The unbroken circle

Apollonian_circlesIt hardly seems possible that it’s been a year since tmatt was giving me pointers on how to write for GetReligion. There was so much I had to learn — and although I’ve learned a lot, I haven’t learned everything, by any means. Sometimes I read the work of my GetReligion colleagues and wonder how they make it appear so easy.

Have fun, tmatt advised me when I began. Well, I have had a lot of fun this past year. I found that I really enjoy trolling the newspapers and other media for stories about religion. Sometimes the stories showed a lack of feeling for the language of religion — there were times, as you know, when there would be amazing howlers. Other times journalists either didn’t include the religious angle of a story or subtly tweaked it to lead the reader.

But as or more often, I found that journalists, who grapple with the mandate to tell a complex tale in a very short news hole, revealed empathy for the work and words of the spirit. Sometimes their work brought tears to my eyes. I greatly appreciate having the chance to examine the wonderful reporting done by so many colleagues all over this country — and the world.

In all of this, I was reminded that as much as I enjoy blogging, I am a journalist. I am painfully aware as I write that there are many sides of a story — and many that deserve telling. So my frustration with a lot of coverage comes down to — why did you leave out part of the story? I found that I preferred writing about the eccentric, the foreign, the human interest story — when what is needed for GetReligion is also often covering the breaking news.

I also have found that I am not running down the features and commentary that is the bread and butter of my own work — and was beginning to have procrastinator’s guilt (as you know, that’s worse for having been delayed!). So I’m returning to the workaday world of the free-lance commentator and journalist. I’ll be pursuing an occasional blogging opportunity, but focusing my energies on telling the stories I find so compelling.

I want to thank tmatt for coaching and encouraging me along the way — and my colleagues for offering advice and friendship. It’s been a blessing to make new friends, albeit long-distance ones. Thank you commenters for sharing your knowledge, candor, and a laugh or two. I don’t want to single out anyone, but I grew to like it when you challenged me or shared some helpful information.

Please feel free to follow me on my own personal blog, “Irreverent,” (www.nocheapshots.blogspot.com) where you will see a very different side of me as I write about motherhood, politics, faith and, hmmm, sometimes even dating.

While I won’t be blogging for GetReligion anymore after today, you gotta know I’ll be reading. I hope perhaps you gained something from having spent this year with me — I know I have from you.

Free speech … and hate speech

matthew_shepardEleven years ago gay teen Matthew Shephard was beaten and left to die on a Wyoming fencepost. That was also the year three white men in a truck, in another sickening act of violence, pulled African American James Byrd behind them until he was dead. This past Wednesday, President Obama signed the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In a fairly common practice, it was passed as part of a totally unrelated spending bill.

As this Associated Press story notes, the federal law has now been expanded to included crimes against people committed because of gender, sexual orientation and disability. The story by Ben Feller, which also includes a lot of detail on the spending bill, contained this interesting paragraph:

At the urging of Republicans, the bill was changed before it was passed in Congress to strengthen free speech protections to assure that a religious leader or any other person cannot be prosecuted on the basis of his or her speech, beliefs or association.

Feller doesn’t give details, but he does note what has been at the core of objections to the law: that it will constrain clergy and others who make public statements about homosexuality. In other words, does the law infringe on First Amendment protections and religious liberty? How are reporters writing about material objections to the hate crimes bill?

The best story I found (though it had its own problems) was a local one from Wyoming. But other articles either didn’t mention religious and free speech objections at all (they don’t go away because you ignore them), gave them scant attention, or fit the story into a particular ideological framework. That being said, I’m not sure from the coverage whether many editors considered this a standalone story, given where it seemed to end up — in online blogs.

Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times didn’t allude to objections in this brief “The Caucus” post — a straightup report on what happened without any outside opinions.

Here’s a sample of the second approach, from the USAToday.com website page “The Oval”:

Opponents called the hate-crimes bill unnecessary, noting that Shepard’s and Byrd’s attackers were convicted in state criminal courts. Some critics objected to the inclusion of hate-crimes legislation in a defense budget bill.

“The president has used his position as commander in chief to advance a radical social agenda, when he should have used it to advance legislation that would unequivocally support our troops,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Pence also argued that the law could be used to curb free speech rights, such as with religions that consider homosexuality a sin.

