Something akin to a Catholic

catholic-l-prolifeWe are getting closer and loser to an official mainstream-press language to describe the religious background of Judge Sonia Sotomayor and, to no one’s surprise, the issue that continues to drive this slow process of journalistic revelation is abortion.

At this point, however, no one wants to get into the confusing and controversial work of determining the identities of the Catholic judges on the U.S. Supreme Court, as opposed to the “Catholic” judges. After all, this would require listing the Catholic judges who support America’s current regime of abortion laws and then listing the Catholic judges who want to see abortion severely restricted or banned. That would raise doctrinal questions.

You see, it’s all about judicial mathematics. Here is a typical CNN reference:

Sotomayor was raised Catholic. If she is confirmed, six out of the nine justices on the high court will be from the faith. Catholics make up about 25 percent of the U.S. population. Of the 110 people who have served on the Supreme Court, 11 have been Catholic. Five of those justices — Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts — are currently on the court.

Notice the crucial words “raised” and “from.” Is someone who is “from” the Catholic Church a Catholic, as opposed to someone who is “in” the Catholic Church? Now that I think of it, which justices in the current gang of five are “from” the Catholic faith? Anyone care to name names?

Meanwhile, over at the Washington Post, we have the following language in a crucial news report in which the White House urgently assured leaders on the cultural left that Sotomayor is not a Justice David Souter in reverse. In other words, Democrats don’t make mistakes.

But it’s hard to stress that the nominee is a complex, nuanced moderate on abortion while also stressing that she is totally in line with the White House on its uncompromising support for abortion rights at all points during a pregnancy. Thus, we have this:

Facing concerns about the issue from supporters rather than detractors, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama did not ask Sotomayor specifically about abortion rights during their interview. But Gibbs indicated that the White House is nonetheless sure she agrees with the constitutional underpinnings of Roe v. Wade, which 36 years ago provided abortion rights nationwide.

And then we have this:

The abortion issue is likely to arise in Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings in July, in part because of her background as a Catholic. But she is unlikely to offer any more clarity than have previous nominees. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., for instance, ducked the question during his 2005 hearings by saying that Roe is “settled as a precedent of the court.”

And finally this, linked to Sotomayor rulings in the past:

… (In) cases involving deportation to China, she has written about the country’s sterilization and forced abortion standards. In one case, she talked about how husbands would be affected: “The termination of a wanted pregnancy under a coercive population control program can only be devastating to any couple, akin, no doubt, to the killing of a child.”

The question, in other words, is whether Sotomayor is a practicing Catholic or a person of Catholic cultural background who is, in effect, someone who is akin to being a Catholic.

Stay tuned. At some point, some reporter is going to dare to ask this question to people who might know.

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Framing the issue

frameThis week the California State Supreme Court revealed its decision regarding Proposition 8, the ballot initiative limiting marriage to a union of one man and one woman. Californians had passed the initiative and opponents had filed suit against it. The court arguments were televised which meant that no one was particularly surprised by the ruling, which the Washington Post‘s Keith Richburg writes up here:

The ruling Tuesday by California’s Supreme Court upholding a ban on same-sex marriages shows that, despite a year of successes for gay activists, the road toward full marriage rights remains difficult — particularly when voters are given a direct say.

The decisions in three states this year to legalize same-sex marriage, and the possibility that three others will soon follow suit, created a sense that the issue was gaining irreversible momentum and widespread acceptance, with many advocates making comparisons to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But the California ruling served as a reminder that same-sex marriage remains deeply polarizing, and the movement is likely to see more reversals and setbacks as it tries to expand beyond the favorable terrain of the Northeast.

Of all the interesting things about the way the mainstream media portray the debate over same-sex marriage, the above paragraphs demonstrate the importance of framing.

For instance, it’s true that in the last few months, three states have legalized same-sex marriage and others may soon follow suit. But it’s also true that in the last few months three states passed initiatives outlawing same-sex marriage and that they joined 30 others who had already done so.

