When two things collide

When two things collideThe timing couldn’t have been better — or worse, depending on your perspective.

Two major story lines collided Thursday. First there was the news that Republican presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani would declare his support for abortion rights and try to leapfrog states in the GOP primary election that won’t look kindly on that stand. And then within the same news cycle Pope Benedict XVI said that execommunication of lawmakers who act to legalize abortion is appropriate.

The two stories somehow survived on separate tracks in the major newspapers — but not in the minds of commentators and in this Newsday article by Craig Gordon.

My big question is why at least two major news outlets — The New York Times and Time — failed to mention the Pope (or Giuliani’s Catholicism) in their articles on Giuliani’s decision to “offer a forthright affirmation of his support for abortion.”

Newsday asked the question, but we didn’t get much of an answer:

Giuliani himself declined to respond directly to the pope’s comments and wouldn’t answer questions about whether he believed his support for abortion rights could damage his standing in the church.

“I don’t get into debates with the pope,” Giuliani told reporters.

“Issues like that for me are between me and my confessor. … I’m a Catholic and that’s the way I resolve those issues, personally and privately,” he said. “That’s what religion is all about — it’s something that’s between you and your conscience and God and then whoever your spiritual advisers are.”

The article also has some very helpful background info on Giuliani’s approach when he criticized the Vatican for criticizing President Clinton’s veto of a late-term abortion ban in 1996. It’s always good when reporters take public figures to task for unexplained inconsistent positions.

Giuliani’s decision to speak “forthrightly” about his abortion stance changes the story line. His donations to Planned Parenthood are no longer an issue. But his chances of being elected deserve a much closer and analytical look.

Jonathan Chait of The New Republic says that Giuliani is a “dead man walking.” Here’s why:

Candidates have tried hopping primary states, and it usually fails. Sometimes you can hop one state. You can’t hop three.

Giuliani’s best appeal to conservatives will be to convince them that he’s the most electable candidate. But you can’t do that if you lose the first three primaries. By the time February 5 rolls around, he’s going to be buried. Indeed, his campaign might not even exist at that point.

The tricky thing about writing on how Giuliani’s trying skip certain primary states is that the order of primaries has yet to be established. But it’s worth taking a close look at determining exactly what states Giuliani plans to hop over in order and then start determining how the other candidates will perform. It’ll be some tricky calculus, but it could lead to some compelling stories.

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Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

TimeMostInfluentialTerry and I had trouble agreeing on the method of counting religious leaders in “The Time 100: The Most Influential People in the World.” Terry pointed me toward his recent quip about last year’s list:

In a list of 100 men and women who are “transforming our world,” Time editors included 27 “artists and entertainers,” 16 “scientists and thinkers” and many other powerful people. However, the list included only three religious leaders. This is the planet earth we are talking about, right?

I enjoy lists like these primarily as exercises in cheekiness, the journalist’s equivalent of singing “My Favorite Things” off-key and then declaring it definitive. I don’t suffer any illusions that the editors of Time (or Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone) have a foolproof way of determining who should be on a list of the most powerful, or It People or the most important rock & roll songs ever. Lists by magazines are so clearly subjective that they could just as easily be about tastes in cheese, pipe tobacco or kitschy television shows.

I was most interested in identifying the people on this year’s list who are known for embracing — or, in one case, regularly attacking — religious faith. I present the list here and quote from relevant passages in Time. Where I am stretching the boundaries (Sacha Baron Cohen, Rick Rubin), I acknowledge this. I’ve left off Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards, Al Gore, Garry Kasparov, Oprah Winfrey and Queen Elizabeth II because their profiles do not engage questions of faith that could have been engaged).

For the sake of continuity, especially for anyone following along at home in the paper version, I’ll follow the same order as Time‘s package.

