About Merlin’s Mormonism…

It was my experience growing up LDS that Mormons have always been eager to point out successful Mormon celebrities where they could. The blog Waters of Mormon explains this phenomenon well:

Having famous Church members in the news in a variety of professional fields–business, sports, singing and dancing — provides a certain comfort to Latter-Day Saints who can see fellow Saints be successful on a national stage, even beyond the simple “good PR for the Church” standpoint.

If I (or one of my kids) wants to be a successful entrepreneur (or musician, or athlete, or writer) it’s nice to be able to point to some famous person and say, “See, he or she is a faithful Church member while also being successful at career X”. Having famous and/or successful Mormons sends the message outwardly that Church members are ‘normal’ and play regular roles in regular society — we’re not all cooped up in armed compounds in southern Utah or Texas or something — but also sends the message inwardly that secular success and spiritual success can mix: that faithful Saints don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other.

Of course, in order for this to really count, those famous Mormons have to be faithful and active also. Just being a member doesn’t mean much: if those famous Mormons are not currently active and practicing — even if the reasons for not being active have nothing to do with their chosen profession — they don’t really work as ‘examples’ for other Saints who might want to believe that they can be successful in their career without being forced to compromise their beliefs somewhere along the line.

In most professions, one can find any number of active and inactive Church members. Acting, however, seems to be an outlier.

It’s true that there just aren’t that many famous Mormon actors. When I was growing up, Merlin Olsen, the former football great turned broadcaster and family-friendly TV star, was frequently identified as a prominent exception. Granted, this is an awfully subjective metric here, but I was always under the impression that he was a Mormon in good standing.

So that’s why I was so sorely disappointed in the coverage of Olsen following his recent death. Olsen’s faith wasn’t mentioned in the Los Angeles Times or USA Today obituaries. And incredibly, for one of Utah’s more famous native sons, it wasn’t noted in the The Salt Lake Tribune. Adding to the confusion, the Los Angeles Daily News does identify him as Mormon. And the The New York Times does bring up his Mormon background, but doesn’t explain much:

“I was raised in a very strict Mormon home and in a Mormon community,” The Post-Standard of Syracuse quoted him as saying when he took the role of the Amish patriarch Aaron Miller. “There are certain things I can lean back on and remember in a family situation that helped me to work as an actor.”

For a guy that was identified as Mormon for decades, isn’t this all a bit odd? It kind of set off alarm bells when even the church-owned Deseret News didn’t discuss Olsen’s faith in their obituary. So I did a little poking around the internet and I saw some claims that Olsen was a non-devout cultural Mormon. He wasn’t an active LDS member, though he was loyal to his family which was still active in the faith. He believed strongly in the Mormon values imparted in him, and as such, perhaps didn’t mind being the face of the church.

That’s an interesting explanation, and if it’s true it would probably make for a fascinating story. Regardless, somebody on the Godbeat ought to get to the bottom of why someone frequently identified as Mormon suddenly wasn’t Mormon when he died.

At play in the fields of Less Than Nothing

Back in December, I had some passing words of praise for Matt Labash. I will make the obligatory disclosure that I’m friendly with him, but I don’t think that in any biases me when I say he’s easily one of the best magazine writers in the country. Just go ahead buy the recently released collection of his work and thank me later.

Labash has a talent for sniffing out and profiling really interesting people — or in some cases, publicly shaming them. The profile piece is pretty much his bread and butter, and as someone who’s been around the block a bit as a journalist, let me tell you profiles are just about the hardest thing to write. Labash is phenomenally good at them, and if he wrote for Esquire as opposed to a small circulation magazine otherwise devoted to conservative politics he’d have to rent storage for his National Magazine Awards.

So with that in mind, do not let the fact that I’m about to recommend that you drop whatever it is you’re reading and read 10,000+ word piece intimidate you. In Labash’s capable hands it will breeze by, and by any measure his profile of a priest prone to profane outbursts doing mission work in post-earthquake Haiti is a marvel, and the kind of thing he was born to write.

