Getting the Catholic guy

cathguy4As tmatt wrote recently, Get Religion prefers to cheer rather than jeer reporters. It is not just that reading a first-rate news story is satisfying and grounded in reality. It is inspirational. As all of us have been or are reporters, we want to read stories that inform and compel the public, if only to imitate them.

One story that bears imitating is a New York Times profile of “The Catholic Guy” on Sirius Satellite Radio. Reporter Paul Vitello distilled the essence of host Lino Rulli’s show, its mixture of the sacred and profane. Vitello’s lede is a good example:

Mike from El Paso was on the phone line to “The Catholic Guy,” the afternoon drive-time talk program produced via the unlikely partnership of Sirius Satellite Radio (familiar to most people as “Howard Stern’s network“) and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

“I called the other day?” said Mike. “About how much I miss confession?” This would be the Mike who was barred from the sacrament of confession under church law because he married a divorced woman whose first marriage was never annulled.

“Yes, I remember!” bellowed the host, Lino Rulli, the Catholic guy of the show’s title. “Mike the Adulterer! O.K., Mike. Are you ready to play ‘Let’s Make a Catholic Deal’?”

I thought this opening captured a certain kind of Catholic male sensibility, one informed by Catholic schooling and teaching and American culture. Rare is the newspaper story that gets this right.

In the next paragraph, Vitello told readers the the importance of this Catholic show and similar cultural programs:

It seems an odd marriage of sensibilities: the rough banter of talk radio as practiced by pioneer shock jocks like Mr. Stern and Don Imus, joined at the neck to an official Catholic broadcast whose underlying mission is herding people back into the fold of a religious orthodoxy.

But the stated mission of this new enterprise known as the Catholic Channel is to offer something more than “the audio equivalent of stained glass and incense,” as Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, refers to conventional religious radio.


Later, Vitello elaborated:

Young people are the major target of several efforts, official and otherwise. “Theology on Tap,” an informal project adopted in hundreds of parishes around the country, attracts young Catholics to lectures booked in bars or restaurants.

The Order of Paulist Fathers has started an initiative aimed at people in their 20s and 30s with an Internet ministry known as Busted Halo, whose mission is basically in sync with a recent series of youth-market books called “The Bad Catholic’s Guide to…” In the introduction to their first book, “The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living,” John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak summarize the creed: Believe in Catholicism, do what you can, admit that you are flawed “and turn to the font of infinite mercy as humbly and as often as you can.”

No doubt the Times has written about Theology on Tap before, but Vitello made an important point. Some dioceses, the ones in big cities in blue states anyway, are reaching out to young adult Catholics in new ways. The approach is modeled not on gathering in the church basement but outside it.

Also, I liked Vitello’s quote from Zmirak and Matychowiak’s book. The reporter told readers about Catholicism in its own terms.

Midway the story, Vitello made an important if somewhat familiar point:

David Gibson, a Catholic writer whose book “The Coming Catholic Church” describes a newly powerful grass-roots pressure for reform in the aftermath of the priest sexual abuse scandal, said the archdiocesan foray into talk radio may reflect some official acknowledgment of the need for a new, more interactive relationship with believers.

“The church really has no choice,” he said. “The old Catholic world, where you were born and married in the church and stayed because you were part of a ‘Catholic world’ — that’s gone. The church has to find people and make them want to be Catholic.”

Vitello needed to make this point in the story; it would have lacked context without it. However, I think this characterization of Catholic American life was accepted a bit uncritically. It is still possible to be born Catholic, attend Catholic schools, and spend your adult life largely with Catholic co-workers, friends, and family. Everyone agrees that this is not as common as it was before the 1970s, but I know dozens of friends, family members, and acquaintances whom this is true of. Gibson is a convert, so he is perhaps less likely to know about Catholic pockets in the country.

But that is a quibble. This story got religion.

