The Mosul purge: How good is the media coverage?

The purge of Christians from Mosul in northern Iraq — home to thriving Christian communities almost since biblical times — is a historic human rights abuse. Yet mainstream media have done comparatively little coverage on it, probably because they’re stretched thin with the twin stories of the airline shoot-down in Ukraine and Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Also, of course, the Islamic State is in no mood to allow access to the “kafir” media.

Still, some reports have emerged, and some are brave, sensitive and frank on what the Christians are suffering.

The New York Times is often tone-deaf on religion in the U.S., but the newspaper has distinguished itself in stories like this one. Tim Arango’s newsfeature opens with an anecdote on the loss shared by Iraqi Christians and many Muslims:

BAGHDAD — A day after Christians fled Mosul, the northern city controlled by Islamist extremists, under the threat of death, Muslims and Christians gathered under the same roof — a church roof — here on Sunday afternoon. By the time the piano player had finished the Iraqi national anthem, and before the prayers, Manhal Younis was crying.

“I can’t feel my identity as an Iraqi Christian,” she said, her three little daughters hanging at her side.

A Muslim woman sitting next to her in the pew reached out and whispered, “You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done to you in the name of Islam.”

The warm scene here was an unusual counterpoint to the wider story of Iraq’s unraveling, as Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gain territory and persecute anyone who does not adhere to their harsh version of Islamic law. On Saturday, to meet a deadline by the ISIS militants, most Christians in Mosul, a community almost as old as Christianity itself, left with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

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For Cologne archbishop, Reuters emits a scent of bias

The new archbishop of Cologne, Germany, is all about gays.

At least it is, according to a Reuters story on the transfer of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki there from Berlin. A full 203 of the story’s 430 words deal with what he thinks, or says, or what Reuters thinks he says, about homosexuality:

But Woekli surprised Berliners by saying he respected all people and would gladly meet with gay activists.

A year later, in 2012, he said: “If two homosexuals take responsibility for each other, if they are loyal to each other over the long term, then one should see this in the same way as heterosexual relations.”

Berlin’s Alliance against Homophobia nominated him for its Respect Prize that year, an honour he politely declined by saying it was normal for a Christian to respect all people so he should not receive an award for it.

Reuters starts with the ostensible theme of Woelki, a relatively young 58, as part of a “new generation” of bishops. Drawing their cue from a newspaper in Berlin, they characterize him as “not grumpy and dogmatic … these men speak of mercy and mean it. They’re open to people, even their critics, to a point and have a heart for the disadvantaged. Still, they’re theologically conservative.”

The newspaper may have especially liked Woelki because it disliked his former mentor, the (cliche alert!) “staunchly conservative” Cardinal Joachim Meisner. Still, the setup is a tantalizing appetizer.

So, where does Cologne’s new leader stand on the environment? Pollution and urbanization? Relations with Jews and Muslims? Clerical sexual abuse? Vatican fiscal reform? The aging ranks of nuns? The secularization of Europe? Refugee movements in Africa and Central America? The looming annihilation of Christianity in the Middle East?

Wellllllll, Reuters doesn’t get around to any of that. They’re too busy reading — perhaps reading into — Woelki’s attitude toward gays, and gays’ attitude toward him:

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Latin Mass: Why did NYTimes avoid rite’s liberal enemies?

There is this old, old, old saying that you will often hear quoted in discussions of worship trends in the modern and postmodern Catholic church. It goes like this.

Question: What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?

Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist.

Now, you either get that joke or you don’t. If you get that joke, then you probably are the kind of person who cares a whole lot about discussions of why Catholics can’t sing anymore, why so few men go to Mass and why it matters whether people are allowed to kneel when receiving Holy Communion. On that latter subject, I once wrote:

While it is hard to explain to outsiders, one of the most fascinating battles in the American Catholic church today is the one that pits the kneelers vs. the non-kneelers. I refer, of course, to the issue of whether bishops should — bowing to the modernization of ancient rites — attempt to prevent the faithful from kneeling before the altar as they receive Holy Communion during the Mass.

Let me explain: If people are allowed to kneel, that would mean that the Latin Mass is coming back and the next thing you know the pope will be seeking draconian student-life codes on Catholic campuses that prevent student funds from being used for activities that directly attack Catholic doctrine. It would be like the reforms of the Second Vatican Council never happened (or the spirit of the council has been quenched or something like that). Horrors.

Yes, note the reference to the Latin Mass.

You see, there are millions of Catholics who really, really, really hate the modern, post-Vatican II rite that is used in the vast majority of Catholic parishes. I am serious about the word “hate.”

