Exorcising our Internal Server Errors

The past few days have been hellish for our readers who want to post comments, and we ask your forgiveness. The crew at our server is trying to resolve this problem, which affects not only comments but also our ability to post items with any certainty that they will appear.

Today I have changed our blog’s configuration to allow comments without previous registration with TypeKey. I hope that will remove one obstacle that’s been a consistent headache for many of you.

Please bear with us, and we hope to have a more thorough improvement in place very soon.

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This award goes to . . .

The job of the GetReligion crew is to judge media coverage, for good or for ill. The smaller the story, the easier that is to accomplish. But then you have these massive media events and what do you do with those? Here’s my idea. (And I’m speaking for myself here, not the non-Borg.) I think we could hand out awards for best and worst coverage of big religion media events and invite readers to chirp in with their own nominations. For instance, in the election of Pope Benedict XVI, I would start with the following awards:

Strangest Typo goes to an unknown copy elf at The New York Times for translating the document Dominus Iesus (“Lord Jesus”) as “Dominus Jesus.”

Best Bitter Summation goes to — who else? — Times columnist Maureen Dowd for writing that B-16′s election means “the cafeteria is officially closed.”

Best Playing-it-Straight Hed That Doesn’t Induce Sleep goes to The Washington Post for “Church Turns to Its Guardian of the Faith.”

Readers, what do you think of this idea?

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Pre-modern pope faces post-whatever Europe

20050419_elezione.jpgThe noted American Catholic theologian Maureen Dowd has already served up the official talking points for the first wave of coverage of Pope Benedict XVI. This pretty much covers the terrain, which the MSM is covering with various degrees of depth and balance. Ready?

The white smoke . . . signaled that the Vatican thinks what it needs to bring it into modernity is the oldest pope since the 18th century: Joseph Ratzinger, a 78-year-old hidebound archconservative who ran the office that used to be called the Inquisition and who once belonged to Hitler Youth. For American Catholics — especially women and Democratic pro-choice Catholic pols — the cafeteria is officially closed. After all, Cardinal Ratzinger, nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler” and “the Enforcer,” helped deny Communion rights to John Kerry and other Catholic politicians in the 2004 election.

Has the Roman Catholic Church actually established a civil right to receive Communion? I thought that was linked, somehow, with going to confession and being in union with the Church’s teachings. In other words, I think bishops and cardinals and folks like that do have a historic role to play in deciding who is OK and who is not OK.

But I digress. The key theme in much of the early coverage has been the new pope’s status as an anti-modern thinker, which would make him a pre-modern thinker.

The irony, of course, is that this man comes out of the heart of liberal Catholic academia in the spiritually chilly confines of modern Europe. The man knows modernity inside out and probably speaks pretty fluent postmodernism, to boot. In other words, he is a traitor to his class.

The smoking-gun document in all of these discussions is the remarkable sermon — a true statement, even if you hated it — that then-Cardinal Ratzinger preached immediately before the start of the conclave. Here is the money quote:

How many winds of teaching we have known in these last decades, how many ideologies, how many ways of thinking. . . . The little vessel of thought of many Christians has often been rocked by these waves — hurled from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, to the point of libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. New sects are born every day and we see what Saint Paul says in terms of human trickery and cunning that tends to lead to error (cf Eph 4:14). To have a clear faith, according to the Creed of the Church, is often labelled as fundamentalism. While relativism, i.e. letting oneself be “swept along by any wind of doctrine”, seems to be the only up-to-date way to behave. A dictatorship of relativism is taking shape which recognizes nothing as definite and for the ultimate measure is simply one’s own self and its desires.

We, instead, have another measure: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism.

This is one of those documents that you really need to read for yourself, so click here. I promise you that Andrew Sullivan is saving a copy.

If you are looking for sympathetic commentary on the new pope, his beliefs and where those beliefs came from, you might want to check out this essay by Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel, posted at the Ethics & Public Policy Center’s homepage. Here is his take on the whole pre-modern issue, which notes what I predict is the main theme in the next, more serious, wave of coverage — this pope and his take on the spiritual crisis of modern Europe and