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Jews, G-strings & free speech, oh my

Venice Beach BoardwalkThe New York Times headed out West the other day for a very interesting look at a clash between traditional faith and modern sensibilities, in a “Los Angeles Journal” entry that ran under the lilting headline, “At the Intersection of Synagogue and Boardwalk, a Feud.”

It’s a great read, with only one real flaw that I could find — a flaw that may have something to do with the fact that this story was covered by a newspaper on the East Coast during an age of tight budgets and high travel costs. More on that in a moment.

The story focuses on life in the Pacific Jewish Center (“Welcome to the Shul on the Beach!), a small Orthodox synagogue that is located on the famous boardwalk at Venice Beach. This is not, needless to say, your normal place to try to hang up a mile or two of fishing line to create an “eruv” — the symbolic, ritual zone that allows Orthodox believers to perform certain tasks on the Sabbath.

The synagogue also has an interesting next-door neighbor, a shop called “Unruly” that, as the Times gently puts it, is “a purveyor of T-shirts, bathing suits and undergarments.” That leads us to the key section of this interesting tale from the, well, nearly Naked Public Square.

Worshipers say workers in the shop blast music on Saturday mornings, overwhelming the religious service held with the door open to the boardwalk. When the worshipers ask for the music to be lowered for an hour, they are met with hostility, they say, some of it smacking of anti-Semitism. Once in a while, the police have been called.

Further, there have been occasions when mannequins dressed in G-strings and other clothes that are decidedly not part of the customary wardrobe of Orthodox Jews have been placed on the synagogue’s property line — as a matter of provocation, some members suggest.

“We haven’t been judgmental about their merchandise,” said Judd Magilnick, a member. “It is a question of common courtesy. Even the more Bohemian, alternative-lifestyle types on the boardwalk are aware of our requests and wait until afternoon on Saturdays before they strike up the band. We have friendly cooperation from everyone else, even people you think would be accountable to no one.”

Meanwhile, Ruly Papadopulos, whose wife owns Unruly, insists that the harassment is the other way around. The Unruly owners utterly reject all claims that they have done anything that suggests anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, now you have protesters marching around outside the Unruly shop — under the “Sexetera” neon sign — in response to a verbal clash between the Papadopulos and a non-religious Jewish science writer, a classic he said vs. he said situation that is related to the synagogue, but not really. This, in turn, evolved into a First Amendment case involving the rights of the demonstrators, etc. etc.

venice beach synAll of this complicated material is handled quite well, including the brief mention that a very controversial Orthodox Jew — film critic and talk-radio star Michael Medved — was once a leader in this Venice Beach congregation. The editors even gave reporter Jennifer Steinhauer enough room for some historical background on why the synagogue in located where it is. When it comes to politics and media skills, this is not your normal Orthodox synagogue on a beach.

So what is the problem? For me, it is a mater of reporting. Could the Times have allowed Steinhauer to have more time to spend a few Sabbaths with the congregation — perhaps before making contact with the Unruly crowd — to confirm the reports about the loud music? Does anyone have any photos of those inappropriately located mannequins in G-strings? What are the facts here?

In other words, I would like to know more about who is telling the truth.

Reporters do this kind of work all the time, although, in this case, we may need to ask about the financial health of the Times L.A. bureau. It may be harder to do this kind of expensive, multi-day background research on the West Coast if the reporter is from the East Coast. It’s easier to get some of the details right when you have a chance to see and hear them for yourself.

But it’s a good story. Check it out.

Photo: For an even better look at the synagogue and the shop, see this Flickr pic.

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A bad story gets better

womenpriests2 04Many readers submitted a piece from the Boston Globe this weekend about the ordination of women claiming to be Roman Catholic priests. Some said the story was horrific. Others said it was fantastic. Turns out there were two stories. The first is not so good.