At the same time, there are plenty of Catholics wearing Roman collars — some of them professional liturgists in dioceses across America and around the world — who really hate (I think “distrust” is too mild a word) the many Catholics who love very traditional forms of liturgy and, especially, the traditional Tridentine Mass. It also annoys these Catholic professionals that so many of the Latin lovers are older Catholics with checkbooks and a fierce dedication to sacramental life. Period.

With all that in mind, please consider the recent New York Times report — OK, it has been in my guilt file for some time — that ran under this double-decker headline:

Manhattan Parish Draws Attention of Conservative Catholics and the Church

Church of the Holy Innocents, Home of the City’s Only Daily Latin Mass, Might Close

Here is the top of the report:

As the Rev. Justin Wylie took the pulpit at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan last month, anger and anxiety emanated from the pews. Parishioners, who rely on the church to offer a daily traditional Latin Mass, were about to meet to discuss an archdiocesan panel’s recommendation to close their church, and some were talking about schism.

“I worry about the situation of traditional Catholics in the archdiocese,” Father Wylie, a visiting priest, said in his sermon,
articulating their concerns. “No longer, I say, should you think of yourselves as squatters in the mighty edifice of the Holy Church, nor should you find yourselves turned out like squatters.”

It was an unusual moment of open criticism by a Roman Catholic priest of church policy in New York. And the reaction was swift. Within two weeks, Father Wylie was reprimanded by the New York Archdiocese and in short order dismissed from his job as attaché at the Mission of the Holy See at the United Nations, where he negotiated human rights issues on the Vatican’s behalf.

And the kicker:

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Pope’s abuse apology: Media did a fair job, surprisingly

Mainstream media didn’t pile onto Pope Francis. I know that sounds cynical — something like “Johnny’s trumpet recital didn’t suck!” — but in the story of Francis’ personal apology to victims of priestly abuse, reporters actually reported. They left pontifications to the pontiff.

Francis, of course, has apologized before for the abuses that his predecessors allowed to persist. In April, he vowed to impose sanctions for the “evil” done by churchmen. But many media have seen the broader, more severe tone of his latest remarks — in which he compared abuse to a “cult” or “satanic mass.”

One example is a 1,000+-word piece in The Guardian:

“It is something more than despicable actions,” Francis said of clerical sex abuse. “It is like a sacrilegious cult, because these boys and girls had been entrusted to the priestly charism in order to be brought to God. And those people sacrificed them to the idol of their own concupiscence.”

He added: “There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not.”

It is not the first time that Francis has condemned abuse, but his words delivered at the Santa Martha guesthouse on Vatican grounds were particularly pointed towards those clerics who may have enabled the abuse to be “camouflaged with a complicity”.

“I beg your forgiveness … for the sins of omission on the part of Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves. This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused and it endangered other minors who were at risk,” said Francis, according to a translation made available by the Vatican.

The Wall Street Journal saw Francis’ remarks as a kind of escalation. Its coverage says that although he has apologized for abuses in the past, this is the first time he has included the bishops:

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Headline writers duck and cover when Francis improvises

It must be very hard to be a headline writer in the age of Pope Francis.

I mean, the man serves up — during his off-the-cuff homilies and chats — a wealth of material that simply screams, “You must put this phrase in a headline because it sounds amazing.”

The only problem is that this pope has a way of using words that have specific doctrinal or legal content, in terms of Catholic tradition, in strange ways. He says words that make HUMAN sense, yet do not precisely say what the pope seems to be saying. Journalists quote the words accurately. Then, later, Vatican officials then have to clean up what the pope SAID, as opposed to what he did not actually mean to have said.

Headline writers get caught in the middle. Consider this case study from Reuters, care of The Washington Post:

Pope Francis lambastes mobsters, says mafiosi ‘are excommunicated’

The key quote holds up at the top of the report. Can you spot the key word?

SIBARI, Italy – Pope Francis on Saturday issued the strongest attack on organized crime groups by a pontiff in two decades, accusing them of practicing “the adoration of evil” and saying mafiosi are excommunicated.

It was the first time a pope had used the word excommunication — a total cutoff from the Catholic Church — in direct reference to members of organized crime.

“Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he said in impromptu comments at a Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in one of Italy’s most crime-infested areas.

Key word? “Impromptu.”

So what did the pope say, according to the Vatican? Or, to put it another way, what did he not legally say in terms of Catholic canon law?

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Was Catholic ‘teaching’ involved in latest Ireland scandal?

If I have heard this statement once at pro-life rallies I have heard it a hundred times: There are crisis pregnancies, but there is no such thing — in the eyes of God — as an unwanted child. This statement is especially popular with doctrinally conservative Catholics.

So, try to combine that thought with the news coming out of Ireland. This is from the Associated Press:

DUBLIN – The Catholic Church in Ireland is facing fresh accusations of child neglect after a researcher found records for 796 young children believed to be buried in a mass grave beside a former orphanage for the children of unwed mothers.

