NYTimes notices old doctrine wars over InterVarsity chapters

The debate started out behind closed doors but quickly jumped into the mainstream press. The news hook was that a lesbian student at Tufts University claimed that, under the campus nondiscrimination policy, she had been unfairly denied access to a leadership role in the Tufts Christian Fellowship, which was affiliated with InterVarsity.

The campus chapter was banished, at first, but then allowed to re-draft its charter to stress that it was a doctrinally defined religious association, one requiring its leaders to “seek to adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives.” The story was already rather old at that time, as I noted in an “On Religion” column.

“We have had more challenges to our basic right to exist in campus settings during the past two years than in the previous 55 combined,” said Steve Hayner, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. “It’s not just us. … This is hitting Catholics and Muslims and others. What we are seeing is a growing challenge to religious free speech — period.” …

InterVarsity created a “Religious Liberties Crisis Team” in response to this dispute and similar cases on five other campuses. Then attorney David French of Cornell Law School and Tufts InterVarsity staff member Curtis Chang produced a sobering handbook for others who will face similar conflicts. French and Chang noted: “In a free country, individuals or groups are permitted to form schools that serve only Christians, or only Jews, or only Muslims, or only gays.” For traditional Christians at private schools, the “sad reality is that there may come a time when you are no longer welcome … and there is nothing that any lawyer can do to change that decision.”

The year was 2000.

I bring this up because of a New York Times story that — 15 years down the road — has noticed this legal issue and put it on A1 as a hot trend. To cut to the chase, this First Amendment story has reached Bowdoin College and another InterVarsity chapter is facing the same old fight for its rights as a doctrinally-defined association.

But read the following carefully and see if you notice something interesting in the Times frame around this story. This is long, but crucial:

After this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college. Already, the college has disabled the electronic key cards of the group’s longtime volunteer advisers. In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders. And at Vanderbilt, more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical but one of them Catholic, have already lost their official standing over the same issue; one Christian group balked after a university official asked the students to cut the words “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from their list of qualifications for leadership.

At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, says some chapters have even elected non-Jews to student boards.

My question: Did the Times team investigate whether the issue is a matter of practical work or mere symbolic statements? In other words, is the issue that traditional Christian groups — evangelicals, mostly — are simply not willing to pretend to go along with the policies? And what about in other doctrinally defined groups linked to science, the environment, arts, sexuality?

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In Irish children’s deaths, clarity doesn’t thrive in a septic tank

The accounts of cruelty, neglect and other abuse of children under Catholic Church care in Ireland cannot and must not be ignored. But in their tales about babies buried in septic tanks and such, news media need to be scrupulous with facts and clarity.

A case in point: two articles on St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, both from The New York Times.

In his June 4 article, writer Douglas Dalby mentioned “allegations that a Roman Catholic religious order secretly buried up to 796 babies and toddlers born to unmarried mothers in a septic tank over several decades.”

By this past Monday, he backpedaled a bit. He said his main source, historian Catherine Corless, based part of her allegation on a 48-year-old man who said he’d seen a hole filled with 15-20 small skeletons — back when he was 10:

Where and how the bodies of the children were actually disposed of remains a mystery — and a scandal in tiny Tuam, population 8,200, that has for the moment revealed more about the ways local lore and small-town sleuthing can be distorted in the news media juggernaut than about what actually went on decades ago at the state-funded home for unmarried pregnant women run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Roman Catholic order.

“News media juggernaut” is not too strong a term for what happened in the mainstream press. Our friend and ally Rod Dreher found a clutch of mainstream media outlets — from The Guardian to the Washington Post to Al-Jazeera — alleging that a full 800 children’s corpses were dumped in a scandalous mass grave.

You can see quite a lot of that on YouTube as well, with titles like “Bodies of 800 Babies Found in Septic Tank in Ireland” and, of course, “Another Atrocity from the Catholic Church.”

Who says these media reports are wrong, simplistic or radically blown out of proportion? For one, Corless herself:

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What? You thought Francis, Peres and Abbas really prayed?

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Let’s state this in journalistic terms.

What? You thought that the mainstream journalists covering the remarkable Vatican rite offering prayers for Middle East peace rite would actually produce coverage that included any content from the prayers?

Friends and neighbors, this event was all about politics and statecraft. Clearly, if the men wanted to produce real change in the real world then the only words that they spoke that mattered were addressed to one another and, thus, to the press. Get real.

The story that most American news consumers saw this past weekend was from the Associated Press, so let’s consider that text (in the version used by The Washington Post). Here’s some of the key material about this encounter between Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:

The event had the air of an outdoor summer wedding, complete with receiving line and guests mingling on the lawn as a string ensemble played. …

Vatican officials have insisted that Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. But the meeting could have greater symbolic significance, given that Francis was able to bring them together at all so soon after peace talks failed and at a time that the Israeli government is trying to isolate Abbas.

“In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important,” noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican.”

So was the omnipresent Father Reese actually, literally at this event or was he merely acting in his unofficial role as the press spokesman for all mainstream journalists and alleged Catholic insiders who would join him in calling a Vatican prayer service a “symbolic gesture”?