Or what is this language about ‘creating a sense that gay marriage was inevitable.’ That’s only true because the media have been creating that sense. When a beauty pageant contestant is in the middle of a media firestorm for articulating a view of marriage and marriage policy shared by a majority of Americans including President Barack Obama; when articulating the view that marriage should be defined as it always has been — no matter what its variances — as a heterosexual institution is grounds for public shaming by the cultural elite; when the many victories of traditional marriage proponents are simply ignored . . .

The article goes on using the framework of how the Supreme Court ruling affects proponents of same-sex marriage — and not how it affects the majority of Americans who oppose same-sex marriage. It’s just an interesting choice, particularly on the same day that this Gallup Poll came out showing that the media-promulgated view of the inevitability of same-sex marriage might just be a fabrication of the media. From the Washington Post‘s web site and written up by Chris Cillizza:

On the heels of a decision by California’s Supreme Court to uphold a ban on gay marriage in the Golden State comes polling data from USA Today/Gallup that contradicts the conventional wisdom that a majority of the American public is moving closer to acceptance of same-sex unions.

Asked whether “marriages between same-sex couples” should or shouldn’t be “recognized by the law as valid”, 40 percent of the sample said those unions should be valid while 57 percent said they should not.

Those number are essentially unchanged from a May 2008 Gallup survey but less optimistic for proponents of gay marriage than a May 2007 poll in which 46 percent said same sex marriages should be valid while 53 percent said they should not.

The USA Today/Gallup survey also asked whether “allowing two people of the same sex to marry” would change change society for the better, the worse or have no effect. Thirteen percent said it would make things better, 48 percent said it would make things worse and 36 percent said allowing gay people to marry would have no effect on society.

It’s fascinating that the plurality of Americans who reported in this poll that same-sex marriage would make things worse for society — and the majorities who routinely vote to define marriage as a heterosexual institution — aren’t given a voice in the media. They consistently express their views and yet are routinely derided by, marginalized in or ignored by the media. Why?

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Lowest common denominations?

This has been a big day for news, has it not? In Washington, D.C., President Obama nominated (see tmatt’s post) a woman who could be the first Hispanic ( which has prompted some debate over why Benjamin Cardozo didn’t count) and the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

In California, the Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage. The Court upheld the legality of the marriages performed between last May (when the same court upheld the legality of same-sex marriage) and November, when the proposition banning it passed. One safe bet — religious spokespeople on the right and the left will have something to say. How good journalists are in identifying the players remains to be seen.

I have a quibble with a few things about the New York Times referenced above, but I also recognize that it’s really the “first edition” of an story that will continue to reverbrate in the media as opponents and proponents react to the ban.

The California Supreme Court upheld a ban on same-sex marriage today, ratifying a decision made by voters last year that runs counter to a growing trend of states allowing the practice.

The decision, however, preserves the 18,000 marriages performed between the court’s decision last May that same-sex marriage was lawful and the passage by voters in November of Proposition 8, which banned it. Supporters of the proposition argued that the marriages should no longer be recognized.

Do three state decisions for gay marriage and three possibles (all except for Iowa in the Northeast) constitute a “growing trend”? Is this the beginning of a tidal wave or a Left and Right Coast phenomenon? A few paragraphs into the story, John Schwartz underscores his “trend” assertion by referring to a recent poll:

At the same time, attitudes of Americans toward same-sex marriage favor liberalization of the practice. In an April CBS/New York Times poll, 42 percent of those surveyed favored same-sex marriage, up from 21 percent at election time in 2004, when it was a wedge issue during the presidential campaign. That poll suggests the trend will continue into the future: 57 percent of the respondents favored legal recognition for same-sex marriage, compared with 31 percent of respondents over the age of 40.

The data he quotes from this one poll suggest not that all Americans favor ‘liberalizing’ marriage but that support for same-sex marriage has grown, particularly among those under 30. What explains this apparent dramatic surge between 2004 and 2009? The reporter doesn’t explain, nor does he indentify the actual questions asked.

