It’s not anchorlady, it’s anchorman. And that’s a fact.

womenpriests2A few readers sent along Kim Vo’s Mercury News piece about a renegade group of Roman Catholic women who have been ordained.

The fledgling congregation gathered in a circle at Sunday Mass at Spartan Memorial Chapel to introduce themselves. A woman in a long, white robe spoke first.

“My name is Victoria Rue,” she said. “And I am a Roman Catholic woman priest.”

Rue belongs to a renegade movement that is ordaining women as Catholic priests, in defiance of the Vatican. Today, Rue celebrates Mass at the non-denominational chapel at San Jose State University.

Joining her at the altar on Sundays — also in clerical robes — have been a married man, his wife and another woman. The ceremonies prompted the Diocese of San Jose this month to warn Catholics that the sacraments there would be invalid.

Vo says increasing numbers of women are joining the ordination movement, citing the dozen who will be ordained in Pittsburgh on July 31 as part of a program called Roman Catholic Womenpriests. There are actually a number of groups with historic or current roots in Rome that have ordained women or advocate for it. The history of the Old Catholic Church is particularly interesting for more on this.

The piece is frustratingly low on proper nouns and other specifics, but Vo sums up the church’s opposition in an abbreviated, easy-to-understand way:

The church says the movement is built on a falsehood: Women can’t be priests, so whatever ceremonies they hold are moot.

The women say they’re reforming the church by defying it, hoping to bring about a more inclusive institution that welcomes women, married men and gays in all of its ranks.

Vo says that the program to ordain women gained notoriety when a sympathetic bishop ordained seven women in 2002. She doesn’t mention it but the bishop, Romulo Braschi of Argentina, was not Roman Catholic at the time he ordained the women. She mentions that the women were excommunicated. This is important, so bear with me:

Still, some bishops went on to illicitly ordain two of those women as bishops, and they in turn have ordained other women. Local dioceses say those ordinations are hollow, citing canon law and the Vatican’s actions against the original seven.

Both sides turn to historical precedent and theology to support their views.

The group claims that because the women were initially ordained by bishops in good standing, their own ordinations are valid. Supporters say their stance has precedent in the early church, citing artifacts showing women at the Eucharist table and references to presbytera or episcopa — feminizations for priest and bishop.

Valid ordination is such an important issue in the Roman Catholic church that Vo’s line that “some bishops went on to illicitly ordain two of those women” needs to be parsed. Only bishops can validly administer the sacrament of holy orders. To this day, no one knows who ordained these excommunicated women or whether it even happened. There are no public witnesses. Since she is just taking the women’s ordination people at their word, she should note that. Not that it really matters from a Roman Catholic view, which she just presents as one of two sides in the ordination debate.

Now, as to the line about the women being ordained by bishops in good standing . . . Braschi was ordained in 1966 but left Rome to work with the Charismatic Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. He then, he says, received another ordination from Bishop Roberto Padin, who left the church but whose roots trace back to the 15th century. Braschi says he was ordained again by Jeronimo Podesta, an Argentinian bishop who served a few years in the 1960s before being removed as bishop. He continued to serve as priest until he married in 1972. Braschi also married. But the organizers say he’s a bona fide bishop since he can validly claim apostolic succession — even though the Vatican doesn’t recognize him.

Braschi, for his part, says he never presented himself as a Roman Catholic bishop. Again, not like this matters since Rome doesn’t consider ordinations of women to be valid. Back to Vo:

Polls show that a majority of American Catholics support women’s ordination, he said, but it’s unclear if they would support a maverick movement to bring it about.

What polls are these? I looked a bit and couldn’t find any. Which is why the reporter should specifically name the multiple polls she is summarizing.

Again, though, the presentation of this story fails to educate readers about how little renegade ordination activity really changes the church. As a result, the story reads a bit like a Womenpriests press release.

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Is kneeling really a mortal sin?

bankaufl neuIt’s an old joke, one that I think I first heard during the 1980s when I began reading some conservative Catholic publications while trying to learn more about trends in the Church of Rome.

It’s a joke that, even after 9/11, gets a lot of use. It goes like this: What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?

The answer, of course, is: You can negotiate with a terrorist.