Barack Obama:

From his very first moment in the national spotlight — his keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 — Barack Obama has attached himself to the notion of audacity. He spoke that night of the “audacity of hope,” a phrase he borrowed from his minister at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Condoleezza Rice (in a strikingly warm tribute by Democratic consultant Donna Brazile):

Condoleezza Rice knows who she is and remembers where she came from. Early in her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, she brought then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to her home state of Alabama. She took him to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four little girls had been murdered by an act of racist terrorism. She took him to the Civil Rights Institute, the South’s finest museum about its worst embarrassment. And she took him to attend services at the church where her father served as pastor during the turbulent 1960s.

John Roberts (by Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School):

His early decisions and questions from the bench suggest that Roberts has figured out how to achieve substantive results without appearing to be results oriented or activist. He accomplishes this through the technical mechanism of “standing,” which means a litigant’s power to challenge the actions of the government. . . . Roberts’ statements suggest that he would deny standing to citizens who challenge on First Amendment grounds the Bush Administration’s giving money to church groups that proselytize.

[Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei:

The intimates of [Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, call him “the great balancer.” They could as easily call him “the great hedger.” The reticent cleric refuses to make peace with the West but eschews open confrontation. He obstructs democratic reform but holds the country’s most hard-line radicals in check.

Osama bin Laden (a masterpiece of pithiness by Martin Amis, though I do not share his sense that so many moderate Muslims are sympathetic with bin Laden):

What he has is charisma — the visionary smile and a talent for asceticism. Moderate Islam has had to decide whether Osama is a good Muslim or a bad Muslim. That many have opted for the former view owes much to the sacrifices that seem to have been made by this rich but stoic troglodyte.

Pope Benedict XVI:

What makes people rush to this fragile man who speaks softly and politely without moving his hands, without ever acting? Evidently, there is a sort of secret attraction, as if many can sense the fascination of the sacred through the witness of Benedict’s thoughts and his modest and humble life.

Sonia Gandhi:

Imagine if the U.S. were run by an Indian Hindu woman without a college degree. It’s tough: the U.S. has never elected anyone who’s not Christian, white and male — even as Vice President. But India, which is an even bigger democracy, is run in all but name by an Italian Catholic widow with a high school education.

Peter Akinola:

Full schism would be achieved if Anglicanism’s conservative southern provinces decided that even the Anglican Church’s top official, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is too liberal and chose their own leader — perhaps Akinola.

Sir John Templeton:

The native Tennessean, 94, began awarding the annual Templeton Prize in 1972. Valued at more than $1.5 million, it is for those who exhibit “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities,” from philosophers to physicists.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud:

With his $20 billion fortune, he has endowed American studies at Middle Eastern universities, given $40 million to underwrite Islamic studies at Harvard and Georgetown and helped fund the construction of an Islamic wing at the Louvre in Paris.

(Disclosure: John Templeton and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud are mentioned in a sidebar on “Power Givers.”)

[Army Capt.] Timothy Gittins:

Based at Fort Campbell, Ky., the 31-year-old Southern Baptist is devoted to his wife Shelley and their two sons T.J., 6, and Cole, 4. He drinks Bud Light and tries to find time to zoom around on his new Harley.

. . . The Army recently recognized Gittins as one of its most outstanding young officers. The highly decorated Ranger says he loves leading troops in combat. “We have liberties that we stand to lose if we aren’t willing to fight for them,” he says.

Tony Dungy. The tribute by his former colleague and fellow Christian, coach Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears, does not mention Dungy’s faith. But you’d have to live in a cave not to be aware of Dungy’s evangelical Christianity, and I say this as a person whose exposure to professional football is limited to an annual indulgence in the Super Bowl.

Amr Khaled:

At a time when conservative clerics have become primary arbiters of power, Khaled, a layman, has one of the Arab world’s most popular websites; regular shows on Iqra, a Saudi-owned religious satellite channel; and an influence that prompts comparisons with everyone from Dr. Phil to Pat Robertson. But Khaled may be most like Rick Warren, who has built an empire around his “purpose driven life” philosophy.

