A Roman Easter Rashomon

Marge: “You liked Rashomon!”

Homer: “That’s not how I remember it.”

The Simpsons, Thirty Minutes over Tokyo, (16 May 1999).

The title of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, Rashomon, has entered the English-language as a term to describe the conundrum where eyewitness accounts to an event are true but contradictory.

Set in 12th-century Japan, Rashomon  describes a chance meeting in a forest between a bandit, a samurai and his wife. A sexual encounter takes place followed by a death — but the plot revolves around whether this was a rape and if the death was murder or suicide. The film shows four conflicting accounts of the incident: from the perspective of the bandit, the samurai’s wife, the dead samurai speaking through a spirit medium, and a passing woodcutter.  As each narrates their version of the event, the film shows images of the incident that demonstrate truthfulness of the four characters’ accounts. But unlike a traditional mystery where falsehood is unmasked, and truth revealed, Rashomon presents each account as being true. What is truth?

I share this nugget of Japanese film lore as one explanation of the reporting of Pope Benedict XVI’s Holy Thursday chrismal mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope took a verbal stick to a dissident priests’ movement and gave them a mighty whack, or the pope held out an olive branch to a dissident priests’ movement and invited them to enter into dialogue. Are one, both, neither accounts true?

The English-language press reports Pope Benedict XVI denounced in harsh terms the Pfarrer Initiative (pastor initiative), a reform movement founded in 2006 by Austrian Roman Catholic clergy that has called for abolishing priestly celibacy and permitting the ordination of women priests.

Some of the stories are quite strong. The Daily Mail‘s article was entitled “Pope denounces rebel clergy who question church teaching on celibacy and ordaining woman.”

A number of newspaper ran the story from the Associated Press. Most newspapers along with the television networks ABC and CBS used the headline supplied by the AP: “Pope denounces dissident priests on celibacy”.  The New York Daily News picked up the tempo with “Pope Benedict XVI slams priests who question church on celibacy.” The Washington Post chose “Pope denounces dissident priests who question church teaching on celibacy, ordaining women” for its title, while across town the Washington Times ran with “Pope rips into dissident priests on celibacy”.

The pope “rips”, “slams”, “denounces” rebel clergy — strong stuff. All that is needed to complete the picture are Batman art cards — “Sock, Bam, Pow, Biff, Boom.”

The BBC and the New York Times followed this general line but used the less harsh but still strong verb “rebuke.” “Pope Benedict XVI rebukes Austrian dissident priests” and “Pope Rebukes Priests Who Advocate Ordaining Women and Ending Celibacy.”

However, the Irish Times did not follow the herd on this one. The story submitted by its Rome correspondent was entitled “Pope chides Catholics who query key beliefs.” The Italian newspaper La Stampa also broke ranks with its story “Disobedience is not a way to renew the Church, Pope tells dissident priests.”

The report in the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, on the pope’s homily entitled “Pope to priests: Be configured to Christ” is even further from the AP’s perspective.

The lede in the AP story is that the pope

issued a blistering denunciation Thursday of priests who have questioned church teaching on celibacy and ordaining women, saying they were being selfish in disobeying his authority.

The article offers a quick summary of the Pfarrer Initiative and then pulls quotes from the pope’s homily.

… Benedict said the dissidents claim to be motivated by concern for the church. But he suggested that in reality they were just making “a desperate push to do something to change the church in accordance with (their) own preferences and ideas.”

“We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date,” he said. “But is disobedience really a way to do this?”

He said Jesus always followed true obedience to God’s will, not “human caprice.”

And he rejected the dissidents’ idea that the church had been “fossilized” since the Second Vatican Council, saying that on the contrary, the growth of new religious movements in recent decades showed the vitality and true renewal of the church called for by the 1962-65 Vatican II.

These are accurate quotes from the pope’s homily, but the truth of this report conflicts with the truth of the Italian reports. L’Osservatore Romano states the pope accepts the

“possibility as well that the signers of this summons were motivated ‘by concern for the Church’, and … invites us to reflect on how it is possible to realize this configuration to Christ  “in the often dramatic situation of the Church today”. The temptation to disobedience, the Pope explained, seems to be merely “a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas”.  Maybe because Christ “seems too lofty and too great for us to dare to measure ourselves by him”.

The Austrian press  reports the leaders of the Pfarrer initiative did not take the pope’s words to be a harsh rebuke but an invitation to discussion. Mgr. Helmut Schueller said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the homily according to an account printed in the Weiner Zeitung. “It is important to note the Pope has threatened no consequences. We are part of the church for him,” the Kurier quoted Mgr. Schueller as saying in response to the homily.

So which is it?

Singling out the Pfarrer initiative for criticism in the context of a holy week homily is unusual. The notice given to this is warranted, however, the “rips”, “slams”, “denounces” rebel clergy line taken by the AP and other papers misses the point of the pontiff’s homily.

The pope accepts the dissident clergy are acting according to the lights of their own conscience, but he rejects the notion that disobedience is the way to achieve a moral good. “A priest never belongs to himself,” the pope said, but must conform his life to Christ and in service to the church. “We preach not private theories and opinions, but the faith of the Church, whose servants we are.”

Are Mgr. Schueller and his compatriots in Austria being disingenuous then by saying they are pleased by the pope’s comments. I think not. What they hear is the pope’s disagreement with their views, but not a call for their silence. While the AP reports the pope rejects criticism the church has become fossilized, the Pfarrer Initiative clergy hear him to be saying their concerns have merit. The reasons for their concern are being heard. It is the way they are seeking to address these concerns that is being criticized.

Is this an example of the Rashomon effect — with the Austrian clergy, the Italian newspapers and the English-language newspapers hearing the same words but hearing a different truth? Or has the press blown it by focusing on one portion of a homily to the exclusion of the full message?