More puzzling for those who want to track ongoing developments among California clergy and laypeople is this paragraph from a story on today’s Los Angeles Times website.

But gay marriage advocates captured a wide array of support in the case, with civil rights groups, legal scholars and even some churches urging the court to overturn the measure. Supporters of the measure included many churches and religious organizations.

It wouldn’t be remarkable if a Unitarian Universalist congregation supported gay marriage — if a Southern Baptist congregation came out for it, that would be news! What churches is Dolan talking about? Paragraphs like this are safe, because they are so vague, but tell you absolutely nothing.

Of the early stories I’ve seen, I like the detailed one on the Washington Post website the best. It was posted two or three hours later than the other ones, meaning that the writer had more time to gather quotes and statements. Writer Ashley Surdin pays a lot of attention to the legal reasoning and implications of the ruling. She also has more quotes (as one might expect) from those who are angry about the judgment than those who are please. But she does include a statement from the Mormons and notes that many “conservative” denominations and politicians were involved in support for Proposition 8.

Where is the “religious left”? Perhaps they will be heard from in days to come. In fact, I suspect that religious voices will once again become prominent in the gay marriage debate in California — as proponents do not, by any measure, consider this a done deal. It’s unfair to judge all coverage by what one sees on the first day — since so many Prop 8 supporters were driven by religious convictions (and possibly many on the other side) that is a story that deserves to continue to be covered.

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Duck and cover: She may be Catholic

Just what the U.S. Supreme Court needed — another Roman Catholic. This would make six out of nine, for those keeping track.

So prepare for more headlines about Catholics taking over our nation’s legal discourse.


It does not appear that many people on the cultural and religious left are worried about today’s headlines, when it comes to fearing the rising tide of theocracy. In fact, I am having trouble — in the first wave of coverage — finding any information about the status of Judge Sonia Sotomayor‘s faith.

The word “Catholic” does not appear in the first report from the Washington Post, as one might expect. We get this, as a sample biography paragraph:

If confirmed, Sotomayor, 54, would be the first Supreme Court justice of Hispanic descent and only the third woman ever to sit on the panel. She grew up in a Bronx housing project, went on to Princeton University and Yale Law School, and has stirred controversy by saying that judges’ legal findings are informed by their own life experiences as well as their legal research.

Obama, too, has said jurists’ life experiences are a key part of their legal makeup, and he cited Sotomayor’s compelling personal story as one of the motivations for his choice.

There’s a similar gap in the early coverage over at The Politico and at The Los Angeles Times. Was I supposed to be searching for something other than “Catholic”? Is “Hispanic” now code language? Then again, the word “Catholic” is not in the early Washington Times report, either. Maybe the White House didn’t include this in her background materials (which is interesting). After all, we would have to ask what kind of Catholic she is. That could get complex.

Over at the Pontifications blog at, David Gibson is asking a blunt question about Sotomayor, who is divorced and has no children: Is she a Catholic? You could also put it this way, perhaps: Is she still a Catholic?

However, the New York Times should get some credit for at least hinting at what will surely be one of the most discussed elements of the judge’s nomination — which is a done deal, short of some personal scandal emerging.

As the various stories keep saying, Sotomayor has an “inspiring personal story.” The bible of American journalism, thus, included this small detail:

Judge Sotomayor’s father died when she was 9 years old, and her mother worked six-day weeks to earn enough money to send her and a brother to Catholic school. She got into Princeton University, where she once said she felt like “a visitor landing in an alien country,” but graduated summa cum laude.

Although she grew up in modest circumstances, the judge said, “I consider my life to be immeasurably rich.” … Judge Sotomayor has said her ethnicity and gender are important factors in serving on the bench, a point that could generate debate. “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” she said in a 2002 lecture.

