Return of the Know-Nothings?

anticatholicscotusSometimes readers wonder why we look at mainstream media coverage of abortion. A few have suggested it’s not a religious issue. Yet many religion reporters routinely cover both the pro-life and pro-choice movements and cover abortion regularly. Well, the losing side of the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act has been noticing religion. Readers have sent along various anti-Roman Catholic opinion pieces — most notably The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s cartoon and Rosie O’Donnell’s screed on The View. But we don’t care whether editorial writers or pundits have opinions on religious issues. That’s just what makes for an exciting editorial page. Although even Rosie O’Donnell’s crazy conspiracy theories don’t salvage The View, do they?

But it’s worth noting a few mainstream media dips into this story pool. Robin Toney is a news analyst for The New York Times. Or at least I think she is. She used to be a regular reporter. Anyway, she wrote a column for the Times — which I see is also being published as a news story in the International Herald Tribune — about how all five of the justices who upheld the federal law are Roman Catholics. I feel this is a good time to mention that I tried to convince friends that Chief Justice William Rehnquist should be replaced by a Lutheran since he was Lutheran. Nobody seemed convinced.

Anyway, Toney says that Catholics typically held only one or two seats on the Supreme Court and this is the first time they hold a majority of seats (because they stole one from us Lutherans!). She says that during the confirmation hearings for Justice Alito and Roberts, their religion became a proxy way to assess how they would rule on contentious issues. But she provides another perspective:

Some legal scholars say the Roman Catholicism of the five justices, in and of itself, means less than their conservatism. Yes, the church hierarchy denounces legalized abortion, but many Roman Catholics in government, over the years, have drawn a bright line between their private beliefs and their public duties (memorably, John F. Kennedy seeking the presidency in 1960 and Mario Cuomo in his campaign for governor of New York in 1982).

Scholars also note that Justice William Brennan, who was carefully appointed to the “Catholic seat” by President Dwight Eisenhower, turned out to be one of the key supporters of the constitutional right to abortion.

“There can be no greater proponent of a pro-choice vision of the 14th Amendment than William Brennan,” said David Yalof, an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and a scholar of the judicial selection process.

Religion in the public square has a complicated and subtle role, she concludes.

ABC News legal correspondent Jan Crawford Greenburg also weighed in on the topic at her Legalities blog. She covers the Supreme Court, is a graduate of the University of Chicago’s law school and is a member of the New York bar.

She notes that the federal law was passed into law by a broad bipartisan congressional coalition, including 17 Senate Democrats and 47 Senate Repubicans. She doesn’t think they’re all Catholic. She also notes that 30 state legislatures voted for similar laws. Ditto on their lack of religious unanimity. She derides the “growing anti-Catholic backlash” and particularly criticizes Geoffrey Stone, former law school dean and provost at her alma mater:

“Ultimately, the five justices in the majority all fell back on a common argument to justify their position. There is, they say, a compelling moral reason for the result in Gonzales,” Stone writes. “By making this judgment, these justices have failed to respect the fundamental difference between religious belief and morality.”

Geoff Stone (and Rosie and the cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer who illustrated similar thoughts last week) is saying that the five justices voted to uphold the law only because of their religious beliefs. It’s only because they are Catholic–Stone, Rosie, et al, argue–that they could possibly interpret the Constitution to allow a federal law Congress passed with broad, bipartisan support. It’s only because the five are Catholic, Stone and Rosie argue, that they could possibly vote to uphold a law that banned an abortion procedure Congress found to be “gruesome” and “inhumane.”

No, the five couldn’t possibly have legal views that that the Constitution doesn’t protect the right to a partial birth abortion.

Here’s a different way of thinking about it: The five justices took a more restrained approach to the law than their colleagues and declined to substitute their own policy preferences for the will of the people.