What say you GetReligion readers? Read the pope’s homily for yourself and tell me what you think.

CNN’s Sonora satanists scare

Maaro maaro sooar ko… (“Kill, kill, kill the pig…”): Mola Ram.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

Black and white — that is the way Hollywood likes its movies. By this I do not mean film stock but story line. Nazis are cinema gold. They will always be with us on the silver screen as they represent unrepentant evil. Steven Spielberg has been able to work Nazis into two of his Indiana Jones films, while the third saw a less well known, but equally unambiguous evil — the Thuggees and their high priest Mola Ram.

Spielberg took the story of the thugees, an Indian cult who worshiped the goddess of death — Kali — by murdering travelers and other unsuspecting victims, and mixed in a good helping of Aztec human sacrifice and devil worship to come up with a wonderful hiss-worthy villain.

Reading an article in CNN International this week on the murders of three people by members of the Santa Muerte cult brought this film to mind. The CNN presentation of Santa Muerte I found to be as flat and over the top as Spielberg’s thuggees. But what is praise worthy in a children’s movie is not always so in reporting.

The CNN story entitled “Officials: 3 killed as human sacrifices in Mexico” opens with:

Authorities in the northern Mexican state of Sonora have arrested eight people accused of killing two boys and one woman as human sacrifices for Santa Muerte — the saint of death — officials said Friday.

The victims, two of whom were age 10, were killed and their blood was offered at an altar to the saint, according to Jose Larrinaga, spokesman for state prosecutors. The accused were asking the saint, who is generally portrayed as a skeleton dressed in a long robe and carrying a scythe, for protection, he said.

Santa Muerte is a favorite among criminals and the country’s drug traffickers. The saint, though not recognized by the Catholic Church, has taken off in popularity in recent years.

Details of the case were laid out in a statement from the Sonora State Investigative Police (PEI), which described the cult as a “Satanic sect.”

The CNN story gives a surface description of what images of the saint look like, but does not anchor it to any bottom in the Mexican religious and cultural sea. For an American reader the language, the nouns and adjectives used in this story are Christian — saint, Satanic, Catholic Church, altar. Yet, CNN also says the “saint” is “not recognized by the Catholic Church.” Which means what, exactly? Is this another St Christopher or St George — popular saints removed from the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church in 1969 because their historicity was doubtful?

What I find more troubling, however, is the assumption in the CNN story that ritual murder is normative in Santa Muerte. Are all devotees of Santa Muerte bloodthirsty killers?

A confusion of language in the CNN story dulls this story’s impact. Compare it to the work of Adriana Gomez Licon and Felipe Larios of the Associated Press. They have done an outstanding job in reporting the facts, motives and police theories surrounding the ritual murders of two young boys and a middle-aged woman near the town of Nacozari.  It avoids the sensationalism of the CNN lede by beginning its story with a look at the suspected murderers and then brings in Santa Muerte.

It was a family people took pity on, one the government and church helped with free food, used clothes, and farm animals. The men were known as trash pickers. Some of the women were suspected of prostitution.

Mexican prosecutors are investigating the poor family living in shacks outside a small town near the U.S. border as alleged members of a cult that sacrificed two 10-year-old boys and a 55-year-old woman to Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a figure adored mostly by outlaws but whose popularity is growing across Mexico and among Hispanics in the United States.

The killings have shocked the copper mining village of Nacozari, on the edge of the Sierra Madre, and may be the first ritual sacrifices linked to the popular saint condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Known as “flaquita,” or “the skinny one,” the figure known as Saint Death is portrayed as a skeleton wearing a hooded robe and holding a scythe, much like the Grim Reaper.

In addition to developing the crime angle, the AP story, entitled “Mexican agents probe family in 3 ritual murders” in the version run in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, also brings in expert voices to speak about Santa Muerte.

Before last week, there have only been unconfirmed reports of human sacrifices related to the figure in Mexico in recent years, said R. Andrew Chesnut, chairman of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.”

Chesnut said the 2007 shooting deaths of three men appeared to be related to Santa Muerte because the bodies were abandoned at a shrine to the figure outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo. But they showed no signs of being sacrificial killings.

He said that although most Santa Muerte devotees consider killing a “Satanic aberration of devotion,” and that books about the Santa Muerte don’t mention human sacrifice, some followers are extreme.

“With no clerical authority to stop them, some practitioners engage in aberrant and even abhorrent rituals,” Chesnut said.

The bottom line for this expert is that mainstream Santa Muerte believers would consider ritual murder to be an aberration.

When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released in 1984 it was briefly banned in India for what was perceived to be a “racist portrayal of Indians and overt imperialistic tendencies.” The CNN story does not rise to this level, but I am nonetheless troubled by its failure to distinguish between aberrant forms of Santa Muerte and the wider religious movement.

Would a story whose main characters professed a mainstream faith be treated the same way as this Santa Muerte story? When all Muslims are tarred with a broad-brush of being Islamist terrorists, or all Christians as intolerant fanatics by the antics of Fred Phelps — intelligent readers rightly complain that this is ludicrous. Yet CNN appears to be able to get away with this sort of hasty generalization about an unpalatable and somewhat far away religious movement.

Pod people: Little dogs at New York Times

Exaggeration of every kind is as essential to journalism as it is to the dramatic art; for the object of journalism is to make events go as far as possible. Thus it is that all journalists are, in the very nature of their calling, alarmists; and this is their way of giving interest to what they write. Herein they are like little dogs; if anything stirs, they immediately set up a shrill bark.

Arthur Schopenhauer, On Some Forms of Literature (1851)

A long time ago (for me) and in a far away place (actually Harare) I had my first experience of the foreign correspondent’s life. Amongst the many lessons I learned on that trip, the most important — aside from learning how to ingratiate oneself with a policemen armed with a machine pistol — was the central place of the “mahogany ridge” in reporting.

