When Catholics dissent

womenpriests2 01Not all Roman Catholics agree with official church teachings. Disagreement isn’t really tolerated in the church (Happy Reformation Day, fellow Lutherans!), but conflict is embraced by many reporters. This makes sense, since we reporters love drama. Sometimes I root for political candidates to win based on nothing more than which one appears craziest.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel featured two stories this week about dissent in the church. On Friday, reporter Tom Heinen wrote about an upcoming conference of Call to Action, an organization seeking to change church doctrine on female priests and homosexuality, among other things. The conference will feature a tribute to Cindy Sheehan and a service run by women who claim to have valid, if illicit, ordinations.

Last time we looked at WomenPriests, it was because of a horrifically bad article in the Philly Inquirer. The headline to that piece (“Female Catholic Priest has first Mass”) wasn’t even the worst part of it. Compared to that, the Journal-Sentinel article does a much better job of accurately portraying the relationship between the church and those who oppose its teachings:

Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan has termed such ordinations “groundless” and “invalid.” Attempting to celebrate a liturgy led by women who claim to be priests and bishops “would make any claim of Catholic identity by the group to be misleading,” Dolan wrote in his weekly Catholic Herald column in late August.

Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which orchestrated the ordinations and is organizing the service, rejects those characterizations. It is terming the service a Eucharistic liturgy.

“We’ve had a lot of response, e-mails and notes, from people who found this is a very hopeful sign of women now taking their rightful place,” Bridget Mary Meehan, U.S. spokeswoman for Roman Catholic Womenpriests and the woman who will preside at the liturgy, said of the ordinations.

“We know our orders are not licit; they are against (church) law. We are saying we want to confront the law,” Meehan said. “But we are claiming our orders are valid because we were ordained by Roman Catholic bishops in full Apostolic succession and in full communion with Rome.”

On Thursday, Journal-Sentinel reporter Bill Glauber wrote about a priest who opposes an amendment to the Wisconsin constitution that defines marriage as the union of one man and one women. Only one priest is named as an opponent of the measure that Wisconsin Catholic bishops support. That article, which meanders a bit, is about his views — with a couple of cursory remarks at the end from people who disagree with him:

Father Bryan Massingale, an associate professor of moral theology at Marquette University, wrote a lengthy essay in which he struggled with the idea that “the amendment, read in its entirety, poses a dilemma for many faithful people.”

“The amendment upholds certain beliefs about the uniqueness of marriage,” he wrote in the Sept. 21 issue. “But it does so at a cost, namely, potentially damaging impacts upon the welfare of individuals and their children.”

He also dealt with the issue of homosexuality.

“Too often, discussions of this issue treat ‘those’ people — specifically, gays and lesbians — as if they were an alien species,” he wrote. “They are not. They are our sons and daughters; our sisters and brothers; our aunts, uncles, and cousins; our friends, neighbors, students and co-workers; our priests, ministers and parishioners. ‘They’ are us!”

The piece reads like a puffy profile of Massingale rather than a balanced look at Catholic views on a controversial amendment. Eric Gorski of The Denver Post wrote a story using a similar hook. An organization of Roman Catholic nuns is urging Colorado voters to support abortion and gay marriage, among other issues. Whether or not you agree that groups that oppose archbishops should get as much coverage as they do, Gorski does a great job of characterizing both sides’ views, as evidenced here:

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has urged Catholics to “act Catholic” when they vote or run for office and called opposition to abortion “foundational.”

“We’re supposed to vote as our conscience tells us, not as the archbishop’s conscience tells him,” said [Sister Mary Ann] Cunningham, a member of the Sisters of Loretto. “I have great respect for the archbishop, but I think that’s kind of treating us like children.”

Jeanette DeMelo, spokeswoman for the Denver Archdiocese, said Chaput has highlighted a broad range of issues, all grounded in Catholic teaching.