As Crawford Greenburg points out in another recent post, the conspiracy theory fails to explain much when it comes to Justice Kennedy:

He’d gone along with O’Connor and David Souter in Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey in 1992, when the three joined forces and refused to overturn Roe v. Wade.

In Casey, Kennedy initially had cast his vote with Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who’d written an opinion that would have overturned Roe. At the last minute, he changed his mind and teamed up with O’Connor and Souter, providing the critical fifth vote that instead saved Roe.

Maybe Kennedy wasn’t Catholic in 1992. Anyway, I think that the religious views of justices and politicians and anyone else who makes decisions is more than fair game for reporters. They just need to do a good job of understanding religious motivations and seeing when they matter and when they don’t.

What do you think? What are the appropriate boundaries for discussing the religious views of decision makers? How do reporters investigate religious views? When does it smack of religious bigotry?

An abortion by any other name

scotus 01We set a record at GetReligion last week for the post that received the most comments — 112 at this point. We looked at some of the coverage of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. For such a divisive issue, and with comments coming at it from all sides, almost all of the perspectives offered in the comment thread about how to improve media treatment of the issue were fantastic and informative.

Probably the hottest topic was what language to use when discussing the law and the procedure which it bans, which I brought up in the original post. I thought it was interesting the lengths to which the mainstream media were going to avoid using the term “partial-birth abortion.” I noted in my post that the term was not a medical term — although it has now been defined by federal statute. Intact Dilation and Extraction is the medical term. Sure enough, the first commenter — NigelP — chimed in on the issue with his view:

The reason nobody refers to the “partial birth” procedure is because there is no such medical procedure.

Other readers noted that the media use many non-medical terms when describing medical issues. For instance, reader Will noted:

“Stroke” is not a medical term. Let’s ascribe sinister motives to anyone who does not say “cerebrovascular incident” or “ischemic attack.”

Reader Kimberly offered further thoughts:

People can say “partial birth abortion” is a non-medical, more emotional label, but they can’t object to it as being inaccurate, as some have here. It’s absolutely accurate — the fetus is partially born — with the cervix dilated and the fetus delivered breech until it is almost entirely outside of the body with only the head inside the vaginal canal. Then it’s aborted, by collapsing the head so that it won’t be alive when it emerges completely (in which case it would be all the way born). Partial-birth abortion is absolutely accurate.

Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out a few more examples in his book — the press routinely says “heart attack” instead of the clinical “myocardial infarction,” and people know what it means even though it’s non-technical. When Congress banned “assault weapons,” the media used the term even though it was emotionally loaded (no pun intended) and non-specific as to what exact weapons were being banned. The insistence on using clinical specific terms only arises when it comes to this curious “method of abortion” that the majority of reporters find disadvantageous to the cause to define.

Reader Michael had a different problem with the term — its alleged creation by abortion opponents:

Terms created by neutral medical groups or a profession are different from terms created by politically-motivated interest groups as part of a strategic, political decision. The use of such terms in journalism about the most politically- and socially-charged issue of our day should be avoided at all costs, it would seem.

We certainly didn’t settle the debate but it helped to learn more about various arguments. I thought all of this was interesting as I finally got around to spending more time with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s well-covered dissent. I haven’t seen this discussed in the media yet, but Ginsburg took sharp issue with the majority opinion over some of the language used there:

Throughout, the opinion refers to obstetrician-gynecologists and surgeons who perform abortions not by the titles of their medical specialties, but by the pejorative label “abortion doctor.” . . . A fetus is described as an “unborn child,” and as a “baby,” . . .

ginsburg 02I thought these examples were interesting because the media struggle with the same issues. Here, here and here are examples of the media using the phrase “abortion doctor” in the past week.

