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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PB16: Getting the story on pope’s visit

pb16 And on the fourth day of coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, reporters gave their readers accurate and insightful characterizations and interesting quotes. Now if only they would give their readers a bit more context.

The pope was very busy Friday — he spoke at the United Nations, he said Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he met with abuse victims, he appeared at a Jewish synagogue. So reporters should be cut some slack if they did not mention everything he did or said; if they didn’t, part of the blame should go to their editors or publishers, who should have assigned more reporters to follow the pontiff.

The big story was the pope’s meeting with the victims of clerical sex abuse and mention of the topic during his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. On this topic, I thought reporters did memorable work. Take this summary by Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post about Benedict’s U.N. speech:

As is often the case with Benedict, a longtime theology professor, the speech was short on specifics and long on broad themes. The remarks were timed with the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and viewed by Vatican experts as the pope’s message to the world, not something specific to the United States.

Boorstein’s description of the manner of Benedict’s oratory and his background hit the nail on the head. No matter the topic — the Iraq war, giving Holy Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, bishops who transferred abusive priests — Benedict does not speak in specifics. In fact, I wonder if readers can come up with an example in which the pontiff did mention a controversial person by name or call for a specific remedy.

Similarly, Julia Duin of The Washington Times characterized Benedict’s emphasis on the sex-abuse theme accurately and with context:

In stark contrast to his predecessor John Paul II, who rarely mentioned the scandal, Benedict has raised it repeatedly on this trip in both word and deed: expressing his shame on the flight to the U.S., chiding the American bishops for their mishandling of the crisis, mentioning the indescribable damage the scandal has done during his homily at Nationals Park, meeting with several Boston abuse victims at the Vatican Embassy, and this morning’s homily.

Jacqueline Salmon and Alan Cooperman of the Post wrote a fine story about Benedict’s visit with four sex-abuse victims. The reporters described the pope’s meeting in detail, adding several novelistic details and stimulating readers’ curiosity about the impact of his visit. The story is worth quoting at length:

Olan Horne, a Lowell, Mass., abuse victim who participated in the meeting, was similarly affected. “For the first time, the pontiff put the responsibility of the Church and the suffering and the needs of the survivors first,” said Horne, 48, who added that the pope was in tears when they met.

Even more than the pope’s repeated references to the sex abuse scandal during his visit to Washington this week, his meeting with McDaid, Horne and the others packed a wallop, according to bishops, lay Catholic groups and sex abuse victims. It could be a turning point for an American church whose leaders, many say, have moved haltingly to institute reforms from the scandal.

“When the pope gives this much attention to it . . . that communicates to the bishops that ‘you’d better get on this and make this a priority, and I’m going to pay attention,’ ” said Robert Bennett, a D.C. lawyer who served on a lay panel created by U.S. bishops to monitor reform efforts. He met with Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in 2004 to discuss the scandal.

Still, Catholics around the country questioned whether McDaid and Horne were right: Would the pope’s repeated professions of shame and anguish this week, culminating in the first publicly known meeting between a pope and sex abuse victims, be more than an emotional balm? Would it also lead to new steps to address the biggest crisis in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States?


Asked if the pope’s emphasis on clergy sex abuse this week would likely lead to any specific changes in how the church handles the subject, Colleen Dolan, spokeswoman for Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the USCCB, said she didn’t see reason to assume that. She viewed the pope’s comments as an affirmation of current policies.

“I don’t think that the ramifications will be any different than they already are,” said Dolan. “The U.S. church has already put in many safeguards.”

Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, who heads a clergy child-abuse task force for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he has met defiance from some bishops to the diocesan audits.

“I hope his words will give us the opportunity to reach out again to the bishops who have been resisting participating in what we’re doing,” Aymond said.

The quote from Robert Bennett was intriguing, the one by Bishop Aymond revealing. Salmon and Cooperman did a great job getting these quotes from experts on the topic.

My only quibble with Cooperman and Salmon’s story is that it’s not clear what the pope can do with recalcitrant bishops. There is no question that the pontiff has the authority to fire a bishop or pressure him to resign. Yet when has it happened before and under what circumstances? I don’t expect the reporters to answer those questions in this story, though providing this information would have been great.

