God is in the details, part MMCDLXVIII

apostateThe Associated Press’ Eric Gorski wrote a ton of stories about the pope’s visit. One dealt with the relationship Benedict XVI has with American youth.

Of course, the late Pope John Paul II was well loved by young people and his World Youth Day events were major media events. Gorski writes a balanced story that emphasizes the growing orthodoxy among young people while not ignoring the presence of Catholic teens who struggle with church teaching:

Only 14 percent of Catholics between 20 and 40 attend Mass at least weekly, according to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostate at Georgetown University. Other polls find Americans are switching religions more than ever or leaving faith altogether, with the Catholic church feeling those trends acutely.

Yet evidence also suggests a blooming of youth Catholic orthodoxy. Tradition-minded private Catholic schools like Christendom College in Virginia and Ave Maria University in Florida boast small enrollments but are growing in stature. Also growing are women’s religious orders in which sisters wear habits and perform traditional roles like teaching.

These young, devout Catholics share an appreciation for orthodox theology, self-sacrifice and fidelity to church teaching.

It’s a good story with a lot of reporting and anecdotes.

But (cough, cough) check out that first paragraph again. What’s with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostate? I think he meant Apostolate.

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B16: Talk to the vox

pbvox The greatest reporter you’ve never heard of is Samuel Lubell. In his 1950 classic The Future of American Politics, Lubell explained why Harry Truman, against all odds and the conventional wisdom, won the 1948 presidential election. What made Lubell’s book great was his skill at interviewing ordinary voters, telling their stories with nuance and subtlety, and detecting the larger pattern from their responses.

A faint echo of Lubell-style reporting can be found in The Washington Times‘ and The New York Times‘ coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s final day in America. I thought the stories would have benefited from using this technique more fully. Even so, its use suggested larger religious themes.

With the help of three other reporters, Paul Vitello of the NYTimes got memorable quotes from Catholics who attended the Mass Sunday at Yankee Stadium. Vitello did more than incorporate a few man-on-the-street interviews. He put those interviews in a larger sociological and religious context:

Many of the people interviewed after Sunday’s Mass said they were deeply moved to be in the presence of Christ’s vicar on earth, as the pope is known to believers. His role as a spiritual father figure can seem to be almost personal for some Catholics.

“The most amazing part was when he came in the Popemobile,” said Sylvia Rios, 45, who attended the Mass with her former husband, Jesus Matthews, 46. “I know he wasn’t waving at me, but we had good seats, and when I looked at him, he looked like he was waving specifically at me.”

But more, people at the Mass said it was thrilling to be in a state of religious communion with so many others — and while in the presence of the pope, who represents the founding of the church 2,000 years ago.

Christa Rivers-Caceres, 37, who drove from Bushkill, Pa., with her husband, Enrique, 32, said being at Yankee Stadium made her feel like part of the family of Catholics, who number more than one billion worldwide. “You were proud to be Catholic,” she said. “It helped reaffirm our faith.”

Theoretically, Vitello’s interviews should please liberal and conservative Catholics alike: liberals because of the primacy they attach to Vox Populi, Vox Dei; and conservatives because of the respondents’ pro-Vatican remarks.

Julia Duin of The Washington Times also talked to local Catholics, including people at the same bar that the NYTimes‘ reporter(s) talked to. But unlike her counterparts, Duin mentioned interviewees’ remarks about hot-button social issues and categorized the responses of the crowd:

Benedict’s audience interrupted his sermon twice with applause: once when he urged his listeners to protect “the most defenseless of all human beings; the unborn child in the mother’s womb,” and a few seconds later, when he asked young listeners to “open your hearts to the Lord’s call to follow Him in the priesthood and the religious life.”

“It was indescribable,” said the Rev. Giacomo Capoverdi, a priest of the Diocese of Providence, R.I. “I am a big Yankees fan, and to see Yankee Stadium transformed into a church was just awesome to me.”

The Rev. Bob Hoatson, of West Orange, N.J., was outside the stadium holding up a sign: “Sexual Abuse of Little Boys and Girls is Soul Murder.”

The founder of Road to Recovery Inc., a ministry to Catholics sexually abused by priests, said he did not have a ticket to enter the stadium but hoped his sign will make people see that “we are still fighting for this issue.”

“Although some people said, ‘Get out of here,’ we responded with, ‘The pope believes us; what about you?’ ” he said.

