Archbishop gets personal

burke 01 A few weeks ago, I wrote about a Newsday story that examined a trend of older men entering the seminary and becoming ordained in a New York diocese. The otherwise solid story failed to examine whether the bishop had contributed to the influx of seminarians and ordinations. In response, faithful GR reader FW Ken wrote that the personal involvement of the bishop encouraged vocations:

I used to have an interesting article on vocations that stressed the importance of the bishop’s attention to drawing men into vocation. Our bishop also made vocations a priority by meeting the guys up front, spending time with them in person and by phone, and creating a mechanism to allow Spanish speakers into the process before they learn English.

Speak of the devil — or God. Now Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has written a story with a similar sub-theme: the personal involvement of the archbishop has encouraged seminarians to become ordained.

Once or twice a year, each student at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary will drop by Archbishop Raymond Burke’s residence in the Central West End at 4:30 p.m. From there, they set off down Lindell Avenue and into Forest Park..

“The walks,” as the seminarians call them, are opportunities for young men to have heart-to-hearts with a man who regularly meets with the pope, a heady prospect for a young priest-in-training. The conversations are usually casual, and the seminarians get to see a more personal, human side of Burke — like when he gets a little skittish around off-leash dogs.

Kenrick officials organize the walks using time sheets. When the sheets are posted, there’s a rush to sign on.

“It’s like when you throw pellets at the Japanese fish at the Botanical Gardens,” said seminarian Edward Nemeth, 26. “Guys falling over each other to get their names on the list.”

Avid GR readers will recognize the characteristic Towsend-ian virtues of the passages above: the novelistic details, the perspective of seminarians while they meet with the archbishop, etc. The first two paragraphs might be the first I have read about a meeting or colloquy between an archbishop and seminarian.

Still, I think that Townsend could have done better in one way. He noted that the seminarians like Archbishop Burke’s devotion to the Latin Mass. Yet he suggested that seminarians like him for another reason as well:

Strength, [Deacon Edward] Nemeth said, came from watching Burke deal with controversy in the succeeding years, an example the archbishop continues to set for future seminarians.

“He stands for truth when he knows that’s not going to be easy,” Nemeth said, “so we know he’ll support us when we have to do the same.”

Hmm. I wonder if Nemeth is referring to Archbishop Burke’s well-known position about not giving Holy Communion to obstinate pro-choice politicians. If so, do other would-be seminarians and seminarians agree with Nemeth? Their admiration would make sense. After all, Thomas Reese, S.J. is quoted in the story saying that these priestly recruits and seminarians are much more conservative than ordinary Catholics.

I am not asking for much: Just an extra sentence or two in an otherwise well-done story.

(Photo by Todd Ehlers used under a Creative Commons license.)

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A belief system vindicated

FLDS RanchThe Texas state appeals court decision that state officials wrongfully took 460 children from their parents at the FLDS ranch to place them in foster care can be summed up in a couple of words: a belief system alone does not justify state action.

Most news stories I surveyed this morning captured this essential part of the decision. Here is a clip of the excellent news coverage from The Dallas Morning News:

The mere existence of a belief system that may condone polygamy and “spiritual marriages” involving underage girls is not by itself enough evidence to justify the removal of some 460 children from the sect’s ranch, said a three-judge panel of the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals.

In their unanimous opinion, Republican judges Kenneth Law, Robert Pemberton and Alan Waldrop said Child Protective Services had to show every individual child was at imminent risk of physical harm and simply had to be swept into foster care. CPS instead offered only sketchy evidence to a trial court last month — and none about whether it explored less intrusive ways of protecting kids, the judges said.

To put things in legal perspective, this is just a Texas appeals court, not the state’s Supreme Court, let alone the U.S. Surpeme Court. Also interesting is the DMN‘s effort to note that the panel’s judges are all Republican. Is religious freedom and the safety of children now a partisan issue in Texas?

It is interesting to see how the media’s coverage of this case has shifted and has become very sympathic to the families plight.