Reporter Michael Paulson’s piece was headlined in the manner to which we’ve become, sadly, accustomed with these stories:

3 women to be ordained Catholic priests in Boston
Excommunication automatic, church warns

The subhead is fine and good. The main headline has problems. Will these women be ordained Catholic priests or does a group claim that they will be ordained Catholic priests? The lede compounds the problem:

Three aspiring Catholic priests will be anointed and prayed over this weekend in an ordination liturgy that will resemble the traditional in most ways but one: The three being ordained are women.

It isn’t until the 9th paragraph that we’re told that the ordinations are being done by Roman Catholic Womenpriests. And the article, while mentioning that actual Roman Catholic officials oppose the ordinations, doesn’t do a good job of explaining that such ordinations are not considered valid, licit, legal, etc. So, for instance, we get one-sided perspective such as this:

“We’re part of a prophetic tradition of disobeying an unjust law,” said Gabriella Velardi Ward, a 61-year-old Staten Island architect with two children and five grandchildren, who will be ordained along with Gloria Carpeneto of Baltimore and Mary Ann McCarthy Schoettly of Newton, N.J.

Ward said she has wanted to be a priest since age 5, and that she actively considered becoming a nun before deciding that the priesthood was her calling because she wants to be able to celebrate Catholic sacraments.

“Excommunication or not, I will still be a validly ordained priest and still will be able to serve the people of God,” she said.

The women are to be ordained by Dana Reynolds, a California woman who was consecrated as a bishop in Germany in April.

It’s not that the Vatican perspective isn’t included. It is — particularly at the end of the article. It’s just that the information is presented as if the ceremony will create ordained female Catholic priests who will then be excommunicated from the church. In fact, the organization that ordains these women is not recognized by the Roman Catholic church and their ordinations are essentially considered to be pretend.

To their credit, the Globe later ran a clarification of the headline:

Paulson, the long-time religion reporter who spent more than a few years on the clergy sex abuse scandal story in Boston, published some of the emails he got from readers after the story. Some do a great job of thoughtfully explaining why they think he got the story wrong. Either way, he got a ton of correspondence on the story.

And the discussion with readers seemed to have an effect because the follow-up story corrects some of the problems with the initial account. Here’s the new and improved headline:

Group claims to ordain women priests in unsanctioned ceremony

By incorporating the competing claims, the headline is pithier and more accurate. Here’s the lede:

Paulson nicely framed the competing arguments as just that — competing arguments. One group says this, the other group declares that. The separation between Roman Catholic Womenpriests and the Roman Catholic Church was clearly explained. Here, for instance:

But the women who participated in the event, along with the several hundred people who spent nearly three hours in the sweltering, non-air-conditioned Church of the Covenant, said they rejected the excommunications, and believed that the women had been validly ordained. The women were vested with white chasubles and red stoles and greeted with a standing ovation as they were declared to be priests; they then helped preside over a service at which they declared bread and wine to be consecrated and offered what they said was Communion to anyone who wished to receive it.

The ceremony was organized by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, an organization that is not recognized by the Roman Catholic church. Catholic church officials say the women are not Catholic, their ordinations are not real, and any sacraments they attempt to celebrate, including today’s Eucharist, are invalid.

Paulson gives the Womenpriests’ argument about why the ordinations are legitimate as well as some retorts from Catholics in Boston. Take this colorful quote from C.J. Doyle of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts — one of many that Paulson found for his followup:

“One must not only be a male to be a Catholic priest, one must be a Catholic,” Doyle said. “The performers in this theater of propaganda are neither. These women ought to have the intellectual honesty to admit that they left the Catholic Church some time ago. Whatever publicity value today’s exercise has, it must be measured against both the manifest fraudulence and the irredeemable hopelessness of their cause.”

The followup is long, meaty and interesting. Just the kind of story that’s nice to read on the religion beat. The Associated Press’ Steve LeBlanc also had a fantastic report on the events in Boston. The headline doesn’t take sides on the ordination. Early on he notes that the ordinations are not officially sanctioned. He explains the process of excommunication and puts it in context of Roman Catholic doctrine on the priesthood. My favorite part was the last line, which explained what happens to people who are excommunicated and how the penalty can be lifted.