Duin’s interviews gave readers a strong sense of the crowd. Although the massgoers’ cheers for the pope’s anti-abortion remarks were little surprise, I expected that his comments in support of the clergy would be met with muffled cheers or no response at all. The enthusiastic response suggests that the pontiff’s efforts to renew American Catholicism will find support from more than a few people.

My only quibble with the stories is the lack of integration between the pope’s homily and the respondents. What did people think of Benedict’s appeals to church authority? This would have been the right question to ask. After all, the Times emphasized this passage in Benedict’s homily.

Otherwise, I thought of all the stories about Benedict’s visit these were two of the better ones.

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Covering the church-going atheist

Emblem illustrating practical atheism and its historical association with immorality, titled "Supreme Impiety: Atheist and Charlatan", from Picta poesis,Religion reporters covering atheism should approach the subject as straightforward as any other group of individuals who believe in similar ideas about God, an afterlife, the reason for evilness in the world, and the need for community and morality. To assume that atheists come down on the same side of all those issues would be to engage in gross stereotyping and fail to give significant depth to covering a complex minority in the United States.

An article in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus‘s Vermont Sunday Magazine by Alexandra Horowitz of the Columbia News Service is an example of good coverage of atheism in the sense that the article avoids pigeonholing and allows the story’s subjects to direct the narrative:

Ken Novak, a marketing analyst from Evanston, Ill., is an atheist. But that doesn’t stop him from going to services on Sundays. While there, he leads a discussion group and a book club, listens to the Sunday school children sing and finds fellowship with others.

Novak, 54, is a member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, a religious group that focuses on respecting others and does not worship a deity. He found it 16 years ago when looking for a nontheistic moral education for his children, and knew right away that he wanted to get involved.

“It’s a place where atheists and agnostics can get what a lot of people get out of church and temple,” Novak said of the society.

Novak is part of the growing group of American atheists who have left traditional religions but still feel a desire to be part of a religious group. Many had a positive experience with religion before losing their faith and now miss the community, the tradition and the chance to talk about values with like-minded people. So they join religious organizations that are accepting of atheists, form churches just for atheists or even attend traditional theistic churches.

Christopher Chase, a reader and commenter on our Web site, said that the story is one of the first he has seen in recent memory discussing humanist churches. If that is the case, then religion reporters in Illinois, particularly in Chicago, should consider looking into this group and others like it.

An additional area worth exploring that could have been touched on in the Barre Montpelier Times Argus article is the source of these groups’ ethics and morality. Saying that you believe in tolerance, ethics, morality or treating other people the right way is just a conclusion without a meaningful definition. Do groups like these rely on any particular authoritative code, or maxim through which they interpret morality and ethics? Do they feel that they are necessary?

Photo is of an emblem by Barthelemy Aneau titled “Supreme Impiety: Atheist and Charlatan” illustrating practical atheism and its historical association with immorality. Taken from Wikipedia and is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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Lutherans with Issues

TownsendAsburryI had an intriguing GetReligion-related experience last week. A religion reporter wrote about a news story that I’m personally involved in. As a reporter, it is always interesting to watch another reporter in action. But when you actually care about the story involved, everything is taken to a new level.

The reporter in question was one we’ve discussed many times here — Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And he did a fantastic job, working efficiently to get to the bottom of an incredibly complex story. It was humbling to watch. I’ll let Townsend handle the background, which he did in his first story on the matter a week ago:

About 75 protesters gathered Monday outside the world headquarters of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, many holding signs that asked simply, “Why?”

The question was directed at church leaders who, during Holy Week last month, pulled the plug on a popular radio program on the denomination’s KFUO-AM station called “Issues, Etc.”

The host, the Rev. Todd Wilken, and producer, Jeff Schwarz, were fired without warning, and all reference to the show was taken off KFUO’s website. Fans were left confused and angry.

The following day, a statement went up on the church’s website explaining that “Issues, Etc.” had been canceled for “programmatic and business” reasons but offered no specifics.

More than 200 fans of the program also attended Evening Prayer at a local St. Louis church the night before the demonstration to pray for Wilken and Schwarz. Our demonstration in front of the church headquarters was a rather quiet and calm affair. For example, my offer to shout “No Justice, No Peace!” while wearing a Martin Luther costume was roundly frowned upon.

