Pope Francis and the ‘Hand of God’

Europe’s tabloid press has added its bit to the wall-to-wall press coverage of Pope Francis. Crowding out the semi-nude girls, horse racing results, horoscopes and celebrity tattle the details of the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires to the chair of St. Peter have received page 1 treatment across the continent.

Two newspapers have been especially clever. The Mirror in London and Germany’s Bild used the same photo of Francis on the balcony at St. Peter’s and the same caption “The new hand of God” (Die neue Hand Gottes).

For an American audience this title is fairly benign. But for soccer crazy Europeans and Argentinians the phrase is a clever play on one of the most famous incidents in World Cup play.

Before a crowd of 120,000 in Mexico City on 22 June 1986 (and only four years after the Falklands War) Argentina played England in the quarter finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup. Beating England 2-1, Argentine captain Diego Maradona scored two of the most famous goals in soccer history.  Fifty-one minutes into the match Maradona used his hand to knock the ball into the goal out of the sight of the referee.

His second, after fifty-four minutes, saw him dribble past five England players to score. In 2002 this was voted Goal of the Century by FIFA.com voters. The first became known as the “hand of God goal” after Maradona told reporters the ball had been helped with:

“A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”.

To help the dimmer members amongst its readers (and foreigners like me) The Mirror inserted a photo next to the new pope’s hand showing the “Hand of God goal.”

It is possible to read a little too much into this.

While The Mirror and Bild are generally  unsympathetic to the Catholic Church, I believe this is just an example of a copy editor’s cleverness. Nothing more. This is the view of the LA Times also.

What say you GetReligion readers, is this fun or is there something more?

Hypocrisy, grace and a fallen cardinal

The downfall of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s senior Roman Catholic cleric, has not shown the press at its best. While the Observer, the Guardian newspaper’ Sunday edition, deserves high praise for breaking the story of the cardinal’s misconduct, a number of stories have adopted a gleeful and sanctimonious tone. Sex and religion sells newspapers – – but coupled with sloppy language and malicious hyperbole good reporting can be squeezed out of a story.

On 3 March 2013 Cardinal O’Brien admitted “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.”

The Guardian reported that Cardinal O’Brien:

… who was forced to resign by the pope last week, has made a dramatic admission that he was guilty of sexual misconduct throughout his career in the Roman Catholic church. … The former archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and until recently the most senior Catholic in Britain, apologised and asked for forgiveness from those he had “offended” and from the entire church.

… O’Brien’s resignation was remarkable in its speed; his apology is all but unprecedented in its frankness. Many sexual scandals or allegations of misconduct against individuals or the wider church have dragged on for years.

A second story by the Guardian commented that the cardinal’s real sin was not his abuse, but his hypocrisy.

In purely human terms, the story of Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation is tragic. He had spent a lifetime reaching the upper echelons of his church, but after allegations of inappropriate behaviour made in the Observer last Sunday his fall from grace took just 36 hours. Not one of the four complainants takes any satisfaction from that. This is not about the exposure of one man’s alleged foibles. It is about the exposure of a church official who publicly issues a moral blueprint for others’ lives that he is not prepared to live out himself. Homosexuality is not the issue; hypocrisy is. The cardinal consistently condemned homosexuality during his reign, vociferously opposing gay adoption and same-sex marriage. The church cannot face in two directions like a grotesque two-headed monster: one face for public, the other for private.

Other outlets took up the theme of hypocrisy with Salon offering the most over-the-top piece that I have seen so far. Under the title, “Cardinal ‘Tyranny of tolerance’ O’Brien is a hypocrite of the worst order”, Salon published a puerile screed that began:

He was a homosexuality-condemning cardinal who is now embroiled in a tale involving his alleged “drunken fumblings” and unwanted advances toward other men. Well, at least this one’s a Catholic Church scandal that doesn’t involve children. Progress, maybe?

Standing outside of the issue of the cardinal’s misconduct, the journalistic question I would question in these reports is the assertion that Cardinal O’Brien is a hypocrite. [Read more...]