Tracy Wilkinson and Maggie Farley of The Los Angeles Times had a tough task: they described both the pope’s U.N. speech and his visit to the synagogue. I think the reporters, besides paying too much attention to cheering U.N. diplomats and schoolchildren, erred in casting the mission of the U.N. and that of the Vatican as similar:

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon introduced the pope to the world body, a secular institution of 192 member nations that is “home to men and women of faith around the world.”

Like the Vatican, the U.N.’s mission is to fight poverty, make peace, halt the spread of nuclear weapons and to stop those with greater power from violating others’ rights, Ban said.

“Your Holiness, in so many ways, our mission unites us with yours,” he said.

The pope said human rights “at all times and for all peoples” had to be “principally rooted in unchanging justice,” which he asserts as a product of religious belief.

“The victims of hardship and despair, whose human dignity is violated with impunity, become easy prey to the call to violence, and they can then become violators of peace,” he said.

The two institutions differ, of course, in one major respect: one seeks to save souls, the other doesn’t.

Yet the coverage overall yesterday was fair, balanced, insightful, and accurate. Except for more context, you can’t ask for much more.

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B16: For the life of the world

Eucharist 01The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s ace religion reporter Ann Rodgers had an innovative angle on the pope’s address to U.S. bishops. Whereas most people focused on Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about sexual abuse or immigration, Rodgers focused on his comments about the life of the church:

In a speech that delved into difficult issues from abortion to immigration and sexual abuse, Pope Benedict XVI charged U.S. bishops to do a better job of making sure that Masses are vibrant invitations to follow Jesus Christ — or risk losing their church by attrition.

“Do people today find it difficult to encounter God in our churches? Has our preaching lost its salt? Might it be that many people have forgotten, or never really learned, how to pray in and with the church?” he asked 350 assembled bishops in response to a pre-selected question about a decline in Mass attendance.

“I think we are speaking about people who have fallen by the wayside without consciously having rejected their faith in Christ, but, for whatever reason, have not drawn life from the liturgy, the sacraments, preaching.”

What a fascinating point. And because it’s non-political, it was hard to find any stories with this angle. But that Benedict would argue that Catholic faithful might like to find life in sacraments and clear preaching is significant, if not surprising.

But check out what the copydesk did in writing the headline:

Pope wants a spark
Tells U.S. bishops to make Masses lively to keep flock

Ay yi yi. The pope didn’t say to entertain people. He emphasized the importance of the liturgy, the sacraments and preaching. Thankfully readers of the actual story will get that — but no thanks to the headline.

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Ghost in the Bittergate fuss

obama clinton cheActually, there isn’t a ghost in the Barack Obama “Bittergate” fuss. The religion element has been right there front and center (or to the left of center) all along.

In case you have been on another planet and have not memorized the quotation, the Democratic front runner said, speaking of working-class people:

“And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

So if you go to Google News right now and search for a logical set of words — perhaps “bitter,” “religion” and “Obama” — you end up with a swarm of stories and columns. No surprise. There’s no way to take the religion question out of this brouhaha.

Of course, Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as Obama, are already known as churchgoers, in a way progressive oldline Protestant context. Everyone knows that they are pro-religion and active believers.

So the story evolved. Before long, it turned into a debate about another crucial political word — elitism. Suddenly, the senator who endured Arkansas before ascending to Washington, D.C., and then New York was tossing back shots and talking about shooting guns. Obama was trying to bowl. I expect, any day now, one of them to claim “Fanfare for the Common Man” as a campaign theme. Wait! That’s classical music. Sorry.

So this was too much for the elite folks at the Washington Post Style section, which led to reporter Paul Farhi’s piece entitled ” ‘Elitist’: The Rarefied Term That’s a Low Blow.” The article starts off strong:

Other than being called a criminal, a philanderer or a terrorist sympathizer, is there an accusation in American politics worse than being branded an “elitist”?

The word supposes something fundamentally effete and out of touch, a whiff of brie and latte. There’s something about it that grates against our Jacksonian, egalitarian self-image.

