The Atlantic: What happened to all those Catholic rites?

Long-time GetReligion readers, do you remember that typology that a wise, older priest — a veteran of life inside the DC Beltway — gave me a few years ago that proposed that there are essentially four kinds of American Catholic voters?

It went something like this (amended a bit):

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance (unless these ex-Catholics have converted, as many have, to conservative Protestant flocks)

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican on matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now, I know that this will be hard, but try to strip the political content out of that typology (note, if you will, that I did not click the “politics” box in the categories list). Focus on the issues of religious discipline and practice of the ancient sacraments of an ancient church.

Think about the sacrament of marriage.

If journalists — on the Godbeat or otherwise — needed more evidence that there are multiple “American” Catholic churches at the moment, all they need to do is dig into the following piece from The Atlantic Monthly that focuses on a crucial piece of demographics and, thus, doctrine.

The headline is bland, from the point of view of most journalists:

The Spiritual Significance of a Traditional Church Wedding

But the opening of the piece gets down to business really quick:

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WPost still gets ‘Julia’ vote, but what about church ladies?

The other day I wrote a post about a Washington Post story about the upcoming elections that managed to do something really interesting: It addressed the challenges Democrats are facing as they try to frame issues going into the midterm elections in ways that would inspire their voters, yet managed to do so without mentioning the ongoing “pew gap” factor.

You remember the pew gap don’t you? It’s the trend, during recent decades, in which people who frequently attend worship services (especially among white voters) tend to vote for morally and culturally conservative candidates. And the opposite?

Thus, a key passage in that Post report discussed:

So much has been made of the building blocks the president assembled to win his two elections — the outpouring of voters younger than 30; the long lines at precincts in African American communities; the support he engendered among the rising Hispanic population; the growing support for him and Democrats generally among unmarried women. …

Obama hopes to stir his base to action and in the past two weeks has been trying to push all the buttons.

The story contained tons of valid and interesting info. I simply wanted to know how the Post team could address this topic with zero references to the impact of religion on American public life and, yes, voting patterns. For example, I suggested that there might be a religion ghost linked to the fact that Democrats do so well with single women (think “Julia”), while Republicans draw strong support among married women.

Now, the big paper here in Beltway land is back with a long A1 report under the headline: “Women could be critical to key races, and both parties are going all out to get their votes.” Here’s a key block of summary material:

Republicans have watched with rising alarm as female voters, especially younger and unmarried ones, have moved toward ­Democratic hopefuls. Democrats have exploited inarticulate or sexist remarks by some Republicans and harsh antiabortion measures passed in GOP-led legislatures or sponsored by party candidates.

In Washington, Democratic lawmakers have also pushed bills designed to draw a contrast, including this month’s Paycheck Fairness Act, which died in the Senate. President Obama instead signed two executive orders designed to advance equal pay. As a result, the gender gap has grown in recent election years to Democrats’ advantage. Women make up a larger percentage of the electorate than men, they are disproportionately likely to go to the polls in midterm election years, and they are more likely to vote Democratic than men are to vote Republican.

Notice that, at this point, the story is making little or no effort to discuss the divisions inside the women’s vote, which is hardly monolithic.

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Pod people: So what could reporters cover during Lent?

Long, long ago, back at the beginning of Lent, I put up a post that asked a simple question: In all of those stories about more and more Americans deciding to “do Lent,” what did it actually mean to say that one was going to “do Lent”?

The answer, of course, was that whole “give up one thing for Lent” deal, the whole do-it-yourself plan in which an individual creates his or her own personal Lenten challenge. The problem, as you may recall, was that this pseudo-tradition actually has nothing to do with the traditional spiritual disciples (click here for a modernized list from the Western church) linked through the ages with the observance of Great Lent — such as prayer, worship, fasting, alms giving, acts of penitence, etc.

But the create-your-own-Lent thing is very, very American and it’s quirky, creative and even funny, at least as practiced by lots of Americans who, well, enjoy strutting their Lent stuff in social media.