“Archbishop Charles Chaput is not teaching his personal opinion,” she said. “This is the church’s teaching, and it is the responsibility of a Catholic to vote their conscience, but their rightly formed conscience, their educated conscience.”

Sometimes it’s just as easy as calling multiple sources for a story. As with these articles, which were sent to us by readers, please keep us informed of good or bad examples from your local papers.

On bogeymen

bogeymanFrank Lockwood — the Bible Belt Bloggercaught something interesting in an Associated Press story by political reporter Bob Lewis:

Democrat Jim Webb and Republican George Allen both pocketed developments Wednesday important in motivating their core voters in Virginia’s close U.S. Senate race.

. . . Allen, however, may have found in a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex unions the bogeyman he needed to energize social and religious conservatives dispirited by recent Republican scandals to vote in the Nov. 7 election.

Lockwood, who is the faith and values reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, said the word “bogeyman” caught his eye. The word means “a frightening imaginary being, one often used as a threat in disciplining children.”

The use of the word strikes me as fairly loaded — even in a “news analysis” piece. The word “bogeyman” suggests that gay marriage is an “imaginary” problem — not a real one. I’ll leave it to Bible Belt Blogger readers to debate whether gay marriage is good or bad. My point is simply that Americans are divided on the topic and the word “bogeyman” belongs on the editorial page — not in the news section.

Furthermore, the word “bogeyman” insults people who care about this issue, suggesting they are gullible or childlike if this issue motivates them to vote. Again, this isn’t news — it’s opinion.

Lockwood looks into the tendency of reporters to label Christian conservatives as gullible. He wonders whether the term might be better applied, at times, to mainstream reporters themselves.

When religion reporters cover politics

chaput jpbRemember that 2004 pre-election coverage when political reporters were trying to parse theological statements made by Roman Catholic archbishops? Some reporters had trouble understanding how Catholic leaders had the audacity to discuss whether pro-choice Catholic candidates were violating church teachings. And everyone obsessed about the abortion issue at the expense of other issues Catholic leaders care about. Part of the problem might have been the use of political reporters to discuss a fundamentally theological issue.

The Denver Post solves the problem — and reaps rewards — by having religion reporter Eric Gorski look at church teachings on various political issues facing Colorado voters.

Turns out that both the Republican and Democratic candidates for Colorado Governor are Catholic. And both, to varying degrees, state their opposition to abortion. Gorski digs into that and other issues on which the church takes positions. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput (pictured) declined to critique either candidate, but Gorski got some good info out of him:

The state’s three bishops came out Monday in support of an amendment to raise Colorado’s minimum wage. And over the weekend, a letter was read at Masses supporting the marriage amendment and opposing a domestic partnerships measure.

On the governor’s race, Chaput said he is pleased by some things he hears and worried about others, but wouldn’t elaborate. He said it’s “important that people who claim to be Catholic be Catholic on all issues, not just some of them.”

However, he said abortion is foundational because “it deals with the basic human right, the right to life.” On other issues, such as illegal immigration, Catholics can disagree, he said.

“All people are supposed to have a respect for the immigrants and their dignity and a commitment to the common good,” Chaput said. “But working that out with policy, there’s some flexibility.”

I love how Gorski fleshes out Chaput’s full positions rather than snipping off words or quoting him out of context. Gorski also uses a chart to tell the rest of the story, comparing the two candidates’ positions against those of the Colorado Catholic bishops. He looks at an amendment that would raise the minimum wage in Colorado, as well as an amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

Gorski doesn’t limit the article to abortion positions, but neither does he de-emphasize its importance for Chaput and Catholic voters. Another nice and helpful piece.

Killing embryos

embry3Last night, as I settled in to watch my St. Louis Cardinals beat the Detroit Tigers (fairly, no less!), I told my husband about a political ad I’d seen the day before. It featured actor Michael J. Fox asking people in Missouri to support an amendment to their state constitution that would ensconce embryonic destruction for the purpose of stem-cell research.