Barack Obama invited his opponents and the media, um, elite to wheel out the evil E last week by suggesting that some people in small towns “cling” to guns and religion, among other things, because of their embitterment. The comment created a rare moment of common cause for Hillary Clinton and Rush Limbaugh, both of whom characterized Obama’s comment as “elitist.”

So the religious element is in there at the start.

Now read the rest of the piece. The quest for the populist touch wanders all over the place, but it never returns to home base. We cover beer vs. merlot, corn dogs vs. country clubs, bowling vs. windsurfing, ranches vs. estates and all kinds of other things. We gain this insight, noting that “elitist” has more to do with what’s between your ears than in your wallet.

Donald Trump has money, but few think “elitist” when thinking of Trump. Elitism is instead an attitude, a demeanor, a vocabulary, a self-possessed air. It suggests condescension and contempt, a lack of empathy, an arrogant aloofness.

Admittedly, it’s a fine line. It’s okay to be perceived as smart (Bill Clinton) but it’s not okay to be perceived as bookish and intellectual (Adlai Stevenson). And it’s okay to be elite. Olympic athletes are elite, as are Marines and Navy SEALs. But it’s not okay to be insufferably proud of your elite skills, which is just obnoxious.

There is even this laugh-out-loud howler that shows how little the Style folks know about the latte liberal zones of the Midwest and Southwest. If you live in Texas, you’ll want to read this one sitting down.

Some liberal college towns are caricatured as elitist (Cambridge, Berkeley) but other liberal college towns (Madison, Austin) are not.

The essay goes all over the place, but avoids the actual issues at the heart of the Bittergate controversy itself, which is “guns” (code for rural) and “religion” (which, coming from a person who is a religious believer, must be a coded reference to a kind of religion that is dumb and sub-standard).

So here is the question: Why did the Style piece avoid the religion ghost, which, in this case, was not a ghost because it was at the heart of the story from day one?

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B16: Eighth storyline — schools

pb3 After saying Mass yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to Catholic educators from around the country. His speech was not easy to write about, as it was long on philosophy and theology. Still, reporters should have done more than treat his speech almost exclusively in terms of the culture wars.

Don’t get me wrong: the culture-wars angle is legitimate. The pope devoted several passages of his speech to it. And Paul Schwartzman of The Washington Post summarized the pontiff’s remarks about academic freedom properly and with perspective:

In a speech long anticipated by Catholic educators, Benedict said church-affiliated colleges and universities must “evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life.”

Academic scholars, Benedict said in the late afternoon talk at Catholic University, “are called to search for the truth wherever careful analyses of evidence leads you.”

However, in a pointed message to scholars who stray from church teachings, the pope stressed that Catholic doctrine is paramount. “Any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission,” he said.

Schwartzman also quoted from two authorities on Catholic education:

Responding to Benedict’s speech, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown, said Catholic educators “will be pleased to see and hear him express his respect for academic freedom. That’s extremely important in the academic context.”

Equally significant, Reese said, is that the pope did not call for universities to dismiss theologians who disagree with church teachings. “At the same time, he says freedom can be abused by people who don’t teach the truth or who don’t teach Catholic teachings,” Reese said. “In a sense, he’s exercising his own academic freedom to criticize people he disagrees with, and that’s fine.”


George Weigel, a theologian, said the pope’s message was a “sharp reminder that Catholic intellectual life operates within boundaries as does any intellectual life.”

“What he’s saying is that a Catholic college and university that is a pale imitation of prevailing fashions in the broader culture is of no use in itself or to the broader culture,” Weigel said. “It’s a good thing for American intellectual life to have a number of perspectives in play.”

The two men interpret Benedict’s speech differently. That’s a fair summary.