Richard Dawkins (in the most brilliantly counterintuitive pairing of author and subject, this one is by Michael Behe):

Dawkins had a mild Anglican youth but at 16 discovered Charles Darwin and believed he’d found a pearl of great price. I believe his new book follows much less from his data than from his premises, and yet I admire his determination. Concerning the big questions, the Bible advises us to be hot or cold but not lukewarm. Whatever the merits of his ideas, Richard Dawkins is not lukewarm.

Rick Rubin. Natalie Maines uses her tribute as another opportunity to vent about the angry response to her criticism of President Bush. Still, any Buddhist who shared a daily Holy Communion with Johnny Cash during Cash’s waning months is a figure worth watching.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Roseanne concentrates on Cohen’s comedic talents rather than his observant Judaism, but that’s Roseanne):

The bigot comes to America and insults its most genteel members, agrees with its most ignorant, and sets out to pursue the Big Breasted Virgin Blonde, the real American male dream. He gets broken, abandoned, betrayed and cuckolded, and then born again. And at long last, he finds his true love in the form of a fat hooker with the proverbial Heart of Gold.

. . . The heart of America honored by Arabs, Jews and vice versa, and versa vice! That, as Borat would say, is NIIIICE!!!

Rhonda Byrne (by Jack Canfield):

I first met Rhonda Byrne in July 2005, when she asked if she could bring her film crew to a meeting of the Transformational Leadership Council and interview our members for a movie she was creating called The Secret.

I’ll stop there in Byrne’s item, because to continue would be to drown in a vat of spiritual molasses.

Religious figures also make a few appearances in Joel Stein’s wonderful “Alt Time 100,” in which Stein gathers the collective wisdom of “Xzibit, rapper and host of MTV’s Pimp My Ride; Bridget Marquardt, 1/3 of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend and star of E!’s Girls Next Door; Eddie Sanchez, UFC fighter; Tommy the Clown, krump dancer; Dr. Boogie, hairstylist and contestant on Bravo’s Shear Genius; Jimmy Jimmy Coco, spray tanner; Glenda Borden, party planner.”

Here are some of their choices:

3. Russell Simmons, owner[,] Phat Farm
Simmons appeared on a surprising number of the panelists’ lists. It turns out that’s because most of them knew him. “He’s a really nice guy,” said Bridget Marquardt. I had a chance to work and live with him,” said Dr. Boogie. Russell Simmons, despite all the meditation, is not a quiet homebody type.

25. Osama Bin Laden, head of Al [Qaeda]
The panel pointed out that he’s likely to outlast Bush as head of an organization.

28. Jesus
When I made it clear that only living people could make the list, the panel — in loud unison — pointed out that he’s very much alive. There was no talking Jesus off this list.

45. Bono, singer
All that Africa stuff.

48. Rhonda Byrne, author, The Secret
The real Time 100 will probably be nice to Ms. Byrne. But the Alt Time 100 panel was much more honest. Which was striking for a bunch of L.A. celebrities. “People have to watch this to figure that stuff out?” asked Xzibit[.] Still, he wanted her on the list for pulling one over on people so well.

53. Tyler Perry, actor [and friend of T.D. Jakes]
He makes those movies all by himself, basically.

64. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran
“Not because of his mental disabilities, but because he always has a tight blazer on,” explaned Xzibit.

73. Virginia Tech victims’ parents
The group suddenly turned into a group of Time editors. “How do we handle the shooting on the list?” the asked out of nowhere. There was no way they were putting the shooter, even though that seemed the most intellectually honest. At first the victims were considered. Then the grief counselors. Then someone suggested the parents, and everyone was quite pleased. It was exactly like being at a 10 a.m. meeting at Time.

77. Coco Brother, host of Spirit of Hip-Hop
Corey Condry hosts a radio show where he bridges hip-hop with the gospel. And it’s sweeping the nation! Maybe not, but Tommy the Clown thinks it’s important.

90. Barack Obama, senator
A huge hit with the panel. Bridget particularly liked his proposals on health care.

100. Dog the Bounty Hunter, bounty hunter [and self-identified born-again Christian]
Xzibit likes that show. I’m just mad because he was out of town and couldn’t make the lunch.