Now we are reaching the end of the season of Lent and we’re heading into Holy Week. Thus, Crossroads podcast host Todd Wilken and I kind of looked in the rear-view mirror at Lent 2014 this week and discussed that the mainstream press could have done this time around, in terms of Lenten news coverage. Click here to listen in.

The bottom line: What could news pros have done instead of merely focusing — as I mentioned in a second post linked to Lent, the one with the infamous Hooters sign picture — on a few style-page features on fried fish and other matters related to food? What else was there to cover that was newsworthy, in any conventional sense of the word?

Well, Wilken and I concluded that the key word was “confession.” No, seriously.

Now, “confession” — or penitence in general — is a big part of Lent, as understood by the church through the ages. But how is that topic newsworthy?

Good question. I thought of two potential story hooks.

First of all, the ongoing collapse in the number of Roman Catholics who go to confession — ever — is one of the biggest and most important stories in the life of the church today. Remember that wise old D.C. priest I interviewed who, when asked to evaluate the whole “Catholic voter” angle in political coverage, stressed that the press needs to understand that there are really four different kinds of Catholic in American life today. Remember his typology? Here is a simplified version with the politics trimmed out:

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Is the pope as Catholic as the president? The Times will tell

Long, long ago, I covered religion news during the era in which Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was one of the most powerful newsmakers on the beat. At the time, I thought it was interesting that conservative Catholics and mainstream journalists had such similar takes on this complicated man.

Many, but not all, conservative Catholics were truly convinced that the cardinal was a liberal’s liberal through and through and that his “seamless garment” approach to moral theology was a shameless attempt — through moral equivalency — to play down church doctrines on issues such as abortion in order to provide cover for political liberals on issues such as nuclear arms, gun control, minimum-wage laws, etc.

Yes, the cardinal kept stressing, “All life has dignity and worth from the moment of conception to natural death.” But, some conservatives argued, he was really just trying to hand Catholics who were liberal Democrats a trump card they could play in their arguments with Catholics who had moved over to the Republican Party, especially after Roe v. Wade.

Ironically, many journalists appeared to have exactly the same view of Bernardin’s work. They didn’t seem to take his words on abortion, euthanasia and related issues very seriously, either.

The difference, of course, was that conservative Catholics thought this alleged Bernardin strategy was a bad thing and mainstream journalists thought it was a good thing.

Let me be clear: Neither of these camps seem to be listening to everything the cardinal had to say. Today, we could be seeing a similar phenomenon with Pope Francis.

My mind flashed back to all of those arguments while reading that Sunday A1 story in The New York Times that ran under the headline, “The Catholic Roots of Obama’s Activism.”

The thesis of the article, as I read it, is that once there was a glorious time when Catholic leaders — led by Cardinal Bernardin — really cared about issues like social justice, poverty and human dignity. That’s why so many Catholics in Chicago got along so well with that young social activist named Barack Obama, whose views were so compatible with what the “seamless garment” thinkers were saying. They welcomed him into their churches.

But then things went terribly wrong. Thus, readers are told:

This Thursday, Mr. Obama will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican after a three-decade divergence with the church. By the late 1980s, the Catholic hierarchy had taken a conservative turn that de-emphasized social engagement and elevated the culture wars that would eventually cast Mr. Obama as an abortion-supporting enemy. Mr. Obama, who went on to find his own faith with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s Trinity United Church of Christ, drifted from his youthful, church-backed activism to become a pragmatic politician and the president with a terrorist “kill list.” The meeting this week is a potential point of confluence.

A White House accustomed to archbishop antagonists hopes the president will find a strategic ally and kindred spirit in a pope who preaches a gospel of social justice and inclusion.

As opposed to all of those archbishops who, of course, preach a gospel that rejects social justice and inclusion.

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LATimes: ‘Congregationalist’ Obama quotes Pope Francis

This is what passes for news in Washington these days: an immensely famous politician is having a speech prepared and instructs their speechwriters to quote another immensely famous person, because immensely famous person No. 2 says some things immensely famous person No. 1 likes.

Except, it turns out, when immensely famous person No. 1 actually disagrees with immensely famous person No. 2.