So I had a chance to watch Townsend in action. He conducted in-depth interviews with well over a dozen people there and really took the time to understand their concerns:

Tina Finch, 44, an audiologist from Ida Grove, Iowa, drove eight hours to be at Monday’s protest. She said 19 members of her family — spread out from Wyoming to South Carolina — had become Lutherans over the last decade primarily because of “Issues, Etc.”

Because he interviewed so many people, he was able to explain how the cancellation of this radio program was symptomatic of the larger divisions in my church body. When I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal about the cancellation of Issues, Etc., the president of the LCMS condemned it in a letter to the editor and denied that there was any division in the church body. His letter was followed by four others from folks who felt otherwise. Anyway, for his news analysis column that runs on Saturdays, Townsend mentioned President Gerald Kieschnick’s letter and wrote:

Despite Kieschnick’s message to the contrary, there is a disagreement among Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod factions that have differing visions for the church’s future.

“There is, and has been for some time, notable division in Synod on a number of issues,” said Korey Maas, a theology professor at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., which is affiliated with the church. “Though I don’t know if anyone can say definitively if these differences were the cause of the termination of ‘Issues, Etc.’”

Many of the protesters said the current administration is too focused on recent evangelical megachurch growth models instead of on traditional Lutheran doctrine. That, they say, is watering down 500 years of Lutheran history.

“This is a symptom of a much larger problem,” said the Rev. Charles Henrickson, pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bonne Terre, Mo. “This is about whether we retain our Lutheran identity or just blend in with American evangelicalism.”

Townsend also did a great job interviewing synodical officials. Though most of my requests for answers have been met with walls of stony silence, Townsend was able to get them to publicly admit they didn’t like the show:

The church currently produces seven religious shows, one of which is a replacement for “Issues, Etc.” The new program, called “The Afternoon Show,” is different from “Issues, Etc.,” said [David Strand, the executive director of the church's communications board], in that “it doesn’t dwell largely on Lutheran apologetics at a sophisticated level. It still takes its Gospel proclamation seriously, but it finds new ways to capture attention.”

It seems to me that reporters frequently treat stories about conflict in church bodies with a heavy hand. They either give an excess of credence to the bureaucratic institutions striving to perpetuate power or they give too much weight to the laypeople or priests who disagree with the changes being made by the institution’s leadership.

I appreciate that Townsend let both sides speak for themselves. The synodical officials gave institutional answers and the people who were upset gave theological answers. But both sides were able to make their case the way they wanted to.

The first photo, by the way, shows Townsend in action at the demonstration. The second is our band of merry Lutherans demonstrating in front of church headquarters.

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Polygamy in context

mormon polygamyLast week we discussed the need for reporters to distinguish between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In the comments, reader Michael Nielsen — a Mormon social psychologist — pointed us toward an op-ed he wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune that argued for improved information about the relationship of polygamy to the LDS church:

To deny polygamy’s importance to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormonism is, well, to be in denial. Many Latter-day Saints prefer to avoid polygamy or to think that it has no bearing on the present, but this is pointless if we are to consider what other people think of the church. Evidence of this is found in the results of a recent Vanderbilt study on bias against Mitt Romney and Mormons. Negative opinions in the study shifted markedly when people were provided “clear, accurate information” about polygamy and other stereotypes regarding Mormonism.

From my reading of newspaper letters, article comments and blogs, it seems that defenders of the church too often provide information that is clear but inaccurate or incomplete. For example, it strikes an observer as disingenuous when told “the LDS Church has nothing to do with polygamy,” as I’ve read in the comments to several newspaper articles in recent days. Clear? Yes. Accurate? Not so much.

As if on cue, Peggy Fletcher Stack, ace religion reporter for the Tribune, filed a comprehensive look at the relationship of polygamy to the LDS church. Headlined “Modern-day Mormons disavow polygamy,” the article explains exactly how the LDS came to practice polygamy, how it was discontinued, and what the current view is. She explains, for her non-Mormon readers, that Mormons do not live in isolated compounds, arrange marriages, dress in clothing from the 19th century or wear, as a rule, unusual hairstyles.

Stack explains how LDS founder Joseph Smith was inspired by Old Testament figures who had multiple wives and recorded that he received a revelation in 1843 defining “a new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also the plurality of wives”:

After Smith’s death in 1844, Mormon pioneers took plural marriage to their Great Basin kingdom in Utah. There it flourished, first in secret and then openly, until the U.S. government stripped polygamists of their right to vote, hold office or own property. It eventually disincorporated the LDS Church itself and refused to allow Utah to become a state. . . .