Yup, it is scandalous that Democrats and Republics tack totally unrelated amendments on to spending bills — and everytime it occurs, the other party is outraged, outraged, outraged. The bigger news here, however, are the constitutional issues, which get a scant sentence.

On the other hand, take this story from the Washington Times. There’s some good content here, but the author’s focus is on the “Obama gives gay rights activists what they want” pretty much to the exclusion of other threads.

Critics said that because the new law only adds harsher penalties for acts that are already illegal and subject to criminal prosecution, its main achievement is to move the nation toward the criminalization of politically incorrect speech.

“Bills of this sort are designed to forward a political agenda and silence critics, not combat actual crime,” said Erik Stanley, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian advocacy group.

“All violent crimes are hate crimes, and all crime victims deserve equal justice. This law is a grave threat to the First Amendment because it provides special penalties based on what people think, feel or believe,” Mr. Stanley said.

And that’s the objection of many conservatives and civil libertarians — that the law introduces a whole new class of what can be prosecuted in which the lines between permissible and impermissible speech aren’t clear.

By the way, if “minority classes” are being protected, then it’s the guys who ought to be happy. As far as I know, the census says that women are the American majority. None of the stories I saw really said anything about the other categories, like disability, now being federally protected — hmmm, I wonder why?

But how is this new law going to affect clergy and laypeople in the real world (grin) outside the Beltway? A story from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle offers us a practical point-of- view from a state which (unlike 45 others) doesn’t have hate-crimes laws.

Some Christians have expressed opposition to the bill because of a belief that it could criminalize pastors for preaching what the Bible says about homosexuality: that it is a sin to be repented like any other sin.

Opponents feel it could turn preaching the Bible into “hate speech,” and some fear that pastors could be blamed for a hate crime committed by someone in their congregation.

“I would never speak in a manner that would encourage someone to harm someone who is a homosexual,” the Rev. John Christensen, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Cheyenne, said. “Clearly, no one should engage in an act of violence against a person because of (his or her) sexual orientation.”Still, the bill steps dangerously close to the line, he added.

“I do have some concerns about it,” he said. “I see it as a backdoor to censoring speech.”

Is it only Christians who object to the new law? Last I heard, Nat Hentoff hadn’t converted (this article, with a clear bias, nonetheless has some amazing links).

Also, progressives would dispute Baylie Evan’s comment about Bible passages and homosexuality. Since Evans doesn’t say what kind of Lutheran pastor Christensen is (is this a Missouri Synod parish?) you have one Lutheran pastor disagreeing with another (but wait, he’s actually Presbyterian).

But though I don’t think the extended block quotes technique serves the story well, Evans gives both sides ample quotes to make their points. I found the extended passage from Charles Haynes, a scholar with the First Amendment Center, particularly useful.

It’s unfortunate that so few writers cared to go that deeply into the possible effects of a bill on Constitutional rights. Care to wager whether we’re going to see a federal court case on one of these issues sooner right than later? Keep watching this space.

Picture is of the late Matthew Shepard

Got news? A tale of two collars

50spink_tasselsTwo quick confessions.

Yes, I do read the women’s mag Marie Claire – this wasn’t a tip from one of our commenters.

And no, I didn’t page right past a story about an aspiring politician and an amateur burlesque dancer.

But I didn’t notice the autobiographical commentary by writer Sarah Liston in the middle of the November issue of the magazine until today. After, uh, setting the stage, Liston describes husband Dave’s work as a public servant — and his other volunteer activities.

My husband, Dave, just finished his third term as chairman of our local New York City community board. He serves as cochair of the landmarks committee, and was recently awarded his own Appreciation Day by the borough president. His life revolves around volunteering as a subdeacon at an Episcopal church and listening to the public complain about subway construction, class size, and too-noisy bars. His dream is to make it to Congress one day, and to have an old-fashioned, street-level storefront office where constituents can stop by. After a long political career, he hopes to attend divinity school and become an Episcopal priest.