In my experience, both as a reporter on the beat and now as a columnist, few topics that I write about inspire more comment from readers than articles about trends in worship — whether we are talking about emerging churches venturing into liturgy or megachurches finding new ways to use their movie screens. This is especially true of columns about efforts to modernize worship in ancient churches. Take, for example, the music in most Catholic parishes today.

But there is a problem, one that is illustrated in that Los Angeles Times story by David Haldane with the headline “A Ban on Kneeling? Some Catholics Won’t Stand for It.” This is a really important local story that, as Haldane notes, points to a larger story across the nation. Here is how the story opens:

At a small Catholic church in Huntington Beach, the pressing moral question comes to this: Does kneeling at the wrong time during worship make you a sinner?

Kneeling “is clearly rebellion, grave disobedience and mortal sin,” Father Martin Tran, pastor at St. Mary’s by the Sea, told his flock in a recent church bulletin. The Diocese of Orange backs Tran’s anti-kneeling edict. Though told by the pastor and the archdiocese to stand during certain parts of the liturgy, a third of the congregation still gets on its knees every Sunday.

This could not have been an easy story to report, in part because Catholic authorities — the people who employ the liturgists — rarely are willing to discuss these kinds of conflicts with people in the mainstream press. Many have a kind of public-relations view of the press and many simply fear that journalists will mess up the complicated history involved in these conflicts.

Let me stress that Haldane and the Times copy desk faced major challenges. You could write a book on this topic, if you wanted to quote all of the clashing viewpoints on worship issues in the American Catholic Church. These issues are numbingly complex. So I am sure that people on both sides of this conflict would have some bones to pick with the final story.

Let’s walk through some of the history in this story, where even The Da Vinci Code shows up for discussion:

Since at least the 7th century, Catholics have been kneeling after the Agnus Dei, the point during Mass when the priest holds up the chalice and consecrated bread and says, “Behold the lamb of God.” But four years ago, the Vatican revised its instructions, allowing bishops to decide at some points in the Mass whether their flocks should get on their knees. “The faithful kneel … unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise,” says Rome’s book of instructions. Since then, some churches have been built without kneelers.

The debate is part of the argument among Catholics between tradition and change. Traditionalists see it as the ultimate posture of submission to and adoration of God; modernists view kneeling as the vestige of a feudal past they would like to leave behind.

At the center of the controversy is the church’s concept of Christ, said Jesuit Father Lawrence J. Madden, director of the Georgetown Center for Liturgy at Georgetown University in Washington. It’s a question raised in the bestselling book “The Da Vinci Code.” Because the earliest Christians viewed Jesus as God and man, Madden said, they generally stood during worship services to show reverence and equality. About the 7th century, however, Catholic theologians put more emphasis on Christ’s divinity and introduced kneeling as the only appropriate posture at points in the Mass when God was believed to be present.

That sound you hear is traditional Catholics grumbling that a priest from Georgetown gets to explain this issue and that’s that. This is something like allowing, in a news report, someone from the current Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee to explain both sides of the 27-year-war for control of that body. The folks on the other side view the facts and the history quite differently.

backstopThe key, in this story, is that the Times allows Madden to state — as fact — that one of the primary effects of Vatican II was to move Catholic worship “back to its earliest roots.” When defined in this way, the traditionalists are the modernists, the traditionalists are the heretics. Needless to say, these are fighting words for any Catholic on a kneeler.

Let me note my own bias here, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian. We stand all the time in worship, although — during large parts of the liturgical year — we do prostrations (face on the floor) instead of kneeling. The logic for standing is different, too. Madden says that Catholics stand as an expression of “reverence and equality.” That’s an interesting pair of words. In Orthodoxy, we say that it is appropriate to stand in the presence of a King. But there is a lot of room here for people with different ways of expressing piety and reverence.

Read the article and you will see just how complex this issue can get in the modern Catholic context. What is interesting to me is that some bishops are willing to go to war over this. That alone tells you that the stakes are high. Something else is going on.

So where, in this story, is the viewpoint of a Catholic historian — or even a bishop — on the other side of this local dispute? Was there room for someone to respond to Madden? The story does note:

No less an authority than the pope is on record as favoring kneeling. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI last year, wrote in “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” published in 2000, that the gesture “comes from the Bible and the knowledge of God.” He has not addressed the issue as pope.

American Catholic bishops have taken the opposite position. “Standing can be just as much an expression of respect for the coming of Christ,” said Msgr. Anthony F. Sherman, a spokesman for the liturgy secretariat of the U.S. Bishops Committee on the Liturgy based in Washington.