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Excellence in local religion reporting

excellenceMuch praise should be given to Amanda Greene of The Star-News in Wilmington, N.C., for turning what could have been a few boring press release re-writes into an interesting feature story. The key to the story is that it gives readers a sense for how religion has influenced the area’s history.

How many reporters would get excited about a local church’s sesquicentennial celebration? What if there were four of them? Greene took the time to find out that this was anything but a coincidence:

The short answer: the Revival of 1858.

“The Panic of 1857 sent everyone into a tailspin of economic downturn and a national depression, and everyone went back to church,” said Walt Conser, professor of philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He devoted part of a chapter in his book, Coat of Many Colors, to the Revival. “By 1858, there was an economic upturn where building churches was possible again,” he said. (Churches weren’t the only major structures being built in Wilmington in 1858. Thlian Hall is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year as well.)

But the answer to the 1858 church building boom also involved socioeconomic and political pressures from the impending racial divisions in the country. And many times, churches split as a result of those conflicts, Conser said.

In this era of the 30-minute news cycle and instant world-wide communication, it seems odd that local news could be explained by events that occurred 150 years ago. However, most local news stories have an angle that goes back at least a generation. This can be particularly true in religion. Part of the challenge in finding these angles is that the reporter must know who to talk to, which is the case here, or the reporter is experienced enough in the beat to simply have the institutional knowledge.

Congratulations to Greene for successfully educating the newspaper’s readers on how history has influenced their lives today.

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Once again, where do Anglicans rank?

10 lgOnce again,the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc has spotted another reference to the Anglican Communion as one of the world’s largest and most diverse organizations.

Which it is, of course.

The issue is where it ranks — especially among religious bodies around the world. Here’s the latest strange reference, care of the newsroom. The reference that interests us is this one, in a piece under the headline “Challenge of a lifetime for Archbishop striving for unity” (which is an interesting headline, since Anglican leaders on left and right are striving for unity, only they are are using clashing doctrinal standards to define what “unity” means):

The Archbishop of Canterbury will come face-to-face with Anglican bishops from across the 80 million-wide communion.

These church leaders have gathered for the Lambeth Conference. Many of the men and women are angry with each other and baffled by his leadership. But the task facing the Welshman is to convince the radical liberals and alarmed traditionalists that their unity is worth striving for — that they should remain part of this sprawling and chaotic family of churches. He meets them not as a Pope who must be obeyed, or the ultimate patriarch, but as a first among equals. He cannot dictate decisions but must strive for consensus.

The diversity of Anglicans is only matched by giant international organizations like the United Nations. But the Archbishop lacks the financial riches and physical might which world leaders can marshal to cajole and coerce their rivals.

Now that is not as bad as the reference that we saw the other day, when The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., ran an essay by Bethlehem (Pa.) Bishop Paul V. Marshall that, as the Lambeth Conference loomed on the horizon, stated flat out:

Next to the United Nations and the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion is the world’s third largest linkage of human persons, cultures and geography. While the American branch of the Communion is the relatively tiny Episcopal Church, Anglicanism is the major expression of Christianity in much of Africa.

The Wales entry in this confusing derby is not statistically wrong, since it is so amazingly vague. But this “Anglican Communion resembles the United Nations” image could get out of control. And note that terrible phrase “linkage of human persons,” etc. What in the world does that mean? Does Islam merely “link” persons” How about “Pentecostalism”? How about the doctrines written on Starbuck’s cups?

Meanwhile, on the issue of the various Communions, GetReligion will gladly admit that almost all of the statistics are inflated and almost impossible to reference with a straight face. Still, when you look at the mainstream reference books, here is what you find: There are about 1 billion Roman Catholics worldwide, about 250 million or so Orthodox Christians and roughly 55 to 70 million Anglicans, depending on who is doing the counting.

