Ghosts on holy ground in Ukraine

ukraine1lLast week, I went to Kiev to speak to a group of Ukrainian journalists — both secular and religious — about the challenges of covering religion news in mainstream press. My chapter in the Oxford Centre book, “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” had been translated into Ukrainian and it was a great chance to get some feedback from scribes in a very different context — a post-Soviet culture.

To tell you the truth, the professional challenges described by journalists there sounded very familiar to my American ears.

Also, when I arrived I picked up a copy of the English-language Kiev Post and, right there on page one, spotted a religion ghost. It was a story about a memorial service — led, in part, by President Victor Yushchenko — at the mass grave in Bykivnya forest northeast of Kiev, a grave containing 100,000-plus victims of Joseph Stalin and his regime.

The photos that ran with this story included some strong religious images, which is not surprising in a nation with such a rich Eastern Orthodox heritage. But the story itself was completely religion free.

As you would expect, I decided that I had to discuss this with the Ukrainian journalists and then write about it in my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week. Here’s a big slice of that, including some rather complicated material about the politics of Orthodoxy in Ukraine:

The mourners wept, while processing through the site behind Orthodox clergy who carried liturgical banners containing iconic images of Jesus and Mary.

“Because of the national symbolism of this ceremony, the priests there may not be important,” said Victor Yelensky, a sociologist of religion associated with the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences. “But the priests have to be there because this is Ukraine and this is a ceremony that is about a great tragedy in the history of Ukraine.

“So the priests are there. It is part … of a civil religion.”

This is where the story gets complicated. In the Ukrainian media, photographs and video images showed the clergy, with their dramatic banners and colorful vestments. However, in their reporting, journalists never mentioned what the clergy said or did.

Mainstream media reports also failed to mention which Orthodoxy body or bodies were represented. This is an important gap, because of the tense and complicated nature of the religious marketplace in this historically Eastern Orthodox culture.

It would have been big news, for example, if clergy from the giant Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — with direct ties to Moscow — had taken part in a ceremony that featured Yushchenko, who, as usual, aimed angry words to the north.

But what if the clergy were exclusively from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate), born after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and linked to declarations of Ukrainian independence? What if there were also clergy from a third body, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, born early in the 20th century?

You see, right now almost anything can create tensions between Ukraine and Russia. A ceremony with clergy linked to Moscow would create tensions in some circles. A ceremony without clergy linked to Moscow would create tensions in others. The symbolism has political content either way.

So why not cover the religious content of this event?

The journalists said that most Ukrainian reporters and editors are highly secular and think that politics is the only subject that matters. It was also hard to forget all of those unwritten Soviet-era press rules that said that religion was bad, irrelevant or, at best, merely private.

Then again, the journalists agreed that religion news is highly complex and packed with historic details and symbols. Many Ukrainian journalists are terrified of making mistakes, because of their lack of knowledge. It is also hard to dig past the surface details and the layers of ecclesiastical armor to get at the subjects that truly touch the lives of readers. That requires sensitivity and insight, as well as technical skills.

So why not hire professionals trained to cover the beat? That would mean admitting that religion is a subject is worthy of that step.

Consider this quote fro one of the nation’s top journalists:

“Many would say that, if we do not play the violin, we really should not attempt to comment on how others play the violin,” said Yuri Makarov, editor in chief of Ukrainian Week, speaking through a translator.

Hey, religion-beat veterans: Does any of this sound familiar?

Photo: Canadian embassy photo from a 2008 memorial service in Bykivnya Forest.

Print Friendly

And then he fled

fledI’m up feeding my baby right now and went to The front-page story is headlined:

Clerk changes robber’s mind, religion

The headline, of course, enticed me to read the article. But the piece, written by Kiran Khalid, is not really a news story.

It’s about a Long Island storekeeper named Mohammad Sohail who was confronted by a would-be robber with a baseball bat. Sohail pulls out a shotgun:

“He’s crying like a baby,” Sohail said. “He says, ‘Don’t call police, don’t shoot me, I have no money, I have no food in my house.’”

