Burying hellish news

hellStop the presses! Pope Benedict XVI says he believes that Jesus Christ was a real person and that he died for our sins and that he was raised from the dead and is alive today! Oh, and he also believes hell is a real place and not some symbol intended to stir up Christians!

This piece by Richard Owen of The Times does contain some genuine news, but the breathless headline “Pope says hell and damnation are real and eternal” lacks the all-important news hook.

The news in this story isn’t that Benedict is speaking in what seems to be an informal style, but that it signals a more significant change in the Vatican’s theological pronouncements:

Addressing a parish gathering in a northern suburb of Rome, the Pope said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to “admit blame and promise to sin no more”, they risked “eternal damnation — the inferno”.

Hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more”.

The Pope, who as cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was head of Catholic doctrine, noted that “forgiveness of sins” for those who repented was a cornerstone of Christian belief.

My favorite part of this story is when Owen calls up the Pope’s representatives at the Vatican for a clarification of his words. We’re told that Benedict was “speaking in ‘straightforward’ language ‘like a parish priest.’” The Pope also wanted to “reinforce the new Catholic catechism,” which says that hell should be understood physically rather than symbolically.

Perhaps the news in this story is buried at the bottom?

In 1999 Pope John Paul II said heaven was “neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but that fullness of communion with God, which is the goal of human life”.

Hell, by contrast, was “the ultimate consequence of sin itself. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy”.

In October the Pope indicated that limbo, supposed since medieval times to be a “halfway house” between heaven and hell, was “only a theological hypothesis” and not a “definitive truth of the faith”.

So rather than writing that the Pope believes that hell is a real place, tell us how this type of statement signifies a change in the Vatican’s position on the afterlife. And what does this mean, since John Paul appointed him the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

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Separation of mosque and cab

muslimcabYou don’t have to read GetReligion long to realize that the writers here appreciate the work of Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times. We verge on being fans.

So with that in mind, please consider my following comments about her new piece that ran with the headline “Faith and work collide in Minneapolis — Somalian immigrants create a stir by declaring certain jobs offensive to Islam.”

The story focuses on the fact that many Muslim cab divers are refusing to serve customers who are carrying alcohol in visible containers or who have the smell of alcohol on their clothing or breath. This raises legal questions about religion and discrimination in the workplace. This leads us to the following summary material:

Federal law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs — so long as that doesn’t place an “undue burden” on the business. Defining undue burden, however, can be tricky. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission handled 2,541 complaints of faith-based discrimination last year, up nearly 50% from a decade earlier.

Last fall, the Minneapolis transit authority cited the reasonable accommodations law in promising not to assign a driver to buses that carried ads for a local gay and lesbian magazine called Lavender. The driver had objected to the ads — which carry the slogan “Unleash Your
Inner Gay” — on religious grounds.

The law has also been used to aid Muslim employees. Managers often allow Muslim workers to schedule their breaks to coincide with the five-times-a-day prayer. Target last week reassigned its Muslim cashiers to jobs that don’t require handling pork, such as stocking shelves. Other chains have also made such accommodations.

But the taxi driver dispute has resisted easy solutions. About 70% of the more than 900 drivers licensed to work at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are Somalian immigrants, spokesman Patrick Hogan said. In the last five years, 4,854 passengers have been denied
service because they carried alcohol.

Now that is a big story, and Simon tells it with her usual array of interesting voices and telling details.

However, I was struck by that reference to a 50 percent rise in faith-based discrimination complaints in a decade. That raised some questions. I wanted, for example, to know more about the rights of employers, as well as employees. To some degree, relationships in a workplace are a “voluntary association” and employers have rights too.

Also, this cab case called to mind the recent struggles of Catholic doctors to practice their faith in the office, as well as at church. And what about those cases involving conservative Christian pharmacists? Finally, I work in a global network of Christian colleges and universities, and there are those who doubt whether these institutions should be allowed to consider doctrinal and moral questions when hiring (and firing).