Well, who would know? The pope or the American liturgist? And have all of the American bishops taken this stance or is this something that is more common in certain parts of the country? Blue zip codes, even?

This is a hot, hot story and I hope that the Times stays on it. This is a battle over symbols that are more than symbols. There be dragons on this part of the Catholic map.

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The war on Ascension

ascensionI cover local news here at GetReligion so I thought I would do a wrap-up of local news coverage of today’s holy day.

Which holy day? Ascension.

It’s one of the great feasts in the Christian liturgical calendar, and commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into Heaven. In Roman Catholicism the Ascension of the Lord is a Holy Day of Obligation. Anglicans and Lutherans mark it. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the Ascension is one of 12 Great Feasts. In the Eastern Church, however, Ascension is marked using a different calendar. They will celebrate June 1.

The only problem is that I could not find any mention of this in mainstream newspapers. There were a few stories in Roman Catholic journals but nothing anywhere else. Please do let me know if your local paper had anything.

Covering this holy day, which is very important for Christians who celebrate the liturgical calendar, would certainly be difficult for reporters. It’s not a state holiday like it is in Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Unlike Christmas or Easter, there aren’t family celebrations surrounding the feast. There’s no consumerism associated with the day — thank God — so we don’t see cards or decorations in stores.

Still, if we can get a front-page New York Times feature on naming children Nevaeh, couldn’t a few papers gives us a paragraph or two on the Feast of the Ascension?

UPDATE: Thank you, reader Patti G! She submits a story from her local paper about a Lutheran Church’s Ascension Day celebrations.

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Newsweek turns maudlin

Newsweek5 29 06The cover story of the May 29 Newsweek is an oddity. Much of the story is driven by the popularity of The Da Vinci Code (both as pulp fiction and as popcorn movie), although Newsweek dispenses with most of Dan Brown’s alternative reality in a handy sidebar.

The story also is odd in that it calls the Magdalene an “inconvenient woman,” a sort of white martyr of the church’s patriarchy, even while it mentions that throughout church history she has inspired admiration and devotion.

Even in dealing with Pope Gregory the Great’s declaration that the Magdalene was the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair, Newsweek cannot decide whether the Pope was “attacking” Mary or holding her up as a model of penance:

It was only a matter of time before the Magdalene also came under attack. The moment arrived on an autumn Sunday in the year 591, in a sermon preached at the heart of the Catholic Church. Taking the pulpit at the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, Pope Gregory the Great offered a startling conclusion about the Magdalene: she had been a whore. Before she came to Christ, Gregory explained, Mary’s sins were manifold: she had “coveted with Earthly eyes” and “displayed her hair to set off her face.” Most scandalously, she had “used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” Looking out at his audience, a somber mass of monks, Gregory gave Mary a new identity that would shape her image for fourteen hundred years. “It is clear, brothers,” he declared: she was a prostitute.

But it was not clear at all. Gregory’s remarkable assertion was based on the idea that Mary was the unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in the seventh chapter of Luke — a conflation many contemporary scholars dismiss. Even if she were the sinful woman, there is no evidence in any Gospels that her sins were those of the flesh — in the first century, a woman could be considered “sinful” for talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone. Gregory created the prostitute, as if from thin air.

The pope made his new Mary a reformed whore because he knew that the faithful needed a story of penance that was at once alluring and inspiring. The early Middle Ages were a time of tremendous social tumult — war and disease roiled nations and sent destitute women into the streets. Gregory’s church needed a character from Jesus’ circle who provided an answer to this misery, who proved that the path of Christ was an escape from the pressures of the sinful world. The mysterious Magdalene of the Resurrection story was peripheral enough to be reinvented. Finally, the church fathers were able to put the inconvenient woman to good use.

Newsweek interviews the familiar academic admirers of Gnosticism such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. Karen King of Harvard offers some critical words about The Da Vinci Code as too retro:

The current Magdalene cult still focuses on her sexuality even though no early Christian writings speak of her sexuality at all. “Why do we feel the need to resexualize Mary?” wonders Karen King, author of “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala.” “We’ve gotten rid of the myth of the prostitute. Now there’s this move to see her as wife and mother. Why isn’t it adequate to see her as disciple and perhaps apostle?”

