Tiny Catholic stories in Saturday Sun

dscf0205ped-bearing-crossjpgIf you are one of the scores of people who still get the tiny, dead-tree-pulp edition of The Baltimore Sun on Saturdays — the cartoons are now in the SPORTS section, because there’s no logical place to put them — then you may have seen a sad little page of religion content this morning in the all-purpose news section. If you hit the auto ads, you went too far.

This page contained two features that were clearly run together intentionally, to create a mini-package of Catholic content for this heavily Catholic city and state. There was a news story and a column.

We’ll take the news first, which was a short story about the funeral of the famous priest Father Joseph C. Martin, the “wounded healer” who turned his own alcoholism into an internationally known ecumenical ministry to others who struggled with the same disease and temptations.

I wrote about the obituary for this famous priest the other day, noting that a fine feature story about his death failed to connect his struggles with the actual details of his priesthood — which still strikes me as rather strange.

You see, one of the “first things” advocated by your GetReligionistas is that coverage of major religious events should — believe it or not — include some of the religious content and themes from those events. While it is bad to drench coverage in thick fogs of insider theological language, it is also bad to keep veering away from the obvious religious images and themes in these events, or to include tiny bites — unexplained — that may leave readers puzzled.

Sure enough, the funeral story is full of inspiring and human details about the priest that focus on his ministry in a totally neutral, secular way. Well and good. And at the end of the piece we actually get two snippets from the sermons.

The Rev. Thomas O. Ulshafer, provincial superior of the Society of Saint Sulpice, described Father Martin’s initial role as being a teacher of young seminarians. … Speaking of Father Martin’s addiction to alcohol, he said, “He turned a cross into a new life.”

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien ended the funeral by saying, “If Joseph Martin is not in heaven, I don’t think any of us has a chance.”

Read that quote again about “the cross” in Martin’s life. You just know that this friend and superior said more than that. Yes, as a veteran journalist, I know that the reporter was working with a very small amount of space — in this small, small, small, small edition of a shrinking newspaper. But does that “cross” reference make sense standing alone? You also know that the archbishop did not make a reference to salvation and heaven in a stand-alone, throw away line.

I am sure Catholic readers understood the context. But what about those who do not know the code? Didn’t they need at least one or two other sentences? And the actual content of a funeral Mass may deserve to go higher than the final lines?

Right below this news story was a column by veteran journalist Jacques Kelly which, in the print edition, ran under the nostalgic headline: “Remembering when confession was routine Saturday occasion.” The column was inspired by a glimpse of a city bus with an advertisement for the local branch of the national “The Light is on for You” campaign to encourage Catholics to go to confession.

Read it all, but here is a sample of the newspaper’s nostalgia for old-timers:

The ad caught me off my guard. It was saying to Baltimore’s Roman Catholics during Lent: Get up and go to confession. Confess to a priest. ‘Fess up — and seek spiritual advice from someone trained in giving it.

Confession, Reconciliation, Sacrament of Penance — whatever its name — went into a sharp decline after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. It was certainly a major part of my religious education and one of the practices that pointed up the differences from our Presbyterian and Methodist friends. Only the highest of Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians made confessions — and, to my eyes, not nearly as often as their Roman cousins.

In the Baltimore of the 1950s, confession was a part of Saturday afternoon. You’d see the shoppers take the Charles Street bus home and drop into SS. Philip and James, where a little green light about the size of a Christmas tree bulb would be on. The green light (meaning the priest was in residence) was built into the little room, the confessional, where you told all. In those days, there were often lines of penitents — without the help of an advertising campaign.

aleqm5ggyrzz83ocna897xd-w5snazuo8qSo what changed?

This is a huge story, friends, one linked to all kinds of issues (like major politicians, Democrats and a few Republicans, who want to receive Holy Communion while openly rejecting crucial Catholic doctrines). The statistical collapse of confession in the United States and the icy Western world has been stunning and raises all kinds of questions that journalists can pursue.

Is confession now optional, with the link between confession and Mass broken in Catholic doctrine and law? Did Vatican II actually teach that? Oh, and are these two sacraments still linked to eternal issues of salvation? Does this issue matter? Or is this simply a sad little change in Baltimore culture?