So when I finished Simon’s story, I immediately wanted to know where some of America’s religious liberty groups — on the left as well as the right — stand on the cab dispute in Minneapolis. I mean, religious liberty is often a messy business. But it beats all the alternatives.

I hope Simon’s editors let her dig into this story again and aqain.

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Ave Maria delivers (headlines)

Ratzinger and FessioAlan Cooperman was understated on Sunday in covering conflicts between Thomas Monaghan and Joseph Fessio, S.J., the founding chancellor of Monaghan’s Ave Maria University in southwestern Florida. Monaghan abruptly dismissed Fessio (a former student and longtime friend of Pope Benedict XVI) as chancellor of the school, then brought him back within 24 hours as theologian in residence.

Monaghan has become a primary bete noir for the cultural left because he is (1) rich, as the founder of Domino’s Pizza; (2) A conservative Roman Catholic who affirms his church’s teachings on sexuality and abortion; and (3) Determined to share much of his wealth to with pro-life movement and Catholic-centric causes. Janeane Garofalo’s character in Reality Bites warned her friends way back in 1994 about the evils of eating Domino’s Pizza. (Pro-choicers who believe in pizza choices can relax: Monaghan sold his controlling interest in the chain four years later.)

No coverage of the conflicts makes clear just what led to Fessio’s dismissal, but NBC2.com referred to a post on the anti-Monaghan AveWatch, which links to several of its own critiques of Ave Maria under Fessio’s leadership.

Monaghan and Fessio are both headstrong, visionary men. As California Catholic Daily reported on Thursday:

Departing Ave Maria is not the first of Fessio’s peregrinations. In March 2002, his Jesuit superior, the provincial, Father Thomas Smolich moved Father Fessio from his longtime base in San Francisco to Santa Teresita Hospital in Duarte in what some considered a punitive move. After University of San Francisco president Father Stephen Privett changed the character of the Saint Ignatius Institute, founded by Fessio, he started the now defunct Campion College in a building nearby the university. Seeing Campion, perhaps, as a competitor to the Institute, Father Smolich ordered Father Fessio to cease all ties to the college and assigned him to work as a chaplain at Santa Teresita Hospital.

The Naples Daily News has covered the dispute especially well, and this page includes a photo gallery about Fessio, from a cornerstone-laying ceremony one year ago to images of students upset about his dismissal.

The conflict between Fessio and Monaghan feels similar to the very public falling out between Richard John Neuhaus and the Rockford Institute. Monaghan’s detractors are no more likely to cheer for Fessio, who is just as committed to the church’s teachings on sexuality. Indeed, some reporters asked whether Fessio’s recent remarks on homosexuality could have led to his dismissal. It’s difficult to imagine that the remarks would have bothered Monaghan.

As this latest conflict makes clear, Monaghan will stay in the glare of public scrutiny as he builds Ave Maria. But as Peter Boyer’s remarkable New Yorker profile of Monaghan (abstract) made clear, that’s not likely to slow him down.

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That complex, bookish pope letter

1595641 A Sunday blessing from the Pope at StPeters RomeDear Roman Catholic readers of GetReligion:

I feel your pain. Truly, I do.

Some of you have written to me to express your dismay about the mainstream media’s coverage of the new theological document released by that complex, bookish fellow named Pope Benedict XVI. In particular, I realize that you are upset about the focus taken in the first few paragraphs in the story published by the only newspaper that really matters, The New York Times.

Thus saith the powers that be, through their scribe Ian Fisher:

Pope Benedict XVI strongly reasserted on Tuesday the church’s opposition to abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage, saying that Roman Catholic politicians were “especially” obligated to defend the church’s beliefs in their public duties.

“These values are non-negotiable,” the pope wrote in a 130-page “apostolic exhortation,” a distillation of opinion from a worldwide meeting of bishops at the Vatican in 2005.

