Pod people: Pope steps down; many journalists fall down

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Gentle readers, one cannot make some of this stuff up.

So, everyone knows that Pope Benedict XVI is elderly and has physical ailments.

So how tired and elderly is this man? Read the following passage from The Washington Post carefully. The story offers details from his dramatic final dramatic Mass, as pope, at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Wait for it.

The pope has cited his failing body and mind to explain his decision, and … he appeared fragile, if determined, while presiding over the solemn pageantry of the Catholic Mass. He was shepherded down the long aisles of the basilica on a wheeled platform, although he at times walked unaided. In the pews, young seminarians took notes and grew teary-eyed as the pope hobbled down the marble stairs of the altar for the last time. Asian, European and American tour groups fortunate enough to be in Rome for the occasion strained their necks to catch a glimpse from the rear of the church.

At the conclusion of the Mass, as cardinals and bishops watched, a short nun stood on her chair to wave at the pope as he began his last procession out of the basilica. He walked with a gilded cane in the shape of a cross. Cheers erupted from the benches as he passed, along with shouts in Italian of “long live the pope!”

What? He walked with the help of a “gilded cane” topped with a cross?

Might that have been his papal crosier (sometimes spelled “crozier”), the formal pastoral staff — a symbol of this role as shepherd of his flock — that is carried by a bishop? Might this be the golden staff, topped with a cross, that Benedict has always used, the one that would be seen in many, many photos (click here for sample) of this particular pope that originate in liturgical settings?

In other words, it would have been genuinely strange if Benedict had NOT been using his pastoral staff, as he always has.

Oh well. This is not the strangest thing that has every happened in mainstream news media reporting about this particular piece of liturgical equipment. Who can forget this classic, from the funeral of the Blessed John Paul II?

“The 84-year-old John Paul was laid out in Clementine Hall, dressed in white and red vestments, his head covered with a white bishop’s miter and propped up on three dark gold pillows,” wrote Ian Fisher of the New York Times. “Tucked under his left arm was the silver staff, called the crow’s ear, that he had carried in public.”

Right. His “crow’s ear.”

Obviously, the sudden decision by Benedict XVI to step down as pope has dominated the religion-news beat all week. Readers will not be surprised to know that it was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, as well. Click here to listen to that.

There was much to discuss. Still, it says a lot about the state of the news world in which we live that one of the best commentaries on the press coverage of this week could be found over at The Onion. Here’s how it opens. Read The Onion and weep:

VATICAN CITY – Citing his advancing age and deteriorating health, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the papacy Monday, saying he no longer possessed the strength and energy required to lead the Catholic Church backward.

According to the 85-year-old pontiff, after considerable prayer and reflection on his physical stamina and mental acuity, he concluded that his declining faculties left him unable to helm the Church’s ambitious regressive agenda and guide the faith’s one billion global followers on their steady march away from modernity and cultural advancement.

This was not the only commentary about the mainstream coverage of this stunner. Needless to say, many readers noted this headline in an analysis piece at The Telegraph:

Pope Benedict XVI resigns: the mainstream media just doesn’t get God or Catholicism


Here’s the start of that essay by historian Tim Stanley:

For Lent, I’m giving up. How can anyone of faith not feel like surrendering after this week’s largely bad media coverage of the papal abdication? The identikit headline seems to be, “Elderly Homophobe Quits Misogynistic Institution Because He Can’t Hack It”. And my favourite piece of instant analysis has to be The Guardian’s “Five Key Issues for the Catholic Church”, which details the things the next Pope must do to rescue the Church from oblivion. They include ordain women priests, conduct gay weddings and hand out condoms. So The Guardian’s ideal Pope is someone who isn’t a Catholic. The paper reports that Sinead O’Connor is available.

Some parts of the mainstream media don’t do God and don’t understand people who do. They see everything through the prism of politics – presuming that Christians fall into camps of Left and Right, that Bible-talk is ideological slang or that the tenets of faith are up for negotiation in the same way that party platforms are easily forgotten by the hucksters who ran on them. Some journalists need a crash course in Christianity.

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Is a blasphemous drag show really ‘anti-Catholic’?

Just yesterday Bobby pointed out a practice of double attribution, asking whether it goes beyond attribution into the dreaded scare quote territory. I wonder the same thing in a few stories I’m reading about the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

I started looking around when Michael Brendan Dougherty asked, on Twitter:

Curious why reporters put “anti-Catholic” in scare quotes in their stories.