Time magazine even found the decision “surprising.” They shoudn’t have. The state’s case started leaking at a very early stage in the process.

Not surprisingly, The Salt Lake Tribune appropriately picked up on the spiritual element of the story and some of the emotions expressed by the parents involved in the case:

She and Amanda Chisholm, also with the firm, were on their way to the ranch to meet with several women when she received word of the decision.

“I just pulled over on the road to Eldorado and started crying,” Balovich said.

As Balovich spoke to reporters in San Angelo, FLDS women stood behind her beaming. Some were teary-eyed. “I was very, very, very thrilled and excited,” said Martha Emack, 23, one of the mothers listed in the appeal. …

The FLDS parents who came to the court hearings kept their composure throughout the proceedings. Prayers and faith kept them going, some said.

“We are a peaceful people,” Emack said.

There will hopefully be more time for journalists in the future to write more about the spiritual aspect of this story. As hinted in the Time article, the FLDS group doesn’t seem to be interested in drifting back into the quiet shadows of American society.

One gets the sense that the citizens of Texas will hear from the group again, soon:

The FLDS is not sitting quietly either. This week, FLDS leaders requested some 500 to 600 voter registration cards for residents at the ranch, a clear indication that their fight will spill over into the political arena. Those votes could well affect the political equilibrium of the sparsely populated county. It is a move that long-time residents have feared the FLDS newcomers might resort to.

Meanwhile, state officials have testified that the cost of the raid and subsequent investigations as well as foster care may be at least $20 million. Coincidentally, that is the assessed value of the YFZ Ranch.

CNN’s David Mattingly had a very compelling story that broadcasted last night on Anderson Cooper’s show about how the state was taking members of the FLDS sect despite the fact they had documentary evidence that they were 18 years old or older. If you saw the broadcast, it was hard not to be drawn in emotionally to the story and to have deep sympathies for the FLDS families stripped of their children.

Television news benefits from the ability to use powerful imagery that evokes strong emotions. Depending on which way the camera is pointed, a person or group may be portrayed as the villian or the victim.

FLDS is now generally seen by the media, rightly or wrongly, as the victim in this case. As of Thursday’s appellate court decision, the group is seeing its case legally justified by the state’s court system.

But the media shift towards sympathetic coverage for the families didn’t happen overnight. One cannot help but wonder if the switch is partly due to the fact that the state targeted a belief system.

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The missing majority (again)

marriagebanYesterday I pointed out the Los Angeles Times‘ rather incomplete survey of “liberal and conservative congregations” on the issue of same-sex marriage. Seventy-five percent of the religious figures who took a position in the article were exuberant about the recent California Supreme Court ruling redefining marriage to include same-sex couples.

This week the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” religion opinion site posed the following questions:

The California Supreme Court has overturned that state’s ban on gay marriage. Is marriage a legal right or a sacred rite? Should the state be involved in marriage? Should religious institutions?

Some of the 16 responses from panelists are interesting, informative and engage the question. But what struck me was that only four of the responses were critical of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. Is this further confirmation that in the world of mainstream media, 75 percent of religious adherents have no regard for the traditional Christian, Jewish and Muslim view of marriage? I know that the Washington Post/Newsweek site is an opinion site but that’s just bad journalism.

It’s fine to read the views of Starhawk, Deepak Chopra, and Bishop John Bryson Chane, among others, but when moderator Sally Quinn asks questions that seem to be on the level of 8th-grade home room discussions, the debate isn’t exactly riveting:

Homosexual couples are simply two people who love each other. Please explain to me how that can be wrong in the eyes of God.