While abortionist is more specific and has a longer pedigree, it’s considered by some to be pejorative. It’s hard to see how “abortion doctor” could be conceived as pejorative, considering abortion doctors call themselves just that. One wrote a book called Why I am an Abortion Doctor. Slate reporter Dahlia Lithwick used the phrase in 2005. The New York Times editorial board used it in a pro-choice editorial. The president of Planned Parenthood used the phrase and was quoted in a ruling supporting the right to abortion by the U.S. Court of Appeals. NARAL Pro-Choice America uses the phrase on its website, denouncing Sen. Tom Coburn for his opposition to abortion. Planned Parenthood uses the term on its site. And the Abortion Clinic Directory uses the phrase. More examples are here.

The term “abortion doctor” doesn’t appear in Dorland’s Medical Dictionary. “Abortionist” does. I can’t find any help in my basic AP Stylebook — although I’m recovering from a sinus infection that may be affecting my research capabilities — but I believe the AP recommends the use of the term abortion doctor instead of the term abortionist because it says the latter connotes criminal behavior. It is true that the term “abortionist” was coined when it was illegal to kill a fetus. That may explain why some think its medical definition is pejorative.

“Fetus” was the second example offered by Ginsburg as preferable language to that used in the majoirty opinion. Fetus comes from the Latin, meaning offspring. Many people debate whether “fetus” is a better word for the media to use than “unborn child.” The AP Stylebook doesn’t have entries for “fetus” or “unborn child” — sometimes to hilarious effect.

When the Chicago Tribune revised its stylebook in 2004, it urged reporters to use the phrase “unborn child” for, uh, offspring who were nearing their due date, NPR interviewed the folks involved in the decision. Their discussion was very interesting and offered some help for the issues we’re discussing. This snippet is why they oppose the word “fetus” for late-term unborn children:

DON WYCLIFF: You’re safe, but you’re not reflecting the state of the language in society today. I might add that Roe v. Wade was not a decision that said the fetus or unborn child has no rights as a being. It said that — the rights of the child as a dependent being cannot outweigh the right to liberty of the mother. Normally, by the third trimester, one can assume that the mother intends to have this child. In most cases. And therefore, we are recognizing that, in her view, most often, the child is an unborn child and not just a fetus any longer.

RANDY WEISSMAN: One other thing that we clearly took into account was also the legal issues. The courts have started to recognize the human status in many instances. The Scott Peterson case in and of itself was not necessarily the changing point, but what it did point out was that a court could charge a person with murder of an unborn being — and– that kind of progression within the legal system has forced changes in a lot of different things, but certainly in our style and how we approach that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Surely you know that you’re entering a very dicey area by starting to refer to some fetuses as children. You haven’t avoided a debate. You’ve walked squarely into it.

DON WYCLIFF: We’re going to be in a debate no matter what we choose, and what we’re trying to do is reflect the state of the language, and medicine, and law in the society.

I love the candor from both the interviewer and her subjects. I also find it fascinating that the word used to describe the offspring in the mother’s womb changes based on whether or not the mother intends to continue or terminate the pregnancy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, you get quite a bit of reaction to the replacing of fetus with unborn child. It’s the words that you use that change the way a debate is framed.

I think this shows why we cover abortion coverage here at GetReligion. The use of the word “fetus” can have the effect of dehumanizing the offspring, while the term “unborn child” can humanize the offspring. There isn’t really a good middle ground, and both phrases could indicate a bias about your perspective on pregnancy. The arbiters of language used by the media are still working on an answer.

Anyway, what the media say does matter. Ginsburg used one of the New York Times Sunday Magazine pieces in support of her dissent: The one written by abortion rights advocate Emily Bazelon. The one about how post-abortion syndrome doesn’t exist. We discussed it a few months ago, and I wasn’t entirely critical of the article — I thought her look at how the abortion rights movement doesn’t address the issue was insightful. I just thought she should have talked to more than one woman — a seemingly non-representative one at that — who claims otherwise.

As frightening as it may be to consider — and as low of a bar as this referencing of The New York Times Sunday Magazine represents — the point is that the courts pay attention to what happens with media coverage of this issue. All the more reason to be careful with the language we choose and the topics we cover.