Also, the Post‘s story mentioned the importance the pope gave to making Catholic schools affordable. Yet the heart of the pope’s speech was a meditation on the meaning of Catholic education. Indeed, Benedict referred to a “crisis of truth,” which he said was “rooted in a crisis of faith.” He summarized the goal of Catholic education as distinctive:

With regard to the educational forum, the diakonia of truth takes on a heightened significance in societies where secularist ideology drives a wedge between truth and faith. This division has led to a tendency to equate truth with knowledge and to adopt a positivistic mentality which, in rejecting metaphysics, denies the foundations of faith and rejects the need for a moral vision. Truth means more than knowledge: knowing the truth leads us to discover the good. Truth speaks to the individual in his or her the entirety, inviting us to respond with our whole being. This optimistic vision is found in our Christian faith because such faith has been granted the vision of the Logos, God’s creative Reason, which in the Incarnation, is revealed as Goodness itself. Far from being just a communication of factual data – “informative” – the loving truth of the Gospel is creative and life-changing – “performative” (cf. Spe Salvi, 2). With confidence, Christian educators can liberate the young from the limits of positivism and awaken receptivity to the truth, to God and his goodness. In this way you will also help to form their conscience which, enriched by faith, opens a sure path to inner peace and to respect for others.

The Post could have done their readers a service: Benedict’s vision for Catholic universities departs from those of many secular universities, such as the mission of Harvard’s core curriculum.

Yet the Post did summarize the pope’s position on academic correctly. The same cannot be said of The Los Angeles Times. Reporters Tracy Wilkinson and Rebecca Trounson’s synopis of the pontiff’s remarks were, uncharacteristically for them, inaccurate:

A former university professor, Benedict reiterated his earlier statements of support for academic freedom, calling it a “great value,” but suggested that it might also have some limits at a Catholic college.

“In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you,” he told the educators at Catholic University. “Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”

The pope suggested that academic freedom might have limits? Not quite; read the pope’s statement on this topic:

In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.

Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.

Granted, a meditation on the meaning of Catholic education is not a sexy topic for reporters. But that doesn’t mean the topic should be ignored.

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B16: Obscuring sixth storyline — relativism

pb 04 Tmatt will write about The Washington Post’s fine job in linking the church sex-abuse crisis to “the wider context” of relativism. Three other dailies also mentioned Pope Benedict’s critique of secularism and relativism, though not to the extent that I think they should have.

The three papers focused attention on the seventh storyline: The Pope’s Response to the Sex Abuse Crisis. The Los Angeles Times gave the most attention to it. Reporters Tracy Wilkinson and Rebecca Trounson described the sexual-abuse crisis this way:

The pope, speaking to Catholic bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic church in North America, used some of his strongest language to date to condemn the sexual-abuse scandal and its enduring damage.

He urged the bishops to “strive to eliminate this evil wherever it occurs” and to give priority to care for the victims “of such gravely immoral behavior” by clerics who “betrayed their priestly obligations.”

“It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged,” he said.

The pope referred to what he called the “deep shame” of the sexual-abuse crisis that he said has inflicted “enormous pain” on Catholic communities across the nation.

Wilkinson and Trounson put the pope’s language in the proper context: his words were unusually strong. In addition, the reporters got helpful reactions from three people, two of whom are bishops. Both of these features of the story suggested to readers the gravity of the sex-abuse scandal.

The New York Times‘ story on the pope’s visit yesterday contained a few paragraphs about the sex-abuse crisis. In the closing paragraph, reporters Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Laurie Goodstein added a quote from a survivor of the abuse:

Peter Isely, an abuse survivor and a national board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said of the pope’s speech to bishops: “We were hoping for a reprimand. He was looking into the faces of the men who were directly responsible, and instead of a reprimand, he praised them.”

Isely’s moral claim cannot be questioned. But his quote struck me an unfair slap at the bishops. Before readers start typing angry replies to this opinion, let me explain. The reporters did not quote a church official who could respond to Isely’s criticism. Also, the reporters did not specify which reprimand Isely sought from the bishops; after all, they noted that the pope told the bishops that the crisis had “sometimes been very badly handled.”

In The Washington Times, reporters Julia Duin and John Ward gave readers enough pertinent information about the pope’s comments regarding the crisis:

Benedict was blunt last night in his speech to 350 U.S. bishops and cardinals at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast, admonishing them to show more spiritual and moral leadership, including cleaning up the sex-abuse crisis and providing “a clear and united witness” on legislative issues.