The story would have been more informative, and may have even offered a clash of ideas, had Newsweek interviewed Da Vinci critics such as Darrell Bock, Greg Jones, Sandra Miesel, or Amy Welborn.

At least we can be thankful the story doesn’t indulge in hysterical Gospel of Judas-style predictions that Sunday-school teachers will have to rethink the entirety of their message because a Gnostic text preaches Gnosticism.

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The alleged rise of the religious left

MichaelLernerGood political reporters do their best to cover both ends of the political spectrum. With American politics nicely divided into “liberal” and “conservative” camps — at least on the surface — this is easy. So with the “sudden” emergence of the powerful “religious right” in the 2004 presidential election, articles on the “religious left” in American politics have been on the to-do list for political and religion reporters.

I won’t take the time here to fully challenge the idea that the “religious right” suddenly became influential or even the myth that it is as influential as it is made out to be. To make it brief, the political influence of religious conservatives did not appear overnight, and reporters routinely overestimate their influence on national politics.

With that introduction, I have a few comments on Saturday’s front-page Washington Post piece by Caryle Murphy and Alan Cooperman on the arrival of the religious left, whatever that means, in politics:

Some groups on the religious left are clearly seeking to help the Democratic Party. But the relationship is delicate on both sides. “If I were the Democrats, the last thing I would do is really try to mobilize these folks as a political force . . . because I think some of this is a real unhappiness with the whole business of politicizing religion,” said Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

The Rev. Joseph W. Daniels Jr., senior pastor of Emory United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington, said a key question for him is whether the religious left will become “the polar opposite to . . . the religious right” or be “a voice in the middle.”

“What this country needs is strong spiritual leadership that is willing to build bridges. We don’t need leaders who are lightning bolts for division and dissension,” he said.

Nonetheless, some observers doubt that the revitalization of the religious left will lessen the divisions over religion in politics. “I do think,” said Hertzke, “that, if in fact this progressive initiative takes off, we will see an even more polarized electoral environment than we did in 2004.”

Religious Left3With that, religion in American just got that much more political.

A few issues with the article. I know Washington is a political town and the Post is a newspaper that thrives covering politics, but how about a little religion in a piece about religious groups? I got all excited when the article suggested that it would explain what “religious liberals” believed, but nada, other than references to abortion, and the cozy categories of mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics. There is no mention of the authority of the Bible, not to mention key theological issues that are at the root of the differences between liberal and conservative denominations.

This is an interesting reversal of roles. The mainline denominations are outside the sphere of influence looking in while conservative, traditional denominations supposedly hold all of the influence and power in Washington.

There was little direct mention of the doctrine of separation of church and state in the article. It does not really fit with the story line, but are there those in the liberal religious left who are concerned about violating that constitutional concept?

While the Post‘s version of the current status of religious liberalism in America is all rosy, the New York Times offered a starker picture a day earlier:

WASHINGTON, May 18 — They had come to All Souls Unitarian Church, 1,200 of them from 39 states, to wrest the mantle of moral authority from conservative Christians, and they were finally planning how to take their message to those in power.

After rousing speeches on Wednesday by liberal religious leaders like Rabbi Michael Lerner (pictured) of the magazine Tikkun and Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, participants in the new Network of Spiritual Progressives split into small groups to prepare for meetings with members of Congress on Thursday.

Yet at a session on ethical behavior, including sexual behavior, the 50 or so activists talked little about what to tell Congress about abortion or same-sex marriage. Instead, the Rev. Ama Zenya of First Congregational Church in Oakland, Calif., urged them to talk to one another about their spiritual values and “to practice fully our authentic being.”

It is essentially the same story, but the contrast in outlook is amazing. I’ve complained about this before, but I wish would tell us what page the story was published the way does, because I’m curious what kind of play this received.

I know the Post has long practiced the tradition of getting beat by the NYT on stories and then playing it up a day or two later on the front page with a different angle, but I wonder whether this was actually the case in this instance.

Religious LeftLastly, revealing more of the “religious left” movement than the Post or the Times combined, Julia Duin of the Washington Times was also able to scoop both papers in publishing a preview to the event on which both the NYT and the Post stories were centered:

[The conference's spiritual covenant] supports a national health plan, suggests members of Congress “spend part of one day a week feeding hungry people at a shelter or other … hands-on service activity,” the public funding of all state and national elections and many other innovations.