“Consequently, Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce laws inspired by values grounded in human nature.”

Now, I want you to stop and think about this for a moment.

I know that you all realize that the ghost of Sen. John Kerry the non-confessional Catholic looms over this story. You are also smart enough to know that the odds are 10-1, or better, that the next Democratic Party candidate for president is either going to be a liberal United Methodist or a member of the United Church of Christ. Meanwhile, the leading GOP candidate — at this hilariously early point in the race — is a thrice-married Roman Catholic who is pro-abortion rights and pro-gay rights.

You know the odds are good that every journalist who receives a paycheck from the Times knows all of this.

So what did you expect the newspaper to put at the top of this story?

pope inaugural 1Did you really expect them to focus on the main contents of a document titled “Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful on the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission”?

You also knew that mainstream newspapers would focus on another part of this authoritative text:

In the document, the pope also repeated that celibacy remained “obligatory” for priests. In the 2005 meeting, numerous bishops lamented the shortage of priests in many parts of the world, opening a rare public debate about possible limited changes, such as allowing married deacons to ascend to the priesthood.

But Benedict ruled out any such changes. “I reaffirm the beauty and importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Kingdom of God,” he wrote.

Both of these subjects had to dominate the early reports. You know that.

That isn’t the important question. The important question is whether editors at the Times realize that they have missed the sections of the exhortation that are, at the level of pews and altars, the most controversial — the heart of the document focusing on worship and liturgy. If you want to create a tornado in a bunch of Catholics, start messing with the liturgy and, especially, start talking about Latin.

Yes, it is important to look ahead to the question of what conservative Catholic bishops will have to say about Rudy Giuliani and Holy Communion. But it is also important to ask if there will be another Times story about the heart of this document. Until then, everyone will have to read all the fine details at Amy Welborn’s Open Book. You can also visit Ruth Gledhill’s blog at The Times of London.

So hang in there and let me know if you see any stories in the next few days by reporters who “get” liturgy.

Sincerely,

tmatt

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Baptist Press tries a GetReligion story

SMALL CarlaCoverLike it or not, digital technology and blogging software have raised up armies of freelance media critics, many of whom are dedicated to taking potshots at the principalities and powers in the mainstream press.

That is part of what we do here at GetReligion, although we also try to praise the solid Godbeat reporting that we see.

A few days ago, the national Baptist Press — the news wire for the largest non-Catholic flock in America — published a column by Kelly Boggs, editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, that marched boldly into territory that we usually cover here at GetReligion. Here is the opening:

Imagine a prominent conservative Christian publicly announcing that he has renounced heterosexuality and will henceforth and forever be homosexual. Add to the scenario the leader declaring he is dedicated to promoting the glory of gayness and encouraging others to become homosexual. Now try to imagine the mainstream media ignoring such an announcement.

Try as I might, I cannot, for the life of me, imagine the mainstream press failing to report such news. Instead, there would be a media firestorm. The news would spread fast and furious from sea to shining sea …

If the mainstream media types would be quick to pounce on the news of a Christian leader coming out of the closet, and I believe they would, do you think they would be as eager to cover a prominent homosexual activist who embraced Christianity and renounced his or her homosexuality?

To make a long story short, Boggs wants to know why we’re not seeing mainstream coverage of the decision by former gay activist Charlene E. Cothran, editor of Venus magazine, to embrace Christianity and renounce her life as a lesbian.

This has also, needless to say, had a major impact on her magazine and its leadership role among African-American homosexuals. Let’s put it this way — her cover article in the February issue is titled “Redeemed! 10 Ways to Get Out of the Gay Life, If You Want Out.” Boggs focuses on these quotes from Cothran:

Over the past 29 years of my life I have been an aggressive, creative and strategic supporter of gay and lesbian issues. I’ve organized and participated in countless marches and various lobbying efforts in the fight for equal treatment of gay and lesbians.