Jesus, the Mahdi and Hugo Chavez

A note of condolence written by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, upon the death of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has been the occasion of some of some mirth in the press. The Washington Post and the Huffington Post have made arch references to President Ahmadinejad’s statement that Hugo Chavez will be resurrected at the end of time. The Washington Post observed:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left Tehran today to attend Hugo Chavez’s funeral. But that’s not all — in his condolences for the former Venezuelan president, Ahmadinejad said he has “no doubt Chavez will return to Earth together with Jesus and the perfect” Imam Mahdi, the most revered figure of Shiite Muslims, according to AP. Ahmadinejad also said the three men will together “establish peace, justice and kindness” in the world, and that he is “suspicious” about the cause of Chavez’s cancer.

The Huffington Post began its story by stating:

Hugo Chavez had a friend in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who apparently held the Venezuelan leader in such high regard that he believes he will “return on resurrection day” with Jesus Christ and will “establish peace, justice, and kindness” on earth. After Chavez’s death on Tuesday afternoon, Ahmadinejad released a statement on Wednesday to announce a day of public mourning, according to Iran’s Raja News, Ahmadinejad’s official news agency. In his message, Ahmadinejad voiced skepticism over Chavez’s “suspicious” illness and proclaimed that the 58-year-old will resurrect with Jesus one day.

The tone of these stories suggests the Iranian president is a loon. Is that fair? I don’t know if President Ahmadinejad is a loon, but the statement on his website cited by these reports is not sufficient cause for making such a claim. Let’s look at the text and see what it actually says. The translation provided by the Mehr news agency states in part:

Chavez is alive, as long as justice, love and freedom are living. He is alive, as long as piety, brightness, and humanity are living. He is alive, as long as nations are alive and struggle for consolidating independence, justice and kindness. I have no doubt that he will come back, and along with Christ the Savior, the heir to all saintly and perfect men, and will bring peace, justice and perfection for all.

The language is flowery but not inconsistent with Muslim teachings on the end of time. Like Christians, Muslims believe that at the end of time Jesus will return, the dead shall be raised and the wicked and the righteous shall be judged, and will merit a place in Heaven or Hell. How this happens and the role played by Jesus are very different in the eschatology of Islam and Christianity — that is to say they are completely incompatible. Nor are Muslims in agreement on all aspects of eschatology, the final things.

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Podcast: English Anti-Catholicism & Ethiopian Lutheranism

Anti-Catholic bias is alive and well in Britain — however the animus to the “Italian mission to the Irish” comes not from the Church of England. Nor does it stem from the 1701 Act of Settlement (barring Catholics from the Royal Family), Guy Fawkes Night, xenophobia or other collective memories of the Britain’s past. The anti-Catholic bias one sees in England today is that of the political and media elites — those members of the chattering classes who detest the church for what it believes (not what it is).

Now there is an equal opportunity disdain at work — the Church of England is held in low regard also by the elites. Yet despite the best efforts of the magic circle, the small group of liberal prelates who control the English church, to conform the institution to the demands of the right thinking members of the establishment — the chattering classes reject the Catholic moral worldview (and have no problem saying so).

This is the theme of my chat this week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 21 Feb 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Guardian wins week one of 2013 All-England pope-bashing contest” posted at GetReligion and discussed the phenomena of shoddy reporting on the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI. Todd asked whether I believed that this was a failure of journalism or if there was something more involved.

I argued that this was more than a failure of adhering to the reporter’s art, but represented a virulent anti-Catholic, anti-religious prejudice in the stories we discussed. How could one explain assertions made by the Guardian‘s man in Rome that Africans were unable to conform to the church’s requirements of priestly celibacy due to their being Africans? The Guardian (and the BBC) are the temples of the p.c. priests. How could such a  slur be allowed to make its way into print? Well if it is in a story that damns the Catholic Church it can.

The restraints of time and my inherent good breeding prevented me from giving full voice to my views. I would have liked to add that I was also concerned by the Guardian‘s decision to run so many pope stories — many not worth the bother reading due to the the ignorance of the authors — when other issues of equal merit in the world of religion were taken place over the past few weeks — the story about the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) being but one example.

No, this is not a joke on my part. While I do not downplay the importance of the pope’s resignation announcement, the sheer volume of nonsense being published and the absence of news about the EECMY speaks to the media’s inability to evaluate religious events.

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Catholic yes to yoga?

I have been waiting for the American press to pick up an article found in Saturday’s edition of La Stampa, the Turin-based Italian daily, on the Catholic Church and yoga. But as five days have passed with no mention of Bishop Raffaello Martinelli I expect we will not be seeing anything for the moment.

