Got news? Bishops stand on HHS mandate (updated)

What you see at the top of this post is the content of today’s Baltimore Sun report on yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Catholic bishops — or at least, many of them — to continue their high-stakes fight against the White House and its Health and Human Services mandate.

Right. The box is empty.

I am referring, of course, to the mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called “morning-after pills.” There’s more to that mandate, of course. As I wrote for Scripps Howard News Service:

The key is that the HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of an employer if it’s a nonprofit that has the “inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” primarily employs “persons who share its religious tenets” and primarily “serves persons who share its religious tenets.” Critics say this means the government is protecting mere “freedom of worship,” not the “free exercise of religion” found in the First Amendment.

“Consider Blessed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity reaching out to the poorest of the poor without regard for their religious affiliation,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lorio this June, during the American bishops’ Fortnight For Freedom campaign. “The church seeks to affirm the dignity of those we serve not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic.”

Now, everyone knew — coming into this Baltimore meeting — that there were two big events on the horizon. (1) The election of new officers, including a new president to follow the charismatic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. (2) A decision by the bishops, after what would almost certainly be tense closed-door debates, about whether to fight the HHS mandate, a decision affecting thousands of Catholic schools, hospitals, shelters and other ministries from coast to coast.

In other words, there was one event that looked like a political horse race, framed as who is for or against the new spirit of Pope Francis, and another event rooted in a Constitutional clash over religious liberty (oh, right, that would be “religious liberty”), a clash that way too many newsroom professionals think is a figment in the imagination of theocrats (even though White House officials have acknowledged the tensions).

Thus, that empty box offered by the Sun and most other news outlets. To read the Catholic News Service report, click here.

Want to guess which of these two stories in Baltimore drew the attention of editors at the assignment desks in mainstream newsrooms?

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All together now: Archbishop Lori leads WHAT committee?

It’s that time, again. The U.S. Catholic bishops are back in Baltimore and the agenda includes the election of a new president to replace the remarkably charismatic (especially in his crucial mass-media duties) Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

Speaking of omnipresent, the primary voice of authority in the A1 Baltimore Sun piece on the conference is the one and only Rocco “friend of the blog” Palmo of the Whispers in the Loggia weblog, who basically narrates the whole report. I especially liked his quip on the challenge of replacing Dolan:

Whoever is chosen in Tuesday’s election will have his work cut out for him, according to Palmo, in part because Dolan made such an extraordinary mark.

“Like him or not, you couldn’t ignore him,” Palmo said. “He’s a once-in-a-generation leader. It’s like Elvis is leaving the building. Who’s going to take the stage now?”

There are at least two other “must cover” news angles in this bishops conference advance piece, with one angle of special importance to a newspaper in Baltimore. Alas, only one really made it into print, and it wasn’t the all-news-is-local one.

There is, of course, the Pope Francis angle, which shows up early. Note the careful attribution (not) of the opinions expressed in this passage:

This week’s meeting is the first during the tenure of Pope Francis, the first Latin American-born pontiff and a man widely seen as offering a friendlier face to the non-Catholic world than many of his predecessors.

It also comes in the wake of Dolan’s term, which many felt gave the bishops a more unified public presence than they had enjoyed in years.

Who are the Catholic voices of authority hiding in the phrase “widely seen” on this back-handed slap at the Blessed John Paul II and, of course, the bookish Pope Benedict XVI? Then, a few phrases later, we have a vague reference to “many” Catholics feeling such and such. Lots of people talking, but few willing to be quoted? Not a good sign.

The other key topic that must be addressed is the presence of Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori in the short list of candidates to fill Dolan’s chair as conference president. While he is not a lock-in, there is at least one reason to think that Lori could get the nod. This force in his favor, however, could be a reason he would not get the presidency in the new media-friendly age of Francis.

So, all together now, what is the primary leadership post held by the articulate and scholarly archbishop of Baltimore? Why has he been in and out of the headlines in recent years? What national church work has he performed (often in a partnership with Dolan)?

The story gives a hint, but never states the obvious.

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Surprise! A same-sex marriage story that gets religion

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For the latest Christian Chronicle, I wrote a news story on judicial authorities in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington formally admonishing a superior court judge — also a Church of Christ elder — for voicing his preference not to perform same-sex marriages.

As part of that story, I cited the Wall Street Journal’s recent reportpraised by GetReligion — on wedding professionals in at least six states running headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

I quoted Lori Windham, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., on the religious liberty implications:

“In states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, this is less likely to be a problem,” Windham told the Chronicle. “But in states where there are same-sex unions, then some Christian business owners might be at risk.