Grand totals of religion citations:
The Time 100: 17
The Alt Time 100: 10
Inside joke about Time: 1
Clerics: 3
Deity: 1

Thank you for playing, and please visit us again next year!

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Key story behind B16′s Brazil visit

catholics in brazilThere seem to be two dominant story lines coming out of the Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Brazil that began Wednesday. One is that the Pope is facing the lingering spectre of his longtime nemesis — Marxist-inspired social liberation within the Catholic Church — and the other is the Protestant challenge from Pentecostals.

The “rival theology” story, focused on “socialist-influenced ‘liberation’ Catholicism,” has a rich history and is what most people think of when approaching a Latin America religion story. But from what I’ve gathered, this theme is growing tired and is losing its news value. That is not to say that reporters shouldn’t pay attention to that angle, but several media reports have overplayed its significance.

For starters, here’s The New York Times on Monday:

In the early 1980s, when Pope John Paul II wanted to clamp down on what he considered a dangerous, Marxist-inspired movement in the Roman Catholic Church, liberation theology, he turned to a trusted aide: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Now Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI, and when he arrives here on Wednesday for his first pastoral visit to Latin America he may be surprised at what he finds. Liberation theology, which he once called “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church,” persists as an active, even defiant force in Latin America, home to nearly half the world’s one billion Roman Catholics.

Over the past 25 years, even as the Vatican moved to silence the clerical theorists of liberation theology and the church fortified its conservative hierarchy, the social and economic ills the movement highlighted have worsened. In recent years, the politics of the region have also drifted leftward, giving the movement’s demand that the church embrace “a preferential option for the poor” new impetus and credibility.

The key words in that lede are “once called” and “persists.” Exactly how is liberation theology persisting, and how forcefully does Benedict speak out against liberation theology these days?

A Los Angeles Times headline from Wednesday really overstates the case: “Benedict to confront a vast theological divide in Brazil.” Yes, there are differences, but that’s overstating the case just a bit.

For a more balanced perspective, check out the subtitle to this Economist article (sub required) on the visit that sums up nicely the real story behind Benedict’s visit: the growth of Pentecostal churches and its influence on Catholic worship services:

In his first Latin American visit, Pope Benedict XVI will find a less divided church facing stronger rivals

This idea is expounded on later in the piece. The Economist should be commended for treating religion like any other “real world” subject rather than relegating it to a category of non-real-world subjects like The Wall Street Journal has done repeatedly of late (here and here):

The bishops’ conference may be less disputatious than its predecessors. Democracy and the end of the cold war have drawn some of the sting from the arguments between conservatives and progressives. Dom Raymundo says the bishops will reaffirm the church’s preference for the poor, but he insists that social change begins with the transformation of the individual believer. In the coming fights against abortion and the use of embryonic stem cells, the Latin church is probably more united than its North American counterpart. According to a recent poll, just 16% of Brazilians want to change a law that makes abortion illegal unless the mother has been raped or her life is endangered.

That does not put to rest nagging questions about the shape of a church with too few priests to sustain its traditional structure. Benedict will arrive in Brazil fresh from having censured Jon Sobrino, a liberation theologian in El Salvador, for over-emphasising Christ’s humanity. The original draft of the conference guidelines was modified after pressure from the many in Latin America who take a less hierarchical view of the church and want a greater role for the laity. “For us the pope is father and pastor” rather than an “authority figure”, says Carlos Francisco Signorelli, who heads the National Council of Brazilian Laity. In Aparecida, Benedict may reveal how he sees himself.

Now I’m not saying this all to say that these individual stories are a huge problem or anything. Balanced with stories that focus on the huge issue of the growth of Pentecostalism, they’re fine. The LAT did just that in a very long piece on Tuesday:

The pop-idol priest strides to the altar like the star that he is, a rock band pounding away to his right, cameras flashing to his left and the multitudes pulsating in this cavernous ex-factory that serves as a church.

“Hold the hand of Jesus!” Father Marcelo Rossi, a dynamic giant in a red cassock and billowing white sleeves, proclaims into the cordless mike, urging the faithful to hold hands. “God is tops! God is tops!”