None dare call it partial-birth abortion

scotusIn a 5-4 ruling earlier this week, the Supreme Court upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. The mainstream media are known for struggling with abortion coverage.

Most reporters chose to portray the ruling in the language you might hear from those who advocate for abortion, rather than more neutral language or the language you might hear from those who oppose abortion. By that I mean that we were told the ruling was a loss of rights for women or abortionists rather than an expansion of protections for unborn children or the mothers who carry them. The write-ups also followed the lead of those who oppose abortion in shying away from the use of the term “partial-birth abortion” — although the very law the court upheld used the term.

I’m not arguing that the medical term isn’t “intact dilation and extraction” (so called because the child is removed from the womb via the cervix and then killed). Such bias against the language and rhetoric of abortion opponents is so expected these days that it’s almost become the norm, but we should remain diligent. The issue won’t stop being contentious, so reporters should redouble their efforts at neutrality.

With that, let’s look at Agence France Presse‘s write-up by Fanny Carrier:

The US Supreme Court backtracked on abortion rights for the first time in more than a generation Wednesday, upholding a federal law restricting access to a rare but controversial late-term abortion procedure.

The bellwether ruling is a major victory for conservative forces in the United States, which have battled for decades to reverse the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade law establishing a woman’s legal right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Steadfast avoidance of descriptive terms such as “partial-birth abortion”? Got it. Scare words and phrases? Got it. The language is clear.

But these paragraphs wouldn’t tell you, for instance, that a strong majority of Americans — including some of those who generally support abortion — wanted a ban on this procedure. The paragraphs don’t mention that a majority of Americans — including some of those who support abortion generally — support restrictions on abortion. The reporter also just flat out liesmisstates the truth. Here:

The controversial late-term abortion — only carried out when the fetus poses a danger to the mother’s health — was banned by the US Congress in 2003, after lawmakers concluded it was not medically necessary.

That’s simply not true. Not much else to say. There is no basis in reality for such a statement.

But let’s get to the big fish. Somehow The New York Times‘ editors permitted Linda Greenhouse to cover this decision even though it was just under a year ago that she was completely compromised — again — on abortion coverage. She may not march anymore in abortion-rights rallies as she has previously done, but she gave a speech last year at Harvard where she said:

The government supported “a sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”

Greenhouse said such extreme rhetoric was not opinion in any way but “statements of fact” that would be allowed to appear in a Times news article. With that, let’s see how Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of All Things Factual” Greenhouse covered an issue in which her “factual” views were disputed by none other than the majority of the United States Supreme Court she is assigned to cover.

The headline steadfastly avoided any descriptive words: “Justices Back Ban on Method of Abortion.” Thank you, copy editors, for that headline that tells readers as little as possible about what the Supreme Court did and is framed as much as possible in favor of the abortion rights perspective. Greenhouse doesn’t mention the widespread public support for a ban on the procedure but says it was a victory for George Bush and the anti-abortion movement. She says their opposition to the procedure was not based in their moral opposition to a particularly inhumane abortion procedure but, rather, a strategy for political victory. I think she undersells — by not mentioning it — the basic opposition to the procedure on human rights grounds:

By identifying the intact procedure and giving it the provocative label “partial-birth abortion,” the movement turned the public focus of the abortion debate from the rights of women to the fate of fetuses.

ginsburgNote that the procedure — in which the fetus’ brains are sucked out in order to collapse the skull — isn’t provocative. The label is. Greenhouse also gives so much time and placement — dare I call it strategic? — to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent that you would think Ginsburg had, in fact, written a winning decision:

The court did not explicitly overturn any of its precedents, although Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the four dissenters, said the decision was “so at odds with our jurisprudence” that it “should not have staying power.” Justice Ginsburg called the decision “alarming” and said the majority’s “hostility” to the right to abortion was “not concealed.”