By the way, GetReligion is not sitting out the Lambeth Conference, which is poised to get under way. We arejust trying to be patient.

Please remember that we are not a news site about religion. We are a blog that tries to critique the good and the bad in the mainstream presses news coverage of religious events and trends. We are very interested in errors of fact. When the Anglicans get rolling, help us look for the reporters — not opinion writers — who “get” the facts down in as accurate and fair a manner while covering a numbingly complex story with local, regional, national and global angles. Please look, especially, for stories that cover the Anglican left in a manner that is inaccurate or simply simplistic.

Photo: Anglican primates in 2005 meeting, care of the Anglican Communion news office.

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Annoy the pope? Sure, but, where?

As you would expect, Pope Benedict XVI’s trip down under for World Youth Day is getting quite a bit of ink, although — perhaps in the age of tight newspaper budgets and high air fares — there is very little American coverage other than wire services (unless I am missing some stories online). Click here for a Google News collection of what is up at the moment.

The Associated Press report on the opening Mass is very basic, with some colorful details. It’s the standard “this sure was a big gathering” religion story. It’s kind of liturgical fun, fun, fun, with few notes about content. Here’s the top:

Tens of thousands of Catholic pilgrims from around the world crammed into an area along Sydney Harbor Tuesday, waving flags of their home countries and singing as they awaited a Mass opening the World Youth Day festival.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived Sunday, and was resting at a secluded retreat on the outskirts of Sydney until Thursday, when he starts a busy round of meetings, takes a cruise on Sydney Harbor and addresses the pilgrims. The festival culminates with a papal Mass on Sunday.

Aboriginal Australians in traditional clothing and white body paint danced and chanted to the unique strains of a didgeridoo in a welcoming ceremony at Barangaroo, along the harbor.

“Some say there is no place for faith in the 21st century. I say they are wrong,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said, to cheers from the pilgrims.

There was one other detail that is sure to make readers either smile or wince (perhaps both), in terms of the very traditional leader of the traditional church trying to relate to the young. Technology, of course, is everywhere. But how about this:

Nearly 250,000 people have registered for World Youth Day, more than half of them from overseas. … Registered pilgrims received the first of daily inspirational text messages from the pope: “Young friend, God and his people expect much from u because u have within you the Fathers supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus — BXVI.”

There is, however, a very important story unfolding down in Australia, one pitting the pope’s right to say what he has to say with the rights of his critics to say what they have to say — with megaphones and other symbolic forms of speech. Australia’s Federal Court has ruled that protesters have a right to annoy — love that word — the pope and his followers during his visit.

Here’s a key chunk of Bonnie Malkin’s report in the Telegraph back in England.

Anti-pope protesters have been given the green light to annoy World Youth Day pilgrims, after Australia’s Federal Court struck down laws created to protect the Catholic worshippers from unwanted attention.

The temporary regulations, which gave police the right to issue on the spot fines of $5500 … to anyone handing out “annoying” leaflets or condoms to pilgrims, were ruled invalid by the court. The decision is a victory for the NoToPope coalition, which mounted a challenge to the laws in the Federal Court on Tuesday, arguing the new powers were unconstitutional because they made peaceful protest illegal.

Judges ruled the World Youth Day Act, which was passed by government two weeks ago without debate, “should not be interpreted as conferring powers that are repugnant to fundamental rights and freedoms at common law in the absence of clear authority from Parliament”.

Here is the key question. It is one thing to do public protests in public areas that surround events that constitute, to one degree or another, voluntary associations. It’s one thing to have a march. It’s something else to have a march or demonstration that enters or interrupts a Mass, inside the arena hosting the rite.