While events played themselves out in different parts of the city, the real action, the real news in Zimbabwe was to be found at the bar of Meikles Hotel for many of the reporters present. These memories of that exotic species — the Fleet Street hack — came to the surface for me in recent weeks as I read a number of stories in the New York Times about events in Holland and Moscow.

I took the Times to task for its reporting of the alleged castration by the Dutch Catholic Church of young men (how that one got by the editors I do not know) and on Pussy Riot and Russian Orthodox Church. I argued these stories did not live up to the standards of good journalism and asserted they displayed a lack of balance, context, sensibility and history.

I was rather hard on the Times. Did these stories rise to the level of journalism decried by Arthur Schopenhauer? Is their flavor akin to Evelyn Waugh’s anecdote about the fictitious American  reporter Wenlock Jakes in the novel Scoop?

Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to an hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine-guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know.

On this week’s Issues, Ect. host Todd Wilken and I talked about the Times‘ coverage of these two stories — and demonstrated my lack of polish as a radio commentator. This is my first foray into internet radio podcasting for GetReligion. We’ll see if they ask me back.

From Russia with love

An article from the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times has left me perplexed. On one level the story entitled “Punk riffs take on God and Putin” is a silly piece of journalism.

What do I mean by silly? I’m not quite sure myself. The tone of the story is half post-modernist supercilious sneer half celebrity profile for People magazine. Now these are subjective assessments of mine and I find the style in which this article was written not to my taste. But taste is neither here nor there.

It is the journalism on display that has me perplexed. There is no balance, no sense of history to this story as well as an excess of adjectives. The heroes and villains are one dimensional characters. And at bottom, the story displays a worldview that affirms Pussy Riot’s (the heroes in our tale) intellectual condescension towards the aspirations of Russia’s church and her people.

Stylistically, this story is silly — journalistically, this story falls short  — morally, this story is a wreck.

Follow me through and see if you see what I see.

MOSCOW — In the month since it performed an unsanctioned “punk prayer service” at Christ the Savior Cathedral, entreating the Virgin Mary to liberate Russia from Vladimir V. Putin, the feminist punk band Pussy Riot has stirred up a storm about the role of the church, art and women in Russian society.

The group has been accused of blasphemy; three of the women are in pre-trial detention and could face up to seven years in prison.

Video of their performance, which went viral on YouTube, shows five Pussy Riot members in trademark masks dancing, arms flailing, in front of the altar of the cathedral, a vast structure rebuilt in the 1990s on the site of a cathedral that was blown up on Stalin’s orders in 1931.

The cathedral, where Patriarch Kirill I celebrates Christmas and Easter services attended by Mr. Putin and Dmitri A. Medvedev, the departing president, has become a symbol of the ties between church and state in the post-Soviet era.

The story then moves to a recitation of local reactions, noting that “top officials in the Russian Orthodox Church have called for the band’s members to be strictly punished — at times tempering this demand by saying that they do not insist on a long jail sentence.”

Soft and hard statements are offered with “Russian Orthodox nationalists” calling for the group to be “flogged” while  “other Orthodox activists have condemned such calls as shameful.” However, no names or examples are offered.

The first voice to appear is that of:

The Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior Orthodox cleric known for his own outrageous statements on a range of topics, reiterated on Monday that there were no grounds for leniency and “that this text and this video are extremist materials, and their dissemination constitutes an extremist activity.”

The members of Pussy Riot “have declared war on Orthodox people, and there will be a war,” he told the Interfax news agency. “If the blasphemers are not punished, God will punish them in eternity and here through people.”

The group’s attorneys follow with their contention the charges have not been proved, and at that point the article notes that the:

scandal has had the interesting side effect of breaking a taboo around the word Pussy (Poosi in the Russian transliteration), as the band is usually referred to in short. It has been mouthed without embarrassment by commentators, officials and Russian Orthodox priests. Pravmir, an Orthodox news Web site, has translated the meaning of Pussy Riot as “uprising of the uterus.”

The story then offers details of the incident that led to the girls’ arrest noting the performance included the refrain about Orthodox bishops:

“The K.G.B. chief is their chief saint, he leads protesters to prison under convoy,” reads one verse in a version published on several Web sites. “In order to not offend His Holiness, women must give birth and love.”

The chorus is in the form of an appeal to the Virgin Mary. “O Birthgiver of God,” sings the band, using Russian Orthodox liturgical language for addressing the Virgin Mary — “get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin.”

One of the groups members, the Times notes has been:

criticized especially harshly for participating in a 2008 orgy at a biology museum, in which she is shown having sex with her husband just days before giving birth. She has been condemned as desecrating motherhood and harming her child — now an adorable braided blonde who made a taped appeal for her mother’s release.

The article then closes with a comment from a feminist writer who states the performance has nothing to do with feminism.

In defense of the way this story was framed, the International Herald Tribune printed this as part of a series on women after it first appeared in the Times. So perhaps the audience of this story were readers of People, who would respond appropriately to the bit about the “adorable braided blonde” who pleads for the release of her mother, and the lede sentence that promises a discussion on “the role of the church, art and women in Russian society.”

But this discussion never happens. Perhaps the closing comment that this is not feminism supplied the discussion, but it is otherwise absent from the story. Another omission is the nature of the crime. One need look outside the Times to find the women are being charged with “hooliganism“, not blasphemy. Their past public performances have led to their being charged with disorderly conduct and being let off with a fine, but the Cathedral incident on Shrove Tuesday has prompted public prosecutors to up the ante from a misdemeanor to a felony.