What it is the kids say? Oh, yes: “I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.”

Sorry to be so arch so soon after Christmas, but that’s how I felt after even a casual reading of The Los Angeles Times‘ nearly breathless report on President Obama quoting some of Pope Francis’ recent comments about income inequality.

If, in the recent near-deluge of reporting on the HealthCare.gov rollout you’re longing for a straight shot of fawning press coverage of the president circa 2009, I believe I found your “fix” — at least at the start of this report. (The admiration fizzles towards the end.) Read this:

WASHINGTON — When a White House speechwriter turned in a draft of a major speech on economic policy this month, President Obama sent it back with an unusual instruction: Add a reference to the pope.The final version of the speech quoted directly from Pope Francis’ recent letter to the faithful: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” he said.

The citation marked a notable development in Obama’s complex and sometimes confrontational relationship with the Roman Catholic Church: After several years of high-profile clashes with U.S. bishops, Obama is seizing the chance to highlight common ground with the bishop of Rome.

Quoting the pope isn’t likely to yield direct electoral dividends for Obama’s party — the once-vaunted “Catholic vote” largely disappeared long ago. But in a string of effusive praise, the president has made clear he sees the pope as a like-minded thinker and potentially useful ally in a crucial battle of ideas, particularly on the importance of shrinking the gulf between rich and poor, a subject Obama has pushed repeatedly but with limited success.

White House officials described the president’s praise of the pope as merely a happy coincidence with no political motives. Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff’s recent statements impressive, they said.

“It’s something that is very much on the president’s mind,” said Cecilia Muñoz, chief domestic policy advisor to the president. “And, happily for us, it’s something that’s also on the pope’s mind.”

Yes, there’s a lot on this pope’s mind, and we’ll get to that in just a moment. Let’s go back to something that seems to have glided by editors at The Los Angeles Times: “Obama, who has never spoken to Francis, simply found the pontiff’s recent statements impressive, they said.”

I’ve never worked in The White House and can’t really judge how a president should or shouldn’t act, but is it really unheard of for a POTUS to at least schedule a phone conversation with a pontiff once said pontiff is elected? Vatican City is a “state” with which the United States has diplomatic relations, and Pope Francis is the chief executive of that state. Yet Obama has never spoken with him? Not even after both men became Time‘s “Person of the Year”?

Then again, perhaps there are some elements of Francis’ message that might make such a conversation a bit awkward, such as a politician treating the pope’s worldview as a buffet: sample this, but don’t touch the other. To its credit, the Times captures this, albeit with the seemingly requisite snark towards Obama’s GOP predecessors, (leaving one to imagine that Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton were perhaps soulmates):

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Good Catholic info, sort of, but lousy ‘Catholic’ headline

Right now, editors in major newsrooms are doing everything they can to cover the papal horse race over at the Vatican. It’s crunch time.

Thus, journalists are asking questions such as these:

How will the cardinals vote?

What are they doing to campaign and win votes?

What are the political issues that are being debated?

What are the names of the factions?

Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, based on their stances on the political issues that matter to editors?

Who is most likely to favor the changes in ancient doctrines that the editors would like to see made?

At the heart of all this, as of late, is the drive to understand “what Catholics want” from a new pope. This leads to polls built on the assumption that there are people called “normal Catholics” who can be polled and plugged into the questions listed above.

Oh my. That sound you hear, after reading all of this, is the sound of church-going, active, doctrinally minded Catholics screaming, because framing a papal election in these terms — for them — is kind of like listening to fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

This produces headlines such as the following, care of The Washington Post:

Poll: Majority of U.S. Catholics favor change

The top of the story under this headline is oh so typical:

A majority of American Roman Catholics consider the church out of touch with their views and they want the new pope to usher in policies that reflect more modern attitudes, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As cardinals gather in the Vatican to select a successor to retired Pope Benedict XVI, the poll suggests most Catholics in the United States hope the next pope will move the church in a new direction that someday could include married priests and female priests.

Yet even as six in 10 Catholics characterize the church as not in sync with their attitudes and lifestyles, 86 percent said it remains relevant, according to the poll, conducted last week. And more than two-thirds of the Catholics polled praise Benedict, saying he did a “good” or “excellent” job.

