So there: Rod Dreher goes and writes a GetReligion post

So, yes, I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed (stage cue: slight choke in voice) to find out — while reading Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher’s usual 10,000 to 15,000 words of daily blogging output — that I was not one of the two newspaper columnists that he consistently gets to read. But, hey, I run in small- and mid-sized newspapers and I know that Rod’s a very busy guy. I mean, really, look at his blog: He must read 10 books and journals a day!

So, what really interested me was that, right in the middle of that particular post (a meditation on whether news columnists still matter during these online-commentary-saturated days), the working boy went and produced a genuine chunk of fantastic GetReligion work.

So without further ado, I hereby claim said chunk of type as a guest column.

So there.

You probably have examples in mind from your own experience of ways that current newspaper columnists could make their work more inspired, and therefore inspiring. I’d like to hear them. Whether you and I, readers, are coming from the left or the right or somewhere in between, I think we can agree that the uniformity of consensus opinion in our newspapers and on TV is a big part of the problem. And it’s not only uniformity of opinion about the left-right boundaries of our discourse. It’s a uniformity of opinion about what constitutes news.

Let’s take Fox News for example. This is supposed to be the conservative news network, but their idea of what constitutes conservatism, and news of interest to conservative viewers, is deeply Washington-centric, and deeply centered in the media class and its prejudices. In this, they’re no different from the competition; it’s just that as someone who has been part of the conservosphere for most of my adult life, it frustrates me to see how much Fox is ignoring for the sake of observing media conventions. For example, I’ve long marveled over the lack of religion and culture coverage on Fox. By religion and culture, I don’t mean the “War On Christmas” and other tabloid staples. I mean any sort of serious, sustained coverage, both in reporting and commentary, of stories emerging out of the world of religion and culture — stories that tell us, for better and for worse, something important about the world we’re in.

Here’s an example. In my little Southern town, the Methodist church is about to get a new minister — a woman pastor. She follows a woman pastor, who broke the clergy gender line at the church. My folks, who attend there, gave me the news the other night, and I mentioned to them that they will probably not live to see another male pastor at that parish. I explained to them that this is partly because of their age, but also because in mainline Protestant churches, the clergy class is becoming more and more female. Women make up about 20 percent of the clergy in mainline Protestant denominations, including Methodism — but that is fast changing. According to a 2006 New York Times report:

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Keeping Lent: Not once a year but four times

TERRY (YES, that TERRY) ASKS:

Whatever happened to the Lenten disciplines that used to be part of Advent, in the weeks before Nativity? How do they differ from the season of Lent?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

As Christendom nears the annual season of Lent, this refers to the Orthodox Church’s little-known practice of not just one but four seasons each year of Lenten-type fasting. “Great Lent” leading up to Easter is familiar. But traditionally, Orthodoxy also observes a Nativity Fast from mid-November (or later) through Christmas Eve, and two other seasons of abstinence from specified food and drink.

As the question indicates, average Eastern Orthodox members in western nations often ignore the traditional disciplines except for Great Lent. And Bishop Timothy Ware of Oxford, England, a British convert to Orthodoxy who became a bishop, remarks that the customary regimen “will astonish and even appall many western Christians.” In other words, these ancient traditions tend to be practiced even less in Western churches, including among Roman Catholics.

Father Thomas Hopko, retired dean of St. Vladimir’s seminary (and a high school friend of The Guy) explains the Orthodox concept.

First, why fast at all? Simply because Jesus taught this Jewish practice to his followers. In the Sermon on the Mount he said “when you fast,” not “if you fast,” indicating it’s a regular aspect of the life of faith. Jesus also said fasting should be a private matter without showing off one’s piety (Matthew 6:16-18).

The purpose is not to afflict oneself, Hopko insists. “God has no pleasure in the discomfort of his people.” Nor does it somehow pay for one’s sins, which can only occur through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “Salvation is a ‘free gift of God’ which no works of man can accomplish of merit” (citing the biblical Romans 5:15-17 and Ephesians 2:8-9).