Rossi is the kind of priest who just might be able to save the Roman Catholic Church here. Brazil has more believers than any other country, but the church has been steadily losing members to evangelical denominations.

Rossi is also just the kind of priest that Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives here Wednesday, is likely to frown upon.

Covering a story as huge and as fast-moving as a pope’s first major world tour is all about balance. There are more than enough stories that could be told, but the big one is the very threat to the existence of Catholicism in Brazil. According to the Pew Forum, Protestantism in the form of Pentecostals is growing at an amazing pace. That’s going to be the key story worth focusing on.

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Hispanic Catholic renewal 101

OLguadalupeIt’s interesting, whenever the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life releases a new study, to watch the ripples from that data spread out into the work of mainstream newsrooms that take religion news seriously.

Thus, since the Pew team has recently released major studies on faith in Hispanic cultures and the worldwide growth of Pentecostalism, we should continue to look for think pieces on either of these subjects — or both at the same time since they are interconnected.

Take, for example, a Washington Post story by Anthony Faiola that ran with the headline “In U.S., Hispanics Bring Catholicism to Its Feet — The Church Offers Livelier Services for a Growing Constituency of Charismatics.” It isn’t every day that you get to see a feature story that offers both a classic, stereotypical photograph of elderly hands holding a rosary with chunks of prose like this:

Sonia Rodriguez, a 60-year-old Puerto Rican, spun in the aisles as she spoke in tongues. The crowd began frantically waving white napkins in the air to symbolically purify themselves while a preacher began calling down the Holy Spirit. Moments later, one young woman began spasmodically dancing as if in a trance while group leaders rushed to her side with outstretched hands. She finally collapsed into her chair amid a chorus of “hallelujahs” from the congregation.

For some, the charismatic prayer service offered a rare chance to unload their burdens and experiences in the company of compassionate ears. Juana Jaco, a 47-year-old Salvadoran maid, took the microphone to give one of many “testimonies” of personal experiences with God.

“Until last year, I thought I was worthless; my husband beat me, and I hated myself,” said Jaco, who came to the service alone. In tears, she continued: “But then my uncle came to me. He was sick and needed a kidney. I didn’t think twice; I offered him mine. After the operation, we began to pray together, and we both felt God come down and touch us both.”

This is a good piece and, if anything, it left me wanting more — especially on the complex nature of the interaction between Pentecostal beliefs and those of the Roman Catholic Church.

Catholics are, after all, a rather orderly lot at the level of doctrine, faith and practice. The story, for example, makes references to the work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the National Hispanic Committee of Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I laughed out loud when I hit both references. I would think it is rather hard to crunch the work of truly charismatic leaders down into the agenda of your typical bookish Catholic committee.

This is a hard subject to cover, because Pentecostalism is complex. Some of this may have filtered into the story, whether the reporter knew it or not.

hands raised upTake, for example, that language about the preacher “calling down the Holy Spirit.” That is pretty traditional Pentecostal language. There is another reference that doesn’t conflict with this, yet may show signs of Catholic complexity.

To be sure, not everyone in the church — from the leaders to the flock — is comfortable with that shift. Even at the 10 a.m. Mass … many parishioners in the back remained solemn as charismatics in the front pews expressed their faith with great animation. Some charismatic practices remain controversial, including a devotion known as the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The ritual, which varies greatly among charismatic groups, often starts with weeks of reviewing the gospel and culminates in a prayer to “release” the Holy Spirit from inside the soul. At that point, some participants express extreme joy and might begin to speak in tongues.

Pentecostal readers may correct me, but I have never heard charismatic or Pentecostal believers — at least not in a Protestant context — talk about prayers “to ‘release’ the Holy Spirit from inside the soul.” Most of the time, the Pentecostal people that I have known talk about the need to “receive” the Holy Spirit. However, Catholics (and other liturgical Christians) would believe that they received the gift of the Holy Spirit in their original baptisms, usually as infants. Thus, prayers to “release” the Spirit or the gifts of the Spirit?