And what does the Times mean when it says the newly constructed cathedral, built on the spot where the old cathedral had stood until it was dynamited in 1931 by Lazar Kaganovich on the orders of Stalin, is a “symbol of the ties between church and state in the post-Soviet era.” Does this imply the church is a tool of President Putin? There is no explanation of this comment, nor voices speaking to this contention.

Christ Our Savior Cathedral, MoscowIn the introduction to Fr. Chaplin, what does the Times mean by saying he is “known for his own outrageous statements on a range of topics”? These “outrageous” statements are not cited nor has the dialogue between the church and Pussy Riot taking place through Twitter and the media been  explored. The article also implies that Fr. Chaplin wants to see the girls imprisoned. However, he has stated that he wants them to be punished, but not jailed.

As an aside, I met Fr. Chaplin at the World Council of Churches meeting in 2005 in Porto Allegre, Brazil. And yes, he is a character. I sat with him while an official from a liberal American denomination was giving a speech and Fr. Chaplain played the cantankerous Russian — muttering under his breath, “heretic”, “schismatic”, “infidel”, “Bolshevik” every so often.

While the article does mention that senior Orthodox clergy were disturbed by the incidence due to memories of the Soviet past, it does not explain why such memories would provoke such a sharp reaction. Nor does the charge made by Pussy Riot against against the Orthodox bishops of being stooges of the KGB get a hearing.

The Russian Orthodox Church was nearly wiped out in the Stalinist era. The state sponsored persecution of the Orthodox Church began with the sort of spectacle undertaken by Pussy Riot in Moscow’s chief cathedral in the 1920′s eventually led to the arrest of 168,300 priests, monks and nuns in the purges of 1937-1938 (of these over 100,000 were shot). Some of those who survived, did so through collaboration with the regime. The extent of this collaboration was such that the 2008 the Keston Institute report that outed Patriarch Alexy II as a KGB agent was not that much of a surprise.

Stylistically I did not care for the story. As journalism, I believe it failed to live up to its lede. It did not offer a discussion of the “role of the church, art and women in Russian society;” or a balanced or thorough account of the issues.

But the cheer-leading for Pussy Riot displayed a failing of sensibility.  Russian society is going through the painful process of rebuilding itself in the wake of the Soviet era. But this process is not fast enough for Pussy Riot and the New York Times, which believes that by insulting the church — a symbol of Putin’s state in the Times‘ and Pussy Riot’s view — a short cut to social change will be found. They seek “perfection as the crow flies” to use Michael Oakeshott’s phrase.

By pleading for tolerance for the actions of Pussy Riot, the Times seeks to elevate certain liberal ideas and constituencies above public criticism rather than trusting that they will eventually emerge victorious on their merits in open public debate. Framing the story as it does, the Times endorses the irrationalism of Pussy Riot against a villainous Russian government and a stodgy Orthodox Church.

I’m not quite settled in my thoughts, however. Am I taking a shovel to a souffle, beating with a cudgel this story from Moscow? Is too much being read into this article, or is there too little to read? Should the Times step back a bit, or can we trust it to pick the winners and losers in stories from far away about which we know very little?

What say you GetReligion readers?

“Hare, hunter, field” — Castration for deviancy

The New York Post usually wins the award for best worst headline amongst the New York metropolitan papers.  “Headless body  in topless bar” remains my favorite.

The New York Times however is giving the Post a run for their money.  In the 21 March 2012 issue on page A4 we have “Dutch Church is accused of castrating young men“.

This is not a story for the faint of heart. And, if you were looking for a fair, informed treatment of the story, look elsewhere.

Here is the lede.

A young man in the care of the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands was surgically castrated decades ago after complaining about sexual abuse, according to new evidence that only adds to the scandal engulfing the church there.

The case, which dates from the 1950s, has increased pressure for a government-led inquiry into sexual abuse in the Dutch church, amid suspicions that as many as 10 young men may have suffered the same fate.

“This case is especially painful because it concerns a victim who was victimized for a second time,” said Peter Nissen, a professor of the history of religion at Radboud University in the Netherlands. “He had the courage to go to the police and was castrated.”

It is unclear, however, whether the reported castration was performed as a punishment for whistle-blowing or what was seen as a treatment for homosexuality.

The article recounts the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Netherlands in 2010. It also reports that this claim of castration as retribution for reporting abuse had been investigated by a commission of inquiry led by a former government minister. A friend reported the incident to the abuse commission — the victim died in motor accident in 1958, two years after the surgery. The commission said it

…was unable to reach any conclusions on the case from the evidence at its disposal.

According to the Times

The victim, Henk Heithuis, lived in Catholic institutions from infancy after being taken into care. When he complained about sexual abuse to the police, Mr. Heithuis, 20 at the time, was transferred to a Catholic psychiatric hospital before being admitted to the St. Joseph Hospital in Veghel, where he was castrated.

After the commission released its findings, the friend went to a reporter who broke the story in the Dutch press last week.

Mr. Dohmen, the investigative journalist who broke the news in the daily NRC Handelsblad, said that correspondence from the 1950s and Mr. Heithuis’s testimony to [the friend] suggested that there could have been an additional nine cases. Mr. Dohmen said he uncovered another case. A gay man, who had not been abused, was also castrated, he said. That man has asked that his identity not be made public.

Mr. Dohmen said he did not know whether Mr. Heithuis was castrated as a punishment for whistle-blowing and could not provide further evidence of the other possible victims.

In an e-mailed comment, Mr. Rogge said he believed that the castration was a punishment.

This is a disturbing story. But is it fair or thorough reporting? No.

The lede states there is “new evidence that only adds to the scandal engulfing the church there.” The body of the story reports that there was no new evidence to be found.

What is also missing from this article is a comment or statement from the church, the hospital, the state — anyone representing the authorities that had this poor man castrated or the commission that reviewed this case. The voices we hear are of a professor of religious history — who offers an opinion that this was a bad thing, but has no knowledge of the particular case; and of a reporter interviewing another reporter about his story.