The piece just oozes humanity. Take this anecdote about Father Frechette and the weekly morgue runs his mission makes, where they bury the heaps of unclaimed dead bodies an area outside Port-Au-Prince known as Titanyen, which translates from Creole as the “fields of less than nothing.” Frechette has never gotten used to the smell so he smokes Marlboro Reds and drinks Barbancourt rum:

He’s been doing the morgue runs for 15 years, but has never gotten used to the smell. It makes him so sick, he brings along rum and cigarettes. “People ask me if I smoke,” he says. “Only on Thursdays.” The Haitians avail themselves of the goods, but for Frechette, they’re not optional. Without the spirit’s fumes and cigarette smoke chasing the smell of the dead out of his nostrils, he vomits, which his Haitian colleagues find amusing.

When he returned to Haiti right after the earthquake, there was an overflow crowd at the morgue, literally thousands of dead laid out in the street in front of it. “They were picking them up with backhoes and bucket-loaders, dumping them into trucks,” says Frechette, adding that the machines crunched the bodies against the walls in order to be able to scoop them. “They were hanging out the sides like crabs in a bucket. Really, really terrible. It was so shocking, so disgusting, I yelled, ‘Give me a cigarette!’”

His Haitian right-hand and all-around fixer, Raphael — whom Frechette regards as something close to a brother — couldn’t find them. Frechette, now desperately gagging, was yelling, “Give me a f–ing cigarette!!!” A journalist, taking in the scene, sidled up to him. “I heard somebody say, ‘I’m an ABC affiliate, and I’m wondering, are you Father Frechette?’ I said, ‘Do I look like a priest?’ I wasn’t going to be caught using foul language.” By the time the cigarettes were found, he says, it was too late. “I was empty of everything.”

Maybe it’s just me but the portrayal of an otherwise immensely courageous priest as a complicated, impious human being is downright refreshing. That anecdote is near the beginning of the piece and it’s one of the first of many that will threaten to tear a hole in your heart.

But of great interest to me were the revelatory moments where Frechette attempts to explain himself, and how he copes with unfathomable suffering on daily basis — in Frechette’s case, a finely honed sense of dark humor is something of a salve:

He knows it, too, and figures that second only to his faith in a God that orders the universe even amidst the apparent chaos, humor is his salvation. He tells me he read somewhere that a normal reaction to a normal thing is normal, and an abnormal reaction to an abnormal thing is normal. But a normal reaction to an abnormal thing is abnormal. Even so, there’s a “hierarchy of maturity,” he says. You can become a “psychological fetus,” upon witnessing horrors like Haiti’s, which makes you a burden to everybody, as the problem becomes comforting you. You can become angry, blaming everyone or everything. But the most productive abnormal reaction, he says, is to find laughter. He does that, he reasons, and it keeps him moving. And he always has to keep moving.

Or again his reaction to this story about how Frechette tries to reconcile an incident where he and some nuns come across a boy who’s burned alive in the street by gang members. The boy’s mother tries to thank them:

Then she saw it come back. And the people in it got out, and “put out my son like I was wishing I could put out the fire on my son’s body.” Then they picked him up until he was clean. Then they prayed for him. “Everything she tried to do was done in front of her, by absolute strangers who didn’t know her or her kid.”

Of all the emotions the woman was entitled to, he wouldn’t guess gratitude would be high on the list. And yet there she was. “It made her able to live with it,” Frechette thinks. “It’s like God sent someone to help her, like it restored her faith in humanity again. … I call it the countersign. The terrible thing that’s in front of you, you hurry, and offset it right away. Before what happens is too taxing and too poisonous. … Sometimes with horrible things, you really feel there is nothing you can do. Nothing. You’re just useless. But over time, you start seeing that to do the right thing no matter what has tremendous power.”

I don’t want to belabor this, because this is one of the best things you’re going to read all year. There’s no point in denying the tremendous power of this piece and there’s no shortage of religion in it.

That said, I do half-wish that there was some slightly more explicit discussion of Frechette’s theological outlook, considering the man wrestles with more theodicy before nine a.m. than some people do in their lifetimes. But if the story lacks that, it could simply be that Labash, mighty fine writer that he is, is simply more invested in showing rather than telling. I got a better grasp in this story of the challenges of mission work from a vocational perspective than just about anything I’ve ever read, so I guess even at 10,000 words you can’t possibly say everything.