Tmatt reminded me of former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent’s words on the matter in 2004:

(For) those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that “For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy,” (March 19, 2004); that the family of “Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home,” (Jan. 12, 2004) is a new archetype; and that “Gay Couples Seek Unions in God’s Eyes,” (Jan. 30, 2004). I’ve learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I’ve met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I’ve been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn’t even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you’d have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

This implicit advocacy is underscored by what hasn’t appeared. Apart from one excursion into the legal ramifications of custody battles (“Split Gay Couples Face Custody Hurdles,” by Adam Liptak and Pam Belluck, March 24), potentially nettlesome effects of gay marriage have been virtually absent from The Times since the issue exploded last winter.

But back to the Washington Post/Newsweek forum: In addition to the interesting and valid discussions being conducted by pagans, moderate Baptists, progressive Catholics and United Church of Christ clergy, that site would be an excellent place for a thorough discussion of Christianity’s (and Judaism’s and Islam’s) historic teaching on marriage. There is so much there to discuss that is interesting.

I’m sure Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham know a couple of Roman Catholics who can defend the church’s teaching on marriage. Why is it that when a big same-sex marriage story happens, the media in general can’t seem to find articulate defenders of traditional marriage to talk to even though the majority of the country is with them?

Photo by Flickr user arimoore used under a Creative Commons license.

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An imam and a pastor vs. California

GayMarriageYesterday I complained about a Los Angeles Times story that profiled only one couple — an Evangelical Christian one — to represent the 61 percent of California voters who voted to limit marriage to one man and one woman. It was their support of the traditional definition of marriage that was ruled unconstitutional by the California State Supreme Court last week.

In a later article, Times reporters Maria La Ganga, Hector Becerra and Rebecca Trounson surveyed leaders of various liberal and conservative congregations about how they feel about the ruling opening marriage to same-sex unions.

Ten sources were quoted or otherwise represented. Two were opposed to the ruling and six were overwhelmingly supportive. Of those opposed to the ruling, one was a conservative congregational Christian pastor and one was a Muslim imam. Two additional sources, who were noncommittal, were the president of an ecumenical seminary and a Baptist pastor. The six other sources or examples were a Unitarian Universalist Church (they played Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” at Sunday services); a rabbi at a Reform Jewish congregation (which offers “outreach to the gay, lesbian and bisexual community”); the politically active All Saints Episcopal Church; the president of a multidenominational, theologically liberal Christian seminary; the rabbi of a Conservative Jewish congregation and the rabbi of another Reform Jewish congregation.

So the two examples of clergy who were opposed were a Muslim imam and a conservative Christian pastor? Way to pound the pavement there, team of three reporters! The story focuses on whether the ruling that there is a Constitutional right to same-sex marriage will affect their marriage policies. It seems like a somewhat weird question. Most religious groups base their doctrine of marriage on laws even higher than the California Supreme Court. Mostly, those religious groups that celebrated same-sex unions will continue to do so and those that don’t celebrate same-sex unions won’t. Still, the most interesting quotes were from clergy for whom the ruling had an effect:

A mile or so away at All Saints Episcopal Church, the Rev. Susan Russell led a between-services forum on the religious, legal and political ramifications of the court’s decision.

“The justices have ruled in favor of the sanctity of marriage and against bigotry,” Russell declared, as the audience cheered. “This is good news for all Californians.”

But even though All Saints has been blessing same-sex unions for more than 15 years, the ruling unleashed a wave of uncertainty.

“At this point in the Episcopal Church, our prayer book still defines marriage between a man and a woman,” Russell said in an interview. “There’s some question about whether we can, within the canons of our church, extend the sacrament to same-gender couples.”

The decision raises questions, too, about what All Saints’ blessing ceremonies mean anymore, Russell said. Should couples who have had such ceremonies get married too? Will the civil steps suffice? Or should they go through another church ritual? And what kinds of ceremonies will All Saints provide as it moves forward?

The questions are personal for Russell, who celebrated her union with her partner in an official blessing ceremony two years ago. Russell said she and her partner haven’t begun discussing what the new ruling will mean for them. As for her church, she said, “I’m glad we have 30 days to think it through.”