… But now, I must come out of the closet again. I have recently experienced the power of change that came over me once I completely surrendered to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Once again, the question for Boggs is why this story isn’t getting mainstream ink. I think that’s a good question, but there might be complicating factors.

For starters, some would argue that Cothran isn’t a national figure. Thus, her change of heart and life isn’t a mainstream story. However, she was a leader in a highly symbolic and newsworthy niche — the much-discussed world of black gays and lesbians. It is clear that her magazine was important in those circles.

Thus, this story is already receiving major attention in gay periodicals. The New York Blade, for example, openly alleges that Cothran “sold her soul” to right-wing homophobes in the black church and in the world of Christian outreach ministries to homosexuals seeking to change their lives. Why would she do such a thing? To raise money to save her struggling magazine.

venusMeanwhile, the more interesting story in the gay press is at Windy City Times, which published a question-and-answer piece by reporter Amy Wooten that, among other things, notes that Cothran’s standing with the black church does not appear rock solid — at least not yet.

Also, Wooten writes:

Cothran does not consider herself to be a spokesperson … for the so-called ex-gay movement. “I consider myself to be a spokesperson — if I am a spokesperson — for Jesus Christ,” she told Windy City Times, adding that she has applied to three universities and is prepared for seminary training.

Until Venus recently changed its mission and direction, the publication, at times, covered stories about the ex-gay movement. “I remember the stories we did on ex-gay movements [laughs] in Venus years ago,” Cothran admitted. “I understand our community’s view of the ex-gay movement. My personal testimony has been skewed by their view of the ex-gay movement as I know it to be.”

. . . Condemning or vilifying lesbians and gays is something Cothran doesn’t think of herself as doing. “It’s offering a way out through Jesus Christ and prayer for those who desire a way out. And I am getting letters from those who desire a way out.”

While I cannot find any mainstream coverage on the Cothran story, it is interesting to note that the Bible of Blue America has published a provocative piece on the work of so-called “ex-gay ministries” — a label that few people who back that cause embrace. Cothran isn’t in this story, but she could have been.

The headline on the New York Times article by reporter Michael Luo is sure to anger people on both sides of the issue: “Some Tormented by Homosexuality Look to a Controversial Therapy.”

The story itself is sure to raise eyebrows, too. Clearly, some people have, through counseling and prayer, been able to make changes to one degree or another in their sexual lifestyles. Others appear unable to do so. A story that reports both sides of that equation — which is what Luo does — is sure to be seen as heresy by some people on both sides.

Although the scientific community cannot say definitively what determines sexual orientation — whether it is nature or nurture — most mainstream mental health professionals dismiss attempts to eradicate homosexual desires or to change someone’s sexual orientation as quackery that is potentially harmful.

Gay rights advocates say the efforts only provide additional fodder for homophobia. Mental health experts say there is no proof that sexual reorientation therapy, as it is often called, works. Meanwhile, they argue, the damage it can inflict on self-esteem, triggering depression and even suicide, is well documented.

“There’s not a debate in the profession on this issue,” said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist and former chairman of the Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychiatric Association.

Now, raise your hand if you are surprised that this is what the former chair of the Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues of the American Psychiatric Association thinks about this issue. No surprise there. This is something like asking folks at Focus on the Family for their opinion on the moral standing of gay marriage — you already know the answer to that one.

But Luo’s story features the views of many other people and notes the presence of these counseling centers among Protestants, evangelicals, Jews, Mormons, Catholics and elsewhere. It’s a good story. I hope that people on both sides of the issue read it — including people in newsrooms. It’s called journalism.

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Rudy Giuliani: the leading GOP candidate

Rudy GiulianiI woke up the other morning and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani was the Republican front-runner for the 2008 presidential race. How in the world did that happen? Heavy media coverage of “Rudy’s rise” came in over the weekend — first in a Washington Post A1 piece by Dan Balz and second in a Newsweek cover article by Jonathan Darman.

