Define ‘practicing Catholic;’ report the Virginia options

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Surely it will come as little surprise to faithful readers of this hear blog to learn that your GetReligionistas are not fond of the term “devout Catholic,” a foggy, meaningless label that is used way too often in mainstream news reports.

Several years ago, when writing about one rather extreme case (I’m not joking!) of “devout Catholic” syndrome, I noted:

You see, of all the labels used by journalists to describe believers — from “apostate” to “zealot” — surely “devout” has become one of the most meaningless. While this is true in a variety of world religions, for some reason things get especially interesting when “devout” appears in front of “Catholic.”

The bottom line: What’s the difference between a “practicing” Catholic and a “devout” Catholic? Do journalists simply know one when they see one?

The problem is that the term “devout” is ultimately subjective. How does one use the basic skills of journalism to gather facts that prove someone is devout? I mean, that person on the kneeler at the back of the church may be fingering a Rosary, but how does one know that this Catholic’s mind is not focused on planning a quick trip to Las Vegas with a hot next-door neighbor?

Now, is the term “practicing” any better?

I would argue that it is, for the simple reason that journalists can demonstrate — with practical questions and answers that can be verified — the degree to which an alleged “practicing” Catholic is active in a parish, the sacraments and in service to God and humanity. It is also possible to take the facts about a public person’s words and actions and compare them with the doctrines found in the Catholic Catechism. A truly enterprising reporter may even, with a nod to sacred Watergate scriptures, be able to “follow the money” (or the trips to Mass).

In other words, “practicing” implies activities that can be investigated and reported. This word implies facts, as opposed to “devout” feelings.

So what are readers supposed to make of the following material at the top of a recent Washington Post political report?

The two major-party candidates running for governor in Virginia are both practicing Catholics. But when it comes to the contentious issue of abortion, they stand on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli opposes abortion in almost all circumstances — including rape and incest. He makes an exception when the life of the mother is endangered.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe supports most Virginia laws that prohibit third-trimester abortions except to protect the life or health of the mother. But he opposes further restrictions and says he supports a repeal of mandatory ultrasounds before abortions.

In a state considered one of the most antiabortion in the nation in terms of state laws restricting the practice, the issue has often been front and center as national antiabortion and abortion rights groups spend heavily on harsh ads.

Now, throughout the race Cuccinelli has been called an extremist, by those in the McAuliffe camp, for backing public-policy decisions — on this issue — that are very close to the teachings of his church.

Thus, it is easy to argue that one of these “practicing Catholics” is out of the Virginia public mainstream, while the other is out of the mainstream when it comes to the doctrines defended by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

But that is not my journalistic point. The problem with this story is that it does absolutely nothing to defend the accuracy of the “practicing Catholic” label in reference to either man in this race. There are no facts here at all to support that label.

The story does go out of its way to show that McAuliffe opposes the defense of his church’s teachings in the public square and, thus, has earned the staunch support of groups that oppose Catholic teachings on life issues. But what has happened, in the past, when he was asked about his actual involvement in the practice of the Catholic faith?

Conservative media critic Brent Bozell found some interesting quotations linked to that subject, gleaned from a 2007 appearance by McAuliffe on a radio talk show:

When radio show host Hugh Hewitt pressed him in 2007 about his church attendance after McAuliffe repeatedly cited his “Irish Catholic” bona fides in his autobiography “What a Party,” McAuliffe shot back “I don’t pretend to be a priest, and I don’t pretend to be citing … I don’t cite the Bible once in the book.” …

When Hewitt asked how his liberal stands clash with the church, McAuliffe snapped: “I wish I could follow 100 percent the teachings of the Catholic Church, but believe it or not, much to your chagrin, I am not Jesus Christ.”

It doesn’t sound like McAuliffe wants to answer questions about his parish life.

It is likely that Cuccinelli would love to answer parish and sacramental life questions, but might not welcome questions about, oh, immigration and the death penalty.

That does not mean that these kinds of questions shouldn’t be asked.

Bozell has an interesting way of looking at this “practicing Catholic” question, one that is actually rather journalistic in approach.

The goal is to ask factual questions. How would reporters handle a news story about a “practicing vegetarian” who, in practice, rejected many of the central ideas that went along with being a vegetarian? Would it be fair to ask why he supports the eating of meat, since vegetarians do not eat meat? Why is he so tense when asked if he ever eats at vegetarian restaurants, as opposed to the many times that he praised the work of steakhouse owners?

Now, I hear some readers (especially journalists) thinking: These guys are not running for pope, they are running for governor of Virginia. What right do we have to investigate their parish life and their practice of the Catholic faith?