Filled with declarative statements such as “It falls to you” and “It is your task,” his hour-long speech in the Basilica’s crypt chapel touched on enormous challenges that his bishops face in pastoring the nation’s 67 million Catholics, including the priest sex scandals.

“It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of its use, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with love and concern to those so seriously wronged,” he said.

My main criticism with the three stories was their insufficient attention to the relativism theme. I thought that The Los Angeles Times underplayed this angle. Reporters Trounson and Wilkinson devoted as much space to the sex abuse crisis as to relativism. This strikes me as a mistake.

Yes, the Los Angeles Archdiocese was forced to pay out record amounts of money to compensate the victims of clerical sex-abuse. Yet Los Angeles is also home to two certain industries (this one and this one) that came under implicit attack from Benedict:

Benedict suggested that the crisis has occurred at a time when society devalues human dignity and distorts the role of sexuality through pornography and violence.

Children, he said, must be taught “authentic moral values” and spared “the degrading manifestations and the rude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today.”

Might representatives of those industries want to respond to Benedict’s comments? On second thought, no, they probably don’t. But his remarks do affect those businesses, if indirectly.

The New York Times stressed the relativism theme far more. In fact, Stolberg and Goodstein gave it pride of place in their lede:

Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House on Wednesday, his 81st birthday, and praised America as a nation where strong religious belief can coexist with secular society.

But he later warned, in a speech to American bishops, of the “subtle influence of secularism” that can co-opt religious people and lead even Catholics to accept abortion, divorce and co-habitation outside of marriage.

“Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs?” he asked in a lengthy address to the bishops. “Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?”

“Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted,” he said.

I found it striking that the Times emphasized the pope’s remarks to the bishops about secularism. My experience of the paper is that only Islamic leaders are quoted criticizing secularism.

In any event, The Washington Times hit the relativism theme harder, giving readers a wider frame in which to grasp his speech to the bishops:

Benedict’s address was more expansive, touching on the role of faith and morality in America’s founding, and then moving on to the need for preserving freedom by cultivating “virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate.”

“Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility,” the pope said in English.

He also warned that “a democracy without values can lose its very soul.” Leaders are needed, Benedict said, who are “guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions.”

It was a theme that he picked up on at the Basilica last night, telling the U.S. bishops that “it is not enough to count on this traditional religiosity and go about business as usual, even as its foundations are being slowly undermined.”

The “American brand of secularism,” he warned, “can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator.”

Ward and Duin did a commendable job, reflecting some of Benedict’s own emphasis to the topic. In addition, Ward and Duin noted that Benedict urged the bishops and, to a lesser extent, priests to tackle relativism and secularism. The LA Times ignored this angle altogether, while the NYTimes observed that “the prelates were charged with carrying out that vision.”

Yet the stories’ reporting on relativism and secularism was somewhat disappointing. None of the stories mentioned that in his speech to church prelates, Benedict also critiqued materialism and individualism. His words struck me as a rebuke of American society, the virtual birthplace of the free market and rugged individual. Take this passage:

For an affluent society, a further obstacle to an encounter with the living God lies in the subtle influence of materialism, which can all too easily focus the attention on the hundredfold, which God promises now in this time, at the expense of the eternal life which he promises in the age to come (cf. Mk 10:30). People today need to be reminded of the ultimate purpose of their lives. They need to recognize that implanted within them is a deep thirst for God. They need to be given opportunities to drink from the wells of his infinite love. It is easy to be entranced by the almost unlimited possibilities that science and technology place before us; it is easy to make the mistake of thinking we can obtain by our own efforts the fulfillment of our deepest needs. This is an illusion. Without God, who alone bestows upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain (cf. Spe Salvi, 31), our lives are ultimately empty. People need to be constantly reminded to cultivate a relationship with him who came that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10). The goal of all our pastoral and catechetical work, the object of our preaching, and the focus of our sacramental ministry should be to help people establish and nurture that living relationship with “Christ Jesus, our hope” (1 Tim 1:1).