Just read the piece already, and say prayer for Haiti if you’re so inclined.

Snow money, snow problems

Throughout the 10 years I’ve lived in Washington, D.C. I’ve made great sport of the freakouts that accompany snow in the region. Unlike these puny mid-Atlantic mortals, I grew up in a part of Oregon where four or more feet of snow in my front yard wasn’t uncommon. My wife, being from Colorado, frequently joined me in scoffing.

Until now. I kindly refer you to the photo of the street Casa de Hemingway is on from last weekend. Mind you, this photo is before it snowed an additional 10-20 inches this past Wednesday. Parts of the city saw 52 inches of snow — in less than a week.

I don’t care where you live, the amount of snow we’ve received in the last week is ridiculous. Driving has been almost out of the question, as for days on end most of the sidestreets in our neighborhood remained unplowed. Heck, even getting to our ransacked grocery store four blocks away just to get more baby food has been an ordeal.

But by far the biggest challenge was getting to our church 10 miles away this past Sunday. A friend and parishoner in our neighborhood managed to dig his car out and get close to our house. The whole Hemingway family piled in his car and managed to make it to church, but few others did. There were around 30 people attending services that Sunday, compared to over 200 on average. (A lot of area churches canceled services, but our Lutheran pastor is from hearty Minnesota stock.) Suffice to say, I have been wondering how the storm has been affecting churches all week.

Well, Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post comes through in a big way today. It’s a fairly straightforward headline — “Churches, worshipers also feel storms’ impact,” and Boorstein covers a lot of ground. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the storm would negatively affect church income, but that’s what Boorstein leads with:

Some say a snowstorm, with its power and beauty, settles the spirit. Tell that to Pastor Charlie Whitlow, whose Ashburn church is down about $100,000 in offerings, thanks to Mother Nature’s recent weekend romps.

Boorstein notes that Whitlow ended up doing his sermon for the week on the web from his living room. The story also has this lovely anecdote about a Jewish woman who struggles to find a minyan — a quorum of ten Jews — to mourn her father:

When she saw the blizzard, however, she thought of the 1990s TV show “Northern Exposure,” about a Jewish doctor living in Alaska, and the episode in which residents of the mostly American-Indian community scatter across a vast area to help him get the quota — called a “minyan” — so he could pray for his dead uncle.

Miller, who has lived in her Northwest Washington neighborhood for a couple years, sent a plea via the listserv of her 300-unit condo building. Within minutes, she had a few replies. One was from a neighbor who was in Philadelphia, saying he was also in mourning and offering to recite the prayer on her behalf at a synagogue there. By sundown, she had 11 people in her living room– the 10 required Jews and one non-Jewish neighbor with a cheesecake.

“Perhaps our paths will never cross again. Maybe, just maybe, we shared a moment of faith on the worst blizzard in a hundred years,” Miller, a rabbi and spiritual counselor, wrote in a letter of thanks. “The act of giving is an act of faith.”

Boorstein also goes through a litany of events that were cancelled by churches and discusses how the lost church income will be difficult to make up in a bad economy. It’s the kind of story that is often thankless work reporters, but it’s very informative bread-and-butter journalism.

That said, there were a few sins of omission I think are worth mentioning. For one, there was a church building in D.C. that collapsed last weekend when the roof caved in under the weight of the snow. This goes unmentioned. I would have liked to have known how church properties were holding up, what churches are doing for snow removal, etc.

And the other issue is that Boorstein doesn’t really address the issue of chartity at all. Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of people in the area were without power. How did churches help families stay warm? Surely, they played a role. How is the harsh weather otherwise taxing church-related charities?

Here’s hoping for follow-up. There’s a good one waiting to be written.

