Torture lost to Mafia coverage, at least in news on pope talks

If the coverage of Pope Francis this weekend was any indication, the Mafia is more interesting to mainstream journalists than torture chambers are. The reporters paid lots of attention to the pope’s anti-Mafia statement on Saturday, but hardly seemed to notice the next day when he urged all Christians to join in ending torture.

Meanwhile, torture is used in 141 nations in every region of the world, according to Amnesty International. Yet when Francis focused on it in his weekly Angelus address, it got little more than a brief in some media.

The Associated Press gave the story a mere five paragraphs. And only three of them had to do with the speech:

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis is urging Christians to work together to abolish every form of torture, condemning the practice as a grave sin.

Francis told the public in St. Peter’s Square Sunday he wanted to reiterate his “firm condemnation of every kind of torture.” He sought united efforts to work for torture’s end and to support victims and their families.

Francis said it was a “mortal sin, a very grave sin, to torture people” and noted that Thursday marks the United Nation’s day for torture victims.

The other two paragraphs mentioned that the military government of Argentina, Francis’ homeland, often used torture from 1976 to 1983. “Francis has been credited with saving lives of political dissidents while a Jesuit priest in Argentina,” the story adds.

Surprisingly, one of the best mainstream stories on the Angelus ran in the International Business Times:

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The track record when atheists wield political power?

DUANE’S QUESTION:

He’d like to know what The Religion Guy was talking about in this from “Religion Q and A” on June 8: “When atheists seized governments in the 20th Century they fused their belief in unbelief with state power and enforced it with a cruel vengeance unmatched by the worst cross-and-crown tyrannies during Christendom’s bygone centuries.”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Guy was thinking of hard facts about Communists holding political power. To explain the comment (which compared Communism with Christianity, not Islam) let’s first consider the most famous cruelties centuries ago when Christians dominated politics (events today’s churches would rather forget).

* The Crusades. Starting in the 11th Century, European Christian forces fought Islamic invaders over control of the Holy Land. The two religions suffered some 3 million deaths, according to necrometrics.com, where librarian Matthew White compiles estimates on history’s death tolls.

* The Spanish Inquisition. Historian R.J. Rummel figures from the 15th Century onward Christians executed 10,000 heretics, though many times that number died from abuse or disease while in prison.

*The anti-witch hysteria. In the 16th and 17th Centuries Germany executed 26,000 supposed witches, plus some 11,000 elsewhere in Europe, according to a University of Missouri – Kansas City scholar.

*The Thirty Years’ War. With this 17th Century European catastrophe, population estimates are sketchy but many millions died from battle or disease. As with many long-ago wars this one mingled national with religious rivalries, in this case Protestant vs. Catholic.

Plenty to repent of there. And we’d add millions more from the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities if Hitler’s regime acted out of Christian belief.

The tyrant himself was baptized as an infant and thus a Catholic on paper. However, the adult Hitler was a cynic who manipulated churches for political advantage and privately held Christianity in utter contempt as weak and devoted to Scriptures of the Jews he despised. Hitler and his henchmen don’t count as atheists either, since they felt nationalistic nostalgia for pre-Christian paganism. Admittedly, all too many German Christians tolerated or favored Nazi anti-Semitism.

Then for comparison, here’s the track record for some atheistic regimes on what White calls ”unjust, unnecessary, or unnatural” deaths:

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Headline writers duck and cover when Francis improvises

It must be very hard to be a headline writer in the age of Pope Francis.

I mean, the man serves up — during his off-the-cuff homilies and chats — a wealth of material that simply screams, “You must put this phrase in a headline because it sounds amazing.”

The only problem is that this pope has a way of using words that have specific doctrinal or legal content, in terms of Catholic tradition, in strange ways. He says words that make HUMAN sense, yet do not precisely say what the pope seems to be saying. Journalists quote the words accurately. Then, later, Vatican officials then have to clean up what the pope SAID, as opposed to what he did not actually mean to have said.

Headline writers get caught in the middle. Consider this case study from Reuters, care of The Washington Post:

Pope Francis lambastes mobsters, says mafiosi ‘are excommunicated’

The key quote holds up at the top of the report. Can you spot the key word?