“Have you ever heard a Democrat talk like that?” the rabbi asked. “They have down one dimension of the problem, and we’re behind that. But we’re trying to add a spiritual dimension.”

The guest list for the conference, posted at, includes anti-war activists such as Cindy Sheehan, who will help lead a “pray-in for peace” outside the White House on Thursday afternoon. A range of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu speakers are also slated.

There you have it, folks. The political influence of the religious right in America is being met by a coalition of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindus. All you ever wanted to know about the booming religious movement that will rock the nation come November. I have my doubts.

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Who does Dan Brown say that I am?

ChristSinai 01And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Who do men say that I am?

– Gospel of Mark 8:27

Please do not blow a fuse, dear readers.

I am not opening this post with a Bible verse in order to veer into evangelism. For most of the week, I have been looking for mainstream press reports about The Da Vinci Code that found a news hook other than (a) evangelicals trying to use the movie for evangelism, (b) scholars shredding the novel’s historical claims, (c) movie executives insisting that their product was only fiction or (d) speculation about the impact of the lousy reviews on the box office and the future of what was supposed to have become a major franchise for Sony Pictures. Weeks two and three are the keys.

On that final point, I do wonder if Tom Hanks is locked in for the future. And here is another question about the future: How do you film Angels & Demons — much of which happens in churches in Rome, and much of the final act actually in the Vatican — without the cooperation of the Holy See?

Well, there is a different angle out there. Reports indicate that the movie has softened the novel in at least two key ways.

First, it has edited out or weakened much of the oh-so-sexy pagan roots of the plot. Where’s that passage in the book about sacred sex inside the Jewish Temple’s Holy of Holies between the priests and holy women representing an ancient Jewish goddess?

But, most importantly, the movie has tried to adopt a slightly less hostile stance toward Christianity. The movie strives for a more mushy, spiritual, “dialogue”-oriented approach that, at crucial moments, says, “maybe,” “maybe,” “maybe.” As Associated Press religion-beat veteran Richard N. Ostling notes in an analysis piece:

An early clue that the film is trying a different tack from the novel comes when it omits the book’s thesis: “Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.” The script instead turns that concept into a question: “What if the world discovers the greatest story ever told is a lie?”

The chief alterations, however, pop up during a pivotal theological discussion between the story’s two experts on religious history, Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen). The maniacal Teabing makes the claim (disregarded by real-life scholars) that Christianity considered Jesus a mere man and turned him into a divinity in A.D. 325. Good-guy Langdon mildly objects, inserting a critical viewpoint that the novel lacks.

The bottom line is that the novel said Jesus was a remarkable man — bright, charismatic, hot and all that — but just a man. This is the Jesus of the old liberal mainline Protestant world. But the novel added another layer of commentary, saying that the true Christianity of the Gnostics and other believers in the “sacred feminine” was buried by the evil, sexist, frumpy men who were setting up the Catholic version of a Roman empire. This is the modern, sexy, almost Wiccan gospel of some segments of the liberal mainline Protestant academic world.

The movie says most of that, but adds a crucial word — maybe. In the end, it says that the most important thing is for believers to believe something and only nasty traditionalists care about the details. But the bottom line remains the bottom line: Dan Brown is acting as an evangelist for a syncretistic, pluralistic, at times neo-pagan version of Christianity.

Thus, one of the best news hooks right now can be summed up in this statement: “Who do men say that I am?” As USA Today noted:

At one climactic point, Langdon says, “History shows Jesus was an extraordinary man. Why couldn’t Jesus have been divine and still have been a father?” That line was not in the book.

The filmmakers try to back off from a hard-line stance on the question of Jesus’ divinity. Says Langdon, near the end of the film, “What matters is what you believe.”

Wasn’t there a way to work Oprah into the movie to deliver that line?

I would imagine that some mass-media people may not be happy about this change (and the fact that the script is terrible and most of the performances wooden or cheesy). Over at Entertainment Weekly, reviewer Owen Gleiberman cuts to the chase. Is that disappointment we hear between the lines?

