A press litany: Will Pope Francis just hold that Vatican line?

As always, the gospel according to The New York Times — in an early version of its instant Pope Francis analysis — was spot on, with this headline: “Argentine Pope Will Make History, but Backs Vatican Line.”

And the lede? More of the same:

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, to be called Francis, will break ground as a Jesuit and Latin American. But his views on gay marriage, abortion and other issues make him a conventional choice to lead the church.

In place of the word “conventional,” one could substitute words such as “Catholic” or “orthodox,” with a small “o.” The same thing is true in the headline, where one can strike the word “Vatican” and replace it with something more timeless and accurate.

From this point of view, the key is that the Vatican, the papacy, the catechism and the actual written teachings of centuries of church councils are merely one approach to what it means to be a Catholic. These institutions have no unique, defining Catholic authority, one that would make the “Vatican line” something that Catholics would need to consider anything other than optional.

By this morning, that basic Times story had evolved and collected a few more details:

BUENOS AIRES – Like most of those in Argentina, he is a soccer fan, his favorite team being the underdog San Lorenzo squad. Known for his outreach to the country’s poor, he gave up a palace for a small apartment, rode public transportation instead of a chauffeur-driven car and cooked his own meals.

The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (pronounced ber-GOAL-io), 76, will be called Francis. Chosen Wednesday by a gathering of Roman Catholic cardinals, he is in some ways a history-making pontiff, the first from the Jesuit order and the first pope from Latin America.

But Cardinal Bergoglio is also a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues — leading to heated clashes with Argentina’s left-leaning president. He was less energetic, however, when it came to standing up to Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. He has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them, during a period when as many as 30,000 people were abducted, tortured or killed by the dictatorship.

From there, members of the Times community are led into a lengthy discussion of just about everything that they need to know about the new pope that might in any way hint at his beliefs about political issues and the Sexual Revolution. The editorial college of cardinals at the Times have dogma to defend, as well.

The quick mainbar at Time takes a similar, but more muted approach. There’s lots of politics, but, as a kind of throwback to the Time approach of old, the emphasis is on the global view.

I did, as an Eastern Orthodox layman, wonder a bit about this historical summary:

The accession of a new Pope is always cause for wonderment — if only because the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church has managed to survive more trials than almost any other kingdom in history. No other institution can claim to have withstood Attila the Hun, the ambitions of the Habsburgs, the Ottoman Turks, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, in addition to Stalin and his successors. Every new Pope faces fresh crisis and challenges. And in the 21st century, he does so at the head of a spiritual empire that touches more than 1.2 billion souls and whose influence crosses borders and contends with other great powers.

No other institution, other than the papacy, has survived Attila, the Ottomans, Hitler, Stalin, etc.? Speaking only as a member of an Antiochian Orthodox parish, I am sure that our patriarch in Damascus (a deadly serious place right now, once again) would consider that editorial statement questionable, at best.

Let’s continue, since the story then offers a pretty solid description of some of the issues dividing traditional and liberal Catholics. The key, and rarely used, word is “doctrine.”

Francis, the first New World Pope, faces some old and vexing problems. He must confront headlines reminding him of the church’s failures in dealing with the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. He must reform the Vatican’s finances by way of a bureaucracy that originated in medieval times and is burdened by aristocratic privilege and the Machiavellian instincts of feudal Italy. He must respond to the opposing demands of a divided flock — with many Catholics in North America and Europe asking for more-liberal interpretations of doctrine even as many in the burgeoning mission fields of Africa and Asia warm to the conservative comforts of the faith.

But here is the meat of the Time report, an editorial summary of the issues that appear, at first glance, to have played a key role in this papal election.

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Benedict XVI yearned for return to the old Catholic Europe?

Does anyone remember why the powerful Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger selected the name Benedict XVI when he was elected pope?

I may be wrong on this, but here is what I remember.

Yes, his choice was a salute to an earlier pope, who helped steer the church through the crisis of World War I. And, yes, the famous St. Benedict is considered the key figure in the history of Western monasticism and, with his vision of strong communities of faith, played a big role in the protection and preservation of key elements of what was good in the endangered European culture of his day.