SIBARI, Italy – Pope Francis on Saturday issued the strongest attack on organized crime groups by a pontiff in two decades, accusing them of practicing “the adoration of evil” and saying mafiosi are excommunicated.

It was the first time a pope had used the word excommunication — a total cutoff from the Catholic Church — in direct reference to members of organized crime.

“Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he said in impromptu comments at a Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in one of Italy’s most crime-infested areas.

Key word? “Impromptu.”

So what did the pope say, according to the Vatican? Or, to put it another way, what did he not legally say in terms of Catholic canon law?

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NYTimes’ riveting portrait of a Christian in Afghanistan

The New York Times’ amazing profile of a Christian convert in Afghanistan is a must-read piece of journalism, generating much attention — and deservedly so — on social media:

KABUL, Afghanistan — In a dank basement on the outskirts of Kabul, Josef read his worn blue Bible by the light of a propane lantern, as he had done for weeks since he fled from his family in Pakistan.

His few worldly possessions sat nearby in the 10-by-10-foot room of stone and crumbling brown earth. He keeps a wooden cross with a passage from the Sermon on the Mount written on it, a carton of Esse cigarettes, and a thin plastic folder containing records of his conversion to Christianity.

The documents are the reason he is hiding for his life. On paper, Afghan law protects freedom of religion, but the reality here and in some other Muslim countries is that renouncing Islam is a capital offense.

Josef’s brother-in-law Ibrahim arrived in Kabul recently, leaving behind his family and business in Pakistan, to hunt down the apostate and kill him. Reached by telephone, Ibrahim, who uses only one name, offered a reporter for The New York Times $20,000 to tell him where Josef was hiding.

“If I find him, once we are done with him, I will kill his son as well, because his son is a bastard,” Ibrahim said, referring to Josef’s 3-year-old child. “He is not from a Muslim father.”

For Josef, 32, who asked to be identified only by his Christian name to protect his wife and young child, the path to Christianity was only one segment on a much longer journey, a year of wandering that took him through Turkey, Greece, Italy and Germany, seeking refuge from Afghanistan’s violence.

As you may recall, GetReligion just recently featured this headline:

The story on the Afghanistan convert prompted this email from a reader:

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What’s in a name? PCA vs. PCUSA

Oh my. My heart goes out to the writer at NBC News’ breaking news desk for having bungled a story from the Presbyterian Church of the USA (PCUSA)’s General Assembly in Detroit.

From the conservative religion news and advocacy website Juicy Ecumenism, here is a report from reporter Alexander Griswold from the meeting:

At its 2014 General Assembly held in Detroit, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to approve two measures to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages. The first, Item 10-03, issued an authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order stating that pastors have a right to preside over gay marriages in states where they are legal. The second, Item 10-02, amended the Book of Order to redefine marriage as between “two people” rather than between a man and a woman and allows ministers to perform any legal marriage between two people. That amendment will require the approval of a majority of the presbyteries before it will take effect.

For religion news watchers this vote was not unexpected. The delegates to the 201o General Assembly voted to permit the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy, while the 2012 General Assembly narrowly turned down a similar gay marriage bill. The surprise was in the strong margin of support the measure received this time round.

Religion News Service observed:

The church has long grappled with the issue, which came to a head at the last General Assembly, in 2012, when a similar resolution allowing for gay marriage lost 338-308. Since then, the church’s decades-long decline in membership — it has lost 37 percent of its membership since 1992 — has continued. These losses have been led by conservative-leaning congregations that defected over what they lamented as the church’s embrace of more liberal values.

Those defections — many to smaller and more conservative Presbyterian denominations — made it more likely that the General Assembly would approve a gay marriage resolution this year.

One of these more conservative denominations is the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) — the second largest Presbyterian denomination and one that withdrew from what is now the PCUSA in the early 1970s.
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Irish children’s deaths: Media may be returning to sanity

Are cooler heads finally prevailing in that story of the children who died at a nun-run home in Ireland? There are some signs. But the temp is not yet back to normal.