Amidst the man’s apologies and pleas, Sohail said he felt a surge of compassion.

He made the man promise never to rob anyone again and when he agreed, Sohail gave him $40 and a loaf of bread.

“When he gets $40, he’s very impressed, he says, ‘I want to be a Muslim just like you,’” Sohail said, adding he had the would-be criminal recite an Islamic oath.

“I said ‘Congratulations. You are now a Muslim and your name is Nawaz Sharif Zardari.’” . . .

Sohail said the man fled the store when he turned away to get the man some free milk.

Um, why is this story on the front page of

I mean, I have no doubt this is how the story went down, but this is the thinnest and most bizarre religion story I’ve seen in a while. I don’t even know why this is a news story. It reads like an in-house Muslim newsletter article.

We don’t have Mr. Nawaz Sharif Zardari around to ask for his side of the events. Perhaps we do have an account of one of the world’s latest Muslim converts. Of course, we could also have an account of one of the world’s latest cracked-out robbers. Or anything inbetween. I honestly have no idea why CNN put this story up. Can anyone help me out here?

Print Friendly

From our “no comment” department

confessionalI confess that I really, really think that this Associated Press report needed to be much, much longer.

Then again, I think that this is one of the biggest stories in the world of religion news, these days. It’s the question that reporters have to ask right after they have asked how often an American Catholic goes to Mass.

This is the whole bloody thing, as far as I can tell.

VATICAN CITY (AP) – A Vatican official is lamenting that many faithful no longer confess their sins, and says some confuse a psychologist’s couch for a confessional booth.

Archbishop Mauro Piacenza has told Vatican Radio the sacrament of penance has been experiencing a “deep crisis” for decades. Piacenza, an official for the Vatican office on clergy, says fewer people distinguish between good and evil, and as a result don’t go to confession.

The archbishop said in the interview Tuesday that if faithful don’t have a sense of sin, they might “confuse” confession with “the couch of a psychologist or a psychiatrist.”

He says the Vatican plans to publish this year a kind of handbook on confession to drum up enthusiasm among Catholics toward the sacrament.

A new handbook. That will do it. As opposed to thousands of priests mentioning the bonds between the church’s teachings on confession and Holy Eucharist in sermons every now and then, like during Lent or Advent?

This is the kind of story that gives journalists sweaty palms. It’s a big story about real life and, well, real sin. Those things tend to go together.

Has anyone seen any really good mainstream reports on the confession slump lately?

Print Friendly

Sotomayor? Probably a “majority” Catholic

sonia_sotomayor_4_smiling_with_her_motherOver the past week, GetReligion has been pursuing this question: What is the mainstream press saying about where Judge Sonia Sotomayor falls in the spectrum of Catholic life and practice? Well, New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein has been researching this for all of the curious minds who read that newspaper (not to mention GR readers), and here’s what she has found out:

Four of the Catholics on the court are reported to be committed attenders of Mass, and they make up the court’s solid conservative bloc — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. The fifth Catholic, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, often votes with them.

There are indications that Judge Sotomayor is more like the majority of American Catholics: those who were raised in the faith and shaped by its values, but who do not attend Mass regularly and are not particularly active in religious life. Like many Americans, Judge Sotomayor may be what religion scholars call a “cultural Catholic” — a category that could say something about her political and social attitudes.

First of all, we’re pleased as punch that Goodstein has tackled this question. It’s long been clear that conservative Catholics vote along conservative lines — so the fact that the mass–attending Justices generally trend reliably conservative should not shock anyone. As Terry said in a previous post, the hinge issue is abortion. Is there any way of predicting by her church attendance (and Goodstein has done her homework here) how Sotomayor would vote on abortion-related, or “right to privacy” cases that come before the court?