This is shame really as the the intersection of yoga and state, as GR’s editor TMatt has described it, is a live issue. My colleague, Mollie Hemingway, has written about the intersection of yoga and American culture — noting the consternation Hindus feel when its non-Hindu devotees reject claims they are appropriating a spiritual exercise of their faith.

Last December the New York Times ran a detailed article on a dispute in a California school system that had introduced yoga classes for students. On 20 Feb 2013 the Associated Press reported the dispute had now become a law suit with parents suing the school district saying their children are being taught religious doctrine by public school teachers. The school district’s response to the lawsuit is to deny that yoga is religious and that the ends justify the means.

Superintendent Timothy B. Baird said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not directly comment on it, but he defended the district’s decision to integrate yoga into its curriculum this year. The district is believed to be the first in the country to have full-time yoga teachers at every one of its schools. The lessons are funded by a $533,000, three-year grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Asthanga yoga. Since the district started the classes at its nine schools in January, Baird said teachers and parents have noticed students are calmer, using the breathing practices to release stress before tests.

“We’re not teaching religion,” he said. “We teach a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it. It’s part of our overall wellness program. The vast majority of students and parents support it.”

The kids are calmer after practicing yoga and therefore it is a good thing. Would the superintendent have been willing to accept money from a Catholic charity to hire someone for each school to teach kids Christian meditation? Or if the issue is movement of the body, would it have engaged a Falung Gong instructor to teach Dharma Wheel Practice if the group had put up the cash?

Into this mix  comes Saturday’s La Stampa article entitled “Vescovo Italiano apre a Yoga” ["Italian bishop open to Yoga"]

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Guardian wins week one of 2013 All-England pope-bashing contest

The year’s at the spring, And day’s at the morn; Morning’s at seven; The hill-side’s dew-pearled; The lark’s on the wing; The snail’s on the thorn; God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!

Robert Browning, Pippa Passes (1841)

It’s a wonderful life. My heart has been singing songs of joy every morning as I take up my newspapers and survey the latest news on the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI. For a critic of religion reporting these are the good times — no slogging through continental newspapers to find a story to review for this blog. I am spoiled for choice just by reading the British press. Some of the stories have been so silly and wrong-headed as to be bizarre.

But there have been quite a few good stories from the religion reporters at the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, BBC and Independent in addition to the speciality church press (Catholic and Anglican) on this issue — but outside the specialist reporters the quality falls off sharply in the secular press. There is also an undercurrent of hostility towards the Catholic Church that few media outlets bother to hide — or appear to recognize.

A typical example came in BBC Radio 4?s Any Questions program. Members of the audience are asked to submit written questions on topical issues for discussion by a panel of speakers that ostensibly will provide a balance of views. The producers of the show pick the panel and the questions — and on Friday’s broadcast 23:45 minutes into the show (after questions on the food standards in the wake of the horse meat in hamburgers scandal) the question was put to the panel: “Is now the time for a  black, woman pope?”

The first speaker, Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser for Greenpeace sidestepped the question, but said she did believe it was the duty of the next pope to “reconcile” the church with “the values most people hold” in Britain. Liberal Democrat MP Nick Harvey MP said to a roar of applause from the audience the Catholic Church “should be dragged into the 21st century,” and that it should update its teachings to “connect” with the values of the modern world. He and Labour MP Margaret Hodge urged the church to permit women clergy and and bring its moral ethic in conformance with those of the British establishment.

Mrs. Hodge — who was head of the Islington  Council when that London Borough was responsible for the oversight of local care homes where investigators uncovered evidence of sexual abuse (Hodge refused to investigate the charges at the time as it would have cost too much) raised the issue of child sexual abuse. She argued the Catholic Church had been lax in addressing the sexual abuse scandal and observed that child sexual abuse and pedophilia were “rampant in the Catholic Church”. Only Environment Minister John Hayes declined to attack the church noting that he was not black, not a woman and not Catholic so he felt disqualified in offering an opinion on the propriety of a black woman pope.

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Are ashes to go a Protestant no-no?

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This week’s celebration of Ash Wednesday has prompted several stories built around the theme of “ashes to go” — a recent phenomena of liturgical Protestant church ministers — (I’ve seen reports of Methodist, Episcopal and Lutheran clergy involved) imposing ashes on the foreheads of individuals in public places outside of the confines of worship.