As an amateur burlesque dancer, I perform mostly at upscale restaurants and wine bars in New York City. My dream is to go on a burlesque tour through Europe, wearing ostrich feathers and velvet and bustiers, removing piece by strategic piece in lush, red-curtained, time-stained theaters. Usually, political scandals implicating half-dressed women involve everyone but the wife. In our case, the sex scandal is the wife. Though, for the record, I never get completely naked when I dance, and I use a pseudonym, Grace Gotham, to stay incognito. But still, you can see how my new hobby might put some drag on my husband’s political trajectory.

So let’s put the pieces of the story together. Here’s a little more biographical information about Subdeacon Liston. Turns out that he’s a lawyer at a New York City law firm and a former assistant district attorney — as well as a mayoral appointee to the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board. In a city of public servants, many of whom are pretty well-known, Mr. Liston would still be someone newsworthy.

Imagine for a moment that an evangelical or Mormon lawyer/public servant had a wife with this eclectic avocation? You’ve got to believe that some mainstream media outlet would be all over this story. Actually, whether you approve of burlesque or not, it’s a potential feature story.

Of course, if you are a well-known lawyer who has a spouse who is an author impelled by a yen for pasties and Edith Piaf — you’d have to be an Episcopalian, wouldn’t you? Stands to reason. Given David Liston’s biographical reference to Holy Trinity, I’d guess that this innovative East Side church is his parish. Tough to tell from his spouse’s commentary if she attends or not. Judging solely by the website, Holy Trinity seems to fit into the “inclusive” or “progressive” category.

I wonder why David Liston wants to wait to become a priest — to atone for years in the political crucible? His wife doesn’t tell us. Sarah Liston does give readers hints that her amateur career placed a bit of stress on her marriage. I also wonder, parenthetically, why she doesn’t note that her husband is a lawyer.

There’s so much more to tell here. Note to editors at the New York Times — all you have to do is figure out whether the Liston story belongs in the “Politics” or “Style” sections — and it sort of tells itself. The religion angle, played for “cute” in the Marie Claire essay, also could use a lot more attention. In short, you could argue that the tale of the kitty-collared performer and the lawyer/politician who dreams of the priesthood definitely has legs. So to speak.

Round up the usual suspects (updated)

As my GetReligion colleagues and the media (particularly the Brits, of course) have again and noted this week, again portrayed Pope Benedict’s move to create a personal ordinariate for conservative Anglicans as a bold move to poach members from the world’s third-largest denomination. Terry had praise for a story in the New York Times which noted that accepting Anglican priests into the Catholic Church was by no means without precedent.

If you want a look at the history, here’s how it came down. What Pope Benedict seems to be doing is institutionalizing the process already in existence in the Roman Catholic Church and given a more explicit papal seal of approval by Pope John Paul II.

More interesting, and less explored, is the effects it will have on relations between the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams — or on the Church of England itself, currently in turmoil over the issue of women bishops. For an article with some good gossipy quotes from a former AOC, read this one by Ruth Gledhill. My reaction — nice house, Lord Carey of Clifton!

Enter, stage right, in a commentary in today’s New York Times the church historian, and fiction writer A.N. Wilson. Interesting chap, Mr. Wilson. The last time I remember reading about him, many years ago, he’d lost his faith. But, more recently he announced in an editorial in the Daily Mail that he had returned to Christian faith. Although it’s not directly related to the topic, it adds a fascinating note to a rich and complex brew.

Wilson points out that the Papal embrace of dissidents will allow large groups of Anglicans to cross the Tiber, if their priests are “retrained and reordinained.” I’m not clear that the Vatican has been explicit on that point, although Catholic convert Fr. George Rutler is proclaming it as Gospel. The news clip above is as remarkable for what it doesn’t say as for what it does.

UPDATE: Yeah, I know, this post has been up a bit more than a hour or so. But this commentary, sent to us by a reader in the Washington Post was too good to pass up. In pondering potential changes in Catholic doctrine and ecclesiology as a result of the outreach to Anglicans, commentator David Gibson asserted that Benedict, in making concessions to traditionalists, is actually inauguarating a form of liberalism (change) in the Catholic Church:

…with the latest accommodation to Anglicans, Benedict has signaled that the standards for what it means to be Catholic — such as the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Mass as celebrated by a validly ordained priest — are changing or, some might argue, falling. The Vatican is in effect saying that disagreements over gay priests and female bishops are the main issues dividing Catholics and Anglicans, rather than, say, the sacraments and the papacy and infallible dogmas on the Virgin Mary, to name just a few past points of contention.

