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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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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