Rather, fasting is meant “to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God,” to facilitate prayer, and to empower the soul to avoid sin.

These disciplines originated with monks early in Orthodox history but came to be recommended for all parishioners. Fasting is entirely a voluntary choice. The ill, the aged, the very young and nursing mothers are not asked to abstain. Newcomers to fasting may be advised to ease into the practices rather than following the full regimen. Rules are quite complex and vary by season and jurisdiction, but here’s a customary routine for Great Lent:

“Meatfare Sunday” (February 23 this year) is the last day till Easter when those keeping the fast eat meat, poultry or fish (with backbones; other seafood is often permitted). “Cheesefare Sunday” (March 2) is the last day when dairy products and eggs are consumed. Great Lent begins the following day with a total fast from food and drink except for a little water.

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The sad story of a priest, a partial-penitent and the press

At this point, it is no longer unusual to read a news story about an issue linked to homosexuality that yanks the pope’s famous “Who am I to judge?” quote out of context. Alas, this is now business as usual in the mainstream press. Click here for a refresher course — video and transcript — about what Pope Francis actually said.

So let’s move on.

Gentle readers, what is the key word that is missing from this opening passage from a recent Washington Post story? This ran under the headline, “Gay patient says Catholic chaplain refused him last rites.”

A Catholic chaplain at MedStar Washington Hospital Center stopped delivering a 63-year-old heart attack patient Communion prayers and last rites after the man said he was gay, the patient said Wednesday, describing a dramatic bedside scene starting with him citing Pope Francis and ending with him swearing at the cleric.

Details of the exchange this month between the Rev. Brian Coelho and retired travel agent Ronald Plishka couldn’t be confirmed with the priest, who did not respond to a direct e-mail or to requests left with the hospital and the archdiocese. The Archdiocese of Washington, for which he works, declined to comment and said Coelho “is not doing interviews.” The bedside discussion was first reported Monday in the Washington Blade.

The key word that is missing, of course, is “Confession.”

Why are the priest’s hands tied when it comes to responding to the charges made in this story? A priest who discusses what happens during a penitent’s Confession violates Catholic canon law and his vows. Priests go to jail rather than divulge what penitents say during Confession.

The Sacrament of Confession, of course, is a crucial element of the Last Rites, when a priest is dealing with a patient who has the ability to communicate. The whole point is for the penitent — there’s that word again — to confess his or her sins, receive absolution and then receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and, if possible, Holy Communion.

Thus, one livid Catholic reader of this blog — a nationally known scholar on First Amendment issues — noted, concerning this Post story:

One man’s word v. no one, since he priest did not respond to the reporter’s request. There’s nothing in it about the nature of the sacrament, that it requires confessions of sins if the patient is aware. Perhaps the gay man in this article refused to confess his sins? But we’ll never know. Apparently, you can just call up the Washington Post, tell them a priest refused to give you a sacrament, and they will run a story. This is blatant anti-Catholicism.

Actually, the Post story does get around to discussing the Confession angle. However, the headline and lede frames this as a dying man being refused Last Rites. It appears that what happened was that the priest began hearing Plishka’s Confession and then hit an obstacle, which was that this penitent appears to have voiced fierce disagreement with the teachings of the Catholic Church on what is and what is not a sin.

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10 years of GetReligion: State of the Godbeat 2014

By Julia Duin

Ever since the Washington Post dumped its massive On Faith blog, there’s been more chatter about where the religion beat is headed these days. True, On Faith has found a new — and more attractively designed — home, but has anyone else noticed the Post spinning off other specialty blogs to new homes?

I sure haven’t.

In late 2004, when I did an assessment for Poynter.org — “Help Wanted on the Religion Beat” — I mourned how major papers were increasingly hiring inexperienced journalists to cover religion news.

A decade later, it’s a big deal if anyone — experienced or not — is hired to a full-time job covering religion.