A crucial change from the book is that Langdon has been made into a skeptic, a fellow who doesn’t necessarily buy that official Christianity is a lie. This is a sop to the film’s critics (i.e., the Catholic Church), but it feels cautious, anti-dramatic. Yes, a soupçon of research reveals that the Priory of Sion is a hoax invented in 1956, and surely it can’t be proved that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever intimate . … But what we want from a film of The Da Vinci Code is the fervor of belief. … As a novel, The Da Vinci Code has a resonance that lingers. It may be less history than hokum, but it’s a searching product of the feminist era, when even many true believers have grown weary of the church as an instrument of moral reprimand and male dominion.

2795So here is the question, and it’s one that I think is at the heart of the movie story: Who is Jesus, according to Dan Brown (and thus, the Sony Pictures franchise)?

This is a question linked to millions and millions of dollars worth of tickets. What does Brown believe? Will he stand up for his own beliefs or will be compromise, in order to give his actors and directors wiggle room? In novels one and two in this series, Brown had firm, blunt beliefs. He waffled a little, but not much. It seems that the movie has retreated into an Oprah-esque world of “maybe.”

This may be The Matrix all over again, in a strange sort of way.

The siblings Larry and Andy Wachowski — the word “brothers” is problematic right now — were also pushing a gospel rich in neo-Gnostic images and themes, with a literal union of the divine feminine and the male savior.

The Matrix gospel worked when it was visual, vague and exciting. It sank into irrational, wordy quicksand when the siblings attempted to explain their beliefs. They refused to retreat and the result was a disaster that still made lots of money, but it was clear that the franchise declined with each film. It had nowhere to go.

Will Brown be honest? Will he answer questions? Will he have the courage of his convictions, or compromise in an attempt to be safe? No wonder there are rumors of writer’s block on the third book.

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Mollie Ziegler regrets the error

wuerlA few days ago I wrote a post so bland and non-controversial that it kind of bored me. It was about the first day’s coverage of Roman Catholic Bishop Donald Wuerl’s appointment to head the Washington archdiocese. I even said I would monitor coverage in coming days to see if profiles became more thorough. Well, for a very boring post, it sure generated a lot of negative mail. A number of reporters thought their coverage merited notice more than the few that I posted.

Other reporters thought it was unfair of me to cite stories that were quickly thrown onto the web rather than the later stories that reflected a day’s worth of reporting and careful writing. In fact, one of the writers to lodge that complaint was veteran religion reporter Ann Rodgers, whose work I cited. She commented on the post:

The story linked here from the Post-Gazette was a sausage-in-the-making version that ran Web only as a stop-gap while I scrambled to get the real story. To see what ran in the newspaper — and the analysis of the significance that Terry was looking for — check for our May 17 story.

I thought her placeholder story was great, but the later one is much better in terms of analysis. It’s chock full of perceptive commentary:

The appointment of Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl to head the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., indicates that Pope Benedict XVI wants bishops who are loyal but who nevertheless are flexible and diplomatic when dealing with sensitive issues of faith and public policy.

“They are not heresy-hunting types by any stretch of the imagination,” former Vatican Radio journalist David Gibson said of Bishop Wuerl and newly appointed Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco. “They are people who are comfortable engaging the culture, standing up for Catholic orthodoxy, certainly, but not condemning with fire and brimstone.”

The story The New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein wrote for the paper bears almost no resemblance to the one I quoted from — a Web-only piece that drew largely on the AP wire story and an old Washington Post interview. Goodstein’s piece is based on original reporting, interviews with the major players, and an understanding of the larger issues. To wit:

Bishop Wuerl, 65, is well regarded in the Vatican, where he once worked, and by fellow American bishops as a pragmatic conservative, church experts said. In 18 years as bishop of Pittsburgh, he won respect by consulting parishioners in a major reorganization of parishes and by insisting that the Vatican defrock a priest with a history of sexual abuse.

Although the Archdiocese of Washington, with 560,000 Catholics, is smaller than the diocese in Pittsburgh, with 800,000 Catholics, it is more prominent. The archbishop of Washington often serves as the church’s primary contact with politicians and the news media and is traditionally elevated to cardinal, making him eligible to vote for pope.

The question is obvious: which piece should represent a newspaper’s take on a given story? The quick Web report that throws together wire copy and a bit of archival research, or the thoughtful piece done after a day of reporting? Yep, I messed up. I would hate it if people judged my reporting based on the quick Web reports I file while writing more thorough and balanced stories for my newspaper.

Media critics need to ponder the issue since we are barraged by wire service and online news that may not reflect a paper’s best effort on a given issue.