The article also quotes a Conservative rabbi who says that he did not celebrate the unions of gay and lesbian couples in his past but will as a result of the decision. And the Rev. William Epps, pastor of historic Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, says that he had given no thought to the ruling. Asked if he would marry a homosexual couple, he said it would be something he’d pray about.

All in all, the article bent over backward to represent the views of religious adherents who support same-sex marriage. Their quotes are interesting, lengthy and help the reader really understand their positions. For instance, much of the division between those who retain the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman and those who don’t is based on differing views of Biblical authority. In that vein, these quotes from Conservative Rabbi Harold Schulweis are fascinating:

Schulweis has been a rabbi for more than half a century and has seen his religion evolve, he said, first allowing women into the full “ritual life of the community,” then ordaining them as rabbis and cantors, and eventually embracing homosexuals.

“It’s one of the most exciting parts of seeing religion as not static and inflexible but as sensitive to different times and different information and different knowledge,” Schulweis said.

“What in the world did people in the biblical time know about homosexuals?”

But the richness of these quotes highlight the great failure of the piece. Where are the equivalent quotes from the many religious adherents who oppose redefining marriage as a union between same-sex couples?

When 75 percent of the people taking a position in an article about the religious response to redefining marriage support the change, that’s just ridiculous. California has more Roman Catholics than any other state in the nation. I believe that almost one in three Californians is Catholic. California also has more Latter-day Saint temples than any other state in the union save Utah. The idea that the reporters would highlight three Jewish rabbis (all of whom somehow support redefining marriage as a union between same-sex couples), an Episcopal priest, and a Unitarian Universalist Church but only one Christian clergyman who holds the traditional view of marriage as a union of one man and one woman? It would be laughable if it weren’t so offensive and inaccurate.

Back when a Massachusetts court changed the legal definition of marriage to permit same-sex couples to marry, one media critic described the general coverage as “upbeat.” Acting like 75 percent of the clergy are embracing a legal redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions would have to qualify as more of the same.

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Missing a major religion story

Willow Creek Community ChurchOne would think that major changes at America’s second largest church and one of the most influential would make some news, but sadly most news organizations missed the story.

Thanks to Christianity Today‘s Matt Branaugh, there is some news out there about the changes. However, despite my best efforts to find other news stories, no other news source seems to have picked up this rather significant story:

After modeling a seeker-sensitive approach to church growth for three decades, Willow Creek Community Church now plans to gear its weekend services toward mature believers seeking to grow in their faith.

The change comes on the heels of an ongoing four-year research effort first made public late last summer in Reveal: Where Are You?, a book coauthored by executive pastor Greg Hawkins. Hawkins said during an annual student ministries conference in April that Willow Creek would also replace its midweek services with classes on theology and the Bible.

Whether more changes are in store for the suburban Chicago megachurch isn’t clear. Hawkins declined CT‘s interview request, and senior pastor Bill Hybels was unavailable for comment.

News organizations, particularly those around Chicago, don’t seem to be against covering this major institution. They seem to just need a nicely packaged story in order to motivate themselves to cover big church news.

For example, see the Daily Herald‘s coverage of Willow Creek’s efforts to send 3.5 million meals for African children. That’s a wonderful story, but it’s hardly a unique piece of enterprising journalism. See the Christian Post‘s version of the story that appeared within the same week.

Of course when church officials decline to comment, covering the story become difficult, but that doesn’t mean news organizations should ignore this. Perhaps their refusal to talk to Christianity Today means there is more to the story?

Greg Pritchard, author of Willow Creek Seeker Services, told CT the church “sporadically has recognized it was not teaching a robust enough biblical theology and needed to turn the ship around.

“It is a huge shift,” Pritchard said of the church’s planned changes to its services. “But they’re still using the same marketing methodology. Willow appears to be selecting a new target audience with new felt needs, but it is still a target audience. Can they change? Yes, but it will take more than just shifting their target audience.”