I’m a big fan of Fox and I have followed his battle with Parkinson’s for a while. Which was why I was shocked to see what a devastating turn for the worse the disease had taken with him. He was writhing around, lifting a contorted hand and bobbing back and forth.

When I had seen him on a television show a few weeks ago, he seemed to have been doing well — or at least along the lines of what I have come to expect when I see him every few months. Like all good campaign commercials, this one was emotionally gripping. I wondered, though, whether Fox and the commercial’s producers had overdone it a bit in their attempt to be politically effective.

My husband informed me that Rush Limbaugh was in a world of trouble over similar comments about the commercial. He said he thought that Fox either didn’t take his medication or was acting to exaggerate the effects of the disease. Let’s look at how The Washington Post handles this today:

Possibly worse than making fun of someone’s disability is saying that it’s imaginary. That is not to mock someone’s body, but to challenge a person’s guts, integrity, sanity.

I can’t tell from the online version, but I suppose it’s possible that this comes from that den of complete immunity: the Style section. Still, I’m not sure if even the Style section permits such gross mischaracterization of Limbaugh’s comments. Limbaugh didn’t say Fox imagined he had Parkinson’s. He said Fox exaggerated the effects. When someone makes an incendiary comment that you want to criticize, exaggerating the comment serves no one. What Limbaugh said — though I must admit I thought exactly the same thing — was bad enough. At least I only told my husband. And now you all. Let’s keep it between us, if that’s all right.

In polite society, we’re not allowed to wonder whether someone with a horrible disease is playing it up for sympathy or political gain. We’re all supposed to permit the victim to say or do whatever he wants. You lose a son in combat, you’re an expert in foreign policy. You develop a debilitating disease, you’re an expert in bioethics. It may not be fair, but that’s how the game works.

Even if Fox has admitted that he lays off his medication before public appearances where he’s trying to elicit support.

Anyway, my real beef with this and almost all other stories dealing with embyronic-destroying stem-cell research is that they fail to distinguish between stem-cell research and embryonic-destroying stem-cell research. To wit:

The actor, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, has done a series of political ads supporting candidates who favor stem cell research, including Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, who is running against Republican Michael Steele for the Senate seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes.

That is not true. What reporter David Montgomery means to say is that Fox is campaigning for candidates who favor embryonic stem-cell research.

Everyone, more or less, favors stem-cell research. Stem cells are considered very exciting avenues for research these days because of their remarkable potential to develop into different cell types in the body (muscle cell, brain cell, skin cell). Some stem cells come from adults while other stem cells come from embryos. Each type has various advantages and disadvantages.

Some people don’t think advances in science should come by destroying embryos. Others think destroying embryos is a price you have to pay for the possibility of developing cures to diseases.

Characterizing people who oppose destroying embryos as opponents of all stem-cell research is unconscionable. It’s one thing if Michael J. Fox does it in a campaign commercial. It’s another if a reporter for a publication like The Washington Post does it.

Words have meaning. Journalists, of all people, should know that.

UPDATE: GetReligion is a forum for discussing how the media treat religious issues. It is not a forum for discussing religious issues themselves. Or scientific issues. Or medical issues. Please do not comment on your personal views of embryonic stem-cell usage. Comments are open for discussion of how the media treat this issue.

The Post’s proven power to shake faith

bibleonsinglepageRemember that pre-Easter slate of stories attempting to debunk Christianity? There was the shocking lost “Gospel of Judas” story. The Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water) that forms once every few millennia story. The Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera story and the Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up story.

Somehow the foundations of Christianity remained unharmed.

But I think Alan Cooperman, religion reporter for The Washington Post, has gone and done it. I mean, from reading the first few graphs of his shocking story in Saturday’s paper, it looks like he may have broken a story that will cause all Christians to question their faith:

If 40 percent of Americans refuse to believe that humans evolved from earlier hominids, how many will accept that the book we know as the Bible evolved from earlier texts and was not handed down, in toto, by God in its present form?

