Did Pope Francis have to go to confession?

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RACHAEL ASKS:

Who does the pope go to if he has to go to confession or is he exempt because he’s the pope?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The pope gets no pass because he’s the pope.

Pope Francis, who has shown a flair for the dramatic his first year in office, demonstrated this in highly unusual fashion during this Lenten season, which puts special emphasis on contrition for sin. On March 28, to the surprise of worshippers in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pontiff publicly kneeled before a priest with his back to the cameras and congregation and confessed his sins for about three minutes. The AP reported the priest seemed to chuckle so perhaps he was also surprised. Then Francis joined 61 priests along the sanctuary walls who heard confessions from penitents, something popes usually do on Good Fridays.

The doctrine of original sin says (and history sometimes proves) that the popes are flawed humans just like all the rest of us. A pope’s infallibility involves only his personal definitions of faith and morals.

Francis explained at a weekly “general audience” talk last November that “priests and bishops too have to go to confession. We are all sinners. Even the pope confesses every 15 days, because the pope is also a sinner. And the confessor hears what I tell him; he counsels me and forgives me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness.”

Francis appreciates performing this priestly function. In off-the-cuff remarks on Pentecost Eve last year he said he regrets he cannot do it more often. “When I go to listen to confession — and I can’t yet because to go out and listen to confession, well, I can’t leave this place. But that’s another issue … ”

Catholicism asks all parishioners to regularly confess in order to be in the proper spiritual state to receive Communion, and by all means to do so during Lent.

Confession must be done before a priest who alone can grant absolution on God’s behalf and prescribe deeds of piety and charity as “satisfaction” for sin, as opposed to Protestants’ individual or group prayer for forgiveness directly to God. Francis stated in the November talk that God himself wills that believers “receive forgiveness by means of the ministers of the community.”

Penance (also called the sacrament of reconciliation) is so central that it takes up 76 sections in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This includes the teaching, rejected by Protestants, that the church has the unique power to grant “indulgences” that remove partial or full punishment due to sin for either the living or the dead in Purgatory. Observance of Penance has declined this past generation more than with the church’s other six sacraments (Communion, baptism, confirmation, clergy ordination, marriage and the anointing of the sick).

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Brendan Eich nailed for his generic, private, anti-gay beliefs?

Yes, yes, yes, I know. Just try to imagine the mainstream press coverage if Brendan Eich had been a Chick-fil-A manager in, oh, some middle-American enclave like Mission, Kan., who was forced to resign because of his private financial support for gay rights.

No, I am not going there. To put it bluntly, I am waiting for the religion shoe to drop in the whole story of the Mozilla chief executive who was forced to step down because he once donated $1,000 to California’s Proposition 8, a campaign dedicated to defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

As one veteran GetReligion reader asked in a private email: “I’m not missing the part where they say he’s Catholic, Mormon, evangelical, whatever, am I? The faster gay marriage becomes accepted, the harder I think it is for someone to be against gay marriage without some driving religious belief.”

Unless I have missed something in the past hour or two, that is not a question that many journalists have been asking. Right now, the framing for this story is that his actions were anti-gay, not pro-something, something doctrinally and legally different.

Over at the normally gay-news-driven New York Times, this story is not receiving major attention. A “Bits” feature in the business pages does provide an interesting summary of the raging debates surrounding this case, including the fact that some liberals — including some in the gay community — are quite upset with the illiberal campaign by many “liberals” to punish Mozilla, while making Eich an untouchable in the highly influential tech world. Here is a key chunk of that report:

Mr. Eich’s departure from the small but influential Mountain View, Calif., company highlights the growing potency of gay-rights advocates in an area that, just a decade ago, seemed all but walled off to their influence: the boardrooms of major corporations. But it is likely to intensify a debate about the role of personal beliefs in the business world and raise questions about the tolerance for conservative views inside a technology industry long dominated by progressive and libertarian voices.

Andrew Sullivan, a prominent gay writer and an early, influential proponent of making same-sex marriage legal, expressed outrage over Mr. Eich’s departure on his popular blog, saying the Mozilla chief had been “scalped by some gay activists.”

“If this is the gay rights movement today — hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else — then count me out,” Mr. Sullivan wrote.

A number of gay rights advocates pointed out that their organizations did not seek Mr. Eich’s resignation. Evan Wolfson, a leading gay marriage advocate, said that this was a case of “a company deciding who best represents them and their values. There is no monolithic gay rights movement that called for this.”

