Mourning in Aurora, with a generic Catholic bishop

As always, the tragedy in Aurora led to quite a bit of writing — whether reporters knew it or not — focusing on issues linked to “theodicy,” a theological term that has frequently been discussed here at GetReligion. At the heart of all discussions of “theodicy,” by definition, are questions about the nature and origins of evil, seen in light of the existence of a good and loving God.

In journalism terms, what we are talking about is the search for the “why?” in the familiar news equation “who, what, when, where, why and how?”

When faced with giant, tragic events, police have to look for a motive at one level, while theologians look for motives at another. Journalists usually end up quoting both.

So no one should be surprised to see the following lede in The Washington Post, after Sunday services in Colorado:

AURORA, Colo. – Sunday was a day to mourn here — and ask, fruitlessly, why.

The bulk of the story, naturally enough, focuses on the search for logical, human motives in the life, background and recent history of the alleged gunman, James Holmes. However, the story eventually tuned in some of the faith-based messages spoken (and sung) in memorial services and religious rites in the stricken region. This is the end of the report:

At the memorial service, an array of speakers struggled to explain what had caused the attack. A Catholic bishop used the word “evil” six times.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) did not even want to try. “I refuse to say his name,” he said, to the loudest applause of the night. He sought to turn the attention to victims instead, reading their names and asking the crowd to remember them. At some names, family members cheered. Others brought cries of grief.

The scope of the tragedy was brought home at the end of the night The crowd was supposed to sing “Amazing Grace” as families of the dead filed out. But the song ended, and the families were still walking.

“Let’s do the first verse again, ‘Amazing Grace,’?” an emcee said. The crowd sang it again, then again. Then another time, just humming and repeating “praise God” until the last of the family members had left the plaza.

On it’s face, there is nothing unusual about this material. However, did anyone else find this reference a bit strange? The one that said: “A Catholic bishop used the word ‘evil’ six times.”

First of all, one would expect the topic of “evil” to come up early and often in remarks following a massacre of innocent people, including at least one young child. What amazed me is that generic reference to “a Catholic bishop.” I mean, how many Catholic bishops are there in the Archdiocese of Denver? Assuming that no one with a red hat drove in from the Southern half of the state, the answer is “two.” Also, if this is a “bishop,” instead of the “archbishop,” that means that these remarks were made by Bishop James D. Conley, the auxiliary bishop of Denver.

Sure enough, the bishop’s text (.pdf here) is up on the archdiocesan website. This memorial service prayer must be the source of the Post quote from the anonymous bishop — since it contains six “evil” references. Surely there isn’t another preaching and praying Catholic bishop on the loose out there? Gentle readers, how hard is it to learn the name of one of the city’s two Catholic bishops?

Here’s a key piece of that Conley prayer, with some of the “theodicy” language intact:

And now, let us pray:

Loving and merciful God, we praise you and we adore you for your great mercy. You are truth, goodness, and beauty. You are the source of all that is good and all that is holy. You hate what is evil.

You respond to evil, O Lord, with love. In your boundless love, you have conquered sin and death. Your victory over death is our hope — for we know that we do not live in a lasting city.

We entrust our beloved deceased to your love and mercy. We entrust our community to your comfort and peace. We entrust our fear, our doubt, our uncertainty, to your providential care, O Lord. Be present to us. Help us to love as you love and help us to build a community of peace.

I guess we can assume Conley is the strange, generic, anonymous bishop linked to this news mystery.

PHOTO: Catholic News Agency photo of Bishop James Conley speaking at the Aurora memorial rite.

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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.

  • Ryan

    I think it’s just what you referenced in the .pdf; the word “evil” is in the document six times.

  • tmatt


    Then I stand corrected. When I searched the document, just to be safe, there were only three.

    I have corrected the post.

    Many thanks.

  • Spencerian

    Given this is an article about people dead, injured and in mourning, I find the article almost ridiculously secular despite the many, many religious signs and symbols carried by the attendees. The article notes the religiosity of the event–and then seems to belittle its presence. The most obvious example was that of Bishop Conley’s remarks. The prayer was the last part of his remarks, which did speak on explaining what happened through contemplation with God.

    The singing of “Amazing Grace” likely bombed in the crowd because of the Too Soon effect. The crowd seemed quite still in the Denial phase. The song may also felt cliched to the crowd, I don’t know.

    Based on the article, I’m confused what was the point of the gathering. I’m sure the actual attendees gathered some solace. But that solace is completely missing from this.

  • Ed Dougherty

    While I applaud Bishop Conley’s remarks, I wonder if they may not have gotten more coverage if he had brought up the connection between the amount of guns in our country and incidents like these. I’m not saying that he should have come out right then and there for tighter guns laws but to at least bring up the thought. It would seem to me that religious people would and should have a great deal to say about this.

  • Richard A

    “ask, fruitlessly, ‘why’?”