I don’t get it. What do Rutler, Wilson and Gibson know that the rest of us don’t? Anglicans have been battering down the door for more than a century trying to get Rome to recognize Anglican orders or a view of the eucharist that is much closer to Catholicism than to most Reformation denominations. In case no one has noticed, Rome hasn’t budged. Is it really possible that Roman Catholicism under a pope with years of experience as doctrinal defender will, within a year or two, make de facto changes that make the church look quite different?

Back to England, where some sort of change is already a given. These paragraphs in Wilson’s commentary are sure to set the cat among the pidgeons:

There is talk in England of as many as 1,000 clergy members taking this offer. Even allowing for the numerical exaggeration, which always occurs when enemies of liberalism congregate, this is a huge potential figure. Let us say 500 Anglican priests and perhaps 10 bishops joined the new arrangement. Let us suppose they took with them plausible congregations. This would deliver a body blow not just to the Church of England, but to that whole intricately constructed and only semi-definable phenomenon, the British Establishment.

Ah, there’s the rub. Over at the Reuters blog FaithWorld, editor Tom Heneghan has detailed the reasons why the new model might present challenges for some Anglicans. But it could be most appealing to British Anglo-Catholic conservatives appalled by the fruit of the decision to ordain women, first as priests, and now as bishops.

For Wilson, the perfect storm means the end of the Church of England — and an opportunity for the country to embrace its secular identity. That’s a good thing, he argues.

How will it all work? Will the English Catholics, always hard pressed for cash, be in a position to take over the running of our medieval churches? What will happen to the cathedrals? As fewer and fewer real Christians exist in England, will the church buildings be taken over by some secular conservation group like the National Trust? Probably. And for the 55 million or so Britons who don’t regularly attend services — some 90 percent of the population — it is all rather unimportant.

But it is nevertheless a landmark. The Church of England has been the religious expression of that independent national identity which signaled the rise of Britain as a significant world power. Hatched by Henry VIII and nurtured by his daughter Elizabeth I, the Church of England was an expression of that combination of tolerance and arrogance that marked the English governing class. It sat light to doctrine, and tried to accommodate many. But while that seemed a gentle thing to do, it did so because it actually laid claim to governing and controlling all.

I had to grin when I read “sat light to doctrine” — that’s a good way of summing up more than 500 years of controversy and muddle, or, in a more positive note, “via media.”

Clearly, we can’t tell if Wlison’s dire prediction is correct. It’s a compelling one. And it’s rather too bad that the media hasn’t spent more time examining the actual effect this is going to have on the country where Anglicanism was born. Is the sun truly setting on this last vestige of empire? Brew up some tea, put out some biscuits and think about it. Or perhaps you’d like something stronger. And then please get back to us.

In the name of the Fathers

Albert_Chevallier_Tayler_-_St_Francis_1898

As you can see from the numerous posts on media coverage of the pope’s outreach to conservative Anglicans this past week, clerical celibacy has been a subplot (not solely fostered, but certainly abbeted by a speculative press). And then there is of course, the shadow side we have seen covered before — the sex abuse scandals of the past 25 years. These involve mostly pederasts — clergy abusing children.

But there’s another angle to this story — Catholic clergy who have affairs with women, which is what was so fascinating about the now-Episcopal Father Alberto Cutie. Without minimizing the drama of that soap opera, it didn’t wrench at your heartstrings in the same way as the story of Pat Bond, her son Nathan Halbach and his father — a Franciscan priest, Henry Willenborg. One big difference — Fr. Cutie isn’t a Catholic priest anymore. Although suspended, Fr. Willenborg, with a 22-year-old son, still is. Which leads, of course, to the question

This story hit the top of the “most emailed list” on the New York Times website, so it had an impact on some readers. It certainly did on me. Read the story before you read this post and then see how you feel.