The article also noted that Eich has consistently stressed, and so far no one has contradicted this, that he was committed to inclusiveness in the Mozilla workplace and had never discriminated. However, he has also asked not to be judged for his “private beliefs.” In a way, that is also interesting in that fierce defenders of the First Amendment have long argued for free expression, even in public (with others, yes, having the right to freely protest in return).

The Times article does note, concerning the clashes between old-school liberals and the new illiberal liberals:

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How not to cover a Bible Belt sex-education debate

Let’s assume that many if not most professionals in an elite newsroom in Southern California — The Los Angeles Times, perhaps — will be tempted to believe that they know more about sex than most parents and educators in the Bible Belt state of Mississippi. Safe assumption?

My goal here is not to settle that question, so please do not click “comment” just yet.

If the leaders of this newspaper decided to write a news feature on sex education in Mississippi, I would assume that they would know, from the get-go, that they would need to go out of their way to quote the voices of articulate, qualified people in Mississippi on both sides of this hot-button issue. After all, journalists committed to journalism would never think of imposing their own beliefs and values on, let’s say, people in radically different cultures overseas, cultures built in part on other religions such as Islam or Hinduism. Right?

Ironically, the journalists in this case study face a challenge that is very similar to the one faced by Mississippi educators — they are trying to find a way for committed believers with clashing views to be heard in the same forum. One group is trying to mix clashing voices in classrooms, while the other is trying to do balanced, accurate, fair-minded journalism in a major newspaper.

So with that in mind, let’s scan the Los Angeles Times story that just ran under this double-decker headline:

Sex education stumbles in Mississippi

Even a law requiring schools to teach sex ed is falling short in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S.

And here’s the opening of the story:

TUNICA, Miss. – Marie Barnard was delighted when, after decades of silence on the topic, Mississippi passed a law requiring school districts to teach sex education. But the lesson involving the Peppermint Pattie wasn’t what she had in mind for her sons.

The curricula adopted by the school district in Oxford called on students to unwrap a piece of chocolate, pass it around class and observe how dirty it became.

“They’re using the Peppermint Pattie to show that a girl is no longer clean or valuable after she’s had sex — that she’s been used,” said Barnard, who works in public health. “That shouldn’t be the lesson we send kids about sex.”

She and other parents lobbied the district to teach about contraception, not just abstinence. After all, as she and other parents noted, 76% of Mississippi teenagers report having sex before the end of high school.

OK, remember that the purpose of this post is not to argue about sex education. My goal is to discuss journalism ABOUT a debate over sex education.

What is the warning flag in that opening anecdote?

Right: The newspaper accepts as gospel truth Barnard’s second-hand quotation about what was taught in that Peppermint Pattie session. After using a second-hand quotation like that one, it was going to be very, very important for the Times (a) to confirm what was actually contained in the guidelines for that class and/or (b) what the teacher leading the class actually said. If that is not possible, it would certainly be crucial to talk to a teacher or school official who knows what teachers are instructed to say in that class exercise and, thus, can explain the intended message.

In other words, it is not good journalism to assume that the enemies of a particular point of view are the best authorities on the content or intent of those who advocate that point of view. That’s true when dealing with ideas, movements and people on the cultural left and right. It’s simply basic journalism.

Now, does this Times report include material from an articulate defender of that classroom lesson or others like it? After all, the journalistic goal is to be fair and accurate when dealing with both sides of this debate. Correct?

So how many cultural conservatives are quoted in this piece, how many experts on the logic behind that point of view?

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Lessons from Waco: Some folks just don’t get religion

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Even after a small stack of best-selling books, Malcolm Gladwell remains what he has long been — a master of magazine-form journalism.

After scores of recent interviews in which he has talked about his return to Christian faith, there is evidence that he plans to focus his talents on topics linked to religion news, perhaps building toward a new book. Count me among those who hope this comes to pass.

On one level, Gladwell’s lengthy New Yorker piece entitled “Sacred and Profane: How not to negotiate with believers,” is simply an extended essay digging into “A Journey to Waco,” by Clive Doyle, a survivor of that infamous day when a small army of U.S. troops and law officials crashed into the Branch Davidian complex outside of Waco, resulting in the deaths of about 80 members of this Adventist sect, including two dozen children.

In the end, however, this is much more than a review. It’s more like a meditation of why it is so difficult for profoundly secular people to understand what is happening inside the minds and hearts of radically religious people. The bottom line is clear: Some people, including lots of FBI leaders, just don’t get religion. I think religion-beat professionals will find this article fascinating.