In all fairness, the Sun did run a much better piece on this confession campaign a few weeks earlier, hooked to coverage of Ash Wednesday. It also noted that this is not simply a matter of old vs. young. In fact, it seems to be old and young vs. the Vatican II-defined Baby Boomers (and others caught in the middle).

The church directs Catholics to confess serious sins at least once a year, but actual participation has declined in recent decades. In a survey last year by the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University, more than half of American Catholics agreed that going to confession and performing acts of contrition and penance reconciles one to God, but nearly two-thirds said they could be good Catholics without observing the sacrament at least annually.

Still, there is an apparent revival in interest among younger Catholics. While those born before 1943 are most likely to go to confession at least once a year, those born in 1982 or later come next.

So, who goes to confession these days and who rejects the church’s teachings on that sacrament? American Catholics? Roman Catholics? Pro-Vatican Catholics? Lots of questions, here, many of which are linked to the news.

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Oh taste and see …

purificatorchaliceIt’s would be very hard to write a feature-length obituary for an internationally known Roman Catholic priest while avoiding religious images and content.

I am happy to report that the Baltimore Sun included some Christian and even Catholic themes when writing about the two lives of Father Joseph C. Martin — the life he lived as an alcoholic and the life that he lived once he dried out, only to pour out his life in service to others who were trapped inside bottles of booze.

Martin was, of course, the co-founder of Father Martin’s Ashley, the famous alcohol treatment center in Harford County. Here’s a key piece of the obituary:

Father Martin’s “Chalk Talk on Alcohol” and “No Laughing Matter” have become standard tools used by recovery centers, schools and employee assistance programs the world over. …

“He helped thousands and thousands directly and indirectly with his message all across the world,” he said. Mike Gimbel, a substance-abuse expert who was Baltimore County drug czar for 23 years and now directs an anti-steroid program at St. Joseph Medical Center, is an old friend. “Father Martin has done more to educate and treat those suffering from addiction than anyone in the past 50 years,” Mr. Gimbel said. …

Born in Baltimore, the son of a machinist who was a heavy drinker, Father Martin was raised in Hampden. He was a 1942 graduate of Loyola High School and attended Loyola College from 1942 until 1944. He studied for the priesthood at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Roland Park from 1944 to 1948, when he was ordained a priest of the Society of St. Sulpice.

Martin’s work was completely ecumenical in nature and life his story includes a fascinated subplot, centering on the work of housewife Lora Mae Abraham — the daughter of a Baptist minister — another alcoholic who eventually helped Martin begin their famous treatment facility. The “Ashley” part of the center’s name was in honor of her father, the Rev. Arthur Ashley.

Thus, this telling detail — a salute to the strength of their friendship — in the story’s final paragraph:

Father Martin is survived by a brother, Edward Martin of Lilburn, Ga.; two sisters, Frances Osborne and Dorothy Christopher, both of Baltimore; Mrs. Abraham and her husband, Tommy Abraham, with whom he lived for 30 years; and many nieces and nephews.

It’s a fine piece and I have only one complaint.

Over the years, I have written a few stories about priests who have wrestled with alcoholism. If you stop and think about it, there is a poignant, yes sacramental, theme that is hard to cut out of their stories. It is hard, you see, for an alcoholic priest to avoid the sweet yet bitter irony of that chalice on the holy table.

You can glimpse this theme in one painful passage in the Sun obituary:

Father Martin began drinking while he held teaching positions at St. Joseph’s College in Mountain View, Calif., from 1948 to 1956, and later at St. Charles Seminary in Catonsville from 1956 to 1959.

“I drank from the age of 24 to 34,” he told The Sun in a 1992 profile. “I was afraid to go near the altar to say Mass six days a week. I did go on Sunday, but shaking all the while.”

What, precisely, was the nature of Father Martin’s fear?

“Oh taste and see, that the Lord is good.”

Indeed. It is hard to live in fear, when approach the central miracle of one’s ministry. How did he wrestle with that part of his life and work?