There is no question that this is a powerfully moving piece –it is one that almost tells itself. But how well does religion beat journalist Laurie Goodstein do at giving us perspective and context, given what she has to work with? Here’s the nub of the story:

The relationship between Ms. Bond and the priest is hardly unique. While the recent scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church have focused on the sexual abuse of children, experts say that incidences of priests who have violated sexual and emotional boundaries with adult women are far more common.

Clergy members of many faiths have crossed the line with women and had children out of wedlock. But the problem is particularly fraught for the Catholic Church, as Catholics in many countries are increasingly questioning the celibacy requirement for priests. Ms. Bond’s case offers a rare look at how the church goes to great lengths to silence these women, to avoid large settlements and to keep the priests in active ministry. She has 23 years of documents, depositions, correspondence, receipts and photographs relating to her case, which she has kept in meticulous files.

Those files reveal that the church was tightfisted with her as she tried to care for her son, particularly as his cancer treatments grew more costly. But they also show that Father Willenborg suffered virtually no punishment, continuing to serve in a variety of church posts.

This case is unusual in that both Bond and Halbach went public with actual agreeements, thus providing documentation for the last paragraph (at least from Bond’s side of the story). But it’s the two paragraphs before that call out for documentation. As tragic as this story is, is there an even bigger narrative, focused clergy who have affairs with women (or men, for that matter) and aren’t forced to resign their position? Are we talking a few bad apples or a subculture?

Huge journalistic questions, made more difficult by the interests of many concerned in keeping this kind of affair quiet. It’s no accident that the story appeared in the New York Times, not a smaller media outlet.

Willenborg has now come to the attention of the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests and of Diogenes, a conservative Catholic commentator (among many others, see this comment on the website of the more liberal Commonweal).

Why hasn’t the media, particularly the Roman Catholic press, spent more time on this issue, if it is indeed more common that we’d like to think? On the other hand, when Protestant figures are caught with their pants down, the media seems to dwell on the particulars of the acts rather than trying to examine the surrounding culture of the parish or the denomination. That doesn’t serve much of a purpose beyond titillation.

In that respect, by taking a pretty thorough look at all the players, Goodstein does a real public service. She enables readers to understand how such a scandal could have occurred — and remain hidden in plain sight for more than 20 years.

In a brief follow-up story published days after this compelling one, Goodstein wrote that Willenborg has now been suspended by the diocesan bishop. This paragraph grabbed me:

The bishop said he had been warned by Father Willenborg’s superiors that The Times would report that Father Willenborg had fathered a son. But he said he decided to suspend the priest after reading accusations in the article that the priest encouraged the woman to have an abortion the first time she became pregnant by him, and had sex with another woman who was young enough to be in high school

No kidding. Can readers assume that if the bishop knew only that Willenborg had a son supported by the Franciscans, he would have been alllowed to stay in his parish? And one can’t help but ask whether keeping a man like Willenborg in various positions, as the Franciscans apparently did, is in part a result of the Catholic Church’s shortage of priests.

No doubt Catholic advocacy groups are going to be asking some of the larger questions in days to come. Although getting solid answers is not easy, for legal and cultural reasons, understanding the context is essential for readers who have enquiring minds and want to know if this is just one appalling story — or part of a bigger one.

Picture of St. Francis is from Wikimedia Commons

Seven years of scandals? Try 25

Sunday evening the Catholic diocese of Wilmington, Del. filed for bankruptcy protection — just ahead of the start of Monday morning trials to weigh the claims of potentially hundreds of victims of clergy sex abuse. This is big news here in the United States — and also abroad. As in the Irish Times article just referenced, it is being treated as a business story as well as, if not more, than a religion story.

But the writer of the Telegraph article seems to have suffered a spot of hopefully temporary amnesia.

“This is a painful decision, one that I had hoped and prayed I would never have to make,” the Rev W. Francis Malooly, the bishop of the diocese, said in a statement on the diocese’s website.

Wilmington is the seventh US Catholic diocese to seek bankruptcy protection since the church abuse scandal erupted seven years ago in the Archdiocese of Boston.

The Wilmington diocese covers Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and serves about 230,000 Catholics.