As an aside, does it look like Newsweek and the Post look at each other for direction in terms of stories? The whole Army medical centers scandal was on the cover of Newsweek at the same time the Post was rolling out its expose. I know they’re owned by the same company, but aren’t their news budgets kept separate? As Terry pointed out to me, maybe spouses talk at night.

Anyway, back to America’s Mayor. The big question for journalists covering his candidacy is whether Giuliani can garner the support of religious conservatives, who have come to be defined as the core of the GOP. There are two sources of disgust most religious conservatives would have for Giuliani. One is his views on the culture wars. Supporting abortion rights and gay rights isn’t going to win too many friends in Colorado Springs.

The second source, and perhaps more pernicious, is Giuliani’s personal morality. Newsweek‘s Darman drew out that aspect using a quote from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention:

As Giuliani campaigns to protect the country from disaster, he will have to account for calamities from his own past and of his own making. Twice divorced, he has lived a life more to the tastes of New York tabloid editors than evangelical voters in South Carolina. “I can guarantee you that the majority of Southern Baptists will not vote for Giuliani,” says Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “President Truman said he would never hire someone who cheated on his wife, because if a person breaks his marriage oath he could also break his oath of office.”

Giuliani isn’t talking about it either. He is known to be obsessive regarding the coverage he receives and has a history of being combative with reporters. Those covering his campaign should not allow that attitude to keep them from asking questions in this realm, though. Just as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is relevant to his campaign, Giuliani’s personal past, and more obviously his stance on the culture wars, is relevant to his candidacy.

Everyone knows that Giuliani is a no-nonsense kind of guy who likes to get things done. The man doesn’t suffer fools. He is a Catholic. With those factors in mind, how would Giuliani address the question of captured suspected terrorists? What are his views on torture and indefinite detention? Those issues do not rank high right now in the trinity of issues for religious conservatives (abortion, gays and stem cells), but they will come up, and knowing his position on these matters could tip the scales for a segment of the pew vote.

Giuliani also lacks a “compassionate conservative” agenda. This was a hallmark of President Bush’s campaign, and is what drew many religious-minded people to support him and believe he was genuinely one of them. The type of domestic agenda Giuliani is inclined to bring into office has yet to be covered in the big media, but Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam cornered it in a recent piece in The Weekly Standard that brings us the term “respect conservatism”:

Giuliani, by contrast, has always been a “respect” conservative. Delivering safe streets to New Yorkers wasn’t an act of magnanimity, but rather an obligation. And, as Giuliani made clear, citizens and public servants were expected to fulfill their obligations as well. Anyone who failed to abide by this basic contract, whether a petty thief or a police commander who failed to meet crime-reduction targets, would be held accountable.

… An emblematic moment came in July 1999 when Giuliani, increasingly unpopular over a series of police shootings, faced off on his call-in radio program against Margarita Rosario, the mother of a young man who had been shot and killed by two detectives four years earlier. Rather than accept Rosario’s version of events, Giuliani challenged her at every turn, carefully recounting the details of her son’s encounter with the police and his long rap sheet. At one point, he bluntly suggested the blame for her son’s death might lie with her own poor parenting: “Maybe you should ask yourself some questions about the way he was brought up and the things that happened to him.”

It’s difficult to imagine a “compassionate conservative” saying anything like this. And such impolitic honesty helps explain why Giuliani spent much of his second term as an unpopular figure — in spite of plunging crime rates and welfare rolls, and New York’s economic comeback — before 9/11 transformed him into “America’s mayor.” Once Giuliani tamed the ungovernable city, he suddenly seemed too tough and hard-edged even for New York.

Giuliani’s personal life, his views on abortion rights, gay rights and stem cells will get a lot of media attention in the coming weeks as he sorts out what it is like to be the leading GOP candidate for 2008. But reporters could find a wealth of under-covered material in Giuliani’s view of government (why no more compassionate conservatism?) and on the war on terror (to torture or not to torture?) that resonates deeply with large sections of the pew vote.