“This is a developing area of law, so it’s too early to tell how these cases are going to turn out,” added Windham, a member of the Fairfax Church of Christ in Virginia and a graduate of Abilene Christian University in Texas. “I am hopeful that courts and state legislatures will strike a balance between marriage laws and religious freedom.”

In past GetReligion posts — here, here and here, for example — I’ve highlighted the tendency of some major media to produce one-sided stories on the religious debate over same-sex marriage.

But today, I come not to bury to the Chicago Tribune but to praise it. A Tribune story written this week by two reporters, including Godbeat pro Manya Brachear Pashman, focuses on the clash between Illinois’ gay marriage bill and religious liberty:

Illinois’ gay marriage bill that awaits the governor’s signature doesn’t force religious clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings or compel churches to open their doors for ceremonies. But similar safeguards aren’t spelled out for pastry chefs, florists, photographers and other vendors who, based on religious convictions, might not want to share a gay couple’s wedding day.

The lack of broader exceptions worries some who fear an erosion of religious freedoms, even as supporters of the law say it will eliminate discrimination.

“We’re going to have to wait for lawsuits to arrive,” said Peter Breen, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, a socially conservative legal group.

Critics of the bill that positions Illinois to become the 15th state to allow gay marriage point out that, though it protects clergy and houses of worship, it doesn’t spell out exemptions for people and businesses who, based on their religious beliefs, might not want to do business with same-sex couples. The text of the bill makes clear that it doesn’t alter two related laws: the Illinois Human Rights Act and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows exemptions from certain rules as long as those exceptions don’t harm the welfare of society.

In addition to the problem faced by wedding vendors, opponents worry that the law could force some doctors, social workers and counselors to go against their personal beliefs by providing services to married same-sex couples, or have their licenses revoked.

The Tribune does an excellent job of highlighting the concerns of religious opponents of same-sex marriage and the legal issues at play.

And yes, the Chicago paper also presents the perspective of same-sex marriage supporters:

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Still another one-sided same-sex marriage story

Here we go again.

A major media organization has published still another one-sided story on the religious debate over same-sex marriage.

This time, the guilty party is not The Associated Press. Rather, it’s USA Today, which as you might recall used to employ an actual religion writer. It could use one right about now.

This story, which originated with Gannett sister paper The Tennessean, is a long, winding ode to same-sex marriage disguised (not extremely well) as a news story.

Let’s start at the breathless top:

The couple buys a marriage license, a recognized officiant signs it and it’s refiled with the local government. That’s a legal marriage, and in 14 states — with Illinois just the governor’s signature away from becoming the 15th — that’s a process open to both straight and gay couples.

Getting the church on board is a little more complicated. The issue of whether clergy should officiate same-sex marriages is dividing an increasing number of denominations.

Now, a retired Nashville bishop has become the latest to draw headlines on the issue — reversing course from a path that, four decades ago, had him playing a key role in sending the church down a path of resistance to change.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began allowing individual congregations to recognize same-sex marriages in 2009. Episcopalians adopted a same-sex marriage rite in July 2012, although a number of individual dioceses — including the one in Tennessee — chose not to allow it. The Presbyterian Church (USA) came close to approving same-sex marriages in 2012 but narrowly defeated the measure.

And United Methodists, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, are nowhere close after debating the issue for decades.

That hasn’t stopped pastors nationwide from defying church doctrine and performing those ceremonies. Some call it ecclesiastical disobedience. Others call it biblical obedience. Either way, it’s exposing them to church discipline, with potential punishments ranging from verbal rebukes to loss of their ordinations — and the financial implications that go with it.

Um, OK. Did everyone learn something new? I had no idea same-sex marriage was causing debate within denominations.

Apparently, the news peg is that a retired bishop (a Methodist, we find out deep in the story) performed a same-sex marriage:

Despite warnings from his denomination that he’d be violating the faith’s Book of Discipline, Bishop Melvin Talbert traveled from Nashville to near Birmingham, Ala., to perform the Oct. 26 wedding of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince. They were legally married Sept. 3 in Washington, D.C., but wanted a church wedding. Openshaw said he specifically wanted Talbert to officiate since the bishop had spent years supporting Methodist gays and lesbians.

That wasn’t Talbert’s stance 40 years ago at the 1972 Methodist general conference, which adopted language saying homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. His views changed several years later, when he was invited to a weekend seminar of gay and straight Methodists; participants could not reveal which they were until the end.

The revelation destroyed his stereotypes. The married father and grandfather brought the issue to a head last year, when the denomination voted against removing the language he had helped put in.