    Who says the asking was fruitless? What is the JOURNALIST’S point in his reporting of the event? Just the facts, ma’am.

    1) Most of those in attendance came to find out if there is any larger purpose behind this mass murder, and 2) most of those attending with that goal in mind did not receive a compelling answer.

    It seems to me that those are two statements of (possible) fact, more likely conjecture. The mayor of Aurora seems to have attended with that purpose in mind, or rather assumed that that was most people’s purpose, and he didn’t seem, from the reporting, to have an answer, which doesn’t mean that no one else got an answer. Actually, it seems to me, the reporters themselves were wondering about the purpose, and didn’t receive a (to them) satisfactory answer. Which it isn’t really the reporter’s job to report, is it?

  • tmatt


    Even the politicians have not GONE THERE yet on that issue. I doubt that a bishop would do so in a state in which Libertarians can be found on both sides of the political aisle.


    I had that same reaction to the “fruitlessly” note in the lede. I elected to focus on another part of the article, but, yes, that weirded me out too.

  • Magdalene

    Bishop Conley is not strange. He is a holy and truthful shepherd of souls who is not afraid to speak the truth. He does not bow to human respect as many others do. Nor will the new archbishop. …

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Ed and tmatt, yes the politicians have gone there. As of yesterday on Yahoo news, a couple of state senates were contemplating new gun control legislation. The topic has been alluded too by perennial gun control advocates (I’m talking about prominent politicians — mayors of major cities, that sort of thing) as of Friday afternoon, when I was on a long drive and listened to a fair amount of radio news.

    One could say a lot about why it would be inappropriate in the context of the bishop’s talk. However, the main reason is that evil comes from human beings, not from guns. The gun is an inanimate object. The gunman, however, was not. If there were gun control and the fellow wanted to go on a rampage, he would have found another way, and Bishop Conley would still be giving pretty much the same talk. Because of evil.

    And the media would still refer to it in cryptic fashion.

  • Chris M

    Ed, he didn’t for the same reason I didn’t bring up Healthcare Reform when eulogizing my friend that died of cancer last week. It’s inappropriate not to mention highly offensive to many of the mourners to politicize the deaths of their loved ones.

  • Julia

    When faced with giant, tragic events, police have to look for a motive at one level, while theologians look for motives at another. Journalists usually end up quoting both.

    Interesting that motive is never an element that must be proved at trial. Most people don’t know that. The reason lawyers and prosecutors address motive is that jurors, psychologically, insist that there must be a motive.

    Think about it. There’s no way to actually prove somebody’s motive.

  • rob in williamson county

    To echo AB above, people are going there. It appears there are lots of people, on the right and the left, who are eager to use this event to make political (and religious) hay. Gun control advocates think this wouldn’t have happened if we had tighter gun laws, while pro-gun types think it might have been better if there had been a couple dozen people in that theater had been able to start shooting back. I don’t know which is true, but I do know its pretty offensive to be going there this soon.

    @ Jon in the Nati and Chris M–too right.
    Although I have fairly strong viewpoints regarding gun control, and although I should not be shocked–shocked–to find pundits and politicians using this tragic event to make hay for their own respective ideological positions, it has been very unpleasant to watch them pontificate and bloviate… and I hope there is a backlash against those who attempt to use this event for political gain.

    Oh, and about the article itself: a writer that had a better grasp of the religious subtext of gatherings like these (or perhaps even simple psychology) may have found aspects of the memorial service less “fruitless.” I lost my best friend earlier this month. He was a young man who died suddenly, and his death has ripped a hole in my circle of friends. Although the memorial we had for him did not assuage my sadness (or if the truth be told my anger), there’s great benefit in being with a group of people who feel the same way you feel, who mourn with you as you mourn. It’s only “fruitless” to an outsider who may have a different agenda.

  • Matt

    The reporter seems to be implicitly trying to ridicule the notion that “evil” exists (and ridicule Catholics, too. Note how the author only felt the need to include the words “Catholic” and “evil” in the same sentence). …

  • Martha

    I’m not going to attack the religion angle here, I will just note that the “A Catholic bishop” phrase is bad journalism for the same reason that it would be bad journalism to say “A local representative” or “A member of the city council” gave a speech without identifying the speaker. …

  • David Paggi

    While this story can be critiqued on many levels, it is distressingly indicative of the state of journalism. The authors appear to be appallingly illiterate in the language of faith or even grief, as their treatment of the memorial service is unsympathetic to the point of being disdainful. It seems that since the service did not bring a cathartic degree of solace, they consider it a mostly pointless exercise in futility, a further indictment of the utility of religion. That there could be an objective moral.standard that can identify an act as intrinsically evil is simply not a concept within their scooe of understanding.

  • Cristal

    How many times did the ‘nameless’ bishop use the word love or other words that mean ‘good’? Why wasn’t that number posted?