Does this failure to offer a second side to the story necessarily render it suspect? I can see an argument being made that there is no need to hear a justification of castration. But as the New York Times ran with a headline that accuses the Dutch Catholic Church of castrating young men, I would hope there was an attempt to elicit an explanation.

Another piece that is missing from this story is context. How many people were castrated in the Netherlands during this period? The Dutch reporter cited by the Times believes there were 10 cases. A quick search through the academic literature reports that there were around 400 cases.

An article entitled “Eugenic and sexual folklores and the castration of sex offenders in the Netherlands (1938–1968)” published in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Vol. 39, No. 2, June 2008 by Theo van der Meer states that castration of sexual offenders was part of the Dutch state’s eugenics program. Pedophiles were castrated to prevent them from re-offending as were those adjudged to be mentally deficient.

The abstract to the article reads in part:

From 1938 to 1968 in the Netherlands, after a decade of debates, 400 sex offenders who had been committed to asylums for the criminally insane were ‘voluntarily’ and ‘therapeutically’ castrated. For political reasons debates on castration, meant to create consensus, eliminated any reference to or connotation with eugenics, yet these policies were unthinkable without them.

Read through the journal article and you will find all the details you will ever want to read about a dark chapter of Western medicine which saw castration as a tool in a public health program to improve the human race through eugenics and to combat what that age saw as criminal sexual deviancy.

The Times story fails the test of good journalism on several levels. It begins with an over the top headline and lede that implies the existence of Catholic cabal worthy of Dan Brown that preyed on young men — abusing them and castrating them.

It offers uncorroborated anecdotal evidence from a man dead 54 years to insinuate the Church was complicit in a gruesome crime — yet we don’t know if it was a crime. The history offered is full of gaps and makes assumptions — was the victim in the care of a Catholic institution when he reported the abuse? Was he passed from Catholic institutional custodial care to a Catholic-affiliated psychiatric hospital to a Catholic-affiliated surgery center for sterilization? Under what circumstances was the claim of abuse made? The journal article reports that castration was ordered by the state for those found to be mentally deficient or who were incorrigible sexual offenders. Who was the victim? Could the Catholic Church order the castration of a young man? How was that possible?

Professionally this is sloppy work. It is also offensive. The Catholic pedophile scandal in Holland is a horrific case of abuse, betrayal and evil. Tossing the incendiary charge of castration into this cesspit of moral corruption cheapens the suffering of those who were abused. It tells the true victims of abuse, “well it could have been worse, you could have been castrated.”

There is a story in this mess that a good journalist could bring out — a story of state sanctioned abuse of those whom science adjudged to be defective — of a church that relaxed its standards in the face of government and public opinion. We do not get that here. (One of the lacunae in the journal article is the objection by Catholic theologians in the 1930s to state castration programs on moral grounds and its disquiet over the whole field eugenics.)

What say you GetReligion readers? Is this a case of shoddy journalism, or courageous reporting of unpalatable truths?

The myth of the Catholic voter — in France

A recurring feature in our repertoire at GetReligion is the critique of articles that posit the existence of a monolithic Catholic vote. Mindful of the need to educate reporters, TMatt has written a four-part aria harmonizing these eternal verities.

Here is the refrain from his “Four basic ‘Catholic voter’ camps”:

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (including some Latinos) may lean to GOP. (Tenor)

* 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. (Soprano)

* 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. (Alto)

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

Can this song be played elsewhere? It is a fair description of the American political scene, but will it work in Europe? It is all but impossible to transpose American political norms to a European setting, but there are echoes  to be heard in a recent spate of French articles.

Paris Match looks at the religion outreach efforts of the candidates in its 16 March 2012 issue. The weekly magazine states that while the French census does not record religious affiliation, an April 2011 survey conducted for Le Journal du Dimanche found that 61% of French people define themselves as Catholic, but only 15% of the population are regular mass-going Catholics.

“Religion continues to be strongly related to voting behavior,” said Jerome Fourquet, [director of the Institut français d'opinion publique]. Catholics traditionally vote right, and this orientation is stronger among active Catholics. Muslims back the left by 90%. Since the second Intifada (early 2000s), Jews are turning more to the right. Protestants, long close to the radical socialist party, are moving slowly to the right.

A small shift of Muslims to the right or Catholics to the left would have  a significant impact in the election, “Les politiques tentent de convertir les croyants” argues. While Paris Match notes the correlation between regular attendance at mass and conservative voting patterns, it does not develop this theme. The article focuses on the attempts by the different political parties to broaden their appeal, or in the case of President Sarkozy, win back alienated voters.

The international news channel France 24 has an interesting story entitled “In secular France, can faith carry the election?” that presents an interview with a sociologist who argues that religion, more than class, determines voting patterns. It offers some interesting statistics.

At 57.2%, Catholics make up the majority of voters in France. Muslims (5%) form the second biggest religious group, followed by Protestants (2%) and Jews (0.6%). Some 30% of French voters describe themselves as having “no religion”.

…French Muslims are largely left-leaning – 95% of them voted for [Socialist candidate] Ségolène Royal in the first round of the 2007 presidential election, while only 5% voted for [conservative, UMP party] Nicolas Sarkozy. Around 75% of French Muslims are working class, but the French working class as a whole does not vote in the same way. In fact, they span left, right and far-right circles. Because of this comparison, we can deduce that French Muslims tend to vote left-wing because of their membership of a religious group rather than their social class.

Practicing Catholics are five to six times more likely to vote right-wing than those who describe themselves as “without religion”. … Interestingly, Catholics have not been won over by the far right. In 2007, [former National Front leader] Jean-Marie Le Pen experienced his lowest score among French Catholics.

