Headline writers duck and cover when Francis improvises

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

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

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

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

Pope Francis lambastes mobsters, says mafiosi ‘are excommunicated’

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

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

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

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

Key word? “Impromptu.”

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

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The Atlantic: Apparently, ‘evangelical’ now equals ‘cult’

Veteran GetReligion readers will know that, every year or two, there is some kind of mainstream media meltdown linked to (a) leaders of a mainstream religious group using the word “cult” to describe another religion or (b) some radical new religious movement behaving in a truly frightening manner that leads to it being labeled a “cult” by secular journalists.

The results are often rather icky, from the point of view of logic and information. During one of these blowups a few years ago I wrote, in a GetReligion post:

… I realize that “cult” is a loaded word, whether one is using it in a doctrinal context or in a sociological context. In a mainstream newsrooms, reporters have no business using it in stories about doctrinal conflicts, unless the word is used by one of the groups in a dispute and there is no way to avoid explaining how and why they are using it. Like what? Southern Baptists may refer to Mormonism as a “cult,” because of the latter faith’s radically different doctrine of God, in comparison with traditional forms of Christianity through the ages. But no one, including 99.9 percent of the Baptist leaders I know, would claim that modern Mormonism is a “cult,” in a sociological sense of the word.

Should mainstream reporters use this loaded word at all?

Note the stress on a doctrinal approach to this dangerous word, as opposed to a sociological approach. Journalists need to know that these distinctions exist in religious and academic discourse.

Why? Here is another practical example, from one of my “On Religion” columns:

… The Southern Baptist Convention’s web site on “Cults, Sects and New Religious Movements” includes page after page of materials dissecting LDS beliefs and practices. It uses this definition: “A cult … is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ.”

Why do I bring this up right now? Well, The Atlantic just published a very interesting article with one of those headlines that reach out and grab readers by the neck (especially if readers are Godbeat professionals): “The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult.”

Oh my.

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Arizona Republic gets lots of the Latin Mass details right

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It’s time for a simple test. Yes, this does involve some Latin.

True or false. The following quotation is taken from the Communion passages in the Latin Mass.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccàta mundi; miserère nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccàta mundi; miserère nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccàta mundi; dona nobis pacem.

Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccàta mundi.
Beàti qui ad cenam Agni vocàti sunt.

Yes, this is a bit of a trick question.

Actually, this is a short quotation from the modern Novus Ordo Missae, but drawn from the official foundation text — which is in Latin. Of course, millions of Catholics know this rite through its many official translations, from the Latin, into the languages common in their pews. There are parishes that, with the permission of their local bishops, perform this rite in Latin.

Thus, this quotation is taken from a Latin Mass. But it is not taken from the rite that is commonly known, for millions of older Catholics, as “The Latin Mass.”

Why do I bring this up? For this simple reason: The staff at The Arizona Republic recently waded deep into the details of Catholic liturgy in a lengthy feature story written as part of its coverage of the recent murder of a young priest named Father Kenneth Walker and the savage beating of another priest at the same parish, Father Joseph Terra.

Both were members of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which, as the story explains, is dedicated to Catholic life and worship as expressed in the traditional Tridentine Mass. Here is some background from this long and very detailed story:

In 1988, about a quarter of a century after Vatican II was formed, the new pope, John Paul II, at the urging of conservative Cardinal John Ratzinger, who would later succeed John Paul as Pope Benedict XVI, allowed a limited return to the Tridentine Mass, but only with a bishop’s approval.

(In 2007, Pope Benedict issued what amounted to an executive order allowing any priest to celebrate the Tridentine Mass in any parish.)

Pope John Paul also approved the creation of a new priesthood order, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, named for the Apostle Peter, who is considered the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike other priestly orders, this one would be dedicated to maintaining the tradition of the Latin Mass.

So what is the problem in this story, which, frankly, is way better than the norm? From my perspective there are two issues.

First of all, while the historical details in the story are good, the Republic keeps switching back and forth between calling this rite the Latin Mass, when there are actually several Masses in Latin, and calling it the Tridentine Mass, which is much more specific. Trust me, I know that it is hard to get these details precisely right (I am sure that in this post I will use language that is not accurate enough for insiders), but it is important to be as precise as possible.

Consider the details in this passage. This is long, but crucial.

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Got news? Yes, there was a funeral for Ann B. Davis

I realize that I have written two GetReligion posts (here and then here) about the mainstream press coverage of the life and faith of the late actress Ann B. Davis, who was a friend of mine from my days on the religion beat in Denver. However, I continue to hear from readers who find it amazing that so many journalists spent so much ink on reports about Davis, yet didn’t seem all that interested in her actual life, other than her roles on television screens.