I am happy to report that, right after this newsy train wreck, the reporting team — as opposed to the headline writing team — got its act together and alerted readers to the reality behind these numbers.

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Quote of the year on Catholics and American politics

I don’t know how you feel about anonymous quotes, but, as a rule, I am opposed to them.

However, when faced with an important anonymous quote, one of the first questions I always ask as a journalist is, “Who is the author of the piece and does this person have the kind of authority and access that makes this anonymous quotation believable”?

In this case, the author of the following Our Sunday Visitor column is a person who every religion-beat reporter in her or his right mind just knows has the kind of access to land this killer quote. We are, you see, talking about Russell Shaw, author of one of the essential books for those who work the religion-news beat: “Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church.”

What does Shaw know about serious discussions that go on behind closed doors when the U.S. Catholic bishops get together? How much does he know about the delicate dance that goes on in the halls of Catholic power, when it comes to dealing with politicians and with reporters? Scan this short biography and tell me. The key is the nearly two decades as a press spokesman and information director for the American bishops.

Several years ago, I used this anecdote to capture some of the lessons Shaw learned about religion news and the Catholic hierarchy. This guy knows things. He also knows what he cannot know.

If you want to cause trouble for American bishops, stick them in a vise between Rome and the armies of dissenters employed on Catholic campuses.

But the bishops had to vote on Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”). After all, they had been arguing about this papal document throughout the 1990s, trying to square the doctrinal vision of Pope John Paul II with their American reality. Rome said their first response was too weak, when it came to insisting that Catholic schools remain openly Catholic. Finally, the bishops approved a tougher document on a 223-to-31 vote.

Soon after that 1999 showdown, someone “with a good reason for wanting to know” emailed a simple question to Russell Shaw of the United States Catholic Conference. Who voted against the statement?

“There was no way to know. In fact, the Vatican doesn’t know — for sure — who those 31 bishops where,” said Shaw, discussing one of the many mysteries in his book. …

“The secret ballots were destroyed,” he noted. “These days the voting process is even more secret, since the bishops just push a button and they’ve voted. Even if you wanted to know how your bishop voted, or you wanted the Vatican to know how your bishop voted, there’s no way to do that.”

Professionals have learned to read between the lines of debates held in the open sessions that the U.S. bishops choose to schedule. Outside those doors, insiders talk and spread rumors. Some bishops spin the press and others, usually those sending messages to Rome, hold press conferences, publish editorials or preach sermons. But many of the crucial facts remain cloaked in secrecy.

With all of that in mind, please scan the list — click here — of the Americans who are currently cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church.

Then read this recent offering by Shaw, which contains the anonymous quote mentioned at the top of this post. I offer this as part of our ongoing post-2012 election discussions here at GetReligion about why it is unwise for journalists to keep pinning current-day political labels on the foreheads of people whose lives are defined by centuries of religious doctrines.

So here is the soundbite that I think might be the religion-beat quote of the year.

The cardinal looked grim. “This is the situation now,” he said. “One political party is dangerous and the other is stupid.”

Since that was said in a private chat, it wouldn’t be fair for me to name the speaker. But his comment expresses sentiments that probably are widely shared in the American hierarchy today, as indeed they’re shared widely by many Americans. Bipartisan disgust with politics is a sorry byproduct of our recent, toxic election campaign. If the country should actually topple over the infamous fiscal cliff, plenty of people would suppose both parties gave it a shove.

The cardinal’s words also have considerable relevance for the Church, underlining something that’s now more clear than ever. While the Church is obliged to take both deeply flawed political coalitions as facts, it has no natural home in either. No cause for smugness here, though. Before lecturing the parties, the Church needs to face up to internal problems of its own, which requires recognizing what those problems are.

Yes, some of the paragraphs that follow in his column are linked to familiar patterns about the various kinds of “Catholic voters” and how the pronouncements of bishops inspire some of them, primarily those who embrace Confession and other Sacraments, and infuriate many others, especially cultural Catholics who go to Mass one or two times a year, if that. This is old terrain here at GetReligion.