“I declared those laws that prohibited clergy from marrying gay and lesbian folk and using the church for that purpose are immoral, unjust, they are evil, and they no longer deserve our loyalty and support,” he said. “It’s time for us to do the right thing.”

But what about voices within the United Methodist Church who believe Talbert is doing the wrong thing? How do they respond to him defying the denomination and winning swooning headlines?

Ah ha ha. USA Today makes not even a token attempt to quote anyone on the other side.

Just for kicks and grins, what might an opposing viewpoint have looked like in this rambling report? Here’s a chunk of a recent Religion News Service story on the United Methodist debate:

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A dynamic, hip, inked leader offers salvation to the left

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It says a lot, in this financially tight age in American newsrooms, when editors put a reporter on an airplane and send her halfway across the nation to hear somebody preach.

In other words, the team at The Washington Post has decided that the work of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a truly national story, one with policy-cultural implications for American religion. After all, we know that the Post isn’t into covering mere “local” stories away from the Beltway.

That recent news feature on this rising star of oldline Protestantism is also interesting because she was about to visit Washington, D.C., for a speaking engagement, which means that the earlier feature story served as a kind of PR-friendly advance story to help build the gate and attract the base, to put this in political/entertainment terms. There was no need to head to Austin to catch the Denver-based punk pastor earlier on her tour, since she was coming to DC (which allowed the Post to feature her work a second time).

Interesting. So what is going on here?

What’s going on is that Bolz-Weber represents a charismatic development in the old, graying world of liberal mainline Protestantism, a highly symbolic slice of America’s religious marketplace that has been caught in a downward demographic spiral for several decades. Apparently, the consumer-friendly world of shopping mall faith likes what this woman is pushing, including her personal style — which the Post features in the lede:

AUSTIN – Nadia Bolz-Weber bounds into the University United Methodist Church sanctuary like a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian. Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.

Right up front, why strip this preacher of her title? Where is “the Rev.” in front of her name?

Also, it helps to know that she is (for the most part) drawing crowds in the hundreds, while a successful megachurch Christian pastor draws regular Sunday flocks that number in the thousands. How do Bolz-Weber’s market statistics compare with someone like, oh, that charismatic feel-good superstar, the Rev. Joel Osteen? Don’t ask.

Glance at the photos and videos from Bolz-Weber appearances and it appears that she is drawing a larger version of the usual liberal Protestant house, with a heavy emphasis on older singles and white people with gray hair and comfortable clothing. For the Post team, that means (hang on, because this gets complex):

To Bolz-Weber’s bafflement, this is now her congregation: mainstream America. These are the people who put her memoir near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out in September. They are the ones who follow her every tweet and Facebook post by the thousands, and who have made the Lutheran minister a budding star for the liberal Christian set. And who, as Bolz-Weber has described it in her frequently profane dialect, “are [mess]ing up my weird.”

A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers … cynics, alcoholics and queers.”

Which is where — strangely enough — the match with her fans makes sense. The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.

In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism. She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.

This is good stuff. The issue is whether the story will deliver the doctrinal details to flesh out the flash.

Here at GetReligion, we think this kind of detail is important since, from Day One, we have been saying that the press doesn’t devote enough ink to the religious, doctrinal content of liberal faith groups. All too often, stories about religious liberals focus on politics and that is that.

It’s clear that this Post piece is arguing that the faith content and the style of this preacher have substance and should be taken seriously. That’s good. So what is she saying? Are readers given substance, or just style?

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Mainline killed the local church star — paper blinks

The death of a congregation is never pleasant, and the closure of the West Side Presbyterian Church in Englewood, New Jersey was no exception. Sunday, Nov. 3, was to see a final worship service at the 117-year-old congregation.

According to The Bergen (N.J.) Record, simple demographics are to blame:

“It’s going to be a good farewell,” said Bob Ryder, president of board of trustees for the Presbytery of the Palisades, which oversees nearly 50 Presbyterian churches in North Jersey.

West Side’s closure is part of a national demographic shift away from mainline Protestant churches. Suburban communities such as Englewood, where Protestants were once the dominant group, have seen an influx of Hispanics, who are more likely to be Catholic, Asian immigrants, who belong to different faiths, and Orthodox Jewish families.

Another factor is that an increasing percentage of people are not joining any church. About one-fifth of Americans and one-third of those under 30 are religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

In the Presbyterian denomination alone, 86 churches disbanded last year after national membership dropped by more than 100,000 from 2011 to 2012, according to Presbyterian Church USA. The Presbytery of the Palisades has closed five churches in the past 10 years, including two in Hackensack and one each in Garfield and Edgewater, Ryder said.