Yes, this is picky. Also, it would be interesting to explore whether there are tensions between the lay preachers who often drive Pentecostal cell groups and services and the formally trained, committee-friendly priests who are responsible for the official Masses and other rites in these parishes. Faiola hints at this.

Face it, there may be some very tense partners in this great liturgical dance. That’s a subject worth returning to in a future story.

I would also be interested in knowing how Hispanic charismatic Catholics compare with mainstream Catholics when it comes to the practice of the faith — take Confession, for example — and support for the church’s moral and social teachings. This is the rare mainstream story in which the reporter did not try to push the political questions out front, which is to be commended. Still, those questions are important and will be asked sooner or later.

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My truth is that I am a gay Episcopalian

NYPCover Professional team switcher Jim McGreevey is back in the news. He’s the former New Jersey governor who was forced to resign amid charges of sexual harrassment from a male subordinate. McGreevey was married at the time and had been married previously but somehow managed to turn the bad news into a celebration of his newly revealed homosexuality. Now that’s how you spin, kids. He and his wife are divorcing and he plans to get hitched to his live-in male lover. McGreevey claimed, by the way, that he began an affair with his aide while his wife was recuperating in the hospital from a particularly hard labor and delivery. Classy.

Anyway, McGreevey was also a former altar boy in the Roman Catholic Church he claimed frequently to be devoted to. He formally departed that church this past Sunday for, well, the Episcopal Church.

Okay, so the news in this tangled mess of decepion is that McGreevey wants to become a man of the cloth. Here’s how the Daily News put it:

He’s served as New Jersey’s governor, outed himself as a “gay American,” and now he wants to be Father James.

Raised a Catholic, Jim McGreevey has become an Episcopalian and will study at The General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, beginning this fall.

“We are pleased to confirm that he has been accepted to the seminary’s three-year Master of Divinity program,” school spokesman Bruce Parker said in a statement yesterday.

mcgreeveysI really hoped that an enterprising reporter would follow up with Bruce Parker or an Episcopal official about this statement. “Pleased to confirm?” I mean, I understand the Episcopal Church is going through problems, but I’m assuming the seminaries have some standards about who makes a good student or not. And I’m pretty sure that by almost any measure, the red bells of alarm are flashing about this man for this vocation.

Yes, there is a huge divide between the Episcopal Church and its dissidents. They have very different approaches to Scripture and what God has to say about sexuality, marriage and what support should be given to neighbors in their spiritual walk. But that’s why I have two problems with reporters’ failure to query Episcopal leadership about this latest news.

On the one hand, despite what the seminary spokesman says and the general lack of outcry from church leaders here, I suspect that Episcopalians who support their church’s drift might not be enthused about having — at best — a known liar and unrepentant oath-breaker as one of their shepherds. A few of my Episcopal friends said this was the last thing they needed or wanted, but no story I read had quotes from average laypeople.

On the other hand, if the seminary spokesman really is pleased to confirm that this man has been accepted to his program, that simply must be looked at in more detail. Is this really where the Episcopal Church is on the eve of Archbishop Peter Akinola’s visit to the United States? And, if so, that’s proof positive that reporters have been doing a crappy job on this larger story by making it be just about how evil those Northern Virginians are.

The Star-Ledger, which I believe broke the story, had better details than most. Reporters Josh Margolin and Jeff Diamant included more of Parker’s statement, such as his claim that McGreevey had met all of the seminary’s admission requirements and that his application was evaluated by a committee of faculty members, students and the Director of Admissions. They don’t have any details on whether there was any kind of morality requirement or even a requirement that one must have been a member of the Episcopal Church in order to begin the ordination process. On that note, the reporters also explained how the discernment process for becoming an ordained priest is lengthy and has several steps, such as discussions at the parish and diocesan level as well as graduation from seminary. That might shed light on why or how McGreevey was accepted.

mcgreevey bookA few other notes. I thought the Associated Press concisely summed up some of the religious issues at play at the end of its brief report. The New York Post had one article on the issue, which used the McGreevey news as a hook for looking at the larger Anglican divide over homosexuality. In an article about McGreevey’s parish, the Post also had some notable errors and missed opportunities, such as this:

St. Bartholomew’s spokesman Bob Johnson declined to speak directly about McGreevey’s bid for the priesthood, but he said the church first ordained an openly gay priest, Gene Robinson, three years ago.