Franklly, it’s unwise to predict how anyone would vote, even if you think you know. Purely my opinion, but confirmation processes have now become a charade, where aspiring Justices say as little as possible without totally compromising their integrity. Yet it seems clear that piety (if one can judge piety by church attendance, which is a whole other debate) is a factor, if not a totally understood factor, in where one falls on the spectrum of liberal-conservative opinion (as in this poll on the Notre-Dame controversy). Here’s some interesting stats on a few social issues culled by Goodstein.

In fact, 52 percent of Catholics who do not attend church regularly say abortion is morally acceptable, compared with 24 percent of churchgoing Catholics, according to a Gallup study released in March based on polling over the previous three years. Gallup found that 61 percent of non-churchgoing Catholics found same-sex relationships morally acceptable, compared with 44 percent of churchgoers.

But legal scholars say that while Judge Sotomayor’s Catholic identity will undoubtedly shape her perceptions, they will not determine how she would rule on the bench. After all, they point out, Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Frank Murphy, both Catholics, had records as liberals, while Justice Scalia has been a reliable conservative. Their positions have differed, even on issues covered in Catholic teaching, like abortion.

That’s a fascinating stat on same-sex relationships — anyone want to guess what it means? Actually, let’s start with the term “morally acceptable.”

Then there is the whole issue of whether Judge Sotomayor’s ‘Catholic identity’ was shaped by her Hispanic roots. She has talked about being proud of her Latina heritage — did she spend any time with the more than one-half (in this 2007 Pew poll) of Hispanic Catholics who identify themselves as charismatic? There’s no evidence here that she did. And there’s really no way of predicting yet how Sotomayor will vote — with the exception of the Ricci affirmative action case recently argued before the Supreme Court, she doesn’t have a huge paper trail on hot button issues. Generally picks for the Supreme Court don’t.

As much as I liked the Goodstein article, I had a few problems with it. Characterizing Anthony Kennedy (as Professor Powe does) as a “country club Republican” says nothing about his Catholic identity. Nor does telling us that Justices Breyer and Ginsburg are Jewish or that Stevens is a Protestant illuminate anything about how their faith and/or culture shapes their decisions. Aren’t you curious about them, too?

But here’s what I want to know — is it possible that “cultural Catholics” aren’t much different than the majority of Americans as a whole? If Sotomayor doesn’t go to church very often, then she’s like most of the rest of us. Does terming someone a “cultural Catholic” in an age of ethnic diversity and diversity of practice really mean a whole heck of a lot anymore? The vague definition here (a commitment to social justice and community service) could as well be applied to Quakers.

In the end, of course, it comes down to what one woman with a Catholic heritage believes — and as excellent a reporter as Goodstein is, she hasn’t been able to get inside Sotomayor’s head. Which won’t keep a lot of other people from trying.

Isn’t this a nice picture of Sotomayor with her mother (Wikimedia Commons)?

Print Friendly

“Would you comment on this story?”

nbs_sign600x6001Day after day, your GetReligionistas receive emails that contain tips about religion-news stories across America and sometimes from around the world. We are extremely grateful that readers do this, because there is no way we can read even a 10th of the coverage that we would like to review here on the blog.

But there is a problem, one that I mentioned the other day.

One of the ongoing temptations here at GetReligion … is to focus on interesting events and trends in religion news, instead of keeping our unique focus on how the mainstream press attempts to cover those stories in an accurate, balanced, professional manner. The bottom line: This is not a religion-news blog; this is a blog about how the mainstream press wrestles with coverage of religion news.

I would say that at least 50 percent or more of the story tips that we get are about about news stories that do not fit what we do here. The readers are, it seems, upset about some event that has happened and they want us to comment on the event or a trend that it may represent. The coverage of the story usually seems pretty ordinary, by which I mean that it doesn’t contain the kinds of mistakes or gaps that we like to criticize or the kinds of unique insights or sources that we like to praise.