Now, it’s entirely possible that shifting demographics and the “rise of the nones” that caused the closure of five churches in the Presbytery of the Palisades. It’s possible, but I have to wonder if the 2011 actions of the PCUSA’s General Assembly, among other moves away from historic Presbyterian positions, might have had something to do with the departures as well. Surely not all 86 PCUSA congregations disbanded over demographics alone, did they?

We get only that demographic logic from the story, but as Godbeat veteran Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal notes:

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What is the moral status of sex outside of marriage?


Do we have to get married to have sex? What does the Bible teach?


The questioner lives outside the United States, reminding us this affects all devout Christians and Jews (also adherents of Islam and other non-biblical faiths) coping with the “new morality” promoted in entertainment media and western society more generally. The discussion typically treats “premarital sex” among teens and young adults, but Anne is a “mature woman” who believes the Bible teaches sex without marriage is sinful but asks whether that’s true.

The New Testament writers “regularly advised chastity,” writes Yale Divinity School’s Harold Attridge. A couple dozen passages denounce “porneia,” the Greek term for sexual misconduct. We know this identifies behavior apart from adultery (in which one or both partners are wed to others), because 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Hebrews 13:4 separately assail both adultery and “porneia.” The term is crucial because shunning “porneia” was one of the minimum Jewish moral laws applied to new Gentile converts by Christianity’s first policy council (circa A.D. 50, depicted in the New Testament Book of Acts, chapter 15).

In classical Greek texts, “porneia” typically refers to prostitution. However, experts on New Testament usage tell us it covers a wider range of misdeeds that they translate as “fornication” (sex between unmarried partners), “unchastity,” or simply “sexual immorality.”

Since Christians’ Jewish heritage underlies the Jerusalem Council and the many New Testament condemnations, the Hebrew Scriptures (that is, Christians’ “Old Testament”) and Jewish tradition undergird the experts’ interpretation. Whatever we make of a thorny legal passage like Deuteronomy 22:13-29, it means “consensual sexual intercourse between singles is censured,” according to Conservative Judaism’s “Etz Hayim” commentary. Notably, sex without marriage was deemed so momentous that the couple was required to wed.

The rules became stricter and more detailed in rabbis’ later applications of biblical law assembled in the Talmud.

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Define ‘practicing Catholic;’ report the Virginia options

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Surely it will come as little surprise to faithful readers of this hear blog to learn that your GetReligionistas are not fond of the term “devout Catholic,” a foggy, meaningless label that is used way too often in mainstream news reports.

Several years ago, when writing about one rather extreme case (I’m not joking!) of “devout Catholic” syndrome, I noted:

You see, of all the labels used by journalists to describe believers — from “apostate” to “zealot” — surely “devout” has become one of the most meaningless. While this is true in a variety of world religions, for some reason things get especially interesting when “devout” appears in front of “Catholic.”

The bottom line: What’s the difference between a “practicing” Catholic and a “devout” Catholic? Do journalists simply know one when they see one?

The problem is that the term “devout” is ultimately subjective. How does one use the basic skills of journalism to gather facts that prove someone is devout? I mean, that person on the kneeler at the back of the church may be fingering a Rosary, but how does one know that this Catholic’s mind is not focused on planning a quick trip to Las Vegas with a hot next-door neighbor?

Now, is the term “practicing” any better?

I would argue that it is, for the simple reason that journalists can demonstrate — with practical questions and answers that can be verified — the degree to which an alleged “practicing” Catholic is active in a parish, the sacraments and in service to God and humanity. It is also possible to take the facts about a public person’s words and actions and compare them with the doctrines found in the Catholic Catechism. A truly enterprising reporter may even, with a nod to sacred Watergate scriptures, be able to “follow the money” (or the trips to Mass).

In other words, “practicing” implies activities that can be investigated and reported. This word implies facts, as opposed to “devout” feelings.

So what are readers supposed to make of the following material at the top of a recent Washington Post political report?

The two major-party candidates running for governor in Virginia are both practicing Catholics. But when it comes to the contentious issue of abortion, they stand on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli opposes abortion in almost all circumstances — including rape and incest. He makes an exception when the life of the mother is endangered.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe supports most Virginia laws that prohibit third-trimester abortions except to protect the life or health of the mother. But he opposes further restrictions and says he supports a repeal of mandatory ultrasounds before abortions.

In a state considered one of the most antiabortion in the nation in terms of state laws restricting the practice, the issue has often been front and center as national antiabortion and abortion rights groups spend heavily on harsh ads.

Now, throughout the race Cuccinelli has been called an extremist, by those in the McAuliffe camp, for backing public-policy decisions — on this issue — that are very close to the teachings of his church.

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