Jonah Goldberg responded, “because they think the anti-Catholics are right.”

What are they talking about? Well, when Hagel was nominated, some groups mentioned that he’d opposed Bill Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel to be an ambassador because he was “aggressively gay.” Those words might not have been as controversial during the Clinton administration as they are now, but people were upset.

I was surprised to learn the rest of the story today:

Hagel also told the World-Herald he has seen tape of Hormell (sic) at an event by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a San Francisco-based performance and activist group comprised of gay men in drag as nuns.

“It is very clear on this tape that he’s laughing and enjoying the antics of an anti-Catholic gay group in this gay parade,” Hagel told the paper in the 1998 interview. “I think it’s wise for the president not to go forward with this nomination.”

It is always good to consider the context of any remark. Hagel has apologized for his remarks either way, but knowing that Hagel was upset by Hormel laughing it up at a blasphemous drag show is an important detail. But is the group really blasphemous or anti-Catholic?

Wikipedia explains the group’s activities:

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Coached by God? NYT profiles Olympic runner

According to an in-depth story in ESPN the Magazine, the Summer Olympics are one big sex party — with 100,000 condoms ordered to keep up with all the athlete shenanigans expected in London.

With the provocative headline “Will you still medal in the morning?” that 3,200-word feature managed to steer entirely clear of any questions of values, morals or — dare we say — religion related to all the bedroom activity expected in the Olympic Village. That’s probably not surprising, given that the story appeared in the magazine’s Body Issue.

Just as I was lamenting the ESPN piece, a GetReligion reader submitted a link to an even longer Olympic story — this one published by The New York Times and running more than 5,600 words. (You read that right: 5,600 words! No word on whether this dead-tree story required the clearing of an extra forest.)

The Times profiles Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall (whose faith has received in-depth treatment before). The top of the story:

REDDING, Calif. — Ryan Hall rocked slightly, palms up, closing his eyes or singing softly to lyrics projected on giant screens at the evangelical Bethel Church. Other worshipers jubilantly raised their arms and swayed and jumped in the aisles. A band played onstage and a woman waved a fabric flag like a rhythmic gymnast.

Thin and blond and boyish at 29 — flight attendants still asked his age when he sat in an exit row — Hall wore jeans and a blue shirt labeled with the shoe company that sponsored his running. At the 2011 Boston Marathon, he ran a personal best of 2 hours 4 minutes 58 seconds. No other American has run faster.

The Boston course is not certified for record purposes because of its drop in elevation and its layout. Still, of the29 fastest marathon performances in 2011, Hall’s was the only one by a runner from a country other than Kenya or Ethiopia. His next marathon will come Aug. 12 at the London Olympics. On a Sunday in March, Hall firmly believed he could challenge the East Africans for a gold medal.

“Light a fire in me for the whole world to see,” he sang.

I’m not a big fan of that lede. To me, it seemed like pretty boilerplate stuff for an evangelical church, especially considering the exceptional material that characterizes most of the piece.

But overall, the writer, Jere Longman, does an amazing job of taking religion seriously — of delving deep into the runner’s faith, letting him explain what he believes in his own words and providing context and insight to help understand Hall’s brand of Christianity.

Longman makes it clear up high that this story will “get religion”:

Underpinning his running is his faith. The marathon is so isolating in its training, so impossibly fast at the elite level, so restricting to two performances a year for most top runners, that many athletes seek a purpose larger than themselves, something to believe in more than the numbing miles of roadwork. For some, it is their families or an escape from poverty. For others, it is their religion.

“If you run without any reason, you are just chasing the wind,” said Wesley Korir, the reigning Boston Marathon champion from Kenya.

During the 2011 Chicago Marathon, Hall began singing praise to the Lord. Freestyling, he called it. Korir joined in.

“Come Lord Jesus, come,” the two runners sang as they ran. “Come Holy Spirit, come.”

After finishing second at the 2011 United States half-marathon championships, Hall went to drug testing, a standard procedure. Asked on a form to list his coach, he wrote: God.

You have to list the name of a real person, a doping official said.

“He is a real person,” Hall responded.