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What mainline hole in the ground?

uccgraphicHere is an old, old story that has been bugging me for some time now, which is why it ended up in tmatt’s GetReligion Folder of Guilt.

Then again, it’s an old, old story about and old, but very important news story. There is a good chance that the Washington Post team that worked on it did not make the connection.

One of the dominant stories of our cultural and political era is the rise of the religious right. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, journalists who want to deal with religion in this era have to take evangelicals and true fundamentalists seriously, along with the other traditional religious believers who team with them on some, but not all, political issues.

But what created the space in the center of the public square that was filled by the evangelicals?

To some degree — head on over to the Pew Forum to check it out — the conservative churches have not grown that much, as a percentage of the population, over the past three or four decades (I’m not talking about individual congregations or the megachurch trend, but the total national statistics). But their social power has increased because of the stunning demographic suicide of the oldline, what used to be the mainline, Protestant churches. Click here to read a stark and depressing First Things essay on the death of the Protestant center.

This brings us to that recent Washington Post article that ran under the headline, “New Church Only In Their Prayers — Economy Halted D.C. Worshipers’ Rebuilding Midstream.” Here’s the top of the story, which is not by one of the newspaper’s religion-beat professionals:

On a downtown Washington corner, where generations of babies were blessed and marriages celebrated, where prayers were recited and God was praised, is a crater — 40 feet deep and silent.

The worshipers at First Congregational United Church of Christ did not want their land to appear this way, not by this point. Two years ago, fed up with their broken-down church and eager to raise money, the congregants sought salvation in the development company PN Hoffman, which offered to erect a 10-story office building and create a new sanctuary within its first two floors.

But the crippled economy has disrupted that plan, as it has at other local churches. Unable to sign a major tenant, the developer has suspended the project, after having demolished the church and digging a hole for a foundation. The church’s 100 active members have had to relocate their services to temporary quarters, sharing space with two other congregations wrestling with their own real estate headaches.

Stop and think about this. There is, literally, a hole in the middle of Washington due to a collapse, on several levels, of a congregation with roots in the old Congregationalist traditions that played a pivotal role in the formation of, well, America. This is also the proudly liberal denomination that has given us a rather important figure in our national life at the moment, President Barack Obama.

This particular congregation has 100 members left. It takes, by the way, about 85 to 100 church members to even pay the salary and benefits of a mainline clergyperson. Here’s another important question: What is the average age of the members of this church?

Read on and you will see that the Post, basically, approaches this as a real-estate story — which it is, on one level. But that hole in the ground is there for a reason. There are important, even historic, reasons that this flock of believers needed to seek out this rather unconventional approach to building itself a new home, and paying its bills. Yes, the economy is playing a role in this drama, but that’s not the main force that is at work here.

The project started. The project faltered. The result is a very symbolic and important hole in the ground. Why is it there? You will not read about that in this story.

First Congregational, with its social ministries, is having to share space with another urban congregation for now. We are told this:

The church members have learned that they are not alone in coping with a dramatically altered economic landscape. Their temporary home is First Trinity Lutheran Church, whose leaders have found their own talk of redeveloping their property at Fourth and E streets NW affected by the turbulence of the real estate market.

And what kind of church is that? Where does it fit in the cultural landscape? Wait! There’s more.

First Trinity is also the temporary home of St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which knocked down its home in Southwest Washington last year and hopes to build housing and a new sanctuary. The changing housing market has forced St. Matthew’s, in partnership with the Trammell Crow Company, to substitute rental units for condos in its plans.

Good luck trying to find out. You see, this is just a real-estate story.

Graphic: The slogan for the United Church of Christ’s high-profile ad campaign for its postmodern approach to the Christian faith.

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I know who converted me

i-know-who-killed-me-largeWe’ve been covering such fluff this week — abortion, environmentalism, statistical analysis — that it’s time we get to something really serious. I write, of course, about screen legend Lindsay Lohan (star of the Oscar-worthy I Know Who Killed Me).