“In the faith, priests can be gay, they can be women, they can be married, they can be divorced,” Johnson said. “We’re viewed as more liberal. We’re welcoming to all.”

Sigh. Gene Robinson was ordained as a priest in the 1970s. He publicly acknowledged his homosexuality in the 1980s, around the same time he divorced his wife. He was elected a bishop — the first openly gay one on election — four years ago. That gay, female and divorced individuals can be priests in the Episcopal Church is not news. But is that really what is newsworthy about McGreevey? That he’s a twice-divorced man now living with a male partner? Are there any other moral issues at play? If not, why not? And why aren’t reporters asking these questions — at scandal rags, no less? A gay Catholic blogger noted some double standards with how McGreevey’s morality problems are treated by the media. He basically says the media give a pass to all of his moral problems because of his big “My truth is that I’m a gay American” speech. The blogger wrote the post over a week before this news broke, and it’s worth reading.

This story provides the perfect opportunity to look at what morality means in the Episcopal Church. It provides an opportunity to shed light on the larger Anglican divide. It also would be great to use it to look at what contrition means in the church’s postmodern environment.

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Where’s the forgiveness?

confession 01Reporter Jennifer Lebovich had a very interesting article in Sunday’s Miami Herald. She looked at the popularity of online confession websites where people anonymously post their sins or read about the sins of others. She looks at I’ve Screwed Up, GroupHug, My Secret, Daily Confession and the now-inactive Not Proud. Sexual sins are the most frequently confessed, with theft, lying and alcohol abuse following, Lebovich reports.

Lebovich begins with one of the confessions she read about a woman who regrets an abortion she had 18 years ago:

Finally ready to confess, she turned not to a minister, but to her computer.

“I am sorry God for not keeping that baby,” her anonymous confession reads. “I had an abortion and had kept that secret for over 18 years. I feel so ashamed. Please forgive me!”

The confession appears at ivescrewedup.com, a website launched by the Flamingo Road Church in Cooper City. It’s one of a growing number of such sites across the country — some secular and others church-sponsored — that offer a place to spill out ugly secrets or just make peccadilloes public.

“I think it helps people understand . . . that we’re not here to point out people’s screw-ups, that we’re here to help them,” said lead Pastor Troy Gramling, whose nondenominational church launched the site on Easter weekend. “The church is made of skin and flesh and people that have made mistakes.”

The 6,500-member church created the site as part of a 10-week series on the ways people mess up — in marriage, parenting, finances and more. The goal of the series is to help congregants learn from their mistakes.

As I said, very interesting and well-written story. That last line — and many others from the story — gave me pause, however. In churches like mine where private confession is taken very seriously, the reason why people do it before a priest is not primarily to “learn from their mistakes” or confide in someone therapeutically or reveal some past transgression. The primary purpose is to be absolved. When I confess my sins to my pastor, he forgives me in Christ’s stead. Other churches have variations on this, but in the whole “confession and absolution” structure, the emphasis is on forgiveness. As Luther said:

Now mark well what I have said often, that confession consists of two parts. The first is our work and doing, that I lament my sins and desire comfort and renewal of my soul. The other is a work which God does, who absolves me from my sins through His Word spoken by the mouth of man. This is the most important and precious part, as it also makes it lovely and comforting.

Now I know that this is an area where many Christians, particularly many Protestants, have a different understanding of the role of the pastor or priest in regard to forgiveness from God. But as I read the story, the question kept popping up for me: Where or how does forgiveness come into play, if at all? In other words, are these online confession sites more like what you might get from a traditional church’s confession mechanism or more like what you might get from watching Oprah? Does the confessing individual forgive himself? Does the community forgive? Does the magical internet forgive? Here the reporter approaches the question:

The church has received some criticism, Gruenewald said, from people who think that “we’re trying to encourage people to confess to a computer instead of God. We just believe it is a catalyst to have people open up to family and friends and God. I think sometimes it can be misunderstood.”