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer signed Justice Ginsburg’s opinion, portions of which she read from the bench at a slow pace that caused every syllable to resonate.

Oh come on. Those last few words are embarrassing. Not surprising coming from a reporter who said what she did at Harvard last year but embarrassing for a professional nonetheless. In another case she gives a four-paragraph Ginsburg rebuttal to a somewhat non-representative Kennedy argument on how the ruling benefits women and upholds motherhood.

I wonder which opinion Greenhouse enjoyed more. Do Justice Antonin Scalia’s scathing and entertaining dissents get this much time in Greenhouse articles?

Finally, the Los Angeles Times‘ piece by David Savage is also worth mentioning. It suffered from some of the same problems, too, but here’s the snippet that concerned me:

Kennedy’s opinion acknowledged that some nationally recognized medical experts testified that the ban on D&X could “create significant health risks” for some women who undergo midterm abortions.

But that alone is not enough to void the law, Kennedy concluded.

Savage completely neglects to mention that other doctors disagree that the ban creates health risks. In fact, Kennedy addressed this in detail (PDF). To wit:

Whether the Act creates significant health risks for women has been a contested factual question. The evidence presented in the trial courts and before Congress demonstrates both sides have medical support for their position. . . .

There is documented medical disagreement whether the Act’s prohibition would ever impose significant health risks on women. . . .

The medical uncertainty over whether the Act’s prohibition creates significant health risks provides a sufficient basis to conclude in this facial attack that the Act does not impose an undue burden.

Savage manipulates the argument by presenting only one side of the issue and, indeed, only one side of the very opinion he was tasked to cover. And apparently this is part of a pattern.

Okay, reporters, I know it’s hard to put personal views aside, but we simply must cover this issue better.

More on the evolution of Pope Benedict

rottMaybe it’s really difficult to write about Pope Benedict XVI. We noted that bad Newsweek International piece last week. And here’s another one that’s not the best example from the genre. Jeff Israely filed something from Rome for Time that was given the headline “A Step Backward for Pope Benedict?” Intriguing. Let’s learn more:

Two years into his papacy, Benedict XVI may be about to reclaim his reputation as a no-holds-barred traditionalist. Thanks to Benedict’s thoughtful manner, Church progressives had believed that the man who was once the hard-line Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would cut some slack on areas of doctrinal contention — using his intellectual heft and traditional credentials as necessary cover. But as Benedict turns 80 on April 16 and marks two years as Pope on April 19, the once hopeful progressives have all but given up their fantasy of Benedict the Reformer.

It’s funny. I remember how when Ratzinger was chosen, the response was more or less sheer horror from progressives. Now, in just two years, we are to believe that they changed their tune and believed he’d throw away doctrinal positions — only to be horribly disappointed once again? I mean, I understand changes of heart but this doesn’t seem to be an accurate portrayal of progressives’ hopes or fears. It seems more like a flashily-written lede that is not born out by the rest of the story. I’m not sure it serves readers wanting to learn about Ratzinger or those skeptical about him.

Israely cites one problem that is supposed to be heartbreaking — giving priests the option to perform mass in Latin. I’m with Luther on the benefits of chanting a mass in the vernacular, but I’m not sure that this change — which is only permitting priests to do a Latin Mass facing the altar if they want, is that big of a deal. An unnamed priest says it’s a big deal but doesn’t quite explain why.

Israely quotes another two unnamed but disappointed folks, a “progressive cleric” and a “senior Church official.” I understand how difficult it might be to get folks to talk on the record but if the flashy lede is to be believed, you need to back it up with more than anonymous sources, I think.

Israely tries to sum up a bit of the Pope’s approach and has this interesting note:

In addition, Benedict professes a very specific kind of Christianity, one based not only on the teachings of Jesus, but on abiding by the letter of ancient Catholic Church traditions as the only effective bulwark against rampant relativism.