So let’s go not just to the Daily Mail but to the paper’s “TV & Showbiz” section for breaking, important Lohan news:

Lindsay Lohan is converting to Judaism in a bid to prove her devotion to Jewish girlfriend Samantha Ronson.

Although raised a Catholic, the 22-year-old star announced she was planning to change her faith on her Facebook page.

After jetting into London last week, Lindsay joined girlfriend Samantha at the Bar Mitzvah of the DJ’s half-brother Joshua Ronson at the Westminster Synagogue on Saturday.

After taking part in the service, Lindsay then went to the nearby Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge to celebrate Joshua’s ‘coming of age’.

Showing her seriousness about converting, Lindsay had also visited the synagogue the day before with Samantha and her designer sister Charlotte.

Entering the synagogue, a photographer asked Lindsay if she was switching religions, to which she replied: ‘I’m trying.’

Updating her Facebook status this week, Lindsay wrote ‘I’m converting’.

Reader Tree McCurdy, who submitted the article, pointed out something that’s almost impossible to escape when looking at religion coverage. Reporters think of religion as a genus and the various “brands” of religion as species and subspecies. Or, as McCurdy said, reporters say religion is a container that can be filled with any flavor. As a result, they miss key aspects of the story:

If Lindsay Lohan wished to embrace Islam, she could simply declare her faith and be a convert, and this story would fit with minor adjustments.

Conversion to Judaism does not fit in the same jar– it’s less about declaring belief and more like petitioning for adoption into a family. Ms. Lohan cannot declare herself a convert, and the Media certainly cannot declare her Jewish. If she seriously attempts to convert, she will have a long and intense course of study ahead of her to understand the committments she is considering, she will need to find a rabbi willing to bring her before a rabbinic court, and the court will decide after questioning her whether to adopt her as a member of the Jewish people… an outcome that will be very much in question, first because rabbis are particularly leery of accepting anyone with a known history for “trying out” different religions, and also because Jewish law explicitly forbids accepting those who wish to convert because of love.

I realize it’s a fluff piece but even celebrities deserve better coverage. At the very least it would help to know which branch of Judaism she’s aiming for and what that branch has to say about conversion.

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Left, right and sacramental center

confessionboothjpgDay after day, the press releases (left and right) and news reports flow into my inbox. They started late in the 2008 primary season and this digital tide tends to rise sharply in the hours just after One Of Those Appointments by the staff of President Barack Obama.

You know the appointments that I’m talking about, the ones where he names (a) a Planned Parenthood ally to a position linked to abortion policies, (b) a pro-Obama American Catholic to a position linked to abortion policies or (c) a Planned Parenthood ally who is also a pro-Obama American Catholic to a position linked to abortion policies.

The latest person in the firing line is, of course, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, whose political attributes are nailed down in two very different passages in the solid New York Times report on her nomination to serve as secretary of health and human services. First, there’s this:

Ms. Sebelius became one of Mr. Obama’s most valued allies when she endorsed him early in the presidential nomination battle. She has been discussed for a variety of positions, including vice president and other cabinet jobs. A two-term state insurance commissioner and second-term Democratic governor in a reliably Republican state, Ms. Sebelius has a reputation for bipartisanship. …

In selecting Ms. Sebelius, Mr. Obama has decided to risk running headlong into the nation’s volatile abortion wars. Since Ms. Sebelius’s name emerged as a leading candidate for the health job, anti-abortion groups have assailed her record and vowed to fight her confirmation.

Later, reporter Peter Baker provides a strong set of background paragraphs to flesh out the controversy. I think these pretty much cover the whole terrain, although GetReligion readers who are pro-Vatican Catholics may be able to add more details:

Despite a record of working with Republicans in some areas, health care was one where she often had trouble forging bipartisan agreement. She tried raising cigarette taxes to pay for health care for the poor but was rebuffed by a Republican Legislature. She promoted universal health care but never reached that goal. And she proposed consolidating health care programs, but lawmakers made sure she could not control the new independent authority.