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A non-gimmicky religion story

p66 John 1 4In an interesting discussion on how religion reporters should handle self-identification when it’s contested, reader Chris Bolinger — a former stringer — made this comment:

As I have written before, what passes for acceptable journalism (or is even praised on this board as stellar journalism) for stories on religion would result in people getting fired if the stories were on sports. Stories on religion often treat readers as if they know little on the subject, whereas stories on sports understand that readers know quite a bit on the subject.

As a huge sports fan, I have to admit that I have become disenchanted with the popular notion that the best writing in newspapers happens on the sports page. They’re quite fun to read if you follow the sport and team in question, but if you don’t, the stories can be confusing or irrelevant. Frank DeFord is still pretty awesome though.

Anyway, I thought of Chris’ comment when I read a local religion story in the Birmingham Herald that is fantastic for its informative details, assumption that the reader isn’t an idiot, and compelling story line.

Reporter Greg Garrison explains how a local pastor helped the Vatican get valuable ancient manuscripts. Here’s how it begins:

It wasn’t exactly “The DaVinci Code,” but a Birmingham priest recently jetted around the world and helped deliver one of the most important documents in Christian history to the pope.

“It contains the oldest copy of the Lord’s Prayer in the world,” said St. Paul’s Cathedral Pastor Richard Donohoe.

Donohoe assisted in the Vatican Library’s acquisition of two rare pieces of papyrus, including the oldest surviving copy of the Gospel of Luke and one of the two oldest copies of the Gospel of John. They were handwritten by a scribe about 200 A.D. and found in Egypt in the 1950s.

Garrison explains how the documents were obtained from the Bodmer Library in Switzerland — with a bit of high-powered fundraising, armed guards and secret negotiations. He speaks with James Robinson, a scholar of ancient biblical documents currently serving at Auburn University. He says the purchase is the most important New Testament biblical manuscript to have survived. He explains that the Bodmer papyri are remarkably complete, too. Who says local stories aren’t exciting?:

They are written in clear, common Greek.

“It’s written in the archaic Koine, the Greek of the streets; that’s what the gospels were originally written in,” Donohoe said. “It’s very easily read. It’s in beautiful condition.”

They are commonly dated to between 175 and 225 A.D. They were able to survive so long because they were preserved in the dry climate of upper Egypt, like the Nag Hammadi artifacts and the Dead Sea Scrolls found in caves in the region.

“Scholars used to think we’d never find anything earlier than 300,” Robinson said.

I love how Garrison turned a basic human interest story about a priest on a mission into something educational and enlightening. Here was a particularly interesting tidbit:

Robinson believes that the documents are from the first Christian monastery, started near Dishna, Egypt, about 320 A.D. by St. Pachomia. Robinson went to Dishna in his research of the Nag Hammadi codices. Dishna is on the Nile River upstream from Nag Hammadi.

The Greek manuscripts date more than a century earlier than the monastery, he said. “These monks were Coptic-speaking,” he said. “How did all these Greek manuscripts get there?”

Robinson theorizes that St. Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria, went into hiding at a Pachomian monastery during one of his many exiles from persecution and took books with him from the great library of Alexandria, which later burned.

The reader who passed this story on thought we might not be interested in it because it’s a good example of writing about religion. It seems a good idea to remind people that we consider highlighting good stories a fundamental part of this blog’s mission. I do note that our positive posts elicit far fewer remarks than our negative ones.

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Why is she Catholic?

prochoicecatholicNew York Times religion reporter Neela Banerjee profiled Frances Kissling who is stepping down as president of Catholics for a Free Choice. The group, which she has been with for almost 30 years, supports abortion and artificial contraception. The Roman Catholic Church has different doctrines.