… We do know however that French Jews are more likely to vote left than right. … But it’s difficult to know why because their vote is clouded by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Historically, Protestants have tended to side with the left. But this tendency has weakened in recent years …

The interview concludes with the question “Will religion play a part in the 2012 election?”  It produces this answer:

The religious vote is grounded in values, which explains why it varies remarkably little. It is not new to France, the only difference now being that Islam has made it a focal issue.

There is more nuance in this story than the Paris Match article, as France 24 notes that subsections within the Catholic population display different voting patterns. The more active in their mass-going, the stronger their identification with the right (but not the far right.)

However, a 11 January 2012 article in Le Croix  fleshes out the Catholic voter phenomena and gives a Continental version of TMatt’s four noble truths. There is no such thing as a typical Catholic voter, the French Catholic daily writes. Catholics are active in across the political spectrum and are bringing their faith to their parties, not their parties to Catholic Church. “In France no political party has been capable of uniting the Catholic world.”

Historian and sociologist Philippe Portier told Le Croix that a new “Christian identity is coming to the fore”.

“Under the influence of John Paul II’s pontificate, those Catholics who until then had kept a low profile, owing to social crises and their minority situation, decided to make themselves heard”, is Portier’s analysis. Not necessarily by joining a Christian party but by reaffirming their positions and opting for greater visibility.

The article notes the formation of the “Poissons roses” movement which seeks to form a “Christian current” within the socialist parties. “We don’t have to describe ourselves as Christians to defend our vision of the family or those who are about to die”, its leader Philippe de Rouxhe said. But “we have to be more visible within the public realm.”

While Catholics are seeking to colonize the socialist parties, the Civitas movement, which is closely allied to the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), seeks to strengthen the traditional royalist Catholic right and

intends to make a place in the political arena to restore “the social kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Across party lines Le Croix finds openly Catholic politicians. Senator Anne-Marie Escoffier, a member of the left-wing Radical Party, told the newspaper she was “never criticized” on the left for her faith, while conservative MP Jacques Remiller, author of a recent petition denouncing “Christianophobia”, describes himself as someone “who fully assumes his own faith.”

Only on the far right is there friction between the church and politics. La Stampa‘s Vatican Insider reports that a book published in January entitled Extrême-droite, pourquoi les Chrétiens ne peuvent pas se taire (The radical right: Why Christians cannot keep silent) by Etienne Pinte, a conservative MP, and Fr. Jacques Turck, former director of the French Episcopal Conference’s (CEF) National Council on the Family and Society, places an

emphasis on the incompatibility of the Gospel’s values and the Church’s social doctrine with the political plans of radical right parties. … “Our book – said Pinte in an interview with French magazine Témoignage Chrétien (Christian Testimony) – does not tell people not to vote for the National Front party but reminds Christians that they would be contradicting themselves if they adopted its ideology.”

This view of the FN has subsequently been endorsed by Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris and President of the CEF.

As an aside, the unasked question in the French articles I find intriguing is the Muslim vote. Is this a religious, class or an immigrant phenomena?

What then can we say about the Catholic vote in France? Is it monolithic or break along active/non-active lines? Is there no such thing as a Catholic vote? Does it follow the same sort of general patterns in France as in the U.S.? Where I am going with all of this is in saying that religious identity, practice and belief (and even the lack there of) is so deeply ingrained within the person, and so variegated across society, that short hand statements like the “Catholic vote” will always be false (inadequate?) in describing life — even in France.

What say you GetReligion readers? Should we retire the “Catholic voter” meme, or does it still have its journalistic uses?


Rowan Williams exits Canterbury, Round 2

There have been no surprises so far in the first day coverage of the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams’ decision to retire at year’s end. A little before noon London time the archbishop’s press office released his resignation statement. Within the hour a Press Association interview and a background item for editors were released.

Throughout the afternoon comments and appreciations from political and religious leaders came across the wires (really the internet) — and from these sources the first day stories were formed.

What makes the difference in the quality of stories is the quality of the reporters and the experience/biases/insight they bring to their jobs. The Times, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian news reports are of high standard and reflect the professionalism of their reporters. The Daily Mail takes a different approach.

Rowan Williams has today announced he is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury but not before having a swipe at the ‘dim-witted prejudice’ against Christianity in Britain.

After a turbulent decade in office the leader of the 77 million-strong Anglican Church will leave at the end of the year.

He is tipped to be replaced by Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, who would be the first black holder of the prestigious office.

But in a stark warning Dr Williams said ‘ignorance’ was damaging the church because too many people seem to oppose Christianity but ‘don’t know how religion works’.

Granted the Daily Mail has a different demographic than the broadsheets, but the article continues in this herky-jerky manner, jumping from assertion to assertion. It has no focus, no sense of itself — and no sense of the story.

The Sun article could have been written as a parody. It begins:

Dr Williams yesterday revealed that he would be standing down after ten years to take up a new post as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Bookies have given Dr Sentamu odds of 6/4, just ahead of the Bishop of London Richard Chartres at 7/4 and the Bishop of Bradford Nick Baines at 5/1.

William Hill [a bookmaker] spokesman Graham Sharpe said: “Since Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury, John Sentamu has very much come to the fore and has been the best-backed contender to succeed him for some while, although Richard Chartres, the beaten favourite when Williams was appointed, is also a strong contender.”

I must admit that I would not have had a bookie’s tout as my first quote. But the Sun is the Sun.