Chicken soup for the presidential soul

President And Mrs. Obama Attend Sunday Church Services

In conjunction with yesterday’s annual prayer breakfast in Washington D.C., everybody’s got politics and religion on their mind. Or perhaps more appropriately, the religion of our politicians. The Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut saw it as a fitting occasion to reexamine the religiosity of the President. The headline on the piece, “Obama’s spirituality is largely private, but it’s influential, advisers say” seemed to appropriately reflect the complexity of the issue, so I had high hopes for the story.

Those hopes were misplaced. A colleague of mine at the newspaper where I work described the piece as “Chicken soup for the presidential soul.” He was deriding the piece, but I don’t think that tart summation is altogether inaccurate:

When Obama appears at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday morning — a regular presidential ritual — it will mark the rare occasion when he puts religion in the foreground. In that appearance, he will discuss “the need for civility in the public square, and how Americans can work together in a spirit of goodwill,” a senior administration official said.

Yet close advisers to the president said the role of faith, while subtle, has been noticeable in and around the Obama White House. One senior official described the president as “a prayerful guy.” Another said that Obama has consulted religious leaders less often for his own personal guidance than for help walking through major public decisions — such as during the Afghanistan review process, when he sought advice on the ethical implications of war.

I realize that the delicate tango the White House press corps dances with its West Wing sources has been problematic long before Obama assumed office, but you can’t get “a senior official” to go record as describing the President as a “prayerful guy”? Yeesh.

It would also be interesting to know more details about how the president relies on religious leaders to puzzle out decisions, as that Afghan review process tidbit hints at. But no such luck. I was hungering for more detail throughout the piece:

At other moments, Obama prays privately, his advisers said. And when he takes his family to Camp David on the weekends, a Navy chaplain ministers to them, with the daughters attending a form of Sunday school there.

More than a year into his presidency, Obama has not chosen a church in Washington, and has attended services just four times. No single figure has assumed the role of spiritual adviser — publicly, at least — or filled the vacancy created when Obama disavowed his former Chicago pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Okay, so Obama has not chosen a church yet — but he has a Navy chaplain minister to them on the weekends at Camp David and gives his daughters religious instruction. I’m interested in knowing more about who that chaplain is. Does he come from a specific denomination or tradition? (Yes.) How exactly are the Obamas going about their worship life and religious instruction (other than with the aid of Blackberries)? I’m sure I’m not the only one curious about this.

That said, religion is a private matter to some people and I respect that. Certainly, even the President shouldn’t feel compelled to broadcast every aspect of his faith. But if Obama is now keeping his religion under wraps, I think that should be critically explored. He wasn’t exactly private about his faith on the campaign trail and was previously not shy about offering his opinions on the subject of religion in his books and in other settings. If he’s suddenly private about his faith now, doesn’t that require some critical examination? For instance, did the Jeremiah Wright debacle have anything to do with the sudden desire privacy?

But instead of looking at some of those questions, we get a series of softballs floated across the plate for various administration officials to hit out of the park:

A third senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, said Obama’s private religious beliefs have helped sustain his temperament during trying times in office. “Part of that even temperament comes from his faith which is an important component,” Jarrett said. Asked why the public did not hear much about his faith during his first year in office, she nodded and said, “He’s had a lot on his plate.”

Also another small nit pick, the article refers to “Joshua Dubois, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” DuBois spells his name with capital B. Not exactly a major error, but worth noting. All in all, I have to say this article is a major coup for the White House press office, but I don’t think it exactly burnishes Anne Kornblut’s escutcheon. She’s done much more thoughtful work than this.

I’m not alone in thinking this story is wanting — the typically anodyne Ben Smith over at Politico observed that “comments [in the Kornblut story] feel a bit like overcompensation.” Smith also notes that there’s a one heck of an interesting nugget about the President and religion in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change, the mildly salacious book about the 2008 campaign that’s had tongues in Washington wagging for the last month. Smith observes that during the Jeremiah Wright controversy, “the Obamas had a great argument that they decided they couldn’t use: Obama hadn’t heard the controversial remarks because he almost never went to church.” Here’s the relevant passage:

Michelle made it clear that she’d never much liked Wright. And that since the births of Malia and Sasha, in 1998 and 2001, the Obamas had rarely attended services.