A recent redesign gave readers the option to post prayers or responses to the confessions.

The Catholic Church is among those who reject the idea of confessing online.

Confession is “the opportunity to confess sins to someone ordained as a priest who is a representative of Christ,” said Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the Miami Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

That quote from Agosta is rather weak in terms of how well it conveys beefs the Roman Catholic Church might have with online confession. It’s hard to know if that is a reporter error or a missed opportunity on the part of Agosta.

But the article goes on to say that the Web sites make people feel better about their own behavior and moral values. I have no doubt that’s true. But that also is a huge dissimilarity to historic Christianity’s private confession and absolution. I’m sure I’m not alone among penitents in being absolutely mortified when I speak my sins out loud and have to confess the same things over and over and over again to my pastor. In traditional churches, the practice of private confession and absolution reminds the penitent how sin separates the believer from God and how merciful God is to forgive us — it isn’t supposed to make us feel better about our sin.

This wasn’t an article about traditional churches but the comparisons being made — from the first lines to the last — were to the practice of private confession and absolution. I wonder if the contrasts between the two aren’t more interesting — particularly how or whether God’s mercy is distributed through the online forum vs. the traditional practice. Perhaps some better questioning of online confession’s proponents or its detractors is in order.

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A scandal in St. Louis

toiletpaper2Singer Sheryl Crow has been in the news recently for her confrontation with Karl Rove and her thoughts that we all need to use less toilet paper. But it was a local story out of St. Louis that caught my attention. Religion reporter Tim Townsend writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a trip the singer was making to St. Louis to raise money for a Catholic hospital that helps children with cancer.

Crow, a Show-Me-State native from Kennett, is also a political activist. She supports abortion rights and stem-cell research that destroys embryos. That position meant her appearance posed problems, according to St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke. After asking — unsuccessfully — that the invitation be rescinded, he resigned as chairman of the hospital foundation board and told area Catholics to think before attending.

I think of all the ways a story like this could have been written and I think that Townsend did a great job of fleshing out the underlying theological views:

For the archbishop, the matter was simple. He had a moral responsibility to avoid the appearance of entangling church teaching and the views of a public figure who supports abortion rights. Burke said he could not allow someone who “publicly espouses the mass destruction of innocent human beings” to raise money for a Catholic hospital.

“What if, for instance, there were someone appearing who we discovered was openly racist and who made statements and took actions to promote racism?” he said at his first news conference in years. “Do you think that I would let that go on?”

Townsend speaks with the chairman of the planning committee for the fundraiser. He slams Burke:

“This event is about helping sick kids,” [Allen Allred] said. “I’m disappointed and saddened there are people in our community who are attempting to use this event to further a political agenda. If we go down that road, do we start asking doctors for their positions on abortion? Do we quiz every single donor what they think of embryonic stem cell research before accepting their money?”

I could be wrong, but I think that many reporters would have approached the story with the same viewpoint as Allred’s, presenting the story as an either/or option of helping innocent, sick children versus upholding church dogma. But Townsend takes the time to get Burke’s response to such accusations:

Burke described the decision as painful. “I have to answer to God for the responsibilities which I have as archbishop,” he said. “For me to remain silent in this situation would be the gravest scandal, because people would get the impression that their spiritual leader also thinks this is just fine.”

The Catholic definition of “scandal” is conduct that incites others to act immorally or do evil. It is a major source of concern for Burke, who has said before that politicians who support abortion rights cause scandal by their positions.

St. Louis readers can agree or disagree with the positions taken by the Catholic hospital’s foundation board or Burke — but a story like this helps encourage understanding of opposing sides, rather than taking cheap shots at piety.

Image from Brandon Blinkenberg via Wikipedia.

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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?

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