The stinker of the day, however, was the one surprise. The Italian newspaper La Stampa‘s usually excellent Vatican Insider offered opinion as news — and ill-informed opinion at that. Speaking of the controversy over women bishops in the Church of England, it wrote:

Since the Anglican Synod of York approved the ordination of women bishops in July 2010, the decision has gradually spread throughout the Anglican Communion, against the wishes of traditionalist communities. The Anglican Communion consists of 38 independent provinces and one of these is England. A number of provinces already have a bishop. The hemorrhage of faithful in the Anglican Church could be greater than expected as a result of the approval of the consecration of women bishops.

The Catholic Church opposes the process that will lead to the introduction of a law, next July that will authorise the ordination of women bishops. …  Opening up the Episcopate to women will have negative consequences in terms of the Anglican Church’s dialogue with the Vatican. It seems pretty clear that the approval of women’s ordination will lead onto the ordination of openly gay bishops. This is the path the Anglican world has chosen to go down, inattentive to the ever growing communities that are choosing to return to Rome precisely as a result of this “liberal” change. …

Pretty nasty, and wrong. The assertion that “women’s ordination will lead onto the ordination of openly gay bishops” is questionable. The first woman bishop was the Rt. Rev. Penelope Jamieson who served as Bishop of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island from 1990 to 2004. There are, or have been, women bishops in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Cuba and the United States — all predating the July 2010 vote by the Church of England’s General Synod.

The op-ed pieces are all over the place. For an American reader what might be amazing is the number of stories. There are so many out there that I have space only to focus on one newspaper for this article.

In addition to its news reports, the Guardian offers five analyses pieces as well as a cartoon. The best is by Stephen Bates, the newspaper’s former religion reporter. If you have time to read just one piece from all those I cite, read this one. While I do not share his politics, I have been a long time admirer of his work. His story is fair, thorough (irritating in places) but also heartfelt. He has sympathy for the subject of his article, but remains committed to telling the truth. In short, great writing.

The archbishop’s biographer, Rupert Shortt, has a weaker story. A fan of Dr. Williams, his article presents only one side of this complex man — and also makes mistakes of fact when it moves away from the man to the issues.

Soon after his move to Lambeth Palace, the [Dr. Williams] urged [the pope] to kick-start stalled talks on reunion between Rome and Canterbury. Benedict’s condition for allowing this was that the Anglican communion should streamline its structures and start talking with a more united voice. Williams agreed; the covenant has formed a major element in his strategy.

No, that is not how it happened. The Anglican Covenant arose from an internal Anglican document called the Windsor Report — not from without.

Opponents describe [the Anglican Covenant] as an authoritarian measure at odds with traditional church polity. So far it has been supported in more conservative parts of the communion, especially Africa and Asia, but rejected elsewhere. If the Church of England itself refuses to endorse the covenant, the plan will probably be doomed.

Yes, if the CoE fails to endorse it, it will be doomed — the rest is questionable. The opponents who see the covenant as being too strict and “at odds” with the church’s traditional polity are the liberals. It is also not supported in the more conservative parts of the communion — the archbishops of the traditionalist coalition of Asian and African provinces last year said they could not support the covenant because it was too lenient.

All of the pieces stress the archbishop’s intellectual attainments — his brilliance. Amelia Hill also saw it as part of the problem.

But his intelligence – or, rather, his sublime confidence in his intelligence – has led directly to some of the crises that have marked his tumultuous decade as leader of a global Anglican communion sharply divided on issues of sexuality and gender.

From my experience in covering Dr. Williams for The Church of England Newspaper — which is what it sounds like, though it is not the official newspaper of the church, there is no such animal — Ms. Hill is correct. A number of Dr. Williams’ blunders arose from his refusal to take advice. The Sharia law fiasco being the most notable among many self-inflicted media messes.

Commentator Giles Fraser and the Guardian’s editorial also damned him with faint praise. Fraser writes from the perspective of a liberal activist who has been let down by one of his own.

One does not choose morality as one chooses cornflakes. So whilst his instincts may have been gay friendly, his increasing appreciation that the African church was dead against any accommodation with homosexuality made him side with the conservatives. He wanted a global Anglican community built around core values. And so, in effect, he became a split personality – with Williams the man at odds with Williams the archbishop. After the bitter Lambeth Conference of 1998, Williams, and several other bishops, made gay Christians a promise: “We pledge we will continue to reflect, pray and work for your full inclusion in the life of the church.” Unfortunately, it was a promise he would fail to keep.

The editorial board argued the job had become too big for the man.

Rowan Williams failed as archbishop of Canterbury, because the job description makes success impossible. But the announcement of his resignation makes clear that he failed at one particular impossible task he set himself: to hold together the Anglican communion. That gathering – now more of a dispersal – of 38 churches worldwide continued the schism between liberals and conservatives which has been under way since the 1990s. Both here and abroad, Dr Williams made enough sacrifices for unity to alienate his liberal supporters without satisfying his conservative enemies. But this is what he felt was his duty as archbishop, and in the patient and humble way he followed this thankless path, jeered at from left and right, he offered an example that not only Christians found attractive.

This is a defensible argument, but one I would not advance. It is reminiscent of editorials about Jimmy Carter circa 1979, and it also makes assumptions about liberals and conservatives that is not entirely straight forward. However this is not the place to wax eloquent about the byzantine world of church politics.

I expect the second wave will focus on who is likely to succeed Dr. Williams, and in a few weeks we will begin to see the pendulum move from favorable to unfavorable stories. But I must say, so far so good. An all round good job (exceptions noted.) And, this will keep me gainfully employed for months to come.

My concern, however, is how those outside of Anglican or British circles will be able to follow what is going on. From simple issues (What exactly is the Archbishop of Canterbury?) to the complex, (Why is the archbishop disliked by the left when he is an admitted “hairy lefty”?), these stories assume a degree of knowledge that is most likely not there. Even the British tabloid speculation as to who might be the next archbishop is based on an ill-founded assumption of how the process works.

What do you think GetReligion readers? Will this story catch on outside of English and Anglican circles? What hook might there be to catch a wider audience?