Well, no. The sexual abuse scandals, or the revelations and lawsuits and victim’s rights movements, didn’t begin to erupt seven years ago. If you want an official beginning, one where the press really began to pay attention, it would be with the charges and trial of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe in a small Louisiana community more than 25 years ago. Read that story (or this article), and you get what was a fresh look at the tragedies whose repercussions have at intervals rocked the Catholic Church since.

Part of what’s going on in the Wilmington story is that the state allowed for a two-year lifting of the statute of limitations moratorium on sex abuse cases against the diocese. So some of the claims may indeed be decades-old, as this Baltimore Sun article points out:

The Wilmington diocese faces a flood of litigation unleashed by the Delaware Child Victims Act of 2007, which opened the two-year window during which individuals could file claims no matter how long ago the abuse was alleged to have occurred. The window closed in July.

In Maryland, where Archdiocese of Baltimore officials said earlier this decade that 83 priests or men in religious orders had been accused of abuse since the 1930s, repeated attempts to enact similar legislation have been unsuccessful. Without such a law, an archdiocesan spokesman said, a bankruptcy filing here is unlikely.

Of course, the “local” press would have a strong interest this story — and because some of the accused clergy apparently were also in Maryland parishes, the Sun includes the local angle. One question I haven’t seen addressed is what influenced the state of Delaware to lift the statute of limitations — while Maryland did not? As well as the ethical ones, there are most likely financial and political ones.

Let me give a cheer for the home team (oh yes,can you believe our Phillies?) and argue that the combo by Godbeat pro David O’Reilly and colleague Mari Schafer in the Philadelphia Inquirer explores thoroughly many of the important facets of this complex story. O’Reilly and Schafer dig pretty deep into the business angle, and offer a few bits of information I didn’t see in other pieces — including this:

Several suits also name two religious orders, the Norbertines and the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, and charge that their members abused students at high schools they operate within the diocese.

Only the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington Inc. is seeking reorganization under Chapter 11. Its parishes are legally distinct corporations under state law, although a state superior court is due to rule on whether parish property can be included as part of the diocese’s assets.

The implications of these lawsuits could be profound, not solely for the diocese, but for parishes and these two religious orders (my daughter attended a Norbertine-supervised parochial elementary school). In a small diocese, with a large amount of potential victims, the possibilities of multiple judgements against the diocese could change the face of Catholicism in Delaware.

So it’s good that the writers also spoke to lay Catholics — although no one who allegedly was abused. If the article had focused solely on lawyers and spokespeople, it would seemed even more like a giant chess game than it is already. However, it would have been good if a writer had interviewed a parish priest, or a brother in a monastery. How is he feeling as his diocese, and his brother clergy, go through another trial in the court of public opinion?

Sadly, what sometimes gets lost in these stories is the humanity, not only of the alleged victims, but of the clergy, the alleged perpetrators, and yes, of the lawyers — not to mention laypeople in parishes where their “Father” might have been an abuser. If the Wilmington story continues to be covered mostly as a business deal (which it is) and the psychological and spiritual angles are omitted, it may be an indication of the fact that we’ve been hearing these awful tales for almost a quarter-century. But that still won’t make it right.

Did she see the light?

K260_1_004iheardeathexperience

Near-death experiences, phenomena that cross national, gender, age and religious lines, are a subject of great fascination to many here and around the world. The Amazon.com website has 15,908 possible links for books, starting with the “Big Book of Near-Death Experiences.” Little wonder if, as the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) says on its website, studies in the United States, Australia and Germany appear to suggest four to fifteen percent of the general population has had an NDE.

In the webpages on “key facts” about NDE’s an IANDS writer comments:

Whether happening “truly near death’ or under benign circumstances, the near-death experience contains powerful images and emotions, usually of peace and love though sometimes terror, despair, guilt. An NDE may include an out-of-body experience and vivid perceptions of movement, light, darkness; encounters with deceased loved ones, unfamiliar entities and/or spiritual presences; sometimes a life review, a landscape, a sense of overpowering knowledge and purpose. The aftereffects of an NDE or related experience are enduring, often powerful, and may be life-altering.

The NDE belongs to a larger family of experiences that go beyond the usual limits of space and time and can transform a person’s life and beliefs. They may be called spiritually transformative, conversion, mystical, religious, or transpersonal experiences.