What was Ratzinger — a man with deep roots into the chilly, liberal culture of academic liberalism in German — actually saying with the choice of “Benedict” as a name? Was he (a) saying that the old Catholic Europe could be saved or (b) that elements of a fading Christian culture could be preserved in a time of distress and decline?

That’s the question that lingered in my mind as I read the Los Angeles Times piece that ran under a magisterial double-decker headline that proclaimed:

Roman Catholic Church feels Europe slipping from its hands

The issue of gay rights is just one in which the church is losing its influence, and its privileged status is increasingly called into question

This piece of news — or news analysis — opens with this somber and symbolic anecdote:

VATICAN CITY – The timing said it all.

A smiling Pope Benedict XVI had just wrapped up an official visit to Portugal in May 2010, during which he praised Catholic organizations striving to protect families based on “the indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman.”

But barely 72 hours after the pontiff flew home, the president of Portugal declared that he would sign a bill allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed. With Spain having granted such rights five years earlier, the move turned the entire Iberian Peninsula, historically a Catholic stronghold, into an unlikely hitching post for homosexuals.

“That shows the importance of the pope’s views, of the Catholic Church’s views, on same-sex marriage in terms of domestic politics,” Paulo Corte-Real, a gay rights activist and economics professor, recalled wryly.

More than just an embarrassment, the turn of events was emblematic of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, once a mighty force on its home continent, is weaker in modern Europe than ever before, its influence ebbing, its privileged status increasingly called into question.

That’s the overture: The following is the thesis statement.

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Good Catholic info, sort of, but lousy ‘Catholic’ headline

Right now, editors in major newsrooms are doing everything they can to cover the papal horse race over at the Vatican. It’s crunch time.

Thus, journalists are asking questions such as these:

How will the cardinals vote?

What are they doing to campaign and win votes?

What are the political issues that are being debated?

What are the names of the factions?

Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, based on their stances on the political issues that matter to editors?

Who is most likely to favor the changes in ancient doctrines that the editors would like to see made?

At the heart of all this, as of late, is the drive to understand “what Catholics want” from a new pope. This leads to polls built on the assumption that there are people called “normal Catholics” who can be polled and plugged into the questions listed above.

Oh my. That sound you hear, after reading all of this, is the sound of church-going, active, doctrinally minded Catholics screaming, because framing a papal election in these terms — for them — is kind of like listening to fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

This produces headlines such as the following, care of The Washington Post:

Poll: Majority of U.S. Catholics favor change

The top of the story under this headline is oh so typical:

A majority of American Roman Catholics consider the church out of touch with their views and they want the new pope to usher in policies that reflect more modern attitudes, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As cardinals gather in the Vatican to select a successor to retired Pope Benedict XVI, the poll suggests most Catholics in the United States hope the next pope will move the church in a new direction that someday could include married priests and female priests.

Yet even as six in 10 Catholics characterize the church as not in sync with their attitudes and lifestyles, 86 percent said it remains relevant, according to the poll, conducted last week. And more than two-thirds of the Catholics polled praise Benedict, saying he did a “good” or “excellent” job.

I am happy to report that, right after this newsy train wreck, the reporting team — as opposed to the headline writing team — got its act together and alerted readers to the reality behind these numbers.

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Pod people: Can journalism be a civilizing influence?

On this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I talked about recent admissions from the mainstream media about the difficulty they’ve had treating traditional marriage proponents with any justice or decency.

Some of the best content we had on the blog this week came from a correspondent, who is a journalist, who weighed in on the matter. I’m not alone in thinking that content was most helpful for the discussion. Reader John M. wrote:

That quote from the “correspondent” above is one of the most intelligent things I’ve read in the context of this national discussion.

Reader Mark B. wrote:

I *really* like the correspondent’s contribution – I wish more stuff like this saw the light of day in mainstream journalistic endeavours (obviously not straight news, but certainly that next, ‘op ed’, circle out from straight news). It is a clear, reasonable, and rational statement that is not dumbed down and does not reflect the groupthink that seems to be often given sway in journalism.