Journalism has seen a sea change in the past decade-plus due to the Internet taking over how news is produced, distributed and funded. Every beat is feeling the pain, as reporters in all specialties — and above a certain age — are losing their jobs. Whole newspapers have gone online only, or cut back to only a few days a week. Not only have religion beat reporters been shed like autumn leaves, all sections of the typical newsroom have been hit with layoffs and buyouts, including one Chicago newspaper that ditched its entire photo staff in one swoop.

Looking back, perhaps the worst cut of all was the closing of the six-page Saturday religion section at The Dallas Morning News, which had been rated as the country’s best for years. That was nixed in 2007 and its writers reassigned to other beats. At its peak, this section had four full-time religion reporters plus an editor, assistant editor, copy editor and a page designer. By the end of 2009, not one of these people remained. Word on the street was that the section wasn’t selling enough ads to pay for itself.

Happily for beat reporters, the electrifying papacy of Pope Francis has made the beat sexy again for the multitudes. When you see Francis’ image on the front covers of The New Yorker, Time magazine and The Advocate all in the same month — and in Rolling Stone a month later — know that lesser publications all want Francis-related stories and just might hire the right journalists to produce them.

Witness the Boston Globe’s recent surprise hire of John Allen to head up its new Catholic section. Also promising is the decision at The New York Times to move Michael Paulson — a former Globe reporter with oodles of knowledge on the Catholic beat who had been the politics and religion editor for the Times metro section — to national religion reporter status.

Further down the line, in terms of market size, results have been mixed. As of late last summer, some of the religion beat’s most experienced hands decided it was time to move on — marked by flurries of black flags at GetReligion. These were accomplished veterans who have years of institutional knowledge and contacts in the beat. Some had major questions about whether their jobs would still be there a year from now and wanted to control their exit rather than having someone else hand them the pink slip.

A few were replaced with experienced religion writers. One is Peter Smith, who left his post at the Louisville Courier-Journal for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has a tradition of solid religion reporting thanks to long-time scribe Ann Rodgers. Mark Kellner, news editor at The Adventist Review and freelance religion columnist at The Washington Times, started reporting this month on religion full-time for The Deseret News. And The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasted little time in filling the shoes of departing writer Tim Townsend with that of Lilly Fowler, a writer for a Los Angeles-based nonprofit who has an master’s degree in religion and has freelanced for Religion News Service (RNS). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has replaced its departing religion writer with Jean Hopfensperger, their philanthropy/non-profits reporter.

And a year ago this month, The Orange County Register hired Cathleen Falsani, who made her mark at The Chicago Sun-Times for her knack at interviewing celebrities from Bono to Barack Obama to Melissa Etheridge about their beliefs. She was brought on as a full-time faith and values columnist, only to be laid off Jan. 16 when the Register axed several dozen reporters.

Religion-beat jobs are either vacant or dead at The Nashville Tennessean, the Oregonian, the Washington Times (which laid me off in 2010 and has yet to find a replacement) and many other newspapers such as The Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and USA Today. The Seattle Times re-assigned its religion reporter, Janet Tu, to the Microsoft beat. With few exceptions, their replacements have been either no one or overworked GAs who produce uninformed and simplistic coverage.

One of the most egregious examples of leaving a crucial desk vacant is my old stomping grounds (back in the 1980s) at The Houston Chronicle, a Bible Belt city that has only just replaced its last religion reporter, Kate Shellnutt. In 2012, she left a cadre of outside bloggers to take her place. These days, Allan Turner — who has been at the Chronicle since 1985 — tells me that he is covering religion, along with some other beats. That’s 180 degrees from the days when the Chronicle employed two full-time religion news writers.

The major television networks still have no full-time religion reporters, with the exception of Lauren Green at Fox News. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has been faithfully doing important work for PBS for 17 years, but that program remains dependent on major funding from the Lilly Endowment and a few smaller grants.

Cutbacks in newspaper staffs have been a boon for RNS, which has become a major player in the secular media.