Perhaps it would help if I offered an example. Have you been following the story of the home-based Bible study that San Diego officials briefly tried to shut down? Here’s a very ordinary wire report on Fox News and then here is a more in-depth report in the San Diego Tribune, that opens with this summary:

David Jones and his wife, Mary, who hold Bible study in their Bonita home every Tuesday, have landed in the national media spotlight after San Diego County asked them to obtain a permit for the gatherings.

On April 10, a county code enforcement officer visited the Jones’ home after a complaint from somebody about the meetings. The officer told Mary Jones that if the couple don’t immediately stop holding “religious assemblies”, they could face escalating fines of $100, $200, $500, and $1,000, according to the Joneses’ attorney.

Dean R. Broyles with the Western Center for Law & Policy, which is representing the couple, said the county’s citation violates the Joneses’ “First Amendment Right to freely exercise their religion.” In addition, Broyles argues that Bible study does not constitute religious assembly under the county’s land use regulations, which refer to religious assembly as religious services at synagogues, temples and churches.

Now, there are all kinds of interesting questions here, starting with the obvious: How many people attend this Bible study and are these gatherings larger than similar events involving playing cards, backyard barbecues, “Final Four” hoops parties or Oprah book circles? If there are parking problems, are they caused by the work of God or man? Can neighbors protest religious meetings, but not secular?

There was also information included in the reports offered by religious publications that city officials were asking some very content-oriented questions about these gatherings, perhaps singling out religious speech for special scrutiny. That would interesting, to say the least.

I am happy to report that all of that ended up in the Tribune follow-up report on the resolution — in favor of the Bible readers — of the case. Here’s one of the more interesting passages, linked to an interview with Dean Broyles, of the Western Center for Law & Policy, a nonprofit organization in Escondido that supports religious liberty:

(Broyles) said traffic issues were not raised when the code enforcement officer first visited the Joneses in response to the complaint. The warning itself does not mention traffic or parking problems.

“Even though the county is saying it’s about traffic and parking, it’s a fake issue. It’s a fabricated issue,” Broyles said.

According to Broyles, the code enforcement officer asked a series of pointed questions during her visit with the Joneses — questions such as, “Do you sing?” “Do you say ‘amen?’ ” “Do you say ‘praise the Lord?’ “

Sure enough, the county is investigating those complaints about the questions linked to the original complaint. Does that make sense?

The reader who sent me the story ended by asking: “Would you comment on this story?”

On the news reports (which is our job here) or on the contents of the story, in terms of the church-state issues involved? I don’t dive into the latter, unless I think that the journalists missed something obvious.

So here’s my comment: The stories look good to me.

So what’s my point? When you send us URLs (and please keep doing so, folks), please let us know what you think is right or wrong about the journalism in these news stories.

Print Friendly

Wow, that’s a fast catechumenate

trinityObviously, there are converts to the Episcopal Church and then there are CONVERTS to the Episcopal Church.

As you would expect, the Miami Herald offered a major piece on decision by Father Alberto Cutié to leave the Roman Catholic Church and to enter the Episcopal Church, where he will start preaching this coming Sunday, yet wait about a year to become active as a priest.

Obviously, the newspaper focused on celibacy as the central issue involved in this new set of headlines about Father Oprah:

While the Catholic Church requires priests to hew to a vow of celibacy, the Episcopalians, who broke from Rome in the 16th century, have no such rules. Cutié was formally welcomed into the Episcopal Church in a small, private ceremony early Thursday afternoon at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral (pictured), the church’s South Florida headquarters in downtown Miami.

”I am continuing the call to spread God’s love,” Cutié said after the ceremony, adding that he has gone through a “spiritual and deep ideological struggle.”

In attendance at Trinity was Cutié’s girlfriend, Ruhama Buni Canellis, 35, a divorced mother living in Miami Beach. It was the first public sighting of the couple since compromising photos appeared in a Mexican magazine early this month that led the telegenic cleric to take leave from his South Beach parish. Cutié sat smiling beside Canellis during the half-hour ceremony. Deacons and former Catholic priests now in the Episcopal Church were by his side — many notably accompanied by their wives.