No one was hiding the fact that other talks took place behind closed doors. Also, no one was hiding the fact that, with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I joining in some parts of the ceremonies (but not leading prayers), there were actually two participants present who represented elements of the Palestinian people. Well, the pope would make three, since there are Eastern Rite Catholics in the region, as well. The AP report noted:

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Which religions favor separation of church and state?

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2014/06/which-religions-favor-separation-of-church-and-state/

LISA ASKS:

Do all religions teach separation between church and state? If not, which ones and why?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Separation of church and state (the usual phrasing though “of religion and state” is often more accurate) is an achievement of modern politics and by no means a universal one. Among world religions, after long struggle Christianity helped create the concept and broadly favors aspects of it in most countries. Islam stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, often considering it alien if not abhorrent. Interactions between religions and governments through history are too complex to summarize but The Guy will sketch some high points.

America’s latest church-and-state fuss (analyzed May 10 in “Religion Q and A”) involves Supreme Court allowance of prayers before local council meetings, even in a town where most of them were explicitly Christian. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is alarmed, asking in a headline whether this ruling is “putting the country on the path to church-state union.”

Well, no. There’s a vast gap between brief civic invocations and any “union,” and America to a remarkable degree has avoided situations common elsewhere, for instance:

Many European states, whether in Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant countries, subsidize churches or Christian education. Clergy are tax-supported civil servants in such religiously diverse lands as Egypt (Muslim), Germany (Protestant and Catholic), Greece (Orthodox) and Israel (Jewish). Britain’s prime minister chooses all bishops for pro forma appointment by the monarch who heads the Church of England, and 26 bishops sit in parliament’s upper house. India’s national government is officially non-sectarian but at the state level Hindus use anti-conversion laws to hobble competing faiths. Clergy are sometimes heads of state, including two who were revered as divinities not long ago, Tibetan Buddhism’s Dalai Lama and Japan’s Shinto emperor.

With Islam, the founding Prophet Muhammad was a political and military ruler and his faith has been closely intertwined with civil affairs ever since. Although the Quran says “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), some Muslim nations force religious law (Sharia) upon non-Muslims and in extreme cases threaten converts to other faiths with the death penalty. Iran is a dramatic example of “church-state union” that is oppressively theocratic.

In Jewish tradition, God deemed rule by autocrats to be problematic (see 1 Samuel: 8) but biblical kings arose and combined religious with civil functions. Jews had no nation-state of their own through much of their history. Modern Israel’s successful democracy practices religious freedom with certain privileges for Orthodox Judaism.
Christianity starts from Jesus’s clever and cryptic saying “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (included in three of the four Gospels). Scholars say that rather that spelling out which “things” are which, Jesus left it to individuals to apply the principle. But he did imply a certain distinction, if not “separation,” between the two realms. That concept was later developed in St. Augustine’s masterwork “The City of God” and Martin Luther’s idea of the “two kingdoms.”

Though born as an oppressed minority under Roman rule, Christianity eventually became heavily involved with government, often to its detriment. Matters changed fundamentally during the 17th Century. The Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant regimes (1618-1648) devastated Europe and roused cynicism toward the church. The English Civil War (1642-1651) had similar effects. While the Enlightenment fostered individualism and religious skepticism, demands for free conscience emanated from Protestant dissenters in Britain and its American colonies.

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Writing on houses of worship? Ignore the religious

Pop quiz: When you write about baseball or surgery, whom should you quote?

That’s right. And when you write about playing a piano or cello, whom should you quote?

Right again. And when you write about religion, whom should you quote?

Nope, missed that one. When writing about any field, you must include its practitioners — unless it’s a religious group.

NBC News and the New York Times followed that rule faithfully — in this case, faithlessly — in stories about efforts to save church and synagogue buildings, although both have long lost their congregations.

First, the NBC story, the more facile of the two. Travel writer Rob Lovitt found a team store for a minor-league baseball team in South Bend, Ind., that was once the home for the Sons of Israel Synagogue.

Granted, it’s meant to be a light feature by a travel writer. Still, when he includes details like foam fingers but leaves out details on the “rich history” of the synagogue, it’s like leaving a shoe dangling in the air rather than letting it drop.

He’s clearly charmed by the idea of keeping a revered site, quoting Joe Hart, the president of the team:

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As usual, good Francis and bad Benedict at the BBC


The honeymoon continues for Pope Francis and the press.

Coverage of the pope’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories was rather good. Save for a brief flutter over what language Jesus spoke, the press coverage was sympathetic, balanced and thoughtful, and in marked contrast to the treatment afforded Benedict when he traveled to Germany or England or Mexico.

Yet the visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories also highlighted the shortcomings of the craft of journalism — shortcomings not in the form of errors or omissions, but unexamined assumptions. When should a reporter stop and ask himself if he is repeating the conventional wisdom — taking on trust that something is a fact, when it is an opinion?

A BBC story on Francis and the Middle East entitled “Pope Francis cements reputation for deft diplomacy” repeats the now rather tired conventional wisdom of the good Francis / bad Benedict. While the two popes have very different styles, I do not believe there are facts that would substantiate the good/bad claims.