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Part II of America’s church slide: What to do?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of “Why the slide in the influence of America’s churches?”

GENE ASKS:

What one factor more than any other would draw more people into the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

In the previous Religion Q and A, Gene asked: “What one factor accounts for the indifference so many Americans harbor toward the church?” The Guy nominated “fading cultural respect,” scanned what observers think about causes, and covered mostly hard church trends, not soft “spiritual but not religious” sentiments.

A timely aside on religious identity: To coincide with the winter Olympics, Pew Research noted that Russians who call themselves Orthodox Christians have jumped from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population since the 1991 collapse of the atheistic Soviet regime. During the same years, believers in God increased from 38 percent to 56 percent. Do more Russians believe in Orthodoxy than in God? Yet a paltry 7 percent of Russians say they attend worship at least once a month, a small increase from 2 percent in 1991. Call that posthumous victory for Lenin and Stalin.

Back to how American churches can rebuild cultural stature. In addition to the statistics in our previous item, many Americans are spiritually and morally confused, grumpy about leaders and future prospects, and hostile toward those they disagree with. Social media, self-absorption and secular diversions supplant face-to-face fellowship that was traditionally a major reason why church involvement fostered well-being. The success of individual congregations helps stem the tide, but no wonder church strategists’ brows are furrowed and pastors feel on the defensive.
The Guy’s answer to Gene is tentative, speculative, and may even sound like preaching, but these are journalistic hunches based on news reports and social research across many years.

Gallup’s longtime polling on what Americans think about various professionals is especially significant.

As recently as 2001, 64 percent of Americans rated the clergy (all faiths) either “high” or “very high” in “honesty and ethical standards.” But a dozen years later less than half (47 percent) express such moral esteem. The good news? The clergy fare better than auto mechanics, bankers, lawyers, members of Congress — and fellow news reporters.

Perhaps that dismal 47 percent reflects the accumulating impact of three decades of incessant sexual molestation scandals involving Catholic priests and hapless bishops. Protestant personalities have also been mired in scandal and folly, and non-religious groups likewise contribute to the sour mood about the cultural establishment. But no doubt those errant Catholics did incalculable damage to the reputation of their huge church and its clergy (even though nominal membership is still growing). It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis can manage a turnaround.

A spillover effect very likely reduced regard also for non-Catholic churches and clergy. In the same way, one Muslim faction’s terrorism and murder of innocents in the name of God has very likely harmed their faith’s long-term moral credibility and also fosters suspicions toward devout religion of any type.

U.S. Protestantism is weakened by perennial acrimony within and between churches, mostly over the sprawling topic of Bible interpretation. In particular, the argument over homosexual marriages and partners evidently harms both sides. Why?

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Doing right by the pope — and by the readers

What a pleasure it is to see a writer do it right. So it’s a pleasure to read John L. Allen Jr.’s interview with Cardinal Sean O’Malley in the Boston Globe.

Allen, an associate editor of the Globe, brings years of skill and experience in having covered the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter in interviewing the archbishop of Boston.

The story, which Allen wrote along with religion reporter Lisa Wangsness, picks the brain of Pope Francis via the man who, as it says, “is widely considered to be Pope Francis’ closest American adviser.” The journalists set a balanced tone right from the first three paragraphs:

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley says he shares in the sense of wonder at how swiftly Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention and softened, with his sometimes startling words and personal gestures, the image of the Roman Catholic Church.

But he cautions that those with high expectations that the shift in tone presages major changes in church teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and other flashpoint issues are likely to be disappointed.

“I don’t see the pope as changing doctrine,’’ O’Malley said in an interview with the Globe, though he said the pontiff’s focus on compassion and mercy over doctrinal purity has reverberated powerfully throughout the church.

That’s another sign of an original reporter. Allen is aware of the tone in many secular media, anticipating liberal changes in the Roman Catholic Church. But unlike many colleagues, he chooses reporting over parroting.