And reader Thinkling weighed in:

There is more intelligence in this piece and the discussion here than in whole newsrooms. Thank you GR for this.

I highly encourage you to read through the thoughts the reader shared here and here. In the second piece, the correspondent agreed with criticism of some marriage traditionalists — that they seem fine with the new, impermanent model of marriage. Described by Conor Friedersdorf as the “modern, secularist, find-your-soul-mate-but-no-fault-divorce-just-in case incarnation,” the correspondent said such approval was rooted in “a kind of soft hypocrisy rooted in not thinking deeply.” He went on:

However, that thoughtlessness is hardly unique to the traditional side. I would argue the overwhelming majority of people in favor of same-sex marriage have not thought their arguments fully through, either, which I consider largely to their credit. They have not thought through what it means for children to say that either a mother or a father is optional not just de facto but de iure, not just in fact, as something that happens sometimes, but in principle. They have not thought through what it means to have three parent birth certificates, and to treat school materials that talk about “mother and father” without equal time given to alternative situations as “heteronormative” — as something practically stigmatized and bigoted. Most of these people are motivated by what they see as fairness — again, to their credit — to people with same-sex attraction. I laud their sympathy. But they have not thought through what fairness means for a wedding photographer who is not an exempted “church” but whose moral convictions do not permit her to pretend she thinks this event people are asking her to shoot is a marriage. They have not thought about fairness as it applies to a father who wishes to opt his children out of being indoctrinated in the state’s newfound moral orthodoxy that conflicts with his own in his neighborhood elementary school to which he pays taxes. The overwhelming majority of these people have no idea at all of advancing the ideology one finds in statement such as http://www.beyondmarriage.org/ — the total undefining of marriage. Even many of the more knowledgeable advocates on the other side would probably reject some of statement. Yet many are blissfully unaware that such goals exist or motivate anyone, and those who do not lack this knowledge have been spared the difficult and important work of explaining to themselves and to society how their ideas don’t lead to the more radical ones. Why do that when the secular media frame for the story casts you as Dudley Doright and those who disagree as Snidely Whiplash? (Boo! Hiss! Hooray!)

A journalism that was less interested in bullying people than learning actual arguments in play and considering actual consequences would contribute heavily to a more civilized society. How society comes to decisions is frequently as important as what those decisions are and the media have done a horrific job providing a forum for a healthy discussion on at least this topic. But just a bit of critical thinking and humility — just a bit — would go a long way to improving things.

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Critical thinking would help reporters cover gay debates

Yesterday we looked at some of this week’s worst examples of some major media’s trouble covering homosexuality or same-sex marriage. It was what I was thinking about as I ruminated on a first-person essay on TheAtlantic.com headlined:

There Probably Isn’t Any Neutral Way to Report on Homosexuality
Journalists could do better at conveying the best traditionalist arguments against gay marriage. But some people won’t be satisfied unless gays are stigmatized as in bygone days.

The Atlantic piece, written by Conor Friedersdorf, is a highly personal essay about how he would run a newspaper. He argues that he’d advocate for changing marriage law, and viewing this as a “civil rights” issue — but he’d do so in a transparent manner. He sees the problem with the approach taken by some mainstream media outlets, those that share his partisan views but aren’t forthright about it, as one of failing to be honest and transparent about their grounding premises.

And, he says, he’d want to be fair to those who disagree but are not bigoted. But, he says, let’s not pretend that bigotry isn’t a driving force here:

But let’s be clear: While journalists are obligated to set forth the best arguments from all sides in their “facilitating public discourse” mode, they oughtn’t give the impression, in their “conveying reality as it is” mode, that the most thoughtful, non-bigoted arguments against gay marriage are all that’s driving the debate. It’s been some years since I went door-to-door as a beat reporter, talking to anyone I could find about gay marriage on one of the occasions that the issue flared up in California. I won’t pretend that the dozens of people I spoke to in person or the hundreds I interacted with online were a scientific sample. But suffice it to say that it is very easy to find people whose opposition to gay marriage has nothing to do with a principled commitment to preserving marriage as an institution whose primary purpose is procreation and child-rearing.