Now Cutié had earlier stressed that he did not want to become known as the anti-celibacy priest. However, this decision raises a host of doctrinal issues — with celibacy barely making it into the Top 10. The Herald mentions a few items that have made the biggest headlines, in this era and that of King Henry VIII.

The more-liberal Episcopal church considers itself the ”middle way” between Protestantism and Catholicism. It ordains women and has an openly gay bishop. The church represents the U.S. wing of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion and traces its roots to the Church of England. In South Florida, the Episcopal diocese has 38,000 members, compared with the 800,000-member Catholic archdiocese.

While the Episcopal and Catholic churches have almost identical worship services, there are significant differences. Episcopalians, for instance, do not believe in the infallibility of the Pope.

The obvious question: What beliefs were in his mind when Cutié said he had been engaged in a “deep ideological struggle” before this decision? As I said, celibacy is a powerful issue for a man who wants to get married. But, when listing differences between the Catholic Church and the modern Episcopal Church, it’s not a major issue of doctrine or ideology.

Meanwhile, there was one other question that I think the newspaper’s team should have raised while doing this story. When Catholics convert to the Episcopal Church, at least in all of the cases I have witnessed (including friends) or covered as a reporter, they go through the same process as other people who convert and are “confirmed” into the denomination. However, since Catholics are coming out of an ancient church with full orders, they are “received” into the Anglican Communion, rather than being “confirmed.”

This usually takes between three and nine months, depending on how seriously a parish takes the confirmation process (or the catechumenate in the ancient churches).

Obviously, it appears that a bishop can speed that process up. Obviously, he or she can speed it way, way up. However, as Doug LeBlanc noted, when I asked him about this, it appears that the canon law involved is rather open and, in the true meaning of the word, liberal:

It is expected that all adult members of this Church, after appropriate instruction, will have made a mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism and will have been confirmed or received by the laying on of hands by a Bishop of this Church or by a Bishop of a Church in communion with this Church. Those who have previously made a mature public commitment in another Church may be received by the laying on of hands by a Bishop of this Church, rather than confirmed.

I still think that’s an interesting subject. Why did the bishop need to act so fast? And putting Cutié straight into a pulpit?

Print Friendly

Mapping God’s “fingerprints”?


Last week NPR listeners got what some of them pay for — a thoughtful, consistently engaging look at the interdisciplinary field of science, and particularly brain science, and spirituality. Those who listened to Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s five-part series on the “science of spirituality” heard a diverse group of (mostly scientists) ponder the ways in which the brain is affected by spiritual events, including those with hallucenogenic drugs, meditation and near-death experiences.

Although her editors allowed her a very big chunk of time (as much as ten minutes) to explore such topics as charting changes in the brains of mystics, any examination of this enormous topic can only scratch the surface. In fact, Bradley Hagerty just published a book, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, which apparently examines these topics in detail.

First off, listeners who expect to hear theologians debating scientists will be disappointed. This doesn’t pretned to be a series in which science and religion battle one another, and, frankly, in my opinion, it’s a lot more interesting to hear debate within the scientific realm itself about the import of some of these events. That being said, Bradley Hagerty’s evenhanded approach can sometimes sound a bit tentative, as in these closing paragraphs on whether prayer for other people changes them (the story summary provided on the website isn’t a word for word transcription, but is substantially accurate) :

This idea — that we may be connected at some molecular level — echoes the words of mystics down the ages. And it appeals to some scientists.

But it infuriates others — like Columbia University’s Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just doesn’t work this way.

“Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal,” Sloan says. “There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It’s good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

Radin and others agree that that’s what science says right now. But they say these findings eventually have to be explained somehow.

Tell us what you really think, Dr. Sloan. That’s a great quote. And Hagerty does leave the door open for diverse ways of explaining these phenomena. But she doesn’t clue readers in to what a few of those alternative explanations might be, leaving us with the impression that scientist Radin doesn’t have any theories to explain what he is analyzing. Somehow I doubt that. There’s a certain superficial quality that is probably inevitable when a journalist only has eight minutes to describe a complex topic in what is still basically a new science.