Benedict has had a tough time of it from the start. While the German press lauded his election, the first German pope in 1000 years, the secular press in Europe seems to have taken against him from the start. There was no honeymoon for Benedict from The Economist in 2005, which saw him as “an unsurprising choice.” And “to many, he will inevitably be a disappointing one.”

While the BBC stated:

Critics have attacked not just his tough conservative stance – speculating that it may alienate churchgoers of the 21st Century who prefer a more flexible doctrine – but also wonder whether the 78-year-old is charismatic enough to engender much affection.

By way of contrast, Francis has been described as a breath of fresh air by the secular press. In choosing Francis as its “person of the year” for 2013, Time magazine’s editor Nancy Gibb wrote Francis had:

done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.

The new pope was a kinder, gentler man, Time believed, who had rejected “church dogma.” He was teaching a softer, more inclusive Catholicism, noting his:

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Was Catholic ‘teaching’ involved in latest Ireland scandal?

If I have heard this statement once at pro-life rallies I have heard it a hundred times: There are crisis pregnancies, but there is no such thing — in the eyes of God — as an unwanted child. This statement is especially popular with doctrinally conservative Catholics.

So, try to combine that thought with the news coming out of Ireland. This is from the Associated Press:

DUBLIN – The Catholic Church in Ireland is facing fresh accusations of child neglect after a researcher found records for 796 young children believed to be buried in a mass grave beside a former orphanage for the children of unwed mothers.

The researcher, Catherine Corless, says her discovery of child death records at the Catholic nun-run home in Tuam, County Galway, suggests that a former septic tank filled with bones is the final resting place for most, if not all, of the children.

Church leaders in Galway, western Ireland, said they had no idea so many children who died at the orphanage had been buried there, and said they would support local efforts to mark the spot with a plaque listing all 796 children.

County Galway death records showed that the children, mostly babies and toddlers, died often of sickness or disease in the orphanage during the 35 years it operated from 1926 to 1961. The building, which had previously been a workhouse for homeless adults, was torn down decades ago to make way for new houses.

There is no need to discuss the details of that horrific vision.

The question the story has to address, of course, is why these lost children were buried in such a fashion. Also, the story says it is essential to know that, during the era in which this orphanage was open, Ireland had “one of the worst infant mortality rates in Europe, with tuberculosis rife.”

The essential question here is whether what happened here is essentially an Irish, or cultural, practice or was it justified at the time as uniquely Catholic, in terms of doctrine. Think of this issue, perhaps, as similar to the debates about whether “honor killings” in Pakistan are uniquely cultural, tribal or somehow, for those committing the acts, rooted in what they believe are Islamic beliefs.

This leads us to the crucial paragraphs in the story:

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The silent swan song of Wojciech Jaruzelski

The silver Swan, who living had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

Orlando Gibbons, “The Silver Swan” (1612)

Poland’s last communist leader has been laid to rest at Warsaw’s Powazki Cemetery following a funeral Mass, reports The New York Times. Written with a Warsaw dateline, the May 30 story entitled “Walesa Among Ex-Leaders at Funeral of Political Enemy” recounts the political controversy surrounding the funeral of General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

But the article omits the religious controversies that animated the Polish press in the week following his May 25 death. And that is a shame. For in focusing on one strand of the protests to the exclusion of all else, the Times has missed a significant element of the story.

Now the New York Times was not alone in omitting the faith element. Reuters and the BBC also reported on the controversy over giving a state funeral to the last Communist president of Poland; the  man who in 1981 imposed martial law to crush the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. It is unlikely the Times reporter in Warsaw was unaware of the religion angle in light of the attention given to the topic by the local media. Was this the right editorial decision, to focus on politics alone?

The lede begins:

WARSAW – With demonstrators chanting on the streets outside and the three surviving Polish presidents in attendance, perhaps the most polarizing figure in modern Polish history was honored on Friday at a funeral Mass in the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army.

The article reports that while the prime minister stayed away, the current Polish president and two former presidents, including Lech Walesa sat in in the front row of the service.

Perhaps to bury Jaruzelski, not to praise him? The political angle appears at the top of the story, while we get a slight hint of the religious controversy.

Just a few blocks from the city’s tourist-choked historic district, several hundred gray-haired protesters held up signs denouncing General Jaruzelski as a “traitor,” a “murderer” and a “servant of Moscow.” Many carried banners from Solidarity, the trade union led by Mr. Walesa, who said he had agreed to attend the funeral because, among other reasons, a Roman Catholic Mass, celebrated by Bishop Jozef Guzdek, was included. (During the Communist years, General Jaruzelski would not have gone to a Mass.) …

The protesters followed the funeral to the Powazki Cemetery complex, the most prestigious in the country. Many were angered that the general was being buried there. Nearly a thousand people clustered in the narrow pathways between the headstones, some whistling and shouting against the general, others offering support. A small group from the National Movement, a far-right party, staged a mock funeral across town at the cemetery where 20,000 Soviet soldiers who fought the Nazis in World War II were buried, saying the general did not deserve to be interred at Powazki.

The Times summarized the reasons for the protests with this paragraph:

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