That’s a fascinating claim and one I’d love to learn more about. It’s crying out for examples, I think. The last line is also worth excerpting:

The professor Pope may be happy to have a conversation on doctrine, but he knows he always has the last word.

That’s one way of putting it.

Eric Gorski — now with the Associated Press — had a fantastic and relevant article on Benedict and his imprint on the United States. He notes that the Pope hasn’t focused too much on the States but that is changing, with some looming bishop appointments. The balanced and informative article quotes a variety of observers — on the record! — and notes areas where Benedict might have taken action in the United States but chose not to. Rather than repeating the notion that the Pope has undergone some magical transformation, Gorski presents an alternate view from conservative editor of First Things Richard John Neuhaus:

Neuhaus dismisses suggestions that conservative Catholics such as himself are disappointed that Benedict has not been tougher, and derides media portrayals of the pope transforming himself from “God’s rottweiler” to kindly uncle.

“There is no evidence whatsoever he has changed his judgment on anything of consequence the last two years,” Neuhaus said. “He is a gentle, thoughtful, paternal, firm and loving person. That’s the man you see. For those of us who knew Ratzinger over the last 25 years, there were no surprises at all.”

With a religion as large as Roman Catholicism, there are bound to be different views. Sometimes rather than picking one narrow view and running with it, it’s better to go ahead and lay out the nuance and complexities.

Vaya sin Dios

losing religionLaurie Goodstein had a very interesting feature in Sunday’s New York Times on Hispanics abandoning religion in the United States. Goodstein brings life to recent polls and surveys about the trend by speaking with immigrants about why they have ceased worshiping. One Guatemalan immigrant says he stopped feeling the need to pray to God when he came to America. Goodstein says research suggests that secularization is part of assimilation into American society. Studies indicate that Hispanics who identify themselves as having no religion are more likely to have previously been religious than other Americans.

It’s a great topic to cover in real time since most work done on the issue is performed by historians long after the fact. Every immigrant group’s religious life has been affected dramatically upon arrival in the country. Goodstein really brings to light some of the underlying factors:

The Roman Catholic Church, the religious home for most Hispanics, is experiencing the greatest exodus. While many former Catholics join evangelical or Pentecostal churches, the recent research shows that many of them leave church altogether.

“Migrating to the U.S. means you have the freedom to create your own identity,” said Keo Cavalcanti, a sociologist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and a co-author of a recent study that found a trend toward secularization among Hispanics in Richmond. “When people get here they realize that maintaining that pro forma display of religiosity is not essential to doing well.”

One thing that struck me about the immigrants’ stories was how materialistic they’d become or how business concerns took time formerly given to worship. I’ve mentioned religion professor Dell deChant before. He’s written that commercialism is not a mark of secularism but of a new — or actually quite old — religion practiced with fervor throughout the country. In the new religion, worship occurs in malls and other businesses as actors buy and sell goods to take part in the cosmic story of acquisition. Consider this anecdote:

Jesus Cerritos, a 37-year-old construction worker who immigrated from Mexico 18 years ago, said he spent his weekends running errands, going to Wal-Mart and watching television. His children, ages 11 and 9, tell him that church is boring and that they have no desire to go, but Mr. Cerritos has mixed feelings.

“Here, the people get more materialistic,” Mr. Cerritos said. “The culture here is really barren. There’s no traditions.”

Read the whole story here.

Pulitzers announced

Just a quick note to congratulate The New York Times‘ Andrea Elliott:

Andrea Elliott of The New York Times has won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for coverage of an immigrant imam striving to serve his faithful in America.

Daniel praised some of this coverage here and a follow-up she wrote here. And I praised a more recent piece on Muslim imams she wrote here.

It’s nice to see such a good religion reporter get this recognition. Congratulations!

And Benedict hates teddy bears, too

puppyA few days ago we looked at Russell Shorto’s big New York Times Sunday Magazine piece on Pope Benedict XVI’s first two years in office. I mentioned a few quibbles with it but was overall very impressed. Readers shared their mixed responses.