This is also a meditation on how hard it is to be tolerant of people whose beliefs are radically different than our own (study the treatment of Mormons on the American frontier), especially when these outsiders simply refuse to compromise. Yes, David Koresh was a genuinely strange man, both to outsiders and to many of his followers who didn’t agree with all of his actions (especially the taking of multiple wives). But his followers had a history and it appears that law-enforcement officials never took their beliefs seriously.

Thus, Gladwell writes:

The Waco standoff was one of the most public conversations in the history of American law enforcement, and the question Doyle poses in his memoir, with genuine puzzlement, is how a religious community could go to such lengths to explain itself to such little effect. …

The Branch Davidians belonged to the religious tradition that sees Christ’s return to earth and the establishment of a divine Kingdom as imminent. They were millennialists. Millennial movements believe that
within the pages of the Bible are specific clues about when and how the Second Coming will arrive. They also rely on what the Biblical scholar James Tabor calls “inspired interpreters,” prophets equipped with the divine insight to interpret those clues and prepare their followers to be among God’s chosen. Mormonism began, in the nineteenth century, as a millennial movement; its “inspired interpreter” was Joseph Smith. Jehovah’s Witnesses began as a millennial movement, as did the Pentecostal Church.

Of all mainstream contemporary American churches, though, the Seventh-Day Adventists have the strongest millennial tradition.

Now this article may not appeal to people who are not interested in history, and especially the history of religion in America.

As for me, I have always been fascinated by the Davidians — especially after meeting several, including members of the Roden family when they visited one of my Baylor graduate-school classes on contemporary religious movements in America. We discussed their commitment to pacifism.

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Another vague WPost story on Stephen Strasburg’s soul

Once again, spring has arrived here in the land of the two Beltways — after snow showers yesterday, if you can imagine that — and it is time for baseball.

One of the realities of sports journalism is that, year after year, the newspapers that cover professional teams have to find some kind of hook that justifies a feature story on each of the local superstars. This is not easy work. Think of it as the sports equivalent of the annual challenge faced by religion-news reporters who are asked to find fresh, valid angles for news reports linked to Christmas, Passover, Ramadan, Easter, etc.

Yes, we can also assume that for many people baseball is a religion in and of itself (Cue: Annie Savoy).

Thus, the team at The Washington Post is required by the unwritten laws of journalism to produce an annual feature story about pitcher Stephen Strasburg until he fades, is traded or pops his elbow again. From the very beginning these stories have been haunted by a religion ghost, as shown in this passage from his first year, when he was the most analyzed rookie in baseball:

While the Nationals might wish he were more PR-savvy, in other ways he is exactly what you would want in a future superstar. His humility earns him universal praise from those around him. In his postgame news conferences, he speaks passionately about the team and the game’s outcome.

He is deeply religious without being public about it. He’s a devoted husband and a homebody.

Do a quick Google search and you’ll find out that people are still asking what that means. What about his name? Is he Jewish? It appears not. A Mormon publication once wrote about him. Is he a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Good luck researching that. Is he just vaguely “spiritual” or what?

The key, apparently, is that Strasburg does not appear to be Tim Tebow religious, which is what really matters to public-relations pros who work for major-league teams.

Anyway, this brings us to this year’s obligatory Post profile of the superstar. The headline certainly hints at subjects beyond the pitcher’s mound:

Stephen Strasburg takes new approach, perspective into Nationals’ 2014 season

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Love and the Woodstock Generation’s ‘spiritual’ pulse

Let’s do the math. We will start with these dates: August 15-18, 1969.

So if a person was 20 years old and attended the Woodstock Music Festival (or An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music) way back when, how old is this archetypal Baby Boomer today?

You should also recall that the famous Summer of Love in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco actually took place two years earlier. So if you were 21 in that heady summer of 1967, what age are you now and what is going on in your life these days? What are the big issues you are facing?

That’s the unspoken and unexamined context for a fascinating “Your Money” feature in The New York Times, under the headline: “Matchmakers Help Those Over 60 Handle Dating’s Risks and Rewards.” Here’s the summary paragraphs:

According to AARP, 45 percent of adults 65 and older are divorced, separated or widowed. The 60-plus crowd represents the fastest-growing segment in online daters, said Wendy K. Watson and Charlie Stelle, professors of gerontology at Bowling Green State University.

Since its start just over a year ago, AARP Dating, which has teamed with HowAboutWe, a website, to suggest actual offline dates, has attracted almost 60,000 users, said Michelle Alvarez, an AARP spokeswoman.