Though the LDS Church had disavowed polygamy, it is still enshrined in Mormon scripture (Doctrine & Covenants 132) and some believe it will one day be re-established, if not on Earth, at least in heaven. In his quasi-official 1966 book Mormon Doctrine, which remains in print, the late LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote that “the holy practice will commence again after the Second Coming and the ushering in of the millennium.”

And by policy, men can be “sealed” for eternity in LDS temple rites to more than one wife, though women are permitted only a single sealing.

Three of the church’s current apostles, for example, were widowed and remarried. Each will have two wives in the eternities.

Stack explains how Mormons see the polygamy of the past differently than they view its contemporary use.

One of the things she gets into is the economic motivation for the polygamous Mormon communities at their height in the 1860s. According to a scholar she interviews, many of the second, third or otherwise plural wives were widowed, divorced, or had no other men to take care of them. That’s a major difference from the FLDS where boys are routinely kicked out to keep up the supply of plural wives. Religion & Ethics‘ Lucky Severson had a fantastic news piece about this back in November, but I haven’t seen much coverage now that the FLDS are back in the news. Slate was one notable exception.

Stories have also failed to explain the general economics of the FLDS. How do the families support themselves? Do they support themselves? Do taxpayers support the plural wives? What are the religious teachings related to the economics, particularly as they relate to self-sufficiency?

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Media circus, maybe

poster b1While papal coverage dominated religion news last week, the saga involving the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints continued. I’m still digging through all the recent updates and analyses, but I wonder what readers think of this headline:

Polygamist sect hearing in Texas descends into farce

Here’s how the story, by the Associated Press‘ Michelle Roberts began:

A court hearing to decide the fate of the 416 children swept up in a raid on a West Texas polygamist sect descended into farce Thursday, with hundreds of lawyers in two packed buildings shouting objections and the judge struggling to maintain order.

The case – clearly one of the biggest, most convoluted child-custody hearings in U.S. history – presented an extraordinary spectacle: big-city lawyers in suits and mothers in 19th-century, pioneer-style dresses, all packed into a courtroom and a nearby auditorium connected by video.

She goes on to describe the hearing as a circus. The article is packed with tons of information even if it’s a bit heavy on the adjectives. Still, I wonder if “farce” and “circus” are the best words to use. Assuming we still have some presumption of innocence for the accused, they might describe what they’re going through as a tragedy.

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B16: Pope calls for doctrinal faithfulness

pope benedict xvi 7Pope Benedict XVI may be in his 80s, but he keeps a schedule that is tiring just to observe. There have been so many appointments, so many meetings, so many worship services. One of the significant events was a prayer service with representatives from other Christian church bodies. And as dramatic as people may think his Regensburg speech was, his comments at St. Joseph’s in Yorkville gave the gathered much to chew on.

The event didn’t receive as much coverage as I’d wished, but those that did write it up handled it well. A transcript of the remarks indicates a direct rejection of the “ecumenism” that is characterized by doctrinal compromise and indifference. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA TODAY started off with a bang:

Pope Benedict XVI met with leaders of other Christian faiths on Friday evening, telling them that only by “holding fast” to sound doctrinal teaching can they confront secular ideology and the individualism that “undermines or even rejects transcendent truth.”

Although each of these churches split from Roman Catholicism across centuries, the pope talked about their common birth and unity in belief in the Holy Trinity — God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and their common concerns in a world where “the very possibility of divine revelation, and therefore of Christian faith, is often placed into question by cultural trends widely present in academia, the mass media and public debate.

“Christians are challenged to give a clear account of the hope that they hold,” he said.

Because she was covering a speech about handling doctrinal differences, Grossman emphasized doctrinal matters. The substantive and lengthy treatment was nice to read.

Gary Stern of the Journal-News has been doing a great job with his papal coverage. He wrote up another interesting portion of the speech — Benedict’s condemnation of relativism:

But Benedict also warned that a creeping moral relativism that pervades academia and the mass media is also affecting certain Christian communities that may be moving away from Christian tradition.

“Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices are sometimes changed within communities by so-called prophetic actions,” he said.

He did not cite the communities he was referring to, but Christian leaders who support gay rights often speak of taking prophetic actions for modern times.

“Only by holding fast to sound teaching will we be able to respond to the challenges that confront us in an evolving world,” Benedict said. “Only in this way will we give unambiguous testimony to the truth of the Gospel and its moral teaching.”