Still, Obama had said that Wright “brought me to Jesus.” He had declared himself a proud Christian. To admit that his religiosity was, in practice, limited, would have made Obama look craven at best, and like a liar at worst.

Instead of accepting blase insistences from the White House aides about the president being “prayerful” and whatnot, perhaps somebody should ask the president about that revelation.

Green: Not just a liturgical color

It seems like over the last 10 years or so, I’ve read roughly eleventy-bajillion trend pieces about the confluence of environmentalism and religion. Most of these pieces have been fairly uncritical about or even cheerleading this commingling. So I wasn’t terribly enthused to see this New York Times story, “Pastors in Northwest Find Focus in ‘Green.’

Now I’m from the Northwest. My mother grew up in Portland and when I was very young we spent six years living in a tiny town in Southern Washington on a hill above the Columbia River Gorge. The view from my front yard was such that a National Geographic photographer knocked on our door one day asked if he could take pictures from our deck. (The picture you’re looking at to the left is a rough approximation of what it’s like to look west from a hill above White Salmon, Washington. And here’s a slightly more up close picture of what you saw when you looked out my living room window, just above sea level to the summit of Mt. Hood at 11,000 feet about 50 miles due south — yeah, I know.) Then we moved to Bend, Oregon, which is about as close to an environmental paradise as exists in this country. (The photo below is of Smith Rock State Park where I took Mollie and Evangeline hiking last time we were visiting my folks.)

My immediate reaction is that this would probably cover some cultural ground I’m pretty familiar with — thus making any errors or dubious characterizations particularly obvious. Everybody in the Pacific Northwest — particularly those that have been there for multiple generations — has strong opinions about the environment and the rapid population growth in the last few decades. The influx of new people has brought about pretty dramatic changes in the religious and political character or Oregon and Washington .

So I went into the story loaded for bear. And you know what? It’s not that bad. It discusses the environmentalism-in-religion trend in a pretty clear-eyed fashion. For one, it posits that churches embracing environmentalism are becoming more focused on local issues than global warming:

Religious leaders have been preaching environmentalism for years, and much attention has focused on politically powerful evangelical Christian leaders who have taken up climate change as a cause. Yet some smaller, older and often struggling mainline churches are also going greener, reducing their carbon footprint by upgrading basement boilers and streamlining the Sunday bulletin, swapping Styrofoam for ceramic mugs at coffee hour and tending jumbled vegetable gardens where lawns once were carefully cultivated.

The story provides some good local color to that extent, but I wish there was a better way to know how widespread this trend away from overarching issues and toward local action is.

Still, this is an interesting development. As you might expect, it notes that people are hopeful about the potential of environmentalism as an evangelical tool:

Several mainline church leaders in the Northwest said environmentalism offered an entry point, especially to younger adults, who might view Christianity as wrought with debates over gay rights and abortion.

A study released in December by the Barna Group, which more typically studies trends among evangelicals, said that older, mainline churches faced many challenges but that their approach to environmental issues was among several areas that “position those churches well for attracting younger Americans.”

“We actually encourage it as a way to get people into the churches,” said LeeAnne Beres, the executive director of Earth Ministry, a Seattle group founded in 1992 that has guided many area congregations through environmental upgrades over the past decade but has recently emphasized more direct political action for pastors and parishioners. “That is what people are interested in, and I don’t see anything Machiavellian in that.”

However, the story doesn’t provide any of evidence environmentalism has had much of an effect on the abysmal church attendance in the Pacific Northwest. And the anecdotal evidence in the story suggests the opposite:

He noted that while some mainline churches had reported increased attendance as they emphasized the issue, Emmanuel’s congregation, now about 250 families, had declined even though the church had been active on environmental issues for more than a decade.

And:

At Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ near downtown Spokane, built in 1893, the congregation has about 200 people, down from 2,000 a few decades ago. The pastor, Andrea CastroLang, said the church recently had an energy audit and that while it has made some of the proposed changes, including upgrading the boiler, some were impractical for the soaring, heat-leaking sanctuary.

“They were like, ‘It’d be really great if you could lower your ceiling,’” Ms. CastroLang said. “We said, ‘We can’t do that.’”