As the Times explores Hall’s faith, it provides details on his church:

Bethel Church, formerly affiliated with the Assemblies of God or Pentecostal faith, is a charismatic evangelical Christian fellowship with more than 3,000 congregants. It promotes a direct, personal relationship with an unconditionally loving God and what it calls supernatural signs and wonders. These include speaking in tongues, prophecy, healings and miracles that are said by church officials to include the curing of cancer, regeneration of limbs, mending of broken bones and raising the dead.

For a writer seemingly so fluent in the language of the athlete’s church, the description of Hall’s church confused me. The Assemblies of God or Pentecostal faith? That makes it sound like the Assemblies of God is the only Pentecostal faith, as if the two terms are interchangeable. Yet there are more than 60 Pentecostal denominations, according to the Religion Newswriters Association’s online stylebook. In fact, the church still sounds Pentecostal to me, unless I’m missing something (and please feel free to tell me in the comments section if I am).

Later in the story, another reference tripped me up:

As part of the so-called renewalist evangelical Christian movement, Bethel Church subscribes to a relationship with God that is not distant but intimate. Through prayer, charismatic evangelicals train their minds to converse with God, not unlike athletes who train their bodies to run marathons. They speak to God and believe that he speaks to them in return.

So-called renewalist evangelical Christian movement? I found myself wanting to know more about the history and size of that (so-called) movement.

Those quibbles aside, the writer deserves major kudos for his brilliant attention to detail in relating Hall’s faith. Consider this section, for example:

At Bethel Church, God’s presence is felt in a number of ways, including what is said to be the appearance of feathers from angels’ wings and the manifestation of what is called a “glory cloud.”

Hall said he and his wife had experienced a glory cloud on New Year’s night, likening the phenomenon to fireflies or the flashing of tiny fireworks. Others say it resembles gold dust. He had seen a YouTube version of the glory cloud and was somewhat skeptical, believing that it might be simply a cascade of dust from the ceiling of the church. His skepticism faded when he saw for himself.

“I feel like I’ve experienced God in a lot of ways, but I’ve never seen a sign like that in such a tangible way,” Hall said. “I was like so sure it was God, that it was him doing it, because there was no explanation. I almost feel like we’re kids and he’s our dad and he’s kind of like having fun with us.”

There’s much more — from Hall and other sources — that make this story a compelling read, for sports fans as well as readers interested in religion.

Check it out.

Pod people: Framing the Georgetown wars

OK, readers, it’s time for a quiz about Catholic higher education. I don’t think that any readers will remember this column I once wrote for the Scripps Howard News Service (that would be a bit scary if anyone did), but I will provide enough of the content to help readers answer this question: Can you guess within five years when the following was written?

Elizabeth Fiore didn’t expect Georgetown University’s freshman orientation program to include a condom demonstration.

When the mandatory safe-sex session was over, the student leaders apologized because policies on the Catholic campus prevented them from handing out condoms to needy newcomers. But — wink, wink — they could leave a few on a nearby table.

What was shocking was not the candid talk, but the assumption that students had already rejected Catholic teachings, said Fiore, at a conference backing efforts to give church authorities more clout on America’s 235 Catholic college campuses.

OK, here is another chunk of that column that will offer some hints about the calendar:

… Fiore said she was glad the cafeteria served matzo bread during Passover and gave Muslims special take-home containers so they could eat at appropriate times during Ramadan. But she found it strange that the cafeteria served three meat dishes on Good Friday in Holy Week, forcing students who wanted to observe the Catholic fast to resort to peanut butter and jelly. The priests got fish.

The Jesuit campus has become a May pole for Catholic controversies — from the on-again, off-again decision to remove classroom crucifixes, to a campus lecture by Hustler’s Larry Flynt, to a student’s shame when Women’s Center workers ridiculed her request for information on how to enter a religious order.

Care to guess? OK, I’ll give you a hint. I’ve been writing the “On Religion” column for 24 years.

No, this one isn’t THAT old, but it does date back to 1999 — which is still a pretty good amount of time on the religion beat.

The reason I bring this up, of course, is that Georgetown University — the Maypole around which news coverage of Catholic higher education tends to dance — is once again in the news. You have read about some of this news here at GetReligion, for the simple reason that the mainstream press has been faithful in covering yet another round in the Georgetown culture wars. You’ll be stunned to know that politics is at the heart of all this.

So, does the name “Sandra Fluke” ring any bells? I thought so.