The fossil evidence for human evolution is permanently on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Hard evidence that the Bible took its present shape over centuries will be on display for the next 11 weeks, from today through Jan. 7, across the Mall at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

They are rarer than dinosaur bones, these fragments of papyrus and animal skin that tell the Bible’s story. With names such as Codex Sinaiticus, the Macregol Gospels and the Valenciennes Apocalypse, they evoke lost empires and ancient monasteries as surely as archaeopteryx and ceratosaurus conjure up primeval swamps and forests.

See, if there is one thing I learned as a lifelong Christian, it is that the Bible was handed down in the New King James Version directly from God. And as a Christian, the foundations of my faith would be shaken if I were to be told that God did not hand down the books of the New Testament in English along with a printing press in the year A.D. 33 Every Christian knows that the canon was dictated by God Himself speaking directly to Jesus, right?

That’s why I love Cooperman’s opening graph so much. It resonates with me. I like how it ties together skepticism of human evolution with skepticism about canon development. I have never felt better understood by mainstream media than I do in Cooperman’s hands.


The exhibit at the Sackler Gallery sounds fantastic. My husband and I plan to go see it, in fact. But it looks like we better watch out:

These are documents with the proven power to shake faith. That’s what happened to Bart D. Ehrman, author of the 2005 bestseller “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.”

Ah, yes, Bart Ehrman. Reporters love to get Ehrman talking about how he lost his faith once he realized that the Bible was not handed down in its present form. Whether his story is cause for skepticism about the Bible or Bart Ehrman is for the reader to decide. But can’t we expand the Rolodex a bit more than this? Ehrman was quoted in all of those Christianity-in-Danger stories from Easter 2006. But if these documents have such a dramatic “proven power to shake faith” (Hide the women! Protect the children!), it’s interesting that he’s one of such a small number of people reporters talk to when this type of story rolls out on cue.

Cooperman has promised a story about documents that have the power to shake faith. What are these documents? What could they be? I can’t wait to get to the part of the story where he sheds light on what doctrinal tenets are undercut by historical research! Let’s take a look:

“If people come looking to find something new about Jesus, they won’t find it in this exhibit. That’s not what it’s saying. But it is saying that we didn’t start out with this,” [Michelle P. Brown, guest curator] said, producing a red [Gideons] Bible from her Washington hotel room and giving it a resounding thwack with the palm of her hand.

Okay, so who are these people who believe that God delivered red Gideons Bibles straight from heaven? And what happened to writing about faith-shaking documents? Oh wait, I found that part of his story. It’s in the 23rd paragraph of the 27-paragraph story. Here we go:

Ehrman noted that [the Codex Sinaiticus'] version of the Gospel of John is missing the story of the woman taken in adultery, the famous parable in which Jesus says to those who would kill the woman, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” He and many other textual scholars believe the adultery story was not introduced into John until the Middle Ages.

And . . . scene! That’s it. Other than a casual mention of a few passages that weren’t included in the final canon, this is the faith-shattering proof from the article. The millennia of critical thought, the many deliberations over what to include in the canon, heck, all the work that’s gone into just this issue since the Codex Sinaiticus was discovered 150 years ago — all brushed away.

The sad thing is that Cooperman actually wrote a rather nice review of the Sackler exhibit complete with interesting historical facts and discussions with its curator. But when he went to frame the story or give it broader context, he went for the dramatic faith-shaking angle.

In so doing, he managed to cast Christians as unwitting fools who believe the Bible was delivered in Gideons form in some ahistorical manner. Was that really necessary?

Gray Lady struggles to get its story straight

NYT Banner YearOkay, let’s recap this Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of all things factual” Greenhouse story.

When it broke in late September that New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse gave a speech that sounded more appropriate for a MoveOn organizer than a respected reporter, I wrote about the unfortunate response given by Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He said he would defend a reporter expressing personal opinions unless those opinions supported President Bush. And I wondered whether the Times would take any action against Greenhouse.