Double effect and the birth control debate

Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental … . Thomas Aquinas, (Summa Theologica, Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 64)

The best way to start the day is with a little Aquinas! The misty realms of memory and a youth misspent in theological education brought this jingle to mind when I read an article in the Huffington Post  that took a swipe at one of my colleagues at GetReligion.  The article by Reuters correspondent Nicole Neroulias entitled “I was a Virgin on Birth Control” (catchy, no?) asserts that Mollie Ziegler Hemingway’s (MZH) report entitled “No such thing as free contraception” fails the test of good journalism.

Is this a fair summary of the issues or a fair comment? Not really. Ms. Neroulias bases her argument on a faulty premise, while the story as a whole has not been thought through. Yet, the HuffPo story raises a valid point that the press has not done justice to the ethical as well as scientific issues at play in the controversy surrounding the government’s bid to require all employers and institutions to provide contraceptive coverage in their health insurance packages.  Ms. Neroulias writes that:

as a religion reporter weary of oversimplified culture wars, and personally, as someone who took birth control pills long before becoming sexually active, I feel disappointed by most of the reporting so far.

She recounts the furore surrounding the debate — Rush Limbaugh, Sandra Fluke, congressional hearings, Catholic bishops — and then presents her thesis. Ms. Neroulias writes:

Yet, as [Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke]tried to explain in her opening statement, both frames miss the big picture: Women take the pill to address myriad health issues, from ovarian cancer, menstrual problems, hormone imbalances and fertility treatments to cystic acne, et al.

This is the angle I’ve been waiting in vain for religious and mainstream journalists to acknowledge and investigate. As a teenager, I had debilitating menstrual cycles, but the perceived stigma of going on the pill deterred me from getting the help I needed. I finally started taking it in college, as a virgin with no foreseeable pregnancy panic, buoyed by all other the young women around me who were taking it for a variety of reasons.  …

Since then, my mother and sister have also taken the pill on medical grounds, as have dozens of our relatives and friends. …

So how about some coverage of where these outraged clergy and institutions stand on using contraception in all these medical cases? And even if they technically allow it, does that translate to allowing their health insurance policies to include it? Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, a conservative commentator who has slammed media “misrepresentation” of the HHS mandate at GetReligion, shrugged me off with “presumably” when I brought up this angle. Needless to say, “presumably” isn’t good enough in journalism, especially when the story concerns fundamental questions about freedom and morality.

And logically, even when clergy approve of contraceptives for unrelated medical reasons, how would they have their institutions apply these directives? Should women who work at Catholic hospitals and schools get a doctor’s note for their bosses before requesting insurance reimbursement for the birth control pill? Would ovarian cysts and infertility make the cut, but acne and bad cramps be more along the lines of God’s will? And what if religious authorities and their hospitals disagree on these theories in practice, as they have in cases of abortion to save a woman’s life?

These questions are founded upon a flawed assumption and propose a straw man argument — an Aunt Sally — based upon the premise that taking a birth control pill for medical reasons other than contraception is immoral in the eyes of “outraged clergy.”

The 1968 encyclical Humanea Vitae which governs Catholic teaching on birth control contains a chapter which discusses this point.  Paragraph 15, entitled “Lawful Therapeutic Means” states:

On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.

The encyclical cites two speeches by Pius XII for its authority on this point. It puts into words the long standing moral teaching expressed by Thomas Aquinas, among others, as the principle of double effect.

This moral teaching can be seen in the case of a woman who has a hysterectomy due to cancer.  The principle intent is to excise the cancer.  The secondary end, infertility, does not forbid the surgery as the intent is the cure of disease not birth control.  A second example would be surgery to remove a fallopian tube because of an ectopic pregnancy.  While an abortion is a medical procedure whose primary end is a dead child – and is thus considered illicit — the death of the pre-natal child in a surgery to correct an ectopic pregnancy is an unavoidable side effect.  The surgery is licit even though one of its ends is death.

Closer to home, and working in a Sandra Fluke angle, you can see the practical effect at work in the Georgetown University Student Handbook. The student health department is allowed to dispense the pill for non contraceptive medical ends.

Q. Are pre-existing conditions covered?

A. Pre-existing conditions are covered if the condition or treatment is not specifically excluded or limited per the Exclusions and Limitations in Description of Benefits Booklet.

(Note: Although birth control is not covered, medications used for birth control that are required to treat other medical conditions are covered. Your provider may submit requests for such coverage in the form of a “Prescription Override” by faxing the details of the diagnosis and treatment to …)

Ms. Neroulias is quite right in saying the press has let down its readers by not developing this angle — focusing the debate on those who shout the loudest, not upon the critical issues. This is a big country, and I am sure one can find “outraged clergy” somewhere who would make the argument that the use of birth control pills for acne treatment is a sin — or we should let women die of ovarian cancer because a total hysterectomy causes a women to become infertile and is thus EVIL. Such people doubtless exist, but their voices do not represent the mainstream.

A little research by reporters would reveal that this issue was recently addressed in the press coverage of a Lancet article that urged nuns to take birth control pills as a prophylactic against the medical effects of nulliparity. In December I posted a story to GetReligion noting how ABC had addressed these issues, killing the canard that nuns were forbidden to take birth control pills for non-contraceptive medical reasons.

Did MZH (the reporter not the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture & Food) make a journalistic error in not engaging with Ms. Neroulias questions? Not to my mind. GetReligion reports on the reporting — not on the topics being reported. If I were in MZH’s position I would not have engaged either for the aforesaid reason and because of the false assumptions being put forward about the ethical issues.

Am I too quick to defend, too quick to judge? Does the press understand the nuances of Catholic moral teachings or the Theology of the Body? What say you GetReligion readers?