So her life story will be a big part of the upcoming mini-debates about her appointment. Here is my question: If she was a pro-life woman, from a Hispanic background, do you think that the word “Catholic” would be appearing higher in these early (I repeat, EARLY) reports about her life and work?

Just saying.

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I had another baby, yo

mzhandlkSome of you may have noticed that I haven’t been around for a number of days. I have been busy giving birth to my second child, L.K., and adjusting to the craziness that is wrangling multiple children. The vitals for that birthday on the 12th were 8 lbs, 3 ounces (the exact birth weight of her mama) and 19 inches long. The baptism will be this Sunday, Pentecost, at our church.

Everything is going well although I’ve already realized that every child is different. I was pretty confident that no child could be as easy as my first was, so it’s not too much of a surprise. Anyway, big sister E.P. is doing great and has been enjoying the new baby. Hopefully that will continue!

There were quite a few stories I wanted to comment on in the last week and a half but I’ll have to wait a while before I can be fully engaged. Lack of sleep and powerful medication do not make for enlightening commentary (I’m sure some people are asking what the difference is between that and my normal posts . . .). Still, I hope to ease back in to my work here at GetReligion, even if it takes me a bit longer than normal to weigh in.

In the meantime, please pass along any tips you have for how to adjust to more than one child.

Also, Tom S., one of our faithful readers, and his wife welcomed new daughter Rebekah Lusa to their family the day after my L.K. was born. Rebekah was born with a heart condition requiring surgery and she’ll undergo her open heart bypass surgery today. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

My husband sent out a birth announcement with this passage that we both enjoy and have found comforting:

“You showed Your mercy before I could perceive it. You came to me with Your Kindness before I could long for it. Your generosity encompassed me before I could offer thanks for it. You not only marvelously formed me in my mother’s womb, but also drew me out from the womb. You have been my hope since I was at my mother’s breast. I was cast on you from birth. From my mother’s womb you have been my God.”

– Johann Gerhard, “Thanksgiving for Life and Birth,” Meditations on Divine Mercy

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Ghosts in the Idol finale

I am not an American Idol fan and have not seen a single minute of this year’s pop-machinery-industrial festival. I love music way too much to watch.

However, I am enjoying watching the media meltdown over the surprise winner and part of me wants to shout to the mainstream reporters, as opposed to commentators: JUST REPORT AND WRITE THE RELIGION ANGLE AND GET IT OVER WITH.

I realize that facts play a disputed role in entertainment journalism. I also know that the Kingdom of Simon may be such a closed shop, in terms of actual journalistic access to the “stars,” that it might be hard to do real interviews that might reveal real insights. But, please, if you read the main stories on this event, you would think that Pat Robertson defeated Barney Frank or something. Was the presidency of Barack Obama really at stake in this contest?

Want to read between some major lines? Check out the New York Times:

It’s possible that “American Idol” viewers’ selection of Kris Allen over Adam Lambert says something about the mood and mores of the country, that viewers are too conformist to anoint a sassy, androgynous individualist. Then again, maybe not: Mr. Allen’s victory may merely reflect the voters’ conventional taste in pop music.

The choice of Mr. Allen, revealed during the two-hour finale on Fox on Wednesday night, wasn’t a breakthrough decision, even if a record 100 million votes were cast. … But it isn’t necessary to seek deeper meaning in the finale; it’s the “American Idol” franchise itself that best speaks to the state of the nation.

Yawn. Come on, there are a few facts here to report.

Let’s try another mainstream bible, the Style section at the Washington Post. Start with the lede:

This time, Kris Allen, the modest, 23-year-old married college student who has worked as a church worship leader, was named 2009′s American Idol. He beat Adam Lambert, the 27-year-old, boldly creative, can-only-call-him-”flamboyant” musical theater actor who brought “guyliner” and black fingernail polish to the country’s most watched television show and made the audience like it.

But wait! This is Washington, so we also have to add:

… (T)here’ll be more talk about this being the latest red state/blue state battle — such as Republican strategist Todd Harris did on CBS’s “The Early Show” yesterday morning, as in: “You’ve got these more liberal elites who live on each coast, represented by Adam, and then Kris represents what those on the coast refer to as the flyover states.”