On Oct. 1 I voiced my support for reporters being transparent with their biases but asked whether the stunning lack of diversity in newsrooms hampered efforts to write more fairly about abortion and other conentious issues.

On Oct. 10 I looked at the public editor’s treatment of the story where Greenhouse said her opinions were statements of fact. That’s right, statements of fact.

And on Oct. 18 I highlighted what Greenhouse’s “facts” would have looked like from an alternative perspective.

Which brings us to today’s update. Craig Whitney, the assistant managing editor overseeing journalistic standards at the Times, answered reader questions this week. One of them, excerpted here, relates to the Greenhouse brouhaha (emphasis mine):

Q. . . . Is there some way to adjust NY Times policy so that a reporter of Ms. Greenhouse’s standing can give opinions to an audience as long as they are labeled opinions? It is a shame for us to [lose] out on some of the deeper reflections we can get from this.

A. It is simply fatuous, I think there is no other word for it, to expect intelligent and conscientious reporters on any subject they’ve covered as seriously as Linda Greenhouse has covered as well as the Supreme Court to have no opinions about the issues that come before it. The requirement of fair and balanced journalism is that they keep those opinions out of the news articles they write — to step back, not imposing their views, and, even in a news analysis, to give readers enough factual information to decide for themselves whether or not they agree with the reporter’s view. . . .

Linda Greenhouse has faced, for one paragraph in a very thoughtful and stimulating speech that she thought she was giving to a closed audience, attacks on her integrity that she could have avoided if she had been more reticent about what she thought. And she should have been. But her critics should be honest — would they really rather have a dope who didn’t know what she thought about the current big issues before the Supreme Court? Or only someone who agreed with their own views, whatever they are? Shame on them, if they would.

Now if Greenhouse thought it was a closed audience, why did she tell NPR the following?

“I said what I said in a public place. Let the chips fall where they may.”

And if Craig Whitney calls Greenhouse’s liberal views “opinions” and the reader asking him the question calls them “opinions” and, for that matter, anyone with an understanding of the definition of the word “opinion” calls them “opinions” … then why in the heck has no one at the Times dealt with Greenhouse’s contention that her liberal views were anything but personal opinions?

She told the public editor at the Times that she considered her opinionated rant to be facts — facts that could be in any news story.

So which is it — was Greenhouse giving her opinions or offering facts? How hard should it be for the Times to pick one response and stick to it?

Breeding is believing

cassatMolly Moore, who writes about France for The Washington Post, filed a report on French fertility. It is an anecdote-driven, uncritical look at French regulations’ effect on working mothers. It’s a bit light on data for being so heavy on conjecture, but here’s the nut:

While falling birthrates threaten to undermine economies and social stability across much of an aging Europe, French fertility rates are increasing. France now has the second-highest fertility rate in Europe — 1.94 children born per woman, exceeded slightly by Ireland’s rate of 1.99. The U.S. fertility rate is 2.01 children.

. . . But the propensity of women here to have more babies has little to do with notions of French romance or the population’s formerly strong religious ties to the Roman Catholic Church.

France heavily subsidizes children and families from pregnancy to young adulthood with liberal maternity leaves and part-time work laws for women.

The article describes how the many labor regulations make it easier for professional women to have children. And we all should know that regulations incentivize behavior. In other words, if you pay a woman to have a child, she’ll be more likely to do so. This is why American regulations that gave single mothers — but not married women — access to welfare ended up incentivizing women to stay single. This is also why a wonderful restaurateur in Paris told me he had a hard time finding employees since unemployment benefits were so high.

But is this all about incentivizing women to have children? Does this really have nothing to do with religion? Let’s get the biggest ghost in this story out of the way. What is the second-largest religion in France, practiced by as many as 5 to 10 percent of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook? And what do we know about the fertility rates of these folks?