Benedict made a bold statement in his speech. Christianity, he said, is the true religion — not capitalism, not individualism, not libertinism, not techno-philia. Is that not an angle worth pursuing?

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Praying for better coverage of prayer

football prayerWriting about a court’s opinion in a lawsuit should be easy. At least you may think it would be. The court’s opinion typically contains all the relevant facts, important quotes, the history of the law and how it applies in the particular case. For example, you’d expect that news reports of a opinion finding a coach’s participation in pre-football game prayers unconstitutional would include the words of the prayer, right?

At least that’s what I would be looking for as well as many other people in America who participate in some form of high school sports. Alas, such is the case of legal reporting in the mainstream media, where reporters routinely avoid getting into the depth of opinions that often have huge impacts on the way people and communities deal with religion.

For example, here are a few of the paragraphs from the coverage from The New York Times of a recent controversy involving a football coach bowing his head while a member of the football team prayed before games. This controversy took place, by the way, right next door to the NYT in New Jersey:

Marcus Borden, who has been the head football coach at East Brunswick High School since 1983, sued the district in 2005, saying its policy violated his rights to free speech and due process, as well as to academic freedom and freedom of association.

In July 2006, the United States District Court for New Jersey ruled that Borden could bow his head and bend his knee when the team captains led the players in prayer, but three judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the lower court’s ruling Tuesday, citing Borden’s history of leading prayers in the past.

Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote in his opinion that “the conclusion we reach today is clear because he organized, participated in and led prayer activities with his team on numerous occasions for 23 years.”

“Thus,” Fisher continued, “a reasonable observer would conclude that he is continuing to endorse religion when he bows his head during the pre-meal grace and takes a knee with his team in the locker room while they pray.”

In case you were curious what one of the prayers said, here it is from the court’s opinion. As for the difficulty in acquiring and reporting this information, it was as easy as cut and paste:

“[D]ear lord, please guide us today in our quest in our game, our championship. Give us the courage and determination that we would need to come out successful. Please let us represent our families and our community well. Lastly, please guide our players and opponents so that they can come out of this game unscathed, [and] no one is hurt.”

Also included in the court’s opinion are the juicy details like the school’s policy on coaches and teachers praying and the controversy leading up to the lawsuit.

Are there word counts on the Internets that I’m unaware of prohibiting reporters from including this excellent background information in a story about prayer? Or how about at least a link to the PDF of the court’s opinion?

That kind of information, that takes less effort than writing this sentence, should be standard in stories like this. It doesn’t even take up the news organization’s bandwidth since the document is hosted on the appellate court’s servers.

Above is a photo of one of these prayer sessions taken conveniently from the court’s opinion on the matter, in case you were curious about that minor major detail.

While the NYT may deem itself above and beyond covering this issue, other than its mere 10 paragraphs, the Associated Press at least touched upon the significance of the ruling and why it is likely that the Supreme Court will take up the matter.

The story does a good job giving the background of the case, which is easily accessible in the court’s opinion, and the significance, even if it did come from the coach’s attorney:

Borden’s lawyer, Ronald Riccio, said he would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case to clarify what he says is murky law — especially given Tuesday’s decision — about student-led prayer.

“As the matter now stands, some coaches can bow their head and take a knee,” Riccio said.

As we’ve said many times before, when dealing with First Amendment legal issues, there are dozens of law professors out there that would love to spout off about the legal background of the case. It is frustrating that stories like this don’t deal with any of the legal precedents that are involved. It would be like writing about the 2004 election without mentioning who won in 2000.

Lastly, neither of the news stories bothered to mention a rather significant fact about the case: The district court agreed with the plaintiff/coach in finding that the school’s policy on prayer was unconstitutional. However, the appellate court in ruling against the coach didn’t just find that the school could implement this policy. The court found that the act itself was an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause.

In other words, public school athletic coaches within the Third District: bowing your head with your athletic team is violating the Constitution.

Reporters should note that this includes Pennsylvania, and last time I checked, there is a rather significant primary election going on in that state. Anyone want to ask candidates Obama and Clinton about how they feel about coaches bowing their heads with their athletes?

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