Nationally this is a significant story since it may signal the early beginnings of a trend. The topic is at least up for a healthy discussion amongst churchgoers. CT‘s blog item is a good start on the subject, and other religion reporters, particularly those in the Chicago region, should consider covering this important story.

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California: No doubt about genetics?

cagay Reporters have pointed out that the California Supreme Court’s decision to redefine the state’s marriage laws is premised on the idea that homosexuality should be treated no differently than race. Now Maura Dolan of The Los Angeles Times fills in details about this assertion.

In her profile of state Chief Justice Ronald M. George, Dolan suggests that George’s thinking was shaped by two factors. One factor was his personal experience with racism:

As he read the legal arguments, the 68-year-old moderate Republican was drawn by memory to a long ago trip he made with his European immigrant parents through the American South. There, the signs warning “No Negro” or “No colored” left “quite an indelible impression on me,” he recalled in a wide-ranging interview Friday.

“I think,” he concluded, “there are times when doing the right thing means not playing it safe.”

The other factor, Dolan indicates, was George’s reading of history:

He indicated he saw the fight for same-sex marriage as a civil rights case akin to the legal battle that ended laws banning interracial marriage. He noted that the California Supreme Court moved ahead of public sentiment 60 years ago when it became the first in the country to strike down the anti-miscegenation laws.

Give Dolan credit. She landed an intellectual scoop: George’s decision was based on personal experience and outlook. Providing this information to her readers — and, possibly, historians — is invaluable.

Yet Dolan’s explanation was largely uncritical. Not once did she question or raise doubts about George’s central premise: that race and homosexuality should be treated the same legally.

This is a major claim. In the debate over whether homosexuality is caused by nature or nurture, George has come down on the side of nature. He brooks no doubt: a person cannot choose to be gay or choose to engage in homosexual acts; he or she is gay.

Is this claim true? In a previous post, Tmatt says — we don’t know:

There is a stack of evidence that suggests that many people cannot change their sexual orientation, which is not the same thing — for traditional religious believers — as changing their behavior. There is also a large body of evidence that people can change their behavior and, to an imperfect degree, their emotions and orientation.

Dolan should have raised questions about George’s premise. Instead of simply validating his claim, she ought to have noted the lack of a consensus about it — citing fierce debates in public opinion, science and doctrine. (Over at The New Republic, Jeff Rosen posits that no court has agreed with George.)

Certainly traditional religions dispute George’s claim. To back up her story, Dolan should have noted that its operating idea is not yet the gospel truth.

(Photo of celebration in the Castro District in San Francisco is used under a Creative Commons license.)

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When Anonymous attacks

A journalist who strives to practice the discipline of balanced, objective reporting never has an easy task. Inserting religion into the job description only makes things more difficult. See here what On Faith columnist Claire Hoffman had to say about the subject a week ago:

I’ve been writing this blog for four months now and the main lesson I’ve learned is that commenters here on the topic of religion have little ear for nuance and much propensity for deep and energetic anger.

At first, it bummed me out to read all these screaming comments weekly, seemingly willful in misunderstanding everything I’d written. The pitch of the comments seem particularly incongruous to my reality as I’m generally mild-mannered and would rather listen than talk — that’s why I became a journalist. I rarely have an opinion that is answered with a scream.

I was advised to ignore the craziness. People familiar with the site and other religion blogs said there was something inebriating in the combination of the anonymity of the web and the radicalism of religious opinions that made people react with venom.

Yes the job of a journalist covering religious issues can induce fits of rage from one’s audience, particularly when the subject matter is something the audience member believes deals with issues of eternity, the meaning of life, or the occasional issue of morality. I’ve noticed that people are particularly peeved when a journalist writes about a subject they deeply care about and fails to reflect their point of view accurately. Sometimes journalists fail to reflect that point of view entirely.

In a perfect world this would never happen. Perhaps someday journalism will move to some sort of Wiki-like bliss where all of humanity can have input on the day’s headlines. Until then reader reactions must suffice and journalists ignore or dismiss them at their peril.