Also, how about this name — Kathleen Sebelius?

When typical news consumers hear those names, these days, it is highly likely that the first words that pop into their heads are “birth control,” if not “war on women.” For a different set of readers, the first term that leaps to mind might be “religious liberty.”

However, the point of this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast is that the first words that should pop into the minds of religion-beat journalists, when yet another media storm cranks up at Georgetown, are these Latin words — “Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church).”

And what, pray tell, is “Ex Corde Ecclesiae”? Here is a chunk of my Scripps Howard column for this week which, like the podcast, tries to frame the latest Georgetown skirmish in a broader contest.

For you see, many years of Georgetown controversy:

… could reach Rome, if a prominent Georgetown graduate has his way. Academy Award winner William Peter Blatty, best known for writing “The Exorcist,” is leading a petition drive requesting that the Archdiocese of Washington and perhaps the Vatican investigate 20-plus years of complaints about the university’s compliance with guidelines in the 1990 “apostolic constitution” on education issued by Pope John Paul II entitled “Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church).”

“We may choose to file a canon action again, one much larger in scale and seeking alternative forms of relief that will include, among others, that Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit be revoked or suspended for a time,” noted Blatty, in his online appeal (GUpetition.org) to supporters. “What we truly seek is for Georgetown to have the vision and courage to be Catholic, but clearly the slow pastoral approach has not worked.” …

Among its many requirements, Ex Corde Ecclesiae states: “In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching.” However, the pope also said the “freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected.”

Now, like all Jesuit institutions, Georgetown answers — to a unique degree — both to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and to officials in Rome. The point is that, while the U.S. press moves on to elections and what-not, it is possible that a legal process may begin behind the scenes, a process rooted in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, that could result in an investigation by Vatican officials of America’s oldest Catholic university.

That would be a big story. Don’t look for any coverage of that until after the election, unless, of course, this story somehow gets linked to birth control.

Enjoy the podcast.

Irish reflections in a jaundiced eye

The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been having a run of bad press of late. The clergy pedophile scandal and the church’s inadequate response has left it deeply wounded. The latest scandal involves Cardinal Seán Brady, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, and his actions in the Brendan Smyth case.

Outrage over the Smyth case led to the collapse of the Irish government in 1994 and may force Cardinal Brady to step down. Smyth, a Norbertine priest who abused more than 100 children in Ireland and the U.S. over the course of 40 years, died a month after he entered prison in 1997.

In a 1 May 2012 documentary entitled “The Shame of the Catholic Church”, the BBC reported that as a young priest in the early 1970′s, Brady served as the notary to an investigative committee that reviewed complaints that Smyth had abused a 15 year old boy. Brady interviewed the 15 year old and reported the victim’s testimony of abuse to his bishop. However the boy’s parents were not informed. Smyth remained a priest and abused children for a further 13 years.

This is a terrible story of abuse, incompetence and inertia. Watch the BBC documentary if you can. But that is not the focus of this post. Newspaper reputations are established by consistently good work. When a newspaper engages in advocacy journalism on small stories, its readers are less likely to accept its version of events when the blockbuster stories come along.

The Brady/Smyth story is a blockbuster. But its importance — and the Irish Times‘ credibility –  some would argue has been damaged by what has come before.

Last week’s news article entitled “Fr D’Arcy ‘saddened’ at Vatican censure over articles” reports on moves against a priest with a newspaper column. The lede introduces us to Fr. Brian D’Arcy who reports he was:

“saddened and disappointed” at his censure by the Vatican over articles he wrote for a Sunday newspaper. The cleric and media commentator writes for the Sunday World, where he has been a regular columnist since 1976.

It emerged yesterday that he had been censured by the Vatican over four articles he wrote in 2010. The four articles by Fr D’Arcy concerned how the Vatican dealt with the issue of women priests; why US Catholics were leaving the church; why the church had to take responsibility for clerical child sex abuse; and homosexuality.

The Vatican is also understood to have complained about headlines on some of the articles, which would have been written by editorial staff at the Sunday World. Currently, in instances where he addresses matters of faith and morals in his writings or broadcasts, he must first submit these to a third party for clearance.