Let’s flip this around. It’s one thing for anti-gay-rights protesters to march down a street in San Francisco. It’s another thing (speaking in terms of theory) for them to disrupt a Eucharist and spiritual AIDS healing rite inside a liberal Episcopal cathedral. The blurred line is when you start harassing people as they enter or making so much noise that you disturb these kinds of rites — left or right — even though you are outside and nearby.

But people have a right to protest on sidewalks, hold marches, hand out symbolic items, etc.

Which brings us back to the coverage. Have these liberal protesters actually threatened to do anything that would disrupt or prevent World Youth Day activities? That’s the information that the journalists must include. I noted, for example, that police are frowning on what was called “pro-pope graffiti” on the Sydney war memorial — including the slogan “Ratizinger rules.” That would be illegal, I would think, although I am not sure that sounds like pro-pope material, either.

Was some kind of new Aussie law actually needed? I find it interesting that, in one Guardian report, the Vatican didn’t protest the court ruling:

… World Youth Day coordinator Bishop Anthony Fisher earlier said people were free to protest in a peaceful and respectful way. Referring to the distribution of condoms, he said: “We have had this before at other events and our pilgrims just drop them to the ground and ignore them.”

This is a classic case where journalists should use the old “show us, don’t tell us” guide to reporting. It protesters break existing laws, if they invade public meetings and other rites, then tell us. Otherwise, free speech is free speech. Carry on, blokes (and help me figure out which Australian papers to use, while following this).

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Post story gets the sermon

black handsSadly, this is the kind of story that Washington Post readers see on a fairly regular basis — a long, detailed daily report on a funeral that symbolizes a crisis in an urban or, increasingly, suburban community hit by violent crime.

I read this story
yesterday as I rode back to Baltimore on the commuter train. I thought that it was going to be yet another example of a story that was set in a church, built around the words of the preacher, yet never really allowed the readers to go to church, if you catch my meaning.

I was wrong. Here’s the top of Avis Thomas-Lester’s story from the Tabernacle Church outside Washington, D.C.:

A Laurel minister told mourners for Ronnie L. White yesterday that they all bore some responsibility for the destructive road his life took and urged his friends to turn their lives around so they would not follow him to an early death.

Speaking before 400 loved ones, the Rev. G. Randolph Gurley said the 19-year-old did not suddenly decide to go astray the day he allegedly killed a Prince George’s County police officer. Less than 36 hours after White was brought to the county jail on first-degree murder charges, he was found dead in his cell of apparent strangulation.

“When did it all start? Who all has a part in this tragedy?” Gurley asked, gazing intently into the eyes of several people in the pews before him. “We all know someone took his life, but it goes beyond that. We know that Ronnie didn’t wake up that day and say, ‘Today I’ll participate in some activity that will result in someone’s life being lost and later lead to the loss of my life.’ His family, his friends, the school system, certainly the faith community … maybe we all have a part in this.”

The usual details are all here, from the weeping young mother to pews packed with young people who, based on their attire, are not regularly in pews.

The minister’s sermon, or, at least, the part reported is, in this genre, usually based on politics and community issues. It often seems that the tragedy could have been prevent with a few more dollars from the government to fund a few more social programs.

Not this time. The preacher looked out into the pews and spoke to the young people. All of those tank tops, tattoos and hip t-shirts in tribute to the fallen hero and his — one way or another — gang?

Gurley told the young people to “wear the T-shirts in love” for White, but to remember that they represented death. “How long will it be until your face will be on one of these T-shirts?” he asked, drawing some loud sobs. …

Gurley, who has been a pastor for 30 years, was unabashed in his anger at losing another member of his flock. White’s funeral was the sixth for a young person at the church in the past decade, he said. The first five died of gunshot wounds. An autopsy showed that White died of asphyxiation after he was choked.

“I wish I could speak of a long and prosperous life, how he had lived life to the fullest, of his wife and children … and how finally … he had succumbed to a death of natural causes,” Gurley said. “Unfortunately, that is not the case.”