(Italics mine)

As hard as scientists are working to reduce them to a series of logical phenomena, those reporting on near-death experiences seem to have a responsibility to allow for voices that provide religious explanations. What else can one ask of a spiritual experience than that it include spiritual beings, some kind of judgement about one’s life, divine/spiritual beings, and perhaps meeting loved ones who have gone?

But one of the logical fallacies of our day is scientism — the belief that a scientific explanation trumps all other ones. And reporters, given that they depend so heavily on “facts,” are prone to rely on the scientific hypotheses, without providing readers alternate view. In a phenomena which clearly has psychological and spiritual facets, that kind of journalism seems inadequate at best and biased at worst.

One example: a recent story submitted by a reader from the CNN.com website. “Doctor says near-death experiences are in the mind” the headline tells readers. But instead of providing alternative perspectives, the story, by CNN Senior Medical Producer Saundra Young, focuses on the medical and scientific angles, with only the voices of the survivor and a lone doctor providing contrast.

Young leads off with the story of NDE-survivor Laura Geraghty, a school bus driver in suburban Boston. So what exactly happened to her? Dr. Kevin Nelson, a neurologist, has an explanation: it’s all in Geraghty’s head.

“These are real experiences. And they’re experiences that happen at a time of medical crisis and danger,” Nelson said.

Humans have a lot of reflexes that help keep us alive, part of the “fight or flight” response that arises when we’re confronted with danger.

Nelson thinks that near-death experiences are part of the dream mechanism and that the person having the experience is in a REM, or “rapid eye movement,” state.

“Part of our ‘fight or flight’ reflexes to keep us alive includes the switch into the REM state of consciousness,” he said.

During REM sleep, there is increased brain activity and visual stimulation. Intense dreaming occurs as a result.

And the bright light so many people claim to see?

“The activation of the visual system caused by REM is causing the bright lights,” Nelson said.

And really, that’s the only explanation offered. What can Geraghty say to refute what is so clearly obvious? Clearly, the only one who can dispute another doctor is a doctor — and happpily Saunders quotes Dr. Bill O’Callahan, the ER doctor who helped bring Geraghty back to life.

This is tricky territory. Since NDE’s don’t appear to happen to particular faith groups, it’s hard for spiritual leaders to either claim or dispute them. Because we don’t know what they mean, do we? And yet there are probably many theologians, and certainly many New Age practitioners, who could add another facet to the dialogue.

Given the writer’s perspective, the ending of this article really doesn’t surprise me.

Geraghty says she became depressed once she left the hospital because her perspective on her entire life changed. She still gets depressed, she says, and is on medication.

“I actually went to my doctor and said to her, ‘I think I’m losing my mind. This can’t be really happening,’ you know, and she said it’s OK, it’s very hard to understand when you’ve been through an experience like that.”

Geraghty has joined the cardiac arrest group, hoping that connecting with others who understand what she’s been through will allow her to come to terms with what happened to her that cool spring day six months ago. And allow her to heal and move on.

Of course she needs to “heal and move on” — because, after all, there is no other alternative. Or if there is, we don’t hear about it. In an age in which everything will eventually be explained, science rules.

Is Mrs. Eddy in the House? Senate?

NuRRDayPicESo sad, and so predictable.

Another “faith-healing” tragedy. Another dead child. Another newspaper article.

As tmatt noted in a recent post on a case where parents were sentenced for allowing their ill daughter to die, sometimes the media doesn’t recognize that there as “church-state” facets to a story where “faith-healing” is the obvious lede.

As he noted, it’s not clear sometimes when the government has a right to step in and intervene if a child appears to be in danger — even supposing that state and local governments were that effective. Which we know they often aren’t, from news accounts of atrocities against children that local or state agencies didn’t catch.

If parents were sentenced and jailed for stupidity or poor medical care, there wouldn’t be room for most of the other criminals. And, as tmatt also pointed out, you can’t stop faith-healing parents from having children.

I can see why reporters have a hard time covering the bases on these stories, but it doesn’t serve readers well when they don’t give some broad context.