And getting closer to the point:

Meanwhile, people who actually watch the show will be debating the Danny Gokey Factor — a theory espoused by “American Idol’s” Deep Thought Thinker, Paula Abdul: “After the third one leaves, you wonder where do the votes go from that third contestant,” Abdul told the Associated Press backstage after Tuesday’s final performance show.

The 29-year-old Gokey, this year’s second runner-up, is a widower who hails from Milwaukee. A church music director, Gokey — like Allen — was a non-flashy performer.

Lambert, on the other hand, hails from Los Angeles by way of San Diego, was in the cast of “Wicked” and doesn’t talk much about his personal life. But expect the “is-he-or-isn’t-he?” chatter about Lambert to explode today into a full-on debate about whether the vote reflects gay bias.

So you have two straight church guys vs. the “Wicked” guy with Style.

Now, contrast the mainstream language with this snip from the online world, where I had hundreds of options. What struck me about this one was the possibility that there were actual religious background facts to report and explore.

Frankly, I would also love to ask this question: Has Sunday morning in megachurch America already turned into the American Idol minor leagues? Is this victory a sign that the dreaded Contemporary Christian Music niche is getting more or less powerful? Should we start a betting pool on the release date for the big Kris Allen worship-music disc?

Anyway, check out the blunt language in this commentary at The God Blog at

Allen was Christian and Southern and more conservative; Lambert was Jewish and liberal and made for Hollywood. And at some point, it appears that Allen became the straight “Idol” and Lambert the gay “Idol.”

“American Idol was like watching Prop 8 win all over again.”

I saw that perspective included in a quick compilation of post-”Idol” chatter on the blog of my old colleague Greg Hernandez, who is gay and was himself wondering how much of the spike in “Idol” voting was “anti-Adam.” It’s really impossible to know how many Christians, and other socially conservative religious folks, voted for Allen simply because he wasn’t Lambert. But I’m sure at least some.

Stay tuned. I hope someone actually does some reporting on the religion side of the story, if reporting is allowed.

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Irish tsunami, international version

Yesterday Doug complimented American media on showing “commendable restraint” in reacting to the more than 2,500-page report documenting decades of child abuse by Irish monks and nuns. I have to admit that I am torn between being convinced that the facts do speak for themselves, and a sense that readers should be faced with the scale and breadth of the horrors inflicted on institutionalized children — all the more ghastly because it was done by men and women “of God.”

It’s been interesting to see that same tension apparently play itself out in the reporting. There’s been a flood of international coverage. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that in this globalized media culture, many media outlets have used stories from the AP and other organizations with reporters in Ireland.

Many of the very detailed reports have come out of the U.K. in general and Ireland in particular, which has been awaiting this final report since an interim one was issues in 2003. Here’s a summary of some of it from a story in Friday’s Irish Times. You might expect that some of the more histrionic verbiage would come from England –and so it does. A few paragraphs into the article readers run into Ruth Gledhill and her take-no -prisoners perspective on the scandal. I’ll let this one speak for itself.

The BBC story sticks to the facts. At a time in which some are painting all Catholic institutions with the same broad brush, The Mail Online helpfully details which religious organizations were accused, what they were accused of and their responses to the publication of the report. On the other hand, the Mail Online also has this article, which is “damning” from the beginning, jumping way over the line into editorial.

Read instead a relatively subdued story from AFP (Agence France-Presse) via France 24. An Australian angle is also covered by AFP. Many articles, including this one posted on the Sky News website, included expressions of apology from church officials like Irish Cardinal Sean Brady.