The article cites a statement from Fr. D’Arcy that speaks of his having to live with the “the pain of censure for 14 months and will have to live with it for the rest of my priestly life.” The priest defends his journalism and his “ministry in communication,” while the article notes that news of the censure came via the head of his order, who was summoned to the Vatican for a dressing down. A fellow Irish priest then speaks (in support of Fr. D’Arcy).

Fr Peter McVerry branded the Vatican’s actions as “horrific”.

“They are terrified that if they speak publicly they will get their heads chopped off,” he said.

And the article then closes with the names of five other Irish clerics censured by the Vatican. What the story does not have is any comment or explanation from the hierarchy or the Vatican.

Nor does the article question or substantiate the claims of censorship. A quick run through the archives of Fr. D’Arcy’s articles shows that he has not been shy of criticizing the Catholic Church’s leadership in Ireland and in Rome. If someone from the chancellery is reading Fr. D’Arcy’s articles before they are published with an eye towards reigning him in, they  have been somewhat lax. In a 23 April 2012 column that discusses popular attitudes toward married priests, Fr. D’Arcy states the hierarchy is deaf to the concerns of the laity:

Sadly in our church now, it has become impossible to be open and honest about what good people are convinced of. It’s as if merely stating unpalatable facts is in itself disloyal.

In this article, an assertion is made, facts and opinion from one side are offered in support, but no contrary views are presented nor are the claims tested. On one side we have a supporter of Fr. D’Arcy saying his treatment has been “horrific” and that critics of the church’s party line will have their head chopped off. Against that we have — nothing. What are we to make of Fr. McVerry? Is he an idiot? Is he being prophetic? What is clear is the bias against the Catholic Church from the Irish Times.

Now we are in the midst of a newspaper feeding frenzy over the fallout of the Shame of the Catholic Church. What trust should a reader place in the Irish Times‘ coverage? The stories from the newspaper’s religion correspondent Patsy McGarry on the Brady/Smyth affair are well written, well sourced and eminently readable. McGarry is a pro whose work I have enjoyed for many years.

But his latest round of stories will be read in conjunction with his 18 April 2012 opinion piece. In this pre-Shame of the Catholic Church story, McGarry takes a hammer to Pope Benedict XVI and beats.

Benedict was a “divisive figure” possessed of “rigid certainties” whose election  “represented the final defeat of that liberal Catholicism ushered in following Vatican II.”

Cardinal Ratzinger was an enemy of the “porous, inclusive Catholicism of the previous generation.” As Pope John Paul II’s “enforcer” he “closed many windows thrown open by Pope John XXIII and Vatican II” through such action as “infamous Dominus Iesus document of 2000.”

On celibacy, women priests or women in the diaconate, he was immovable. Similarly on the use of condoms even to combat Aids. On homosexuality he was virulent. In 1986, he described it as a “strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”.

Where dissent was concerned he brooked no hostages. It extended to former colleagues such as Hans Küng. In 1966, at Küng’s instigation, the Catholic faculty at Germany’s Tübingen university appointed Fr Ratzinger professor of dogmatics. In 1979, Küng was stripped of his licence to teach because he challenged papal infallibility. In 1981, when Ratzinger became dean of the CDF, he upheld that decision.

The pope continues to take a pounding from Mr. McGarry. But the story then takes a turn towards the Irish church where she speaks to the “silencing” of Irish clergy who had “sought their way to a more compassionate, Christian understanding of human life.” He adds that:

In each case too, those of us in the media aware of it were asked not to write about this lest the sky fall and bring further misery on the already crushed. So Rome has had its way and through exploiting finer human emotions such as loyalty and respect. Clever? Yes, but hardly Christian.

Strong stuff this. One could say extraordinary when you consider that this was penned by the newspaper’s religion correspondent. If this is the worldview through which the newspaper’s religion reporter views the pope and the Vatican, how then should one read the Irish Times‘ news coverage of the Catholic Church?

The approach taken by the Irish Times has been self-defeating. By engaging in advocacy journalism, letting opinions drive the story rather than the facts, readers who are well disposed to the Irish Times editorial voice will find their views confirmed.

Those who object to its characterizations and treatment of the Catholic Church may respond to these latest scandals with a “well they would say that, wouldn’t they” about the Irish Times‘ coverage.  The truth winds up getting lost in advocacy journalism and it ultimately fails in its mission as no minds are changed or views shifted.

Read the Irish Times on Catholicism — but read it with a jaundiced eye is my advice.