Keep the church-state angle in mind when you read this article in Philadelphia’s Daily News a few days ago on the death of a two-year-old boy from bacterial pneumonia. The Daily News, a feisty tabloid with some excellent writers, is viewed as the Philadelphia Inquirer’sworking-class sister — and has less space to get into details.

What’s interesting here is what isn’t said, in spite of the headline — the defense apparently isn’t going to argue religious freedom, but well -intentioned, clueless (he had a cold) parenting. Note also that it seems like the parents have hired two lawyers — I don’t know if this is routine, but it could become ugly.

Here are a few of the facts:

After the two attorneys representing the Schaibles argued for their innocence, Municipal Judge Patrick Dugan held them for trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter, conspiracy to commit involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child.

“When you look at this case, it’s obvious that what you have are loving parents who also appear to be misguided,” Dugan told the couple. “Your child needed medical care. As parents, that’s what your duty is, and that’s why you are here in court today.”

The Schaibles’ case is similar to a growing number around the country in which parents are slapped with criminal charges for turning to religion rather than medical care for sick children who later die.

Herbert Schaible, 41, and Catherine Schaible, 40, of Rhawn Street near Bustleton Avenue, are free on bail and will be arraigned on Oct. 28.

They are members of the First Century Gospel Church, in the Northeast, which believes that the sick can be healed through prayer rather than by medicine, according to statements that the couple gave homicide detectives two days after their son’s death.

I’m not sure what author Mensah M. Dean means here by “growing number across the country.” Perhaps Dean means that prosecutions in such cases are growing, but doesn’t give readers any evidence. Upon first scrutiny, it appears that Mrs. Schaible’s attorney is going to argue not that the state is unfairly infringing on the Schaible’s role as parents, but that they are being punished for having different beliefs.

Francis Carmen, Catherine Schaible’s attorney, said that the couple’s decision to forgo medical attention was not due to their religion, but because they thought Kent had a cold.

“The commonwealth wants to use [the Schaible's] religious beliefs as a self-fulfilling prophecy that, somehow, because they are different and because they exercise religious beliefs that are not necessarily in line with the majority of us,” he said, “that is the cause of them failing to recognize that this child was as ill as he was.”

There are a lot of provocative quotes and hints in this article, but not enough background to give us a sense of where this case is going — and given that the little boy just died, that may be too much to expect.

There has been some coverage of the Catholic bishops and the health-care bill. Well, a story written by Letitia Stein and posted on the Tampabay.com website last week brought new light to another little-covered front in the healthcare debate — the effect mandating health insurance would have on possibly shifting those volatile church-state benchmarks.

Some of the bills advancing in the House and Senate would exempt religious objectors from mandates to obtain health coverage. More controversial is Christian Science’s wish to see its prayer-based healing approach covered like conventional medical treatment. And they want spiritual options to be available to all Americans, not just those who follow their religion.

“It’s so important that anyone in this country, not just Christian Scientists, not be discriminated against because they use spiritual care or rely on it instead of conventional medical treatment,” said Phil Davis, who manages media and legislative affairs for Christian Scientists globally.

The Church of Christ, Scientist does not require its members to forgo medical treatment but promotes prayer as a route to healing, a philosophy rooted in the healing ministries of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know about you, but a lot of the information Stein gives readers was news to me. Did you know that John Kerry (Democrat of Massachusetts) and Orrin Hatch (Republican of Utah) were involved in advocating for bills that would support the goals of those who practice Christian Science and perhaps other prayer-based denominations (it’s not clear exactly what they are supporting)? I wish Stein had dug deeper into whether the bills allow for services not connected to mainstream medical care.

Voters may be interested in learning more about the possible religious exemptions and their implications. Why aren’t those politicians and practitioners who advocate for religious exemptions, and faith healing (or mind healing) as alternative medicine getting more attention from the media? Is there conviction behind their stances, and if so, what is it?

If members of Congress are considering allowing payments to Christian Science counselors, it’s difficult not to wonder what other practitioners will ask to be reimbursed, too. This article was a good start in highlighting some of the issues — but as the health care bills get debated I hope we see more coverage to determine if, in fact, the goalposts for church state relationships and faith vs. science are indeed being moved by our lawmakers.