But if some of you thought that was bad reportage, I have no idea how you’ll respond to this. Newsweek International has a shockingly bad and almost silly analysis of the same issue. You really have to read the whole thing. I want to excerpt it all and I’m undecided which parts show the least balance.

Angry hackReporter Joseph Contreras begins by noting that Benedict will head to Brazil in a few weeks. He then proceeds to compare Pope John Paul II to the current pope, and it doesn’t look pretty. I find it funny that the previous pope is now the model of perfection. I don’t seem to recall that being the case even a few years ago. Anyway, the piece is truly horrible. Quotes, such as the one from an angry Milanese housewife, seem pulled from nowhere. Statistics contradict the premise of the article, such as the one showing a decline in Roman Catholicism in Latin America during the previous pope’s time in office. The language is loaded. It’s obsessed with politics. I could go on. Here’s a sample:

The pope should choose his words carefully; on one of his last trips, to his native Germany, he sparked a firestorm when he quoted in passing scathing comments about the Prophet Muhammad. Within days Benedict was being burned in effigy. He can expect a warmer greeting in South America. But there’s no denying he’s been a disappointment to many faithful there and elsewhere. Some U.S. Catholics condemn him as aloof, Europeans resent his intrusions into their affairs and he’s never been popular in Latin America. The region, home to 450 million Catholics, had hoped to see one of its own succeed John Paul. Many there have felt ignored by the man who ultimately did.

Part of the problem is style. The last pope was a former parish priest who recast himself as an international player (he spoke eight languages, including Spanish and Portuguese). Benedict is a colorless academic who spent much of his career teaching theology and philosophy.

Oh, JPII spoke eight languages? Well, Ratzinger speaks ten, a point Contreras didn’t seem to think was worthwhile. The article gets more loaded and less worthwhile to read. I know other countries have different journalistic standards than we do here, but I don’t think that quite explains what happens with this piece. Benedict doesn’t care about the developing world, Contreras argues. He’s irrationally preoccupied with Europe. He doesn’t have any fans. He’s homophobic, is imposing a clerical dictatorship in Italy, and he hates Katrina victims. He’s unsuited for the job. He’s a reclusive intellectual only interested in old rituals and disputes. Oh, and he opposed liberation theology, which struck some as mean-spirited. Get this part:

It also underscored just how conservative — and far from the mainstream — Benedict is. That will cause more trouble in the future, especially in Latin countries that already believe he is behind the times. Later this month, the Vatican is expected to permit congregations to celebrate [M]ass in Latin without seeking prior approval. This represents a big step backward: Pope Paul VI abolished the Latin rite in 1969, and relatively few modern Catholics can even recall it. But that doesn’t worry Ratzinger. “He’s an old-fashioned guy who wants to go back to what [the church] was before,” says David Gibson, the author of an acclaimed 2006 biography of the pope.

I hope it felt good for Contreras to spew this piece, because it sure doesn’t serve any other purpose. I certainly don’t think Pope Benedict is above reproach, but this piece is just infantile.

Maybe Big Ben’s not so bad after all

BenedictThank you to all the readers who sent along their favorite or least favorite stories published this past weekend. There are too many to get to, but I’ll begin with The New York Times Sunday Magazine‘s cover story on Pope Benedict XVI. Good timing on that piece, as it ran on Easter Sunday. The author is Russell Shorto, who has written previously for the magazine on people who oppose contraception and people who oppose gay marriage. Both of those pieces took a liberal view not out of place in the Sunday Magazine. But Shorto is a good writer who researches his topics better than, well, the average New York Times Sunday Magazine author. Not that that’s saying much.