Wash away your affiliation

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday had a story about a 71-year-old atheist’s rather curious legal battle against the Catholic Church in France. Rene LeBouvier has taken the church to court over its refusal to let him “nullify” his baptism:

LeBouvier grew up in that world and says his mother once hoped he’d become a priest. But his views began to change in the 1970s, when he was introduced to free thinkers. As he didn’t believe in God anymore, he thought it would be more honest to leave the church. So he wrote to his diocese and asked to be un-baptized.

“They sent me a copy of my records, and in the margins next to my name, they wrote that I had chosen to leave the church,” he says.

That was in the year 2000. A decade later, LeBouvier wanted to go further. In between were the pedophile scandals and the pope preaching against condoms in AIDS-racked Africa, a position that LeBouvier calls “criminal.” Again, he asked the church to strike him from baptismal records. When the priest told him it wasn’t possible, he took the church to court.

Apparently a judge in Normandy ruled in his favor and the dioceses appealed. The case is pending.

OK, the story just utterly confuses me. LeBouvier has already left the church. And he doesn’t deny he was baptized. Is he asking the court to force the church to rewrite history? Again, he was baptized into the Christian faith. He has since renounced the faith. The church records both that he was baptized into the faith and that he chose to leave the church.

I’m not sure if the article simply needs to explain the oddities of French law more or if the story just fell down on the explanation of how Christian sacraments work.

The article apparently equates asking the church to strike the name from baptismal records with something called “de-baptism,” without quite explaining why it’s called that. The article quotes the dean of the School of Canon Law at Catholic University of America, Rev. Robert Kaslyn, as saying that Catholic teaching doesn’t provide for de-baptism. Certainly this is not a Christian teaching. The article doesn’t exactly dig down on why Christianity has no provision for de-baptism, although the dean explains a bit of Catholic teaching on baptism’s permanent mark on the baptized:

“One could refuse the grace offered by God, the grace offered by the sacrament, refuse to participate,” he says, “but we would believe the individual has still been marked for God through the sacrament, and that individual at any point could return to the church.”

French law states that citizens have the right to leave organizations if they wish. Loup Desmond, who has followed the case for the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, says he thinks it could set a legal precedent and open the way for more demands for de-baptism.

“If the justice confirms that the name Rene LeBouvier has to disappear from the books, if it is confirmed, it can be a kind of jurisprudence in France,” he says.

Again, I need more explanation about why this article equates leaving an organization with something we’re calling de-baptism, particularly since this case already includes the individual renouncing his membership. I’m sure it makes sense in the mind of the reporter or the litigant, but somehow something is getting lost in translation here.

Are we talking about forcing the Catholic Church to knowingly state something they know not to be true? To rewrite history? To create a new sacrament of de-baptism? To declare a particular sacrament of baptism invalid in the eyes of the church? If it is the last case, on what grounds is the atheist arguing the sacrament was invalid in the eyes of the church? If he were petitioning for an annulment of marriage, that would be what he’d be arguing, right? That the sacramental marriage was somehow invalid in the eyes of church? Is that what he’s arguing here? If that’s the sort of annulment he seeks, the argument for that annulment is missing.

Now, it’s certainly true that churches are occasionally legally forced to do something that violates their conscience and teachings. Obviously we have a major instance of this even in the United States with the recent news that the Obama administration is giving religious institutions one year before they’ll be forced to comply with provisions in the new health care laws that profoundly violate their teachings. But what’s most interesting to me is not that sometimes a judicial or executive branch will try to force a church to violate its teachings but, rather, how the church responds. This article completely failed to discuss what the Catholic Church would do if France forced it institute a new rite/rewrite history/declare a sacrament invalid this would do. How would the church respond? Isn’t that what’s most interesting? Why no mention of the theological implications at hand? My own church body’s American history began in response to a German attempt to force us to violate our doctrine. It’s certainly interesting when governments attempt to tell religious institutions how to practice their religion, but even more so how they respond to such demands.

I also wish we could have gotten a better explanation of why annulment is the preferred legal avenue being pursued by this atheist. It was certainly given to readers and listeners why he loathes his former church but not why he seeks annulment. Perhaps a bit more explanation of whether the baptism records have sway outside of the church would have helped.

Stereotypes and backwoods religion

At first glance, I had high hopes for a CNN story out today with the headline “Pastor fights HIV stigma in Southern town.”