Abortion may prove a lightning rod in her confirmation. Ms. Sebelius, a Catholic, has repeatedly vetoed abortion regulations on legal or policy grounds. … Ms. Sebelius has defended her record by pointing to adoption initiatives and falling abortion rates in Kansas, but the archbishop of Kansas City last year said she should not receive communion until repudiating her support for abortion rights.

Anti-abortion leaders also criticize her for hosting a reception at the governor’s mansion in 2007 attended by George Tiller, a prominent Wichita abortion provider. At the time, Dr. Tiller was under investigation and now is about to go on trial for 19 misdemeanor charges of violating state restrictions on late-term abortions, according to news reports.

Now, readers who pay close attention to Catholic social teachings will notice that the reporter has made sure that readers know that Sebelius has staked out a strong record as a liberal, American Catholic — with efforts linked to health care for the poor and for those who struggle to maintain health insurance. I am sure she would say — as she should — that these policy initiatives are linked to her faith.

However, she has also opposed restrictions on abortion on demand, even when dealing with abortions that take place after fetal viability.

Note the clash here, between two parts of the Vatican’s teachings on these issues. A Catholic who backs the church’s teachings on abortion and public life would, at the very least, be seeking whatever restrictions are possible in a given political culture PLUS whatever policies can be enacted to help the poor, especially mothers and their children — born and unborn. The equation has two sides.

Note the disconnect in the following passage from a CNN wire report:

The liberal group Catholics United has come to Sebelius’ defense, saying the Kansas governor has taken several steps to lower the abortion rate in her state. The group also has posted excerpts of a 2006 speech in which Sebelius said she opposed abortion.

“My Catholic faith teaches me that all life is sacred, and personally I believe abortion is wrong,” she said then. “However, I disagree with the suggestion that criminalizing women and their doctors is an effective means of achieving the goal of reducing the number of abortions in our nation.”

In May, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, said that Sebelius’ stance on abortion had “grave spiritual and moral consequences.” He asked that Sebelius no longer receive Communion until she repudiated her stance and made a “worthy sacramental confession.”

Notice, again, the subtle effort to pry apart the two halves of the Catholic teachings on the sanctity of life. The key is not whether reporters agree with one side or the other, but whether they realize that the Vatican is calling for an approach to the issue that proclaims the need for both sides of the equation.

There are Catholics on the left who only want one side in public life. There may, in fact, be Catholics (although I have met few, if any) who only want to see restrictions and/or a ban. But the Catholic Church is in the middle, and has proclaimed that practicing Catholics who wish to remain in Communion with the Church should strive to support the whole teachings of the faith.

This is hard, in the context of American politics. Thus, reporters must note the crucial reference by the archbishop to the sacrament of confession. In the end, this debate is about doctrines and sacraments. This is a complex story with three sides and it helps if reporters know this.

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Packaging of the soul

One part of Michael Kinsley’s legacy at Slate is an almost predictable fondness for contrarianism. This sometimes results in a bracing departure from pack journalism, such as Kinsley’s proposal that all parties in the debate about gay marriage would best be served by removing government from the discussion entirely.

Other times, however, Slate’s angle seems little more than contarianism for its own sake, which leads to mere eccentricity or excessive preciousness. Take, for example, Andrew Santella’s argument in “The Church Search” that, “while it may be frequently derided as an example of rampant spiritual consumerism, shopping around can be one of the good things about the way religion is practiced in America.”

Santella begins and ends with the Obama family’s deliberations on what church to attend, which is becoming one of the most flagellated dead-horse stories on the religion beat. Would some oddsmaker please turn this topic into a wager at Paddy Power so it will become interesting again?

Santella’s brief report covers many good bases, including Anthony Sacramone’s critique of church shopping. The greatest weakness in Santella’s report is his insistence on seeing Americans’ church choices merely as another function of the market. Thus, he understands goofy church signs or streaming media as so many recruitment tools rather than efforts, however colloquial, at communication:

That simple marquee in front of a church with the cheerfully homely motto (“Prevent truth decay: Brush up on your Bible”) doesn’t suffice to recruit worshippers. Web sites stream audio and video of sermons and music to let prospective members shop from home, and consultants help congregations market themselves to the “unchurched” and the merely unsatisfied by deploying focus groups, surveys, product giveaways (free church-branded Frisbees, anyone?), and other tactics borrowed from the commercial realm.