Anyway, I’m sure there are many legitimate quibbles or gripes with the piece, and I’m curious what readers thought about it, but color me impressed. The piece is long (8,294 words!) and covers so much. Its main focus is The Pope Formerly Known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s emphasis on the threat of secularism — but it hits New (lay) Movements, Ratzinger’s background and the worldly and church context into which Benedict speaks. I kept wishing each aspect was its own piece since Shorto took the time to read the Pope’s speeches, visit actual congregations, and consider nuance. Shorto says Benedict’s papal theme is that Europe is moving toward a dictatorship of relativism that recognizes nothing for certain. It’s nice to see such a thoughtful retrospective on the second anniversary of his election, and one that doesn’t bring out the tired old tropes.

It must be said that Shorto seems only to know how to contact liberals since they are more or less the only people quoted in the piece. That’s a deficit. He also seems to continue with his “theological conservatives are wacky” approach, but I don’t mind that so much since he is explaining them to an audience that doesn’t naturally understand them:

“Dogma” wasn’t a dirty word — it was the ground. “Dogma was conceived not as an external shackle but as the living source that made knowledge of the truth possible in the first place,” he wrote in his memoirs. Ratzinger rose rapidly through the ranks of Bavaria’s intensely rigorous Catholic institutions, holding the chairmanship in dogma at the University of Regensburg from 1969 to 1976, until he was appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising and his career focus shifted toward Rome.

It’s just so funny to me. The assumption that dogma — meaning a a system of principles or tenets — would ever be considered dirty. But on the other hand I appreciate that he quotes Ratzinger — and quotes him well — to provide an alternate view.

Here’s another good sample from the piece. It shows the breadth and scope that Russo is trying to cram into this one article and it works around obstacles such as the Vatican’s long-practiced refusal to grant interviews to reporters. It also demonstrates his reliance on liberal church figures and sums up the point of the piece:

As a longtime university professor, the pope is well known for his collegiality, his reaching out to, and exchanging ideas with, a broad spectrum of Catholics as well as with nonbelievers. This may explain why, despite the fact that his core conservative convictions are unchanged, he has managed to get many left-leaning church figures to rally around his central focus. Notker Wolf, abbot primate of the worldwide Benedictine order, himself a Bavarian who has known the pope for decades, was critical at the start, based on Ratzinger’s actions in his previous job. But Wolf, too, was won over. As we sat in the serene Sant’Anselmo monastery on the Aventine Hill in Rome, which serves as the headquarters of the Benedictines, he distilled the pope’s core message for me this way: “Western society has become detached from the roots of its creator. This is the basic view of the pope, and it is my view also. What the Muslims say about the decadence of Europe is partly right, and that’s because we think we have to set up everything as if God doesn’t exist. On the other hand, faith also has to be reasonable — it has to stand in front of reason. I would say that he means this not just regarding terrorism but also charismatics. He says we have to remain sober in this religious way of thinking. The old Occidental tradition has been a fruitful tension between faith and reason.”

There is much to analyze in a piece that long, and there were aspects that I found troubling, such as the supposed conflict between Ratzinger as chief enforcer of doctrine versus Benedict as Pope. Ratzinger was “God’s Rottweiler,” of course, while Benedict is nice and broad-minded. First off, I’m not sure there’s as much of a difference there as some like to see it. I think the fact is that people in the mainstream media didn’t know Ratzinger terribly well when he was chosen as Pope and now they know him better. But even if there is a difference, I think some context is in order. The job of the doctrinal enforcer is different than that of the Pope. Is the dichotomy between upholding doctrine and being loving or evangelical false? At the very least I think it shouldn’t be assumed.

I loved the piece’s broad and sweeping scope, but that was also its major problem. It seemed to lack a bit of focus or enough details on each of the subsets. But there is also a sense that the stories were shoehorned into the piece. But you’ll have to go read it. All 8,300 words of it. There are fascinating tidbits about Benedict’s interest in the schism with the Orthodox, as well as a look at how the Vatican has continued to handle priestly sex scandals. Read it and let us know what you think.


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