janet Smith. FWIW, I once heard Dr. Smith whip tale in a debate with Fr. Charles Curran. She’s something.

    So some egregious errors (“some” indeed), but some good balancing quotes. Whether it’s front page news I’ll leave to the journo-pros, but I would agree with the point above that it must have been a slow news day.

  • Martha

    That wasn’t as hideously awful as I feared, Mollie. They managed to get this point, unlike the rest of the news reports I’ve seen:

    “Part of what has led to the current dissension is an April assessment by the Vatican of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group of nuns that provides guidance to the leaders of about 80 percent of U.S. sisters. The report criticized them for challenging the pope on women’s ordination, for their positions on sexuality and for paying short shrift to right-to-life issues.”

    In other words, no, the Vatican did not criticise the nuns for concentrating on social justice issues, but for other failings. And no, it wasn’t all American nuns, it was the LCWR who got the rebuke. So I’d class this story as weak to poor, rather than bad.

  • Bill

    My head hurts. Was this the work of only one writer? The first one, whom Mollie quotes, seems a completely different person than the one who ended the piece with this quote:

    Janet Smith, a moral-theology professor who holds the chair of life ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said she believes that the religious-liberty issue will make the Catholic family stronger, not drive a wedge within the church.

    “I honestly think it brings Catholics closer together,” she said. “When you’re attacked by an external institution, interiorly there’s a great coming together.”

    The beginning of the article almost reads like a parody of a typical report about Catholic bishops.

    The positing of a Barack Hussein Tudor is priceless. What so much of the press asks goes back a few Henrys and a few centuries. When will someone rid them of this troublesome pope?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Some ponderings about the Catholic Church not butchering Catholic teachings so as to be “in touch with modern times.” (Columbus Dispatch headline).
    –I wonder if these liberal Catholics and media people had been writing in the 5th or 10th centuries would they have been haranguing the Church to dump all the teachings of the apostles in order to keep up with 5th or 10th Century “modern times.”
    — The Catholic Church is the Church of Tradition and traditions. That the Church sticks rocklike to teachings passed down from the past is the best guarantee that what she teaches is what Christ, through the apostles, taught.
    —Catholic news media hero GK Chesterton was very right when he said that the Catholic Church protects her members from the degrading spectacle of becoming “children of their times.”

  • tioedong

    Did anyone in the press notice that the Bishops are funded by the Knights of Colombus, but the “nuns on the bus” are funded by left wing groups ?

    Or did they notice this article, that spins the bishops’ opposition?

    And did anyone notice this RealClearReligion article about the Christian Scientist church, who are also opposing the mandate:

    In yesterday’s opinions, Justice Ginsburg clarified that First Amendment objections would make any mandate unconstitutional:

    A mandate to purchase a particular product would be unconstitutional if, for example, the edict impermissibly abridged the freedom of speech, interfered with the free exercise of religion, or infringed on a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause. — Nat’l Fed. of Ind. Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. ___ (2012) (Ginsburg, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).