That last bit about lowering the ceiling is chuckle-worthy.

Still, I wish there was more concrete information on how this trend has affected attendance. However, as a reporter I sympathize with how difficult it is to suss out data on these kind of social trend stories. All in all, a more interesting and nuanced take on what seems like an, uh, evergreen topic on the Godbeat these days.

Should old Godbeat acquaintance be forgot…

Peter_SteinfelsI suppose all good things must come to an end eventually but, after 20 years, the final New York Times‘ Beliefs column was printed on New Year’s Day. Terry, as usual, had some vital things to say about this development on the Godbeat — so go read his post below already if you haven’t done so now. Still, a major development has room for more than one us here at GR to comment on, even if Tmatt is a tough act to follow.

With the demise of Beliefs, it’s my hope that the Times comes up with something similar to fill the void in their religious coverage going forward. However, given the direction that the my industry is headed, I’m not terribly optimistic.

Beliefs columnist Peter Steinfels did take the occasion of his final column to discuss some of the challenges of writing about religion for a newspaper, and Terry touched on that. However, I also wanted to note that Steinfels’ farewell was actually a two-parter starting with his column on December 18, where he outlined “six convictions” that guided his philosophical approach, e.g.:

First, the great world religions are complex and multilayered; they are rich in inner tensions and ambiguities that allow beliefs and practices to evolve over time as the faith is tested by new circumstances and insights. The great religions cannot be equated with the diminished and frozen fundamentalisms that they periodically spawn.

Suffice to say, each one of Steinfels’ convictions makes a heck of a conversation starter and could probably merit its own GetReligion post. Steinfels has some considerable wisdom to impart here and it’s obviously born of experience. Both columns are well worth reading.

However, there was one aspect of Steinfels’ final column that I found curious:

During the last two decades, attitudes toward religion have become increasingly contentious and polarized. Not only abortion and older questions of public morality and church-state relations, recently heightened by the political mobilization of conservative believers, but also newer issues like embryonic stem cell research, physician-assisted suicide and same-sex marriage, have pitted significant elements of traditional Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other faiths against leading voices of political and cultural liberalism.

Those voices, it is no secret, included the editorial columns of this paper and were heard on some of its other pages as well. Beliefs, frankly, was caught in the middle. The column’s treatment of traditional religious perspectives and developments was welcomed by many readers who evidently felt that, in the fever of the culture wars and political polemics, those traditions were being given short shrift.

I find it really interesting that Steinfels takes it as a given that the culture war somehow ramped up over the course of his column. I don’t know if I necessarily disagree with Steinfels’ impression of the last 20 years, but whenever read some variation of “it was so much better/easier/less controversial way back when.” This is doubly true when addressing topics such as religion, which are perennially controversial. Were things less tense when religious folks were fighting over slavery, entering into World War I, prohibition or the possibility of a Catholic president?

It’s human nature to romanticize the past, and journalists are no exception. Again, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Steinfels, but I find it curious that he notes a number of political and cultural sources of discord within the religious sphere. He doesn’t, however, reconcile this with the tremendous amount of upheaval that contemporaneously happened in the journalism industry. Did “traditional religious perspectives” genuinely became less of an influential cultural force over the last 20 years? Or did it just seem that way because of the way that the news coverage changed? Once fat-and-happy publications such as the New York Times have had to become a lot more competitive. I suspect at the Times they have a lot fewer column inches for thoughtful analyses about mainstream religious developments then they once did, and at the same time the economic incentives skewed toward covering controversy more than they had when Steinfels started writing his column.

Anyway, I would be curious to hear from GR readers in the comments. Do you think that religion is more polarized in the last 20 years? And if so, why?

Bishops v. hospitals, round 2

usccb1Over the weekend, I discussed a New York Times story about a possible rift between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Health Association (CHA) — which represents the many Catholic hospitals in the country — over health care reform legislation. The Times reported the following: “In an apparent split with Roman Catholic bishops over the abortion-financing provisions of the proposed health care overhaul, the nation’s Catholic hospitals have signaled that they back the Senate’s compromise on the issue, raising hopes of breaking an impasse in Congress and stirring controversy within the church.”