The reason I think Shaw’s column should matter to informed reporters is that he digs into this subject — Catholic life beyond normal political labels — deep enough to end up in a totally logical place, yet a place that few politically-obsessed reporters would end up.

Where is that? Pulpits.

At their fall assembly in November, the bishops approved a document on preaching (.pdf) that makes the familiar point that a typical congregation today includes a lot of people who are “inadequately catechized.” Here is a delicate way of saying even many who go to Mass don’t have a clear notion of what the Church teaches and don’t see how it applies to them. That has deeply negative implications for political behavior and nearly everything else.

If Catholic teaching matters, this needs to change. The bishops should give early attention to a massive, continuing and intellectually serious program — one not directly tied to politics and the election cycle — to educate Catholics in the doctrine of their Church, including social doctrine and doctrine on human life and marriage. Isolated statements in the face of election year passions aren’t enough.

Homilies should be a part of this new effort but only part.

Read it all.

I mean, read all of Shaw’s column or read all of the U.S. Catholic bishops document on preaching. Take your pick or read both. There’s news in there, news that is hard to label.

The day after: The prophet John Green, revisited

It should be a quiet day on the religion-beat front, in the wake of yesterday’s nail-biters in the real world of politics. If the past repeats itself, as it often does, it will take a few days for the religion elements of the story to emerge, other than the usual “Obama won the Catholic vote (whatever that is)” headlines.

We do know several things for sure, on the day after. The ultimate ties that bind are race and religion, even when those two realities pull in different directions. The map also shows the degree to which many working-class voters in the urban Northeast and Midwest remain in deep, deep pain and many are convinced that the government is their ultimate, if not only, friend. GOP leaders seem to be deaf to their populist cries. (Then again, I am a registered Democrat who just bought a Chevy Cruze).

In its wrap-up analysis, USA Today went back to the map:

The changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday — not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago, when Obama attracted broader support, especially among whites.

But this time the contest was much closer in a country that is undergoing tectonic shifts in its demography. “We have never had a more polarized electorate,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres says.

If there was one thing that seemed to unite the nation, it was a sense that the stakes were high and the election mattered.

The nation froze in place in an amazing state of gridlock. Things pretty much remain the same on the nation’s hot-button moral, cultural and religious issues: The only vote that actually matters, at least for a few years, is that of Justice Anthony Kennedy. It’s his country, but he lets us live here. For church-state insiders, all eyes are on his editing pencil and numerous First Amendment cases (free speech, freedom of association and religious liberty) are headed his way.

As election night plodded on, I kept thinking about University of Akron scholar John Green and that recent Pew Forum “Nones” study and America’s growing coalition on the secular and religious left. To be specific, I flashed back to a Media Project seminar in the summer of 2009, when Green stood at a whiteboard and described the changes that he was seeing in the landscape of American religion. Everything he said on that day showed up years later, in the 2012 Pew Forum study of the religiously unaffiliated.

On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.

In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America’s liberal religious denominations (such as the “seven sisters” of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up, Green said in 2009, and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.

The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality — the pluses and the minuses — of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies. This could, to say the least, shape the party’s relationships with the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and other major religious bodies.

Here’s what Green had to say, a few weeks ago, after the press gathering announcing the “Nones” report. This is taken from a column I wrote for the Scripps Howard News Service.

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the “Nones” skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

“It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. “If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties.”

Sound familiar?

So where does this go? Where will journalists be looking for the next wrinkle in this story?

The reality that trumps many of these religious divisions is, of course, race. At some point, cultural conservatives are going to have to find a way to separate married and religious African-Americans and Latinos from the single adults and secular people in those large ethnic groups. White voters divide alone lines of religious practice (the “pew gap”) and marital status, while black and Latino voters do not.

If cultural conservatives are not able to do this, then do the math.

Meanwhile, here comes the deeper information from the exit polls. If journalists continue to march in lockstep, we are only days away from reports about the growing division between young evangelicals and old evangelicals (whatever the word “evangelical” means).


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