The researcher, Catherine Corless, says her discovery of child death records at the Catholic nun-run home in Tuam, County Galway, suggests that a former septic tank filled with bones is the final resting place for most, if not all, of the children.

Church leaders in Galway, western Ireland, said they had no idea so many children who died at the orphanage had been buried there, and said they would support local efforts to mark the spot with a plaque listing all 796 children.

County Galway death records showed that the children, mostly babies and toddlers, died often of sickness or disease in the orphanage during the 35 years it operated from 1926 to 1961. The building, which had previously been a workhouse for homeless adults, was torn down decades ago to make way for new houses.

There is no need to discuss the details of that horrific vision.

The question the story has to address, of course, is why these lost children were buried in such a fashion. Also, the story says it is essential to know that, during the era in which this orphanage was open, Ireland had “one of the worst infant mortality rates in Europe, with tuberculosis rife.”

The essential question here is whether what happened here is essentially an Irish, or cultural, practice or was it justified at the time as uniquely Catholic, in terms of doctrine. Think of this issue, perhaps, as similar to the debates about whether “honor killings” in Pakistan are uniquely cultural, tribal or somehow, for those committing the acts, rooted in what they believe are Islamic beliefs.

This leads us to the crucial paragraphs in the story:

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Is Cardinal Dolan’s star fading? NYTimes ‘somes’ it up

I’ve just made up a rule for reading news: The confidence a writer places in an article is inversely proportional to the number of times he/she uses “some.” Such words often substitute for actual findings.

I know, because I occasionally did it myself as a reporter. But I’m not sure I used it six times in one story, as did a New York Times article on Cardinal Timothy Dolan and his place in the Catholic power structure.

The story’s basic assessment is that Cardinal Timothy Dolan was Pope Benedict XVI’s American culture warrior, fighting trends like abortion and same-sex marriage. Benedict was also fine with Dolan’s upper-middle-class lifestyle, and with Dolan delegating archdiocesan matters to his vicars instead of handling them himself.

But with a new pope in town, Dolan — well, isn’t on the outs, exactly; he’s just out of step with the newer, humbler, more pastoral church of Pope Francis. So says the Times.

But to make that case, the arguments get pretty, well, argumentative.

In the last years that Benedict XVI served as pope, Cardinal Dolan, 64, was America’s top bishop as the president of the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops. Ever the genial guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, he led the charge against the Obama administration’s efforts to require some religious employers to cover birth control for employees. Some church experts say he was also the go-to cardinal for many in the Vatican when they wanted to know what was going on in the American church.

See that? Even that nut paragraph, as journalists call it, uses the “some” qualifier. Here are others:

Some see the influence of Cardinal Dolan, once considered a possible candidate for pope himself, waning in the era of the new pontiff.

And:

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NPR asks Vatican experts to discuss hopes of the Orthodox

Try to imagine a story about crucial, tense talks between Democrats and Republicans that only offered material drawn from interviews with Republicans, even when talking about the beliefs and aspirations of the Democrats.

Try to imagine a report about, oh, talks between liberal Episcopalians and conservative Anglicans that only featured commentary from one side or the other (actually, in some mainline publications that’s pretty easy to imagine). Or how about a pre-Super Bowl story that tried to cover the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams in the big game, but only talked to experts skilled in covering one of the teams or only talked to the coaches on one team. Can you imagine veteran journalists doing that?

This brings me to a report by NPR superstar Sylvia Poggioli that ran, online, under this headline: “The 1,000-Year-Old Schism That Pope Francis Seeks To Heal.”

Hear me now: This is not a fatally flawed news story, although some of the information is rather shallow. For example, any discussion of attempts to heal the painful schism between the ancient churches of East and West simply has to begin with, or at least mention, the efforts of St. John Paul II and this issue was a high priority for Pope Benedict XVI as well. NPR didn’t need to get these two popes into the headline, but one sentence in the story itself? That’s a must.

Also, let me note that the sources quoted in the piece are very qualified, especially when it comes to all things Rome. However, let’s see if we can spot a pattern in this report:

Meeting in Jerusalem in 1964, Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras set a milestone: They started the process of healing the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity of the year 1054. Moves toward closer understanding followed, but differences remain on issues such as married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican.

OK, pause. It’s crucial to know that the smaller Eastern Rite Catholic bodies, like the large churches of Eastern Orthodoxy, already follow the ancient tradition of having married priests and celibate, usually monastic, bishops. While the celibate priesthood is the norm in the West, I have never heard anyone say that this is a big issue affecting healing between Catholics and Orthodox. What’s up with that strange unattributed claim?

Back to the story:

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