Another reader pointed out that Washington has more than one local paper, that The Washington Times‘ Julia Duin deserved to have her work highlighted, and that I obsessively analyze the Post. It’s all true. Duin’s story was great, including this bit:

Born Nov. 12, 1940, Bishop Wuerl received graduate degrees from Catholic University in the District and the Gregorian University in Rome. He became a priest in 1966 and worked in Pittsburgh under Bishop John J. Wright. When Bishop Wright was transferred to Rome as the prefect for the Sacred Congregation of the Clergy, he took along Father Wuerl as his secretary.

The young priest, who would earn a doctorate in theology from the University of St. Thomas in Rome in 1974, spent much of the first 20 years of his priesthood in the church’s central city. In January 1986, Pope John Paul II made the unusual move of personally ordaining him to the episcopate in St. Peter’s Basilica; a pope usually only ordains cardinals, not bishops.

But the pope had an emergency on his hands: He needed an American priest to serve on quick notice as the new auxiliary bishop to Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, a pacifist who dissented on homosexuality, sterilizations and remarriage after divorce. The Vatican stripped him of much of his power in early 1986 and forced him to share his duties with Auxiliary Bishop Wuerl.

I hope I’ve touched on all the issues that readers complained about. I would defend myself but I’m unable to do so because I was completely wrong.

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A Wuerl of possibilities

wuerlThe Archdiocese of Washington has a new bishop. Pope Benedict XVI announced Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl (pictured) as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s replacement. What does this mean? Well, coverage didn’t quite get to the significance of the change, although many outlets did a fantastic job of introducing Wuerl. Religion writer Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette joined with Maeve Reston to provide some information:

At a press conference in Washington today, Cardinal McCarrick introduced Bishop Wuerl and said one of his strengths was his ability to “uphold the middle” to bring people of varying positions and backgrounds into the church. During his tenure, Cardinal McCarrick spoke out on controversial issues such as immigration and whether politicians who favor abortion should be barred from communion.

Cardinal McCarrick said Bishop Wuerl had worked closely with him as an adviser on the latter issue, when he advocated making decisions on a case-by-case basis rather than issuing a blanket ban.

Bishop Wuerl called the new post, which he will assume June 22, “daunting.” But when asked to say what his biggest challenges would be, he said, “I haven’t been here long enough to learn how to get back and forth to the cathedral . . . so give me a little time.”

He did say some of his priorities would be to stop the number of Catholics leaving the church and to reach out to Washington’s Hispanic population.

The New York Times‘ John O’Neil begins with the claim that Wuerl is conservative and reaches back to 1986, when he was brought in to administer the Seattle archdiocese during the great Hunthausen controversy:

Bishop Wuerl, 65, has served as Pittsburgh’s bishop since 1988, and is considered one of the more prominent of the nation’s conservative bishops. His first appointment after being ordained a bishop in 1986 was in an unusual power-sharing arrangment in Seattle, where he was sent as assistant bishop by Pope John Paul II while Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen was under investigation by the Vatican for unorthodox views.

Cardinal McCarrick, who was regarded as more moderate on many issues, praised Bishop Wuerl as “one of the great churchmen of the United States.” He spoke of his prayers that the Pope would pick a great bishop to take his place, saying, “He has done that, in spades.”

Hmm. The two pieces seem to be saying different things. Which one describes Wuerl better? The Washington Post‘s coverage focused more on McCarrick’s tenure than Wuerl’s arrival, but archdiocesan spokeswoman Susan Gibbs shared a bit of information about the new leader:

Wuerl is known as the “education bishop,” Gibbs said. He shares McCarrick’s expansive view that politicians should be able to received communion regardless of whether they embrace abortion rights, but he is also considered a conservative theologian.

He has written his own catechism for adults, which has been widely translated, Gibbs said.

A quick survey of the blogosphere notes his strong ties to Washington’s Catholic University of America, his no-nonsense reputation for defrocking clergy involved in sexual abuse scandals, and his catechetical approach to managing controversies.

The Times had this interesting piece of advice from McCarrick:

In the [Washington Post] interview, the Cardinal listed ideal traits for a successor, including that he “not be afraid of the media.”

And we’ll be there to watch his performance with the media. Ann Rodgers promises more coverage of the man she’s written about for many years, so perhaps we’ll keep following this. Any angles you think reporters should cover with regard to this change?

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