The topic Hoffman was addressing in her post happened to be Scientology. From personal experience I know that the subject of Scientology regularly results in angry-off-the point comments that contribute little to productive dialogue. (Note: comments off topic are regularly and [hopefully] hastily deleted from this site.) The challenge of the subject of Scientology is that some people believe they are an evil cult while others, those who believe in Scientology, believe it is all about achieving self-improvement.

Here’s what Hoffman wrote about a German government official’s comments that Scientology is “not compatible with the” German constitution:

What is Germany so afraid of?

German officials have categorized Scientology as a business, not a religion, and tax accordingly. Scientology has responded by complaining about “religious discrimination.”

The AP reports that “The North Rhine-Westphalia Higher Administrative Court in Muenster refused last month to hear an appeal to a February ruling allowing the intelligence agencies to continue observing the Scientologists. …

Ban Scientology? Doesn’t that seem kind of extreme? They are a religion largely focused on self-improvement. While I’m well aware of their checkered past, decrying it unconstitutional seems like a threatened position to take by a nation.

This particular post went on to receive 521 comments, which is only surpassed by a recent post on gay marriage rights. Generally Hoffman’s blog seems to receive fewer than 50 for the average post.

It goes without saying that the topic of Scientology sets off a certain portion of people who comment on blogs and news Web sites. Part of that is because there is no easy way to cover a subject so sharply divided between those who see the positives and those who see the negatives of Scientology.

I think another aspect is that Scientology receives little serious news coverage by the mainstream media. Part of that can be blamed on the Scientology organization, which has in the past made journalists’ lives quite difficult. Another part is the media’s general inability to commit resources to covering religion seriously, much less Scientology.

Perhaps this can explain the growing movement known as Anonymous. Mainstream journalists seem to be largely ignoring this movement, but that hasn’t stopped it from growing in size and influence. The movement known as Anonymous is something journalists should watch closely and don’t be surprised to see others like it appear when journalists fail to do a proper job of covering issues that are meaningful to large groups of people.

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Explaining cybercommunion

Eucharist 02Sometimes I’m surprised at how little the media covers the vibrant world of online religion. Snejana Farberov of Columbia News Service penned a piece about, loosely, God and the internet. She describes how churches broadcast their sermons online:

Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan has managed to keep up with the changing times by getting wired. When one of Trinity’s parishioners moved to China in 2000, the rector of the church came up with the idea of online worship. Seven years later, a new rector was appointed to head Trinity, and he, too, embraced the Internet, naming cyberspace the third sacred space — right after Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel.

On a recent Sunday, a female vicar opened the sermon by welcoming “those who are worshipping with us on the Internet.” Donna Presnell, Trinity’s assistant manager for public relations, said now every service begins with those words.

Trinity offers live and on-demand Webcasts of its services and weekly choir performances to about 4,000 viewers from as far as China and England.

It’s good to write a trend piece about how churches are utilizing the internet. And it’s balanced in the sense that it gets quotes from folks who are critical of churches not doing enough to reach out on the World Wide Web. But there’s a glaring omission:

Back in New York, inside Trinity Church, worshippers are enveloped in the sweet, smoky scent of incense and soaring hymns. Following the sermon, members stand up and warmly shake hands with strangers, accompanying it with the phrase “peace be with you.”

“It’s little things like that, that people at home don’t get,” Presnell concluded.

Yes, the consolation of fellow parishioners, beautiful music and sweet incense would be missed by online visitors. And when reporters write about online Christian communities, they rarely fail to mention these things. But why is there no mention of Holy Communion? Not only would this seem to be one of the major concerns about online worship among liturgical Christians, it just strikes me as the most interesting avenue for a discussion of online worship. What are the doctrinal questions that need to be answered if worshipers migrate to virtual instead of actual worship? Do different Christian groups handle this in different ways?

Writing about God on the internet is not exactly breaking news. But if you’re going to treat the subject, at least treat it substantively.

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