There’s lots more out there, easily accessible by Google search. But I thought that writers Carmel Crimmins and Padraic Halpin brought home the persistent aftermath of the abuse in this Reuters story. With a careful choice of adjectives, they were able to remind readers that in Ireland the gamut of emotions runs from remorse to anger to ongoing trauma. The lede brings readers right back into present tense in a way that is unsettling:

Victims of sexual abuse and neglect in Catholic-run schools and orphanages in Ireland swamped counseling services on Thursday after the publication of the harrowing findings of a nine-year investigation.

The litany of violence, published on Wednesday, lifted the lid on one of the darkest chapters in Irish history and prompted scores of victims to end decades of silence.

Powerful stuff in a relatively small country where, for so long, the Catholic church has been one of the dominant institutions. Let’s hope that future coverage takes a look at what church leaders like Cardinal Brady and others are doing as they cope with the aftermath of the scandal, and some reasoned analysis of the secular legacy of this countrywide tragedy — in which the government has also been taken to task.

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NYTs ventures into the fog

SAN FRANCISCO-DEMONSTRATION FOR LIFEYou may need to sit down before you read this post.

I would like to briefly discuss an article in the New York Times about abortion and the political career and thought of President Barack Obama.
The headline: “On Abortion, Obama Is Drawn Into Debate He Hoped to Avoid.”

I want to praise this article. It features two strong points of view and a collection of interesting, informed voices.

Honest. Feel free to read it. The whole idea is a familiar one: Obama has tried to change how America talks about abortion, while basically leaving the pro-abortion-rights legal regime precisely where is has been for a generation, which is solidly to the left of, well, France or Sweden. He has tried, through warm tones and expressions of good will, to end the “culture wars” era, without making any compromises on the actual policies.

But now, two things — the University of Notre Dame war inside Catholicism and the open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court — have shaken that dream. Reality is returning, the reality that reminds political leaders that some principled Americans — on left and right — care fiercely about abortion and the masses in the middle want compromise, which is very hard to do in terms of law and politics.

To make matters more complex, the pros at the Gallup organization are released a poll claiming that 51 percent of Americans now call themselves “pro-life,” vs. 42 percent “pro-choice.”

In that context, read this chunk of the Times report:

Mr. Obama frames his position on abortion as a nuanced one — he calls it a “a moral and ethical issue” best left to women and doctors — and he envisions himself forging consensus around causes like reducing unintended pregnancies and promoting adoption. As he said in a 2007 speech to Planned Parenthood, “Culture wars are so ’90s.”

As president, Mr. Obama, who during the campaign answered a question about when human life begins by saying it was “above my pay grade,” has tried to straddle the abortion divide. He has done so partly by reaching out to religious conservatives, partly by avoiding the most contentious legislative battles and partly by reversing the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, a faithful ally of abortion opponents, in piecemeal fashion — all while the nation has been consumed by the economic crisis.

That’s part of the equation. But here comes the other half:

He has named abortion rights advocates to top jobs; Dawn Johnsen, a former legal director of Naral Pro-Choice America, is his pick to run the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. He has repealed the so-called Mexico City rule, which prohibited tax dollars from going to organizations that provide abortions overseas; lifted Mr. Bush’s limits on embryonic stem cell research; stripped financing for abstinence-only sex education; and is seeking to undo a last-minute Bush regulation giving broad protections to health providers who refuse to take part in abortions.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said she told allies that their movement was emerging from “eight years in the wilderness.”

But will Obama deliver the Freedom of Choice Act or not?

Will be actually be able to offer any compromises that offend the true believers on either side?

And the Times just keeps coming, in this story, with punchy clusters of facts that resemble the muddled middle that is American reality.

Polls show that the American public is deeply conflicted over abortion and that support has declined steadily over the years. In 1995, roughly 60 percent of Americans believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Last month, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, that number stood at 46 percent. A Gallup survey that examined seven decisions early in Mr. Obama’s presidency found that the least popular was the one to overturn the ban on sending tax dollars to organizations that provide abortions overseas.

This story will make lots of people a little bit glad, or a little bit mad, or very uneasy or all of the above.

That’s a good thing. RIght now, that’s reality.

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