News of a split would be a big deal politically in that it might give some self-identified pro-life Democrats some cover to vote for the bill. There would also be big ramifications for Catholic theology in the public square if a major Catholic group was at odds with the bishops on an important public policy matter. As it turns out, however, the “apparent split” is not so apparent, according to Catholic News Service:

Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview Dec. 28 that her organization has never wavered in its commitment to health care that protects “from conception to natural death,” as outlined in the CHA document, “Our Vision for U.S. Health Care.”

She disputed a report in The New York Times Dec. 26 that a recent CHA statement on Senate negotiations over abortion funding in health reform legislation represented a split with the bishops.

“There is not a shred of disagreement between CHA and the bishops,” Sister Carol said. “We believe there is a great possibility and probability that in conference committee we can work toward a solution that will prevent federal funding of abortion.”

The CNS report also clarified the sequence of events that might have led to the Times reporter getting the impression there was a split:

Sister Carol said Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick based his Dec. 26 story on a Dec. 17 CHA statement which noted that CHA had not reviewed the language of various amendments on the table at the time but was “encouraged by recent deliberations and the outline” Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., was developing.

At that point, “I felt they were making progress and were getting where we needed to be,” she said.

“I understand that it doesn’t make a good story to say (CHA and the USCCB) are working together,” Sister Carol added. “But it would have been an honest story.”

Anyway, go read the rest of CNS’ report and see if you can’t sort out what happened — obviously, if CHA’s statement came out on the 17th they would have had no way of knowing what the final abortion language in the bill would be and whether it would be problematic. It’s certainly possible the Times story resulted from plain old confusion.

It’s also possible that there’s more to this story than meets the eye. While the bishops do a good job of speaking together on public policy issues, there is a lot of rumbling beneath the scenes. It’s entirely likely that not all of the conference staff or the staff of groups such as the hospital association are going to be as concerned with upholding various doctrinal points as the bishops are. The tension between conscience protections and a grander social justice agenda is real and unsurprising. And the reporter may know more about what’s going on than made it into the paper.

I had some pretty pointed (and I think fair) critiques of the original New York Times piece, but it’s my experience that reporter David Kirkpatrick is very able. I hope he stays on this story and helps further illuminate what’s happening here.

Not all Catholic groups are created equal

usccbThe Senate’s passage of health care reform legislation was a major victory, though there’s a big difference between winning a battle and winning the war. There’s no solid evidence as of yet that the House is going to accept the Senate’s legislation as it’s written. The President appears to concede the issue may not be resolved into February.

And of course a major sticking point for the passage of health care reform is abortion funding. The House passed its own version of the health care bill by 220-215, and that was only after pro-life Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak led a revolt to ensure that the legislation didn’t use tax dollars to fund or subsidize abortion. The Senate bill contains no such guarantee, although Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska did force the inclusion of some other abortion language.

You can see what kind of pickle this has created. Even with language explicitly removing abortion funding from the House bill, health care legislation barely squeaked through the lower chamber. Switch three more votes and it won’t pass, and the likelihood of three pro-life Democratic holdouts given the way the Senate bill handles abortion is awfully high.

So that’s the legislative sitrep. There’s a lot of tension over whether the abortion issue can be resolved. Yesterday’s New York Times looked at one important development in the abortion impasse with “Catholic Group Supports Senate on Abortion Aid“:

In an apparent split with Roman Catholic bishops over the abortion-financing provisions of the proposed health care overhaul, the nation’s Catholic hospitals have signaled that they back the Senate’s compromise on the issue, raising hopes of breaking an impasse in Congress and stirring controversy within the church.

Further, here’s the Times’ description of the abortion, ahem, “compromise” in the Senate bill:

The Senate bill, approved Thursday morning, allows any state to bar the use of federal subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion and requires insurers in other states to divide subsidy money into separate accounts so that only dollars from private premiums would be used to pay for abortions.