I printed out a hard copy, ready to enjoy the kind of precise details and behind-the-scenes insight that make for compelling, praiseworthy journalism.

Instead, I settled for an avalanche of stereotypes and vague references to backwoods religion.

According to an editor’s note, CNN’s Health team is taking a close look at the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Southeastern United States with a series leading up to World AIDS Day on Wednesday. Perhaps the Health team should have enlisted the help of CNN’s Godbeat pros on this particular story. The top of the piece:

Dorchester, South Carolina (CNN) – The fan by the window pushed humid air uselessly against the church pews.

Diana Martinez made small talk as Tommy Terry shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The man sitting next to Martinez cracked a joke. Nobody laughed.

A clock on the back wall ticked minutes away in a mocking cliché.

Only three people had shown up for this month’s HIV/AIDS awareness meeting. Usually, there are 10 to 12 — a surprisingly good turnout for a congregation of 25, which just goes to show how many people the disease affects in this small Southern town.

It’s a problem all across the Bible Belt. In 2007 — the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the rate of diagnosed AIDS cases in the Southeastern United States was much higher than in other regions of the country: 9.2 per 100,000 people, versus 2.5 in the Midwest, 3.9 in the West and 5.6 in the Northeast.

Now, the numerical references immediately confused me: Are the 10 to 12 who usually show up part of the church’s 25 members? That’s unclear to me. (Not religion-related per se, but I also did not find the lede all that compelling: What is “small talk?” Why not be more specific about what the woman actually said? The same with the joke … why not tell what he’s joking about? But I digress …)

As the story moves on, readers learn that the Bible Belt’s high prevalence of AIDS cases can be attributed to “stigma, poor education and a lack of funding.” By stigma, the connotation is obvious: These Bible Belt folks have a problem with homosexuality. But the story takes a long, weaving path to get there, and even then only vaguely. For example, there’s this reference to a man who died of AIDS:

Instead, his death was simply another symbol of the fear surrounding HIV/AIDS in rural South Carolina.

Fear? I’m supposing that has something to do with the vague religious stigma. Eventually, there’s this note:

Many socially conservative residents of the Deep South have a hard time talking about sex with their children, never mind discussions about condoms with complete strangers.

And this note as that vague religion pops into the conversation:

The second barrier is religion. Some in the South believe they could go to hell because of their actions, he says, be they drug use, premarital sex or homosexuality.

Later, there’s an anecdote indicting all the pastors in town except for the one featured in the story:

Tommy Terry has a love/hate relationship with religion and the pastors who preach it in Dorchester County. A faithful man, he attends Byrth’s HIV/AIDS meetings as a tribute to his partner, Michael, who died in 2005.

The couple spent 10 years together. Terry could do nothing as he watched Michael fade away, losing weight and friends at an equal rate.

Sitting on the concrete porch outside the Bibleway Holiness Church, Terry struggles to keep tears from falling as he talks about the last few months of Michael’s life. Terry called pastors from around the county to come pray at Michael’s side in the hospital. They all refused.

What does the writer mean by “a faithful man” as it relates to Terry? No idea. The story does not provide any more detail or insight.

What do the pastors all over the county who refused to come pray at Michael’s side say about their alleged unwillingness to minister to someone in his time of crisis? No idea. The story doesn’t bother to quote any pastors, or anyone else in town, for that matter, who might shed light on what this community thinks about the AIDS epidemic.

This piece had such potential to be relevant and important. It’s an excellent angle, but unfortunately, CNN failed to develop it fully. Ghosts, anyone?

Image via Shutterstock

About that Times column on ‘Open Embrace’

For almost a quarter of a century, I have written the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Please note my intentional use of the word “column.” As a columnist, I write about subjects that are interesting to me and that I think are newsworthy. I strive to quote both sides in heated debates and I always strive for accuracy, of course. That’s simply journalism DNA.

However, I am a columnist, not a news-beat reporter. This confuses many readers, in large part because many newspapers across North America run my column with a regular byline, as opposed to using a logo that includes my photograph — a visual clue that this is a column with a personal angle to it. Also, I have never felt the need to write in first-person voice all the time (although I do so when needed, if I have a personal connection to a specific story or event), which means that my work tends to be rather newsy, rather than openly opinionated.