These people are cool with marriage in its modern, secularist, find-your-soul-mate-but-no-fault-divorce-just-in case incarnation. They just don’t want gays to participate. The number of people who object to gay marriage is far bigger than the number who embrace traditionalist notions of marriage. And public opinion is changing so quickly in part because encounters with real-life gays rather than stereotypes thereof tend to make many people more sympathetic to gay marriage.

You get where he’s going. I’d argue — and have argued strenuously — that sharing the fullness of the debate on this topic requires digging deep. Part of that means digging deep into the views of those who would retain marriage as a heterosexual institution.

But even in Friedersdorf’s essay we see a failure to recognize a distinction many traditionalists make between disapproval of a particular behavior and disapproval of a person. Later, Friedersdorf says he’d like to know what marriage traditionalists such as Eve Tushnet would do if they ran a style section to a newspaper. It’s an interesting choice because Tushnet is rather famously same-sex attracted and also celibate for religious reasons. One of the problems with the current media approach to this topic is how many journalists lazily prejudge any disapproval of any aspect of homosexuality with bullying, bigotry and hatred.

A correspondent, who is a journalist, had some challenging remarks in response that everyone should read:

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Can the press cover traditionalists with justice and decency?

Thanks to the many readers who sent in kind words regarding my piece last week on the Washington Post ombudsman column that shed light on how bigoted some in the media are when it comes to covering those who oppose changing marriage laws to include same-sex couples.

That column, which quoted directly from a shockingly ignorant and contemptuous Washington Post reporter’s email — and then piled on with some further ignorance about arguments regarding same-sex marriage law — has generated quite a bit of coverage.

I wanted to look at one response to my original piece that ran on The Atlantic‘s web site. But first, a few items. Let’s note how the New York Times pitched a recent piece that adopted the arguments of those seeking to change marriage laws. Here’s how the reader submitted it to us:

From this afternoon’s NY Times e-mail:
Common Sense
Refusing to Arrive Late on Same-Sex Marriage

By JAMES B. STEWART
Corporate America has historically been slow to take up civil rights issues, but companies have rushed to sign the briefs filed with the Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage.

Can you spell “a-d-v-o-c-a-c-y”?

Yes, I can! And that’s exactly how you spell it. Advocacy is fine, of course. It has a place. That place is not, as it turns out, on the pages of a media outlet that claims to be presenting news, but it does have a place.

I also made it through the beginning of this other New York Times advocacy piece that found the actual words of a source not compelling enough for the story’s campaign objective. The premise is that a reporter is interviewing a family friend who is a pastor:

As I sat across from him at the kitchen table, drinking mint tea, I turned on my recorder and took a breath. Has the Christian church adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy? I asked.

“I would have to say yes,” he answered, shifting in his seat a little nervously, it seemed to me. He noted that many black churches like his own had made concessions to accommodate the growing acceptance of same-sex lifestyles. “There is a compromise because there is such a prevalent hard-core view on what’s considered right and wrong. People are feeling that in order to even retain a certain amount of membership, you can’t be very dogmatic about any of their sins.”

Said another way: If a minister is too rigidly homophobic, it could scare away members, which would decrease contributions and might ultimately be the end of a family-owned church.

I don’t know who is responsible for the, “Said another way” line, but Oh. My. Goodness. Now, nothing in the quote suggests that the pastor was AFRAID of homosexuals, so why would you ever use the bullying phrase of “homophobic”? But if you need to completely rewrite something in “another” way than your source said it, you are just making stuff up. Don’t do that. I’m not even going to address the imprecision of the broad, sweeping question about “the Christian Church” or the weird line about a “family-owned church.”

What’s particularly sad about this subsuming of journalism in favor of advocacy is that the interviewee said something really interesting about changing doctrines to be popular. What a wonderful idea to build a story around, but one that doesn’t match the paper’s preconceived ideas about what the story should be (hint: we’re later told he’s “torn” between “humanity” and being “welcoming” and his “religious beliefs.”). (Cue: Triple sign.)