(Yes, “imposing” is the correct verb to describe the act of a cleric daubing an ash covered thumb on the forehead of a penitent. The rite is called the imposition of ashes.)

Theses stories from the Dallas Morning News entitled “Doughnuts, coffee and Ashes to Go?” is typical of the genre, as is the Baltimore Sun’s “Lenten observers take their Ashes to Go,” and the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s “Modern-day Lent: Ashes to Go.” Each conforms to the general pattern of a description of what took place; an explanation of what the ashes symbolize, a quote from someone receiving the ashes and an explanation from one of the clergy explaining why they do it. Some stories go a bit deeper and note that this practice began in St Louis in 2007 and has slowly spread amongst mainline churches.

What I have not seen in this year’s crop (though I have not made an exhaustive search of today’s newspapers) is a contrary voice saying this practice is improper. Happy voices predominate and no hard questions are asked.

Compare these stories to Cathy Lynn Grossman’s 2012 piece entitled “For some, ashes in a flash for Lent”. While it includes the elements of the stories cited above, the USA Today story also asks a spokesman for the Catholic Church what they think of the idea.

Catholic priests won’t be dishing out ashes at bus stops. The Catholic Church teaches ashes should be received within a church, during a service with Scripture, prayer and calls for repentance, says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

USA Today also asked the Episcopal priest who began “ashes to go” in 2007 what her theological reasons were for taking the imposition of ashes outside of the church building.

The Rev. Emily Mellott of Calvary Church in Lombard, Ill., and author of AshesToGo.org, describes the simple sign as a profound experience. “The ashes are an invitation, opening the door for us to the practices of Lent, a first step, a reminder of our mortality and God’s creative power,” says Mellott, who plans to stand at a commuter train stop today. “We take that invitation and that core truth out into places where people really need that. People who come to church already get the forgiveness thing.”

Anyone can accept the ashes, although non-Christians tend not to seek them. If they do, Mellott says, “we view it as an act of evangelism, and we make it clear this is a part of the Christian tradition.”

By seeking contrary voices and offering a theological explanation, USA Today wins best in show for the ashes to go stories.

I should wrap the story up at this point. I’ve identified why one particular story works best and highlighted the religion ghosts in others.

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Piling on Pat Robertson

Having apparently exhausted discussion of one octogenarian, The Huffington Post appears to have turned its attention to a second aged religious leader this week and published a hit piece on Pat Robertson. “Pat Robertson Claims Islam Is ‘Demonic’ And ‘Not A Religion’ But An Economic System” is a lazy, badly written story. What it reports is not news, and the tone it uses to report this non-news story is unprofessional.

Let me say at the outset that I am not seeking to examine the claims put forward by Pat Robertson in a recent episode of his television show, The 700 Club, rather I am concerned with quality of the reporting in this article. It begins:

Controversial conservative Christian Pat Robertson doubled down Tuesday on claims that Islam is not a religion. According to Right Wing Watch, Robertson, an elder statesman of the evangelical movement, made the inflammatory claim during an episode of his TV program, “The 700 Club.”

I too love alliteration. But this love is not shared by all. The repetition of consonants as an artifice of newspaper writing goes in and out of fashion. While the New York Daily News would have to fold up shop if it could not use alliteration in its headlines, Fowler’s The King’s English discourages it as a “novice’s toy” — yet The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage has no strictures against its use. In modern writing, alliteration is judged on how well it works in setting a mood, tone or in creating resonance or echoes of other works. William Safire’s Political Dictionary cites good, “evil empire,” and bad, “nattering nabobs of negativism”, examples of its usage.

Is a “controversial conservative Christian”  who “doubles down” Reaganesque? Or is The Huffington Post channeling Spiro Agnew? While not quite in the same circle of writer’s hell as “vicars of vacillation” or “pusillanimous pussyfooters”, the tone it creates is a bit too much. Rather than having fun with language the author is giving voice to her contempt for the subject of the article. An editor also should have stricken out “controversial”. Where his word’s controversial or is he controversial? Also this silly syntactical start sadly slips in substantiating its statements of fact.

What Pat Robertson said is not new. According to the article, he stated:

“Every time you look up — these are angry people, it’s almost like it’s demonic that is driving them to kill and to maim and to destroy and to blow themselves up,” Robertson said of Islam. “It’s a religion of chaos.” He went on to say, “I hardly think to call it a religion, it’s more of — well, it’s an economic and political system with a religious veneer.”

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