I bring this up because I have received several emails asking for my response to Mark Oppenheimer‘s latest “Beliefs” column in the New York Times, the one that ran under the headline, “An Evolving View of Natural Family Planning.” That’s the one that opens like this:

In August 1999, Bethany Patchin, an 18-year-old college sophomore from Wisconsin, wrote in an article for Boundless, an evangelical Web magazine, that Christians should not kiss before marriage. Sam Torode, a 23-year-old Chicagoan, replied in a letter to the editor that Ms. Patchin’s piece could not help but “drive young Christian men mad with desire.”

The two began corresponding by e-mail, met in January 2000 and were married that November. Nine months later, Ms. Torode (she took her husband’s name) gave birth to a son, Gideon. Over the next six years, the Torodes had four more progeny: another son, two daughters and a book, “Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception.”

In “Open Embrace,” the Torodes endorsed natural family planning — tracking a woman’s ovulation and limiting intercourse to days when she is not fertile — but rejected all forms of artificial contraception, including the pill and condoms. The book sold 7,000 copies after its publication in 2002 and was celebrated in the anticontraception movement, which remains largely Roman Catholic but has a growing conservative Protestant wing. As young Protestants who conceived their first child on their honeymoon, the Torodes made perfect evangelists.

That was then, this is now.

So what is the big twist, the news hook that struck many readers are the “good news” celebrated in this Times column about the “evolving” views of this celebrated couple?

In 2006, the Torodes wrote on the Web that they no longer believed natural family planning was the best method of birth control. They divorced in 2009. Both now attend liberal churches. Ms. Patchin — that is her name once again — now says she uses birth control, and she even voted for Barack Obama for president.

In other words, saith these readers, reason has triumphed over stupidity and all is right with the real world. The question people have been asking is whether this “story” is, well, good journalism.

The problem, of course, is that this is not a “news story” — it’s a column. It’s a column, even though it is basically written in news style and it focuses on half of a subject that could have been covered as hard news. It focuses on the half that is intriguing to the columnist and, one would assume, the kinds of people who read the New York Times.

As a column, it is not balanced. It does not quote people, especially women, who testify about the positive role that NFP has played in their relationships with their husbands. It does not even need to probe the deeper and unexplored questions raised in the piece, such as whether the marriage was in fact shattered by the practice of NFP or disagreements that grew out of it.

Where is the rest of the story? I understand that people want to ask that question, but it’s not a question that Times editors have to answer in this case.

Oppenheimer is a columnist. He gets to craft this sad parable the way that he wants to craft it. He gets to frame the debate to favor the views of the people that he views as intelligent and acceptable. And the Times gets to select who it wants as columnists (so does Scripps Howard).

The most frustrating moment for me is found right here:

“Open Embrace” also embraced the view that children stabilize marriage, for “with each child a couple has, their chances of divorce are significantly reduced.” So what went wrong for the Torodes, whose children now range in age from 4 to 9?

That’s a good question, one the column does not attempt to answer. Also, it’s fair game, I think, to note that the column does not offer a quote or two from any evidence that exists to prove that point — that children stabilize marriages, not destroy them. For a moment, a reader can glimpse a door into a larger subject. Then the door vanishes.

There are other moments that will grate at readers on the other side of this debate. This one hooked me.

Today, neither Ms. Patchin nor Mr. Torode is part of the anticontraception community, nor conservative Christianity. In Nashville, Ms. Patchin, who does accounting work from home, attends a church affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the most liberal of the Presbyterian denominations in the United States. Mr. Torode attends an Episcopal church with a female priest.

Once again, note that traditional believers are always “anti” something, not “pro” something else. It’s a frame that helps shape the picture.

Also, as a person who hangs out in Nashville quite a bit, I would note that a PCUSA congregation in that part of the world is not automatically “liberal” and, for all we know, the female priest at that Bible Belt parish may in fact be a charismatic. We don’t know, unless Patchin and Torode gave the columnist specific information that is not included in the piece.

The bottom line: This is a column, not a news piece. Readers have to deal with that.

The larger question for me — in a news business in which opinion is much, much, much cheaper than real news — is whether more editors are simply saying that religion is, as a subject in daily life in the real world, a matter of mere opinion and not news. In other words, why try to report facts when you are dealing with a subject that is built on, well, “Beliefs” and beliefs alone?