Finally, the Washington Post is hosting an online discussion speculating about precisely what role “Christianity” played in the murder of an openly gay politician last week. You may suspect, given that this is considered a perfectly fine thing about which to speculate, that we know that “Christianity” played at least some role. Any role. Even a tiny smidgen of a role. In fact, police have identified a suspect and, well, here’s what a progressive news site called Raw Story says about the suspect Lawrence Reed:

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Self-described way-devoted super-Catholics and the press

YouTube Preview Image

I already used this YouTube as art in a post last week but it really fits for this story. Really fits. In the clip above, Lutheran Satire makes fun of the type of “Catholic” used by the media in stories about the Roman Catholic Church.

Somehow this video was stripped of satire, transformed into print and placed directly onto the pages of the Washington Post. It’s uncanny.

You can watch the video above but some people had trouble hearing the dialogue, so I’ll sum up and quote from it. The premise is that we’re watching “the latest edition of everybody’s favorite ecclesiastical game show Choose Your Pope: the game where bishops compete for the right to be selected the supreme pontiff by a representative from the uneducated court of public opinion.”

The contestant is Kaylee McMurphy:

A recent college graduate, Kaylee earned a BA in Advanced Feng-Shui Marketing. A self-described way-devoted super-Catholic, Kaylee has attended mass almost 7 times — therefore making her opinions on the theological direction of the Catholic church entirely valid and perfectly worthy of public attention.

The contestants are Cardinals Ouellet, Turkson and Scola.

McMurphy: “Question #1: Since I have absolutely no interest in knowing the scriptural and historical reasons for the male only priesthood, and since my Religious Worldviews in the Feminist Paradigm professor told me that, like, five of the apostles were totally women, I think the Catholic Church is finally ready for women priests. You guys agree, right?”

Ouellet: “No.”
Turkson: “No.”
Scola: “No.”

McMurphy: “Whatever. Question #2: Like most devout Catholic women who don’t go to Mass and don’t believe anything the Church says, I use birth control because babies are a lot of work and my boyfriend and I totally need to re-tile our master bathroom. That’s cool with you guys, right?”

Ouellet: “No.”
Turkson: “No.”
Scola: “No.”

McMurphy: “You guys are lame. Question #3: I like the aesthetics of the Catholic Church but don’t like its theology. I support no-fault divorce, abortion rights, gay marriage, gender-neutral language, and think that it’s mean to criticize Islam. I couldn’t be more of a liberal Episcopalian if Katherine Jefferts-Schiori formed me from the dust from the ground, and yet I still inexplicably identify myself as a Catholic.”

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Way to go, Joe! Colorado civil-unions story hits the mark

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that Joe Hight, the relatively new editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, is a longtime friend and mentor of mine.

Twenty years ago, Joe hired me to work at The Oklahoman, then a statewide newspaper with a Sunday circulation of about 350,000. During my nine years with the Oklahoma City newspaper, Joe provided regular guidance and encouragement as an eager young reporter — sometimes too combustible and other times too naive about newsroom politics — gained valuable real-world experience.

Together, we and other Oklahoman reporters and editors tackled two of the biggest stories of our careers: the April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City bombing and the May 3, 1999, Oklahoma tornadoes.

While in Colorado Springs on a reporting assignment in January, I enjoyed catching up with Joe over dinner. He took me on a tour of the Gazette newsroom and excitedly showed off his new digs. As we talked, he discussed his desire to see the Colorado Springs newspaper focus on fair, aggressive news coverage. In an era when so many mainstream media outlets seem inclined to take sides, I offered my hearty endorsement of that approach.

All of the above serves as a prelude to my critique of a front-page report in today’s Gazette. I have no idea whether Joe had any direct involvement in the story or the approach taken. But the report on Catholic Charities’ concerns about a proposed civil-unions law in Colorado exemplifies the kind of old-fashioned, straight-news reporting that characterizes the best daily journalism. (I have written about the religious exemptions issue for Christianity Today.)

Let’s start at the top of the Gazette story:

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