As you may recall from a previous column of mine, a local historian determined that hundreds of children died at St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, between 1925 and 1961. She couldn’t find their graves in nearby cemeteries, and she concluded that most of the children were buried on the premises.

That birthed an avalanche of stories about mass deaths, mass graves, even mass dumpings of dead babies into a septic tank. A headline on the radio station Newstalk even quoted a media priest screaming that “Tuam mass grave like ‘something that happened in Germany in the war’.”

Numerous articles at the start of June also parroted the accusation that babies born inside Irish mother-daughter homes were “denied baptism” and, if they died there, were “also denied a Christian burial.” As Kevin Clarke of America magazine points out, the claim is repeated with no attribution or attempt to prove it.

Over the last week or two, though, sanity may be creeping in. Some media are dialing back the hysteria, keeping more in line with what they really know. What a novel idea, eh?

The Limerick Leader follows the Irish Times — by six days — in saying that Corliss has “distanced herself from more sensationalist reports of 800 babies “buried in a septic tank.” Most of the story is a cautious profile on a young computer expert who is compiling a narrative on the children’s deaths from contemporary newspaper archives.

 

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All Catholics oppose death penalty and all Baptists favor it?

In the wake of the nation’s first executions since Oklahoma’s botched lethal injection, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has an interesting story on a young Republican concerned about the death penalty:

Late Tuesday, as the clock approached midnight, Marcus Wellons rode to oblivion on a state-inserted needle, his punishment for the rape and murder of a young Cobb County neighbor 24 years ago.

That same day, Marc Hyden, a 30-year-old confirmed conservative Republican from Marietta, hopped a plane for Washington D.C. Today, he will open a booth at the fifth annual gathering of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Hyden is a national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a two-year-old, GOP-based group that carries tea party suspicion of government into a new but highly logical arena:

If you don’t trust your government to deliver a piece of mail to your doorstep, how can you trust it to competently decide who lives and who dies?

To its credit, the Journal-Constitution recognizes that religion plays a role in this debate:

An extensive national survey conducted last year by Barna Group showed that 42 percent of Christian baby-boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, agreed that “government should have the option to execute the worst criminals.”

But among those born between 1980 and 2000, the approval rate dropped to 32 percent among self-identified Christians. Among actively practicing Christian millennials, only 23 percent approved of the death penalty.

Then comes this:

The religious connection is important, especially in terms of Georgia politics. An alliance between Southern Baptists and Catholics has been a large part of the success enjoyed by religious conservatives at the state Capitol when it comes to issues such as gay marriage or abortion.

But the death penalty divides the two denominations. Catholics oppose executions. Southern Baptists do not.

That last sentence assumes a lot. Is it really true that Catholics oppose executions, while Southern Baptists do not? Technically, the answer is probably yes.

From a Pew Research Center primer on religious groups’ official positions on the death penalty:

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Nuns, strippers and the never-boring Godbeat

Put another one in the “Godbeat sure ain’t boring” file.

I first read about the dispute between a group of Chicago-area nuns and a neighboring strip club in the Chicago Tribune:

A group of nuns is suing to shut down a strip club next to their convent in Stone Park that the sisters say keeps them awake at night.

The Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo Scalabrinians say in the suit that Club Allure has ruined their peace with blinking neon lights and loud thumping music. The nuns say they have witnessed drunken fights and found condoms littering the area.

The suit, filed against the club and the village of Stone Park, states that the club violates a state law against operating adult entertainment within 1,000 feet of a school or place of worship. The club is also near houses, and three neighbors have joined the suit.

“I think most people would find that offensive, to put a strip club next to a home for sisters,” said Peter Breen, attorney for the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that filed the suit on behalf of the nuns.

The Tribune offers a straightforward, non-cheeky account of the conflict, highlighting the nuns’ concerns, the tricky legal issues involved and the strip club’s response — all in less than 450 words.

The paper even provides a link to the lawsuit.

All three sources quoted — one each on behalf of the nuns, the municipality and the strip club — are attorneys. While that is entirely proper and journalistically sound, I found myself wishing I could hear directly from a nun. Or even a stripper.

The Chicago Sun-Times did quote a nun (although I’d rank its overall story below the quality of the Tribune’s):

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