As I read, I kept wondering what the pastor had said that had been left out. To put it bluntly, I wanted to know if the Gospel was being edited from the sermon. This pastor clearly was looking out into those pews and talking to the people sitting there. Did he leave faith out of this?

Finally, at the very end, the reporter gave us the final act of this particular drama.

Perhaps it would have been better to hint early on — inverted pyramid and all — that this final detail was coming. That’s a matter of writing style and, well, art. But Thomas-Lester did not deny readers what, for the preacher and for some in the pews, was the bottom line:

“This is not the time to threaten or be threatened,” Gurley said. God, he said, would ensure that justice is done.

“Pour out a little Hennessy [cognac], drink some 40s, smoke a bag of weed, hit a dipper or two if you want to … but that won’t bring him back,” he said. “Get as drunk or as high as you want and do it in his honor if you want to, but that will not bring him back.”

Gurley then challenged the mourners to use White’s death as motivation to improve their own lives.

“Come in my life today,” Gurley prayed on behalf of the hundreds who flocked to the altar at his invitation to give their lives to Christ. “Come into my heart. Change me. Save me. Let me be blessed.”

There’s more. Read on. This story gives you the “-30-” and the “Amen.”

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‘Take, eat; this is My body’

Eucharist 03It seems that if reporters don’t know much else about Roman Catholics, they should know something of what they believe about the Eucharist. Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist has various supporting dogmas, including Transubstantiation and the Permanence of Presence and the Adorableness of the Eucharist.

But apparently the Catholic belief that the wafer and wine of Holy Communion become the body and blood of Christ and should be treated as such is unknown to reporters. Take this story from I’m actually going to begin with its closing paragraph:

The UCF student leader said he stole the communion bread, known by Catholics as the Eucharist and believed to symbolize the body of Christ, to show to his non-Catholic friend.

“Symbolize” the body of Christ? No. And what a rookie error. Anyway, the rest of the story is horrific as well:

College Student Gets Death Threats for Smuggling ‘Body of Christ’

A student at the University of Central Florida claims his life — and afterlife — were threatened by enraged Catholics after he pocketed “the body of Christ” during a church ceremony, according to a report on

Webster Cook says he received death threats and eternal damnation after he removed a wafer of bread from his mouth during communion and smuggled it from the church in a Ziploc bag.

Though Cook returned the wafer one week after the theft, outraged Catholics were unforgiving, according to

“We don’t know 100 percent what Mr. Cook’s motivation was,” Susan Fani, a spokeswoman with the local Catholic diocese, told “However, if anything were to qualify as a hate crime, to us this seems like this might be it.”

If the headline alleges that death threats were made, the story better cite those death threats — not unsubstantiated claims of death threats. More than that, though, what a hysterical way to treat this serious subject. The actual story is that a student government leader — angry over funding to religious groups on campus — pocketed the host and broadcast that fact to the campus. That fact is missing from this story.

A few other things — rather than using square quotes around “body of Christ,” the reporter should just calmly explain Catholics believe the body of Christ is received in the Eucharist. Did Webster Cook really say he received eternal damnation or did the reporter mean to say that anonymous, unnamed people said his eternal life was in jeopardy? The whole story is so amateur that it’s not really worth parsing. How did other media outlets handle the doctrinal issues in this story? Let’s take a look:

Here’s Cheryl Getuiza from WOFL:

Webster Cook says he smuggled a Eucharist, a small bread wafer that to Catholics symbolic of the Body of Christ after a priest blesses it, out of mass, didn’t eat it as he was supposed to do, but instead walked with it.


A University of Central Florida student, upset religious groups hold church services on public campuses, is holding hostage the Eucharist, an object so sacred to Catholics they call it the Body of Christ.

Ugh. The rest of the WFTV story, however, is much better. Hopefully reporters can learn these basic beliefs about the Eucharist before their next breathless reports.

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