Other than the imprecision of the term “gay rights” — I loved that Stern didn’t pussyfoot around what Benedict was getting at. The Catholic News Service covered the speech, like Grossman, and went immediately to the Episcopal Church’s New York Bishop to see what he thought about the remarks.

And while his remarks did go further, attacking the so-called “local option,” he also condemned the effect of relativism in non-mainline churches, too. Grossman included his remarks against overemphasizing personal experience and taste, too. She did a great job of removing some of the Greek or otherwise mainstream media unfriendly words to summarize his thoughts:

Benedict said the power of the preaching of the Christian faith “has lost none of its internal dynamism. Yet we must ask ourselves whether its full force has not been attenuated by a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine similar to that found in secular ideologies. … ”

Secular worldviews, “in alleging that science alone is ‘objective,’ relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling. Scientific discoveries, and their application through human ingenuity, undoubtedly offer new possibilities for the betterment of humankind. This does not mean, however, that the ‘knowable’ is limited to the empirically verifiable, nor religion restricted to the shifting realm of ‘personal experience.’

“For Christians to accept this faulty line of reasoning would lead to the notion that there is little need to emphasize objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith, for one need but follow his or her own conscience and choose a community that best suits his or her individual tastes. The result is seen in the continual proliferation of communities which often eschew institutional structures and minimize the importance of doctrinal content for Christian living.”

As we transition from the spot news coverage to analysis of the significance of Benedict’s words to Americans, I hope that this important speech is not forgotten.

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B16: Heartland watches from afar

the pope from afarI get the sense that the news reporters in the heartland are viewing the pope’s visit as less significant than reporters on the East Coast. An obvious reason for this is that the pope’s schedule doesn’t take him far from New York City or Washington, D.C. For example, The Indianapolis Star buried its only story on the pope a couple of days ago — from the Associated Press — on its back page.

To my knowledge, nothing has cracked the front page. If you live outside the East Coast, feel free to leave us a note with the coverage the pope’s visit has received in your local media outlets.

Some newspapers like The Detroit News are taking what I like to call National Spelling Bee-style coverage. That entails finding the locals who have traveled to the nation’s capitol and report on what they are doing. For the News that meant following Catholic educators from Detroit and prominent Muslims leaders from the region.

The article’s most substantive and original section is its coverage of the pope’s meeting with Muslims leaders. It continues the media’s theme of emphasizing the desire that the Catholic Church be more open to other faiths:

Following the meeting, Qazwini said he told the pope they had met two years ago at the Vatican, where the Muslim asked him to lead efforts to establish permanent dialogue between Muslims and Catholics.

“‘Today, Your Holiness, I ask you for the same,’” he said of his conversation with the pope. “‘Muslims and Catholics form over 50 percent of the world’s population. And they are in desperate need to having a dialogue among themselves.’ And he agreed with me on that,” he said….

At the interfaith meeting, the pope, speaking in a thick German accent, said, “May the followers of all religions stand together in defending and promoting life and religious freedom everywhere. … (W)e can be instruments of peace for the whole human family.”

What in the world does that mean? I’m sure that statement is susceptible to multiple interpretations, but a little bit of context would surely give that statement greater meaning. Was Qazwini pleased with the pope’s response to his request for greater communication? Or was this just more of the same for Qazwini?

It appears that The Chicago Tribune, probably the most significant Midwestern newspaper, covered the story through it’s Tribune Newspapers news service and seems to be a re-print from The Los Angeles Times.

Are there no Catholics in the Chicago region that care about the pope’s rather historic visit to the United States? There are more than a few Chicago-related individuals and organizations mentioned in various media accounts, including the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests mentioned in the Detroit News story.

The lack of local news coverage could be saying something about the demand for news about the pope’s visit in Midwestern local newspapers. A better answer is likely that the newspapers are unable to cover the pope’s visit due to budget restraints. I think the challenge for the local newspapers is that once they get beyond that story that talks about the people traveling to see and hear the pope, there’s not much of a local story line.

But there should be more, particularly due to the meetings the pope has had with groups of abuse victims. The Detroit News story is a good example of reaching beyond the community’s Catholic groups and finding a worthwhile store.

Perhaps an angle worth exploring for papers in the heartland is to ask why the Pope’s schedule is exclusively on the East Coast and whether or not heartland Catholics seem to mind the fact they are watching the event from afar.

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