The headline — “Backing Abortion Rights While Keeping the Faith” — leaves a bit to be desired. As the article points out, Kissling believes she’s keeping the faith. But Catholics who support church teachings on the sanctity of life would certainly disagree. The headline shouldn’t take sides. Imagine if it said “Backing Abortion Rights While Losing the Faith.” At my newspaper we’re not allowed to say we don’t write the headlines since we can disapprove them. But I don’t know how that goes at the Times.

Most articles where the hook is someone leaving a leadership position are a bit fawning for my taste. I remember when Kate Michelman left NARAL Pro-Choice America least year and The Washington Post ran multiple tributes. I’m all for speaking well of the dead, but why must these pieces be so puffy while the subjects are still walking and talking?

Having said that, I actually thought Banerjee’s article was well-balanced and nicely written. Consider how she begins:

Frances Kissling has been called the “philosopher of the pro-choice movement” by her friends and an “abortion queen” by her critics.

But the name Ms. Kissling wears most defiantly, to the consternation of many religious believers, is Roman Catholic. For 25 years, as president of Catholics for a Free Choice, she has angered the church hierarchy and conservative Catholics by criticizing fundamental teachings on sex.

“I’m so Catholic, I can’t get away from it,” said Ms. Kissling, who was once in a convent. “How I construct concepts of life, of justice, it all comes out of being Catholic.”

Catholics for a Free Choice is a group with more political sway than Heathens for a Free Choice because people expect Catholics who emphasize their religion to support church teachings against abortion. A point of debate between Catholics who support church teachings on abortion and those who oppose them is whether it’s accurate for Kissling and her group to claim church affiliation.

Banerjee notes that the group is not well-known among lay Catholics and that it is supported mostly by large secular foundations. Here’s how she sets up the debate in the church surrounding the group:

On Wednesday, Ms. Kissling, 63, will step down from her post, relinquishing her role as one of the most vocal of the so-called bad Catholics, those who manage to accommodate the opposing sentiments of love for the church and anger at much of its doctrine.

“The constant refrain in this office is, ‘Are we really Catholic?’” Ms. Kissling said here in a recent interview. “I know with every ounce of my being that you don’t have to agree with the positions of the church on issues of abortion and contraception to be Catholic.”

Many Catholics passionately disagree. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued statements challenging the right of Catholics for a Free Choice to call itself Catholic. Critics dismiss Ms. Kissling’s organization as a mouthpiece for bigger, secular abortion rights groups and a front for anti-Catholic bigotry.

catholicprochoiceSo far we have Kissling saying that she’s so Catholic, she can’t get away from it, that she constructs concepts of life and justice out of being Catholic and that she doesn’t have to agree with the church about abortion in order to be Catholic. Later on we get other tidbits about Kissling. She is “unequivocal” in her distaste for the church hierarchy.

Yet she left the convent because she disagreed with church teachings on divorce and birth control. That was before she ran an abortion clinic in Pelham, New York. Then there’s this:

“There are days when I think I can’t be a Catholic and that I want to go join a community where I am welcomed, honored, where I can join a parish,” she said. “But in the end, I don’t want to be a Methodist. I’m a member of the greatest religion in the world.”

I love how much religion was included in this profile but I was surprised by the lack of substance in two parts. Considering Kissling’s lack of support for the church and some of its teachings, I wish the article had mentioned her reasons for wanting to stay in the church.

Further, I’m sure both Kissling and her critics in the church have reasons for their positions about whether she is Catholic. Beyond “I know with every ounce in my being that I’m Catholic,” that is. But substantive arguments aren’t mentioned. In the very last paragraph we learn that Kissling isn’t even a member of a parish. That would seem to support the church’s position. But what’s the response of Kissling and her cohorts?

I think it’s an important question to answer because it shows the very real and contentious limits of allowing people to self-identify. This goes double for groups and individuals who claim an affiliation with organizations they disagree with on key issues.

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