I count three odd assumptions (e.g., “flinty New England Congregationalism” + Jeremiah Wright = diversity) in this one paragraph:

Even within denominations and churches, believers have room to choose. Pope Benedict XVI has made it easier for Catholic parishes to offer Latin Mass as an alternative to the conventional vernacular Mass. President Obama’s former denomination, the United Church of Christ, is famously diverse, including both flinty New England Congregationalism descended from the Pilgrims’ churches and the huge South Side Chicago ministry once led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Obamas’ controversial former pastor. If believers need help keeping track of the many variations in style and substance, they can check out the Zagat-like reviews of church services at the Web site Ship of Fools.

The most annoying sentence, however, is Santella’s conclusion, which veers uncomfortably into the realm of Dear Prudence, the advice columnist for Slate: “So, the president shouldn’t feel any need to rush into committing to a new church. When you have so many options, it pays to shop around.”

I do not care if the Obamas spend the next four years visiting as many congregations as they wish in the nation’s capital. Why? I know how challenging it can be to meet two criteria that remain entirely neglected in Santella’s paean to an unfettered church marketplace: the search for community, both with like-minded believers and with people different enough to stretch me; and an atmosphere that inspires my soul to slow down, be quiet and worship God.

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Giving up carbon for Lent

lowcarbondietconsumerguideOne of the things I wish we saw more were casual inclusions of religion in stories about general life. It seems that there’s a lot of compartmentalizing of religion — as if stories are completely secular or they’re pigeonholed as religion news.

So I like the ideas behind theses two stories. The first comes from a U.S. News & World Report blog called Fresh Greens. It covers the “green movement and looks for ways to be an ecofriendly consumer without breaking the bank.” Producer Maura Judkis looks at whether Lent will decrease Catholics’ carbon footprint. She calculates that 354 million pounds of meat will go uneaten during Lent — using the number of registered Catholics and per capita meat consumption.

To put that abstract figure into perspective, that’s the equivalent of to 1.5 million round trip flights from New York to Los Angeles not being taken.

Obviously, I realize that this is not a precise science – more like a game of “What if.” There are plenty of Christians other than Catholics who give up meat for Lent, and there are plenty of Catholics who don’t participate. There’s also the factor of the carbon emissions from fish that many eat on Lenten Fridays instead, which I left out because there are so many kinds of fish that we eat, and each has a different carbon footprint. Either way, Catholics that participate in Lent are automatically lowering their carbon footprint, which is a good thing, since some church officials have urged Christians to give up carbon for the 40-day period.

I also just thought the blog post was funny in that way that makes you think that sometimes journalists can only understand a Christian spiritual discipline if in coincides with another political aim that journalists admire. I guess it’s a good thing that Lent is politically correct! Still, it’s a funny hook for a Lenten story and a good thing to enter into the “religion of environmentalism” files.

The next story was published on CNNMoney.com and is headlined “Hired! Going to church to get a job.” Why else would one go to church? It’s actually a cute story with good advice about how unemployed individuals should work their networks to help them get a job. But it has that same tone deaf quality — not quite understanding the sacred aspects of church life.

The story really just follows the steps taken by one unemployed individual, which included attending a church’s free career workshop. Experts say it was a good idea:

Our panel of career coaches agree that Butler was wise to tap into local organizations that could help him brush up on his job search skills and expose him to other job seekers sharing their experiences.

“Church groups are a good way to use existing community connections to expand your network of people,” according to Career and Business Consultant Kathy Robinson. But the danger is that “you could be getting 20-year-old resume advice,” she warned. “As long as the members are keeping themselves current on job search techniques it’s actually a fabulous resource.”

I confess I don’t quite get this quote. Why would churchgoers be 20 years behind in resume technology?

Still, this is a prime example of how I wish religious life were better incorporated into everyday stories and I’m glad to see it.