Technically, that’s accurate — but it doesn’t at all spell out what’s particularly controversial about the Senate’s abortion language, and as we all know the unintended consequences of a piece of legislation often outstrip what it was meant to do. Stupak sure isn’t happy about the Senate’s abortion language. Then in an interview early this week Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius gave to a feminist blogger, Sebelius essentially admitted that language in the Senate bill means that everyone in government insurance exchanges will be forced to pay for abortion. The Times should really be a bit more explicit about what’s going on here and exactly why people object.

That objection aside, the thrust of the Times piece is contrasting the stance of Catholic hospitals and Catholic bishops on Democratic health care legislation:

Just days before the bill passed, the Catholic Health Association, which represents hundreds of Catholic hospitals across the country, said in a statement that it was “encouraged” and “increasingly confident” that such a compromise “can achieve the objective of no federal funding for abortion.” An umbrella group for nuns followed its lead.

The same day, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called the proposed compromise “morally unacceptable.”

The divide frames one of the most contentious issues facing House and Senate negotiators as they try to produce a bill that can pass in both chambers.

One big thing that the Times article gets right, is that the fact that it makes it pretty clear Catholic hospitals and Catholic bishops aren’t on equal footing when it comes to speaking with the authority of the church:

And in practical political terms, some Democrats — including some opponents of abortion rights — say that the Catholic hospitals’ relative openness to a compromise could play a pivotal role by providing political cover for Democrats who oppose abortion to support the health bill. Democrats and liberal groups quickly disseminated the association’s endorsement along with others from the nuns’ group, other Catholics and evangelicals.

The key phrase here is “providing political cover for Democrats who oppose abortion to support the health bill.” There’s no split on doctrine or confusion over who has more authority to speak for the church here, it’s just a matter of practical politics. Allegedly pro-life Democrats may welcome a “Catholic group” to point to as backing their decision if they decide to vote for the bill.

In that sense, however, the Catholic hospitals and Catholic bishops are decidedly not dueling moral authorities on the same footing. Fortunately, near the bottom of the article we do get this quote:

After the Catholic Hospital Association’s endorsement of the proposed compromise, Catholic conservatives and some abortion opponents accused the group of selling out to the Democrats.

“The Catholic Health Association does not represent the teaching of the Catholic Church on the non-negotiable defense of innocent life,” the conservative Catholic activist Deal Hudson said in a statement, calling the association’s move “utterly offensive.”

stupakBut the way this characterization is presented it seems to be more of an opinion. Certainly, the the “utterly offensive” statement certainly is Deal Hudson’s opinion and it doesn’t help that Hudson is viewed by many as a Republican mouthpiece. However, that the Catholic Health Association is not in a position to “represent the teaching of the Catholic Church on the non-negotiable defense of innocent life” is pretty much a fact. At the same time, the perspective that Catholic hospitals are acting out of moral concern is explicitly presented:

“We have known for quite some time that the Catholic hospitals and also the nuns are really breaking from these hard-line bishops and saying, ‘This really is our goal: to get more people into health care coverage,’ ” said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado.

DeGette’s position as a leader of the abortion rights contingent of the House is not mentioned in the article. Which brings us to the final thing I wanted to note about the article. It is perhaps the most egregious:

Catholic scholars say their statement reflects a different application of church teachings against “cooperation with evil,” a calculus that the legislation offers a way to extend health insurance to millions of Americans. For the Catholic hospitals, that it is both a moral and financial imperative, since like other hospitals they stand to gain from reducing the number of uninsured patients.

That last sentence is the only mention in the entire article of motivation that Catholic hospitals might have to support the Senate’s health care legislation other than the moral considerations over abortion. This is a 2,000+ page piece of legislation that could potentially dictate how trillions of tax dollars are spent for health care in perpetuity. We should probably take a much, much closer look at what hospitals — many of which are deeply in the red right now — have to gain financially by supporting this legislation. Without going into particulars, it’s a lot.

In light of that, readers deserve a clear and compelling idea of what’s at stake for hospitals materially to help judge for themselves what exactly is motivating Catholic hospitals’ support of Democratic health care legislation. And it’s nowhere to be found in the Times piece.


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