But online dating can be daunting for this demographic. Unlike younger daters, who are versed in the special etiquette of digital romance, many older people struggle with it. And that’s why some seniors are calling matchmakers and dating coaches to help them make sense of the whole situation.

Interesting stats about the Woodstock generation, right? Might there be a bit of a moral or even religious ghost in those stats linked to the fact that many members of this generation lived, shall we say, adventurous lives before marriage?

Just asking.

But that was not the main religious and/or spiritual reference in this story that caught my eye.

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World Vision, donors, scripture and ‘online speculation’

It took a few days, but the newspaper of record has now produced a solid story on the World Vision U.S. firestorm. The piece includes several interesting facts and observations, including a rare sighting of the term “liberal evangelicals.”

The key to the story, at this point, is the emerging reality that there is no way for nondenominational groups to find a safe, compromise position on the redefinition of marriage or on attempts to edit thousands of years of doctrine stating that sex outside of marriage is sin. Here is a key chunk of that New York Times report:

From the start, World Vision’s decision to open its staff to married gay men and women was a test in tightrope walking. Richard Stearns, the charity’s president, called it a “very narrow policy change” and “not an endorsement of same-sex marriage” in an interview announcing the change in Christianity Today — like World Vision, one of the bedrock institutions of American evangelicalism.

Mr. Stearns explained that World Vision’s staff members belong to more than 50 denominations, and since some Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Congregational churches are now marrying same-sex couples, the charity’s board had decided to be “neutral.” He said this was no different from World Vision’s practice of deferring to churches on other doctrinal matters, such as divorce and remarriage, women in leadership and evolution.

The story contains relevant quotes from articulate, qualified people on both sides of the debate and it’s clear that the Times did everything it could to talk to World Vision leaders who are now avoiding telephone calls. All well and good.

At one point Stearns said the board’s action was rooted in its desire to “avoid divisive debates.”

Good luck with that. If board members ever respond to calls from journalists, that’s a key statement that must be clarified. A majority of the board felt that this action would not be controversial? Stearns added this:

“What happened is we ended up creating a great deal more division than unity,” he said. “Our closest partners” told the board that “we had veered from our core values in a way that created a lot of dissonance in our own community.”

He said that despite online conjecture, World Vision had not been pressured by the government to hire married gay employees. World Vision’s annual budget is $1 billion, and the government provides 18 percent of its revenues, while 61 percent is from private cash contributions, a spokesman said. But the decision to make a U-turn was made after donors canceled “several thousand” child sponsorships in two days, Mr. Stearns said.

So, is it safe to say that I can be listed among the people gathered under that “online speculation” umbrella?

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Can we let Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist rest in peace?

There’s no such thing as bad publicity — at least that’s how the saying goes.

I beg to differ when it comes to the late Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church and promoting your business.

From my home state today comes this front-page story in The Oklahoman. Take a moment to read it so we’re all on the same billboard, er … page.

Now then, let’s talk about what constitutes newsworthiness and how that differs from creating news.

Newsworthiness is well defined at this link via Media.com. It offers five factors: timing, significance, proximity, prominence and human interest — and says that stories should meet two of the five criteria to be considered newsworthy.

Sound old school? Some would argue that it is, and those types have added several more categories to the mix, including the bizarre factor and conflict.

The Oklahoman story is banking solely on those two additional categories by printing this story — and it’s written that way:

Moore Liquor, at 914 SW 4, has gained a local reputation for its humorous, frequently off-color marquee signs. The shop marquee even has its own Facebook page and Twitter account, where followers can see regular photos of the latest roadside witticisms.

“Fred Phelps, 1929-2014. Champagne 10% off! Not a coincidence,” is the latest storefront marquee message.

Shop owner Bryan Kerr said he put up the sign this week after Phelps died March 19. Phelps gained national fame after picketing the funeral of gay college student Matthew Shepard after he was murdered in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo.

“Fred Phelps is the kind of guy who is very difficult for reasonable people to like, and I knew I wanted to do something that had just a little bit of humor but wasn’t too disrespectful,” Kerr said.

Kerr tries to keep the liquor store marquee fresh with frequent references to pop culture and current events. “If you’re watching Dancing with the Stars sober, you are doing it wrong,” one recent message said.

Westboro Baptist Church was tipped off about the marquee and used its own Twitter account to let the masses know it would pay Moore Liquor a visit on its way to a Texas protest and that God hates gays.

And this is news. (Alternative punctuation: And this is news?)

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