I enjoyed the whole series, but for my money the single most important thing Bradley Hagerty said was at the very end of the last essay, where she’s discussing scientists with contrasting opinions.

In other words, Woerlee and Beauregard looked at the same images and came to opposite conclusions.

I found that dichotomy everywhere as I interviewed experts about the emerging science of spirituality. It’s kind of like a Rorschach test: Some researchers look at the data and say spiritual experience is only an electrical storm in the temporal lobe, or a brain gasping for oxygen — all fully explainable by science. Others say our brains are reflecting an encounter with the divine.

And almost invariably, where a scientist stands on that issue has little to do with the clinical findings of any study. It has almost everything to do with the scientist’s personal beliefs.

Think about the implications of Bradley Hagerty’s assertion for science, as well as for religion, if scientists tend to view their results through the lens of their own beliefs. Do you find what you were looking for to begin with? For the sake of science, religion, and oh, by the way, journalism, I hope we can transcend our own biases — or at least argue furiously with them.

Picture of monks praying is from Wikimedia Commons

Print Friendly

Mainline wars: Do the math

gay-marriage-simpsonsOne of the ongoing temptations here at GetReligion — for the GetReligionistas as well as the reader/commentators — is to focus on interesting events and trends in religion news, instead of keeping our unique focus on how the mainstream press attempts to cover those stories in an accurate, balanced, professional manner.

The bottom line: This is not a religion-news blog; this is a blog about how the mainstream press wrestles with coverage of religion news. It helps to read that “What we do, why we do it” post every now and then.

Now, we also do our “Got news?” posts about stories that journalists seem to be missing. We also comment on op-eds and essays that are directly focused on religion news or trends that shape mainstream religion news (like the victory of European journalism at nonNewsweek battles). If something is linked to religion news, we have to consider writing about it.

For example, consider Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman’s short USA Today report the other day: “Survey: Protestant clergy back gay rights, not marriage.”

As the text of her story makes clear, the headline urgently needed another word — an adjective such as “mainline” or “oldline” — to modify that broad, broad word “Protestant.” Note the crucial word “seven” in the second paragraph, as in “seven sisters.” Here’s the top of the report:

Most mainline Protestant clergy do not support legalizing gay marriage, even if they’re not required to officiate at same-sex ceremonies.

It was the only point on which the majority did not support gay rights, according to a survey of clergy from the seven historic mainline Protestant denominations to which 18% of Americans belong. The Clergy Voices Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research, is based on 2,658 responses from clergy from the United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church of America; Episcopal Church; United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA; American Baptist Church; and the Disciples of Christ.

These are, of course, the major churches of the religious left. Yet on another level, they are not — for the simple reason that there are giant fissures inside these churches between seminaries and local churches, between local pastors and bureaucratic leaders, between pews in red zip codes and those in blue. Consider the Anglican-Episcopal wars, for starters. It is way too simplistic to say that the “seven sisters” are totally on one side or the other, in the battles over basic doctrines in Christianity.

That’s why Grossman’s little poll story is important. In a few lines, it explains why these horrific wars roll on and on over on the Protestant left and in churches to the left of center. When it comes to changing the definition of marriage itself, which essentially means saying that ancient forms of Christianity have been wrong for 2,000 years, then pastors find it hard to shout, “Amen!”

Only 33% say gay couples should be allowed to marry, 32% would allow civil unions, and 35% call for “no legal recognition” for same-sex couples. Support for same-sex marriage grew to 46% if laws specified that clergy would not be required to perform a religious ceremony in contradiction with their denomination’s teachings.

“We find that on these issues, the clergy views are fairly in line with the laity views,” said Robert Jones, president of Public Religion Research.

Thus, the story never seems to go away. That’s bad news for people on the left and the right in these oldline conflicts.

Print Friendly