Well, there is that principle again: Television (or politics, or sports) is real and worthy of ink, religion is not so real and, thus, is not so worthy of ink.

The woman we all called Ann B. died at age 88 at home just outside of San Antonio, the home she shared with Episcopal Bishop William C. Frey and his wife Barbara, the final connections of a multi-family, multi-generational household that had been together since the mid-1970s. If you knew anything about Ann B., and especially her love of Bible studies, you will not be surprised to know that she was active in a nearby parish and that people there knew her well.

Thus, I am happy — thankful even — to report that The San Antonio Express-News sent a reporter to cover the her funeral. It is especially fitting that they sent the newspaper’s religion-beat specialist, reporter Abe Levy, rather than someone out of the entertainment pages. The resulting report included content from the words spoken in the funeral, something that cannot be taken for granted in this journalistic day and age. Here is a key chunk of that:

Her spunky personality and Hollywood success laced eulogies at her private funeral Friday morning at her home parish, St. Helena’s Episcopal Church in Boerne. Yet, the gathering focused memories on what the speakers called Davis’ exemplary devotion to her faith, especially her decision in mid-career to leave Tinseltown and join an Episcopal community in Denver. …

“The media had a field day” recalling her acting career, said William Frey, 84, a close friend and retired Episcopal bishop, during the homily. “But most of them have missed out on the one thing that has driven her for the last 40 years, and that is her faith.” …

Davis moved with Frey and his wife to San Antonio in 1996. She regularly sang in the choir and rarely missed Bible studies or the church’s morning worship service on Wednesdays.

Direct, and to the point. However, note the reference to Wednesday morning services.

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NYTimes notices old doctrine wars over InterVarsity chapters

The debate started out behind closed doors but quickly jumped into the mainstream press. The news hook was that a lesbian student at Tufts University claimed that, under the campus nondiscrimination policy, she had been unfairly denied access to a leadership role in the Tufts Christian Fellowship, which was affiliated with InterVarsity.

The campus chapter was banished, at first, but then allowed to re-draft its charter to stress that it was a doctrinally defined religious association, one requiring its leaders to “seek to adhere to biblical standards and belief in all areas of their lives.” The story was already rather old at that time, as I noted in an “On Religion” column.

“We have had more challenges to our basic right to exist in campus settings during the past two years than in the previous 55 combined,” said Steve Hayner, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. “It’s not just us. … This is hitting Catholics and Muslims and others. What we are seeing is a growing challenge to religious free speech — period.” …

InterVarsity created a “Religious Liberties Crisis Team” in response to this dispute and similar cases on five other campuses. Then attorney David French of Cornell Law School and Tufts InterVarsity staff member Curtis Chang produced a sobering handbook for others who will face similar conflicts. French and Chang noted: “In a free country, individuals or groups are permitted to form schools that serve only Christians, or only Jews, or only Muslims, or only gays.” For traditional Christians at private schools, the “sad reality is that there may come a time when you are no longer welcome … and there is nothing that any lawyer can do to change that decision.”

The year was 2000.

I bring this up because of a New York Times story that — 15 years down the road — has noticed this legal issue and put it on A1 as a hot trend. To cut to the chase, this First Amendment story has reached Bowdoin College and another InterVarsity chapter is facing the same old fight for its rights as a doctrinally-defined association.

But read the following carefully and see if you notice something interesting in the Times frame around this story. This is long, but crucial:

After this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college. Already, the college has disabled the electronic key cards of the group’s longtime volunteer advisers. In a collision between religious freedom and antidiscrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.

Similar conflicts are playing out on a handful of campuses around the country, driven by the universities’ desire to rid their campuses of bias, particularly against gay men and lesbians, but also, in the eyes of evangelicals, fueled by a discomfort in academia with conservative forms of Christianity. The universities have been emboldened to regulate religious groups by a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that found it was constitutional for a public law school in California to deny recognition to a Christian student group that excluded gays.

At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders. And at Vanderbilt, more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical but one of them Catholic, have already lost their official standing over the same issue; one Christian group balked after a university official asked the students to cut the words “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from their list of qualifications for leadership.

At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, says some chapters have even elected non-Jews to student boards.

My question: Did the Times team investigate whether the issue is a matter of practical work or mere symbolic statements? In other words, is the issue that traditional Christian groups — evangelicals, mostly — are simply not willing to pretend to go along with the policies? And what about in other doctrinally defined groups linked to science, the environment, arts, sexuality?

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What? You thought Francis, Peres and Abbas really prayed?

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Let’s state this in journalistic terms.