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A guy’s guy goes recruiting

saint_patricks_cathedralI’ve been out of the loop for a day or two, so let me jump back in with a comment or two about the ongoing coverage of the new pope of the United States of America — the unofficial title that many pin on the man who wears a red hat in New York City.

It’s obvious that the leaders of the New York Times must, their roles as priests at the Alpha Newspaper atop the mainstream media food chain, work out a template for this guy. He cannot go away, so the editors must make sense of him. They must find the appropriate label, so that they know how to cover him. They have to tell people who he is.

As regular GetReligion reader Brian notes:

I’ve been trying find out more about Archbishop Dolan, but everything I read I have to play the game, “If source X says he’s Y then that probably means he’s Z.” This seems to be true not only in the mainstream media but also in Catholic news sources and blogs. Whatever Dolan is, it’s not easily quantifiable, he doesn’t seem to fit into any one of the standard labels. I’d appreciate a newsource I could trust to paint an objective picture of him without having to translate as I read.

As I suggested the other day, the Vatican tends to send men into these high-profile slots (see the throne in Washington, D.C.) who are conservative, but not confrontational. Rome knows that the New York Times is not going to go away, either. Always remember that the Vatican is in Europe and is used to a European press.

So it’s clear that Dolan is a kind of conservative, but is not toooooo frightening.

However, he is also popular with many ordinary Catholics and he has interesting academic credentials. But being popular and a kind of conservative, in the nuanced world of the Times, must mean that he is a kind of light weight. That appeared to be the theme in the opening salvo of coverage and no there is an interesting follow story that suggests that this is going to be the template for Dolan coverage, at least until he takes some action that clearly makes him a sort-of good guy or a truly bad guy.

It seems that the archbishop is a man’s man, a guy’s guy and this means that he may be able to attract more men into the priesthood. All kinds of questions loom in the background, but this is what we get in print:

The big recruiters talk about him as if he were future Hall-of-Fame material — the kind you build organizations around. They talk about his “skill set,” the leadership qualities that make the young ones double their commitments.

They speak of Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee, the gregarious, football-coach-size prelate whom the Vatican named … to take the helm of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. They hope he helps attract more men to the priesthood.

“He’s a professional extrovert, a banterer, a sports fanatic,” said the Rev. Edwin H. Obermiller, director of vocations for the Congregation of Holy Cross at the University of Notre Dame. “He knows how to talk to young men.”

dolanOnce again, we are drifting into the most pressing demographic crisis that is affecting Catholicism in the West — the declining number of men willing to enter the priesthood.

It’s good that the Times piece does point toward one of the most obvious causes of the decline, which is the plummeting birth rates among American Catholics. A family with one son will rarely produce a priest. There is also a short, short reference to questions about celibacy. There are zero references to other concerns, such as the opinions on the left that almost all young seminarians are arch conservatives and the frequent claims on the right (and sometimes on the left) that about half of the new priests are gay.

Instead, we get this picture of Dolan as the old-fashioned urban Catholic who does old-fashioned Catholic guy things without breaking a sweat. There is, you see, this suggestion that a guy who is totally into football and baseball probably isn’t hooked on Broadway tunes.

Here is what that looks like when he visits a seminary in Yonkers:

… (A)fter a vespers service at St. Joseph’s chapel in which Archbishop Dolan addressed the seminarians as “the future of the priesthood I love,” many of them stood around gaping with what seemed a mixture of curiosity and awe as he held court in a scrum of television cameras and sound booms, answering questions from reporters.

The bishop laughed a lot. He spoke glowingly of the Green Bay Packers, the Mets, the Yankees, hot dogs and jelly doughnuts. At one point he shouted over reporters’ heads: “Hey, when’s opening day at Yankee Stadium?”

One seminarian, standing with his chin resting on his closed hand, smiled broadly when asked by a reporter what he thought of the new guy. “They asked us not to make comments,” he said, turning to walk down a hall to a dinner in honor of Cardinal Egan and his successor. “But I like him.”

Standing with his chin resting on his closed hand? I am trying to picture this stance and figure out what it means, in terms of body code. Any suggestions? In fact, any suggestions what in the heckfire this piece is trying to say? What’s the bottom line?

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