Great question! If that is the case, then why should journalists use the term “PRACTICING Catholic,” which implies that there is actual Catholicism being practiced? Why not just ask them pointed questions and print the answers? Why rely so much on that old tired label?

Try using a journalistic approach.

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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.

  • fredx2

    A practicing Catholic goes to church at least half of the sundays. He may not be able to tell you much about Catholic doctrine, but he knows a few basics. He knows what the Catechism is but does not own one.
    A devout Catholic knows what the mysteries of the rosary are, tries to go to mass every sunday, knows who Mother Angelica is and what a Tridentine Mass is. He can name the last five popes and can give you the name of at least one Papal encylical. He owns a Catholic Catechism.
    There, you have it.

    • Tim Graham

      The funny thing about a “devout Catholic” — take Pope Francis — is they should quickly deny they are a “devout Catholic.” Too much spiritual pride in it. We are sinners. We can accept “practicing,” with all the humility it can contain. We’re not there yet, God, but we’re still at practice!

      • tmatt

        My point is that DEVOUT is not a word that implies a logical set of facts that journalists can seek out.

        • Tim Graham

          Exactly right. Thanks for this entire exploration.

  • MollieZHemingway

    When my husband and I read that line on Saturday morning, we nearly spit out our coffee. See, they’re both totally equivalent in their practice of Catholicism! They just happen to be on opposite sides of an issue that the Roman Catholic Church says is non-negotiable. No biggie.

    • Thomas Gallagher

      Yes, biggie. Real biggie. McAuliffe calls himself a “practicing Catholic,” a term anybody can use as a self-description. Cuccinelli seems to be a devout Catholic, in the sense that he appears to be living out all the teachings of the Church. This posting by Terry Mattingly, arguing that “devout Catholic” is a foggy, meaningless label, strikes me as perverse. Catholicism is an orthopraxy as well as an orthodoxy. McAuliffe’s practice is heterodox; Cuccinelli’s is orthodox. The distinction is quite clear.

  • Julia B

    “Devout” is a term that has slipped into loosey-goosey land. It used to mean somebody who was pious – doing lots of devotional things on top of living according to church rules and the catechism. There was an emotional gloss to it. Since few people go beyond the basics these days, it seems that “devout” now means people who are trying to do the basics. I.E. The word now means absolutely nothing.
    Thanks for picking up on improper use of the term.

  • chezami
  • Dennis Neylon

    I would agree with Fredx2′s definition of devout, as well with the statement that a truly devout Catholic would argue that they are not. I would also agree that no longer has much meaning in the media. Practicing Catholic is always a term that scares me in an article. You never hear about practicing Baptists, Methodists or Episcopalians (maybe because all of them have it down pat?). It generally seems to be code for “he claims to be Catholic, but you couldn’t prove it in court.” On the other hand, when they call someone a Catholic, they generally mean someone who actually follows Church teaching and law (similar, I think to practicing or non-practicing Jew). The most dangerous label of all is former Catholic, which usually means they no longer like or respect the Church. Oddly enough, despite the media’s penchant for labels, I rarely notice the media using the term traditional Catholic, which is probably a good thing, since I’m not sure it is any more definable than liberal Republican, conservative Democrat or unbiased journalist.

  • RachaelM

    Observant Catholic?

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    It seems to me the media only points out a person’s faith life when it is a Catholic involved.
    Michael Dukakis was governor here in Ma. But only in rare instances was his faith (Orthodox Christian) ever mentioned in the news media. Yet the Orthodox Churches take very strong stands on many issues (usually as strong as the Catholic position on some issues)
    And many mainstream Protestant Churches take strong liberal stands on some issues. But you never see media stories analyzing how regularly a Methodist senator or Episcopal senator votes the same position as what his church is promoting.
    And virtually never do you see a Jewish senator’s faith examined when he votes on, say, aid to Israel. Why do only Catholics (and maybe Mormons) have their faith media autopsied in ways members of other religions do not.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    The cafeteria closed awhile back. You are either an orthodox Catholic or you are a dissenting Catholic. Don’t take my word for it, note what the Master says: “You are either with me or against me.” Christ and the church are one.

  • ahermit

    Last I checked they were electing a governor, not a parish priest. McAuliffe at least seems to understand the difference…

    • TheRealAaron

      Did ou read all the way to the bottom of this article? He responds to that objection:

      Now, I hear some readers (especially journalists) thinking: These guys are not running for pope, they are running for governor of Virginia. What right do we have to investigate their parish life and their practice of the Catholic faith?
      Great question! If that is the case, then why should journalists use the term “PRACTICING Catholic,” which implies that there is actual Catholicism being practiced? Why not just ask them pointed questions and print the answers? Why rely so much on that old tired label?
      Try using a journalistic approach.


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