Let’s look at another story about fertility, this one written by Eric Kauffman for The Prospect. The whole piece is great, arguing that demography favors the fertile. And the fertile are religious. Here’s a bit about the ghost:

[I]t is difficult to predict what proportion of Europe’s population will be of non-European descent in the future because few European countries collect census data on ethnicity and religion. The occasionally cited figure of 30 per cent ethnic minorities in western Europe by 2050 is little more than an educated guess. One of the few countries to collect ethnoreligious census information is Austria, where a recent projection — based on a conservative estimate of 20,000 immigrants a year and various assumptions about religious abandonment and fertility — predicted that Muslims would make up between 14 and 26 per cent of the population in 2050, up from 4 per cent today.

The word Muslim doesn’t appear in Moore’s article. But let’s even get back to her contention that general religiosity has nothing to do with French fertility. Kauffman’s analysis of the data suggests otherwise. He says that half of Europeans are expressing a high degree of religiosity even if they don’t regularly attend church — including France — and that

These people, described by Grace Davie as “believing without belonging,” are seen by some as carriers of a flimsy faith which will soon disappear, and which doesn’t affect behaviour or attitudes. But if this is the case, how do we explain the fact that the fertility of these non-attending believers is much closer to church attenders than to non-believers? The non-attending religious are also significantly more likely than non-believers to identify themselves as ideologically conservative, even when controlling for education, wealth, age and generation.

Even though Moore hid one ghost and casually dismissed another, they may be hard to keep out of the story.

More on the Alpha and Omega of All Things Factual

conformityNo one is surprised when reporters are found to have certain biases. We all have personal opinions. Some of us handle our biases better than others, of course. Here at GetReligion, we tend to worry about the lack of diversity in newsroom biases. So many reporters have similar educational and economic backgrounds and similar views on the contentious issues of the day. I’m not breaking any news here.

But what bothered me about the recent revelation of the biases of New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse was her defense that her biases didn’t represent her opinions but facts. It’s arrogant and does such a disservice to journalism when reporters think their unimportant little opinions are magically transformed into unquestionable facts.

Feel free to revisit what Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of All Things Factual” Greenhouse said in her fact-based speech at Harvard.

Paul Horwitz, a law professor who writes on PrawfsBlawg, had an interesting response to Greenhouse. He took her remarks and mirrored them from a different angle:

What startles me, though, is Greenhouse’s curt and dismissive response to [Times public editor Byron] Calame, suggesting that she had merely engaged in “statements of fact,” and Levinson’s view that her comments fell easily — not barely, or reasonably, but easily — within that category.

Do you agree, dear readers? And what if she had made the following remarks:

My tears dried up, however, when I realized the strides that our generation had made. And that became even clearer when I reflected on our President’s signing of a bill that would permit interrogation of terror suspects, potentially saving many lives, while still offering a set of rules addressing and cabining the forms of permissible interrogation. And let’s not forget the renewed respect for unborn lives, the resistance to sexual license, and the belief that Christians are not banned from participation in the public square. … As I look toward the next chapter in my life, I feel a growing sense of obligation to resist the absurd influx of people over a non-existent “border” that some of our policy makers want to erase, and to do what I can to help those jobless American workers whose only offense is that they are willing to respect the immigration and employment laws of their own country.

I’m not asking whether you agree more with the first, actual set of Greenhouse’s remarks than with my fictional version. As it turns out, I’m more sympathetic to the first set of hyperbolic remarks than the second, but that’s beside the point. I’m just curious: Are the second set of remarks also “statements of fact?” Do Greenhouse’s defenders agree that they would be no more objectionable than the first set? And that neither set would raise questions about a reporter’s objectivity?

Much has been made over Greenhouse’s big-name journalism awards. Previous public editor Daniel Okrent said he’d received no complaints about her bias. Whether that proves that conservative readers have given up any hope of getting a fair shake at the Times or that Greenhouse has been transformed into a bias-free reporter is up to you. But I’ll make a similar claim: I don’t know a single reporter who would privately or publicly agree with Horwitz’s imaginary response. And that brings us right round to where we began. Our newsrooms need more diversity of thought.

How do we get there?