What? You thought that the mainstream journalists covering the remarkable Vatican rite offering prayers for Middle East peace rite would actually produce coverage that included any content from the prayers?

Friends and neighbors, this event was all about politics and statecraft. Clearly, if the men wanted to produce real change in the real world then the only words that they spoke that mattered were addressed to one another and, thus, to the press. Get real.

The story that most American news consumers saw this past weekend was from the Associated Press, so let’s consider that text (in the version used by The Washington Post). Here’s some of the key material about this encounter between Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:

The event had the air of an outdoor summer wedding, complete with receiving line and guests mingling on the lawn as a string ensemble played. …

Vatican officials have insisted that Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. But the meeting could have greater symbolic significance, given that Francis was able to bring them together at all so soon after peace talks failed and at a time that the Israeli government is trying to isolate Abbas.

“In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important,” noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican.”

So was the omnipresent Father Reese actually, literally at this event or was he merely acting in his unofficial role as the press spokesman for all mainstream journalists and alleged Catholic insiders who would join him in calling a Vatican prayer service a “symbolic gesture”?

No one was hiding the fact that other talks took place behind closed doors. Also, no one was hiding the fact that, with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I joining in some parts of the ceremonies (but not leading prayers), there were actually two participants present who represented elements of the Palestinian people. Well, the pope would make three, since there are Eastern Rite Catholics in the region, as well. The AP report noted:

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Ann B. Davis: True heroine of alternative families?

My recent GetReligion piece on the life and ministry of actress Ann B. Davis, a friend from Denver days, rang up some pretty good social media numbers (thank you readers and Twitter fanatics). As a result, I heard from quite a few folks reacting to the mainstream media coverage of her death.

I think this is a commentary on her fame via The Brady Bunch. No doubt about that. However, I also think that — because of decades of activity in events nationwide linked to the Charismatic Renewal Movement (a very ecumenical and far-flung body of believers) — Ann B. had also actually met thousands of people face to face who in some truly personal way felt a human connection there.

I think it’s safe to lump these reader comments into two camps. Those dealing with print sources felt that these reports minimized the role that faith played in Davis’ life and didn’t seem to understand the fine details. But at least the faith was there. Meanwhile, the mainstream television reports were — people said over and over — all but completely faith free.

Then there was this strange piece in Time.

I mention it for a very simple reason: It is a perfect example of the kind of material that is being published today in publications that consumers think of as news products, yet most of their contents have little or nothing to do with news. Instead, they are works of basic commentary.

Thus, consider this piece with the headline epic double-decker headline:

Somehow Forming a Family: Why We Loved The Brady Bunch‘s Alice

Played by Ann B. Davis, who died over the weekend, Alice represented something that was becoming familiar in people’s complicated lives if not on TV: the non-parent parent.

While this is billed as an “appreciation” of Davis, the piece actually is not about Davis at all (the Time video is, in fact, a mini-profile). Instead, it is about a writer’s personal opinions about the importance of Davis and her “Alice” persona. Honestly, search the piece for actual information about the facts of her life. Here is a sample passage:

… (Alice) connected with a change that, in the early ’70s, was emerging in American families, in which figures other than two parents were central in kids’ lives.

Like a lot of childhood TV memories, The Brady Bunch is loved not so much for its artistry as for its emotional connections. The Brady family was big, it was blended, and it felt like there was room for everyone. Putting two families together on TV was unusual at the time, and it spoke to the number of kids who recognized divorce and remarriage from their own lives. Yes, Mike was a widower, and Carol’s status was never clarified — a compromise after Sherwood Schwartz wanted her to be a divorcée — but anyone watching knew what the show was really depicting. It turned something commonly depicted as tragedy into a triumph — a family coming together by choice.

And also, at the end:

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Writing on houses of worship? Ignore the religious

Pop quiz: When you write about baseball or surgery, whom should you quote?

That’s right. And when you write about playing a piano or cello, whom should you quote?

Right again. And when you write about religion, whom should you quote?

Nope, missed that one. When writing about any field, you must include its practitioners — unless it’s a religious group.

NBC News and the New York Times followed that rule faithfully — in this case, faithlessly — in stories about efforts to save church and synagogue buildings, although both have long lost their congregations.

First, the NBC story, the more facile of the two. Travel writer Rob Lovitt found a team store for a minor-league baseball team in South Bend, Ind., that was once the home for the Sons of Israel Synagogue.

Granted, it’s meant to be a light feature by a travel writer. Still, when he includes details like foam fingers but leaves out details on the “rich history” of the synagogue, it’s like leaving a shoe dangling in the air rather than letting it drop.

He’s clearly charmed by the idea of keeping a revered site, quoting Joe Hart, the president of the team:

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