He is also scrupulous in telling us what limitations he accepted for the interview. One is not to bring up a flap at a local Catholic school, where someone wasn’t used to provide food service after revealing that he’s gay. That’s analogous to Bob Costas’ agreement to confine his Wednesday interview with President Obama to matters related to the Winter Olympics.

Nor does Allen assume everyone knows O’Malley’s prominence in clerical circles. He offers this crisply written background:

O’Malley’s read on Francis carries special weight.

He is the only American cardinal Francis knew well before his election. O’Malley has traveled widely in Latin America, and once stayed at the Buenos Aires residence of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. They conversed comfortably in Spanish, a language O’Malley speaks fluently.

The 69-year-old archbishop is the only American on the pontiff’s all-important “G8” council of eight cardinal advisers, who will have their third session with Francis later this month to ponder reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and other matters.

He adds later that it was O’Malley who announced in December that Francis was forming a commission to deal with sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

The interview offers some tantalizing tips on future developments under Francis. One is to boost women’s leadership, even at the Vatican level:

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That faceless, mysterious flock of atheists in Guitar Town

One of the rules here at GetReligion is that we really, really try to understand the limitations that shape the work of many mainstream journalists in this era.

After all, we have been there and done that. We have had editors cut stories. We have been told to write 500-word daily stories on subjects that, to do them justice, would require 4,000 words and a month’s work of research. We feel your pain, fellow journalists.

Thus, we try to avoid criticizing a story by saying that it should be twice as long. If we spot a massive hole in a story — a religion-shaped hole — we try to propose ways that a time- and space-strapped reporter could fill it with a sentence or two or, or maybe a paragraph or two, of content. All journalists yearn for more reporting time and more inches of type in which to display the results.

However, I am about to break that rule.

Maybe it’s because I love the city of Nashville and know a thing or two about the people there, but that short news story in The Tennessean about the new atheist congregation in hip East Nashville — “Sunday Assembly’s atheist gathering looks a lot like church” — really needed more content. Yes, this is another localized story spinning off all of the coverage of the small Sunday Assembly on the other side of the big pond.

Launched in London just over a year ago by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the group has grown to 37 Sunday Assemblies across the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Of the 16 in this country, Nashville is arguably the most unlikely location. The group meets a few miles from the headquarters of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Organizers say they’re tapping into the “nones,” what religion demographers call the one-fifth of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. That group is on the rise, Pew Research Center data show, and includes atheists and agnostics but, in larger numbers, people who simply don’t identify themselves with any particular philosophy.

Sunday Assembly began meeting in Nashville in November and has faced little criticism from locals, even the most religious.

The news hook for the story? Jones the co-founder was in town for a filming session for a CNN show. What a shock.

Otherwise, the whole story — this is valid, methinks — focuses on how this non-church looks like a church once you walk inside the doors. Has anyone seen a story about one of these groups in which this was not the case?

All together now:

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Baring their souls: Seeking more coverage on naked church

Strip down this post to its bare essentials, and here’s the naked truth: Sometimes the Godbeat is more interesting than other news beats. Honest.

Take, for example, the story by WWBT — an NBC affiliate in Richmond, Va. — that skinny-dipped all over social media this week.

Before you click that link, though, heed the warning from one Twitter user:

 
Yes, this is a story about a church that worships in the, um, original attire of Adam and Eve:

SOUTHAMPTON, VA (WWBT) - About an hour’s drive south of Richmond, there’s a small congregation that doesn’t care about “material” things. They worship the same way we were all brought into this world, naked.

Even in February, when temperatures can average in the 20s, members show up in various forms: some fully clothed, others topless, many still completely nude.

Pastor Allen Parker says it’s not about the clothes, or lack thereof. He says it’s about baring his soul to Christ and leading his flock down that path of righteousness, no matter what they’re wearing.

As Jim Davis, our newest GetReligionista, put it, “Gotta admit, they save a lot on vestments and Easter hats.” (With comments like that, I’m afraid Jim is going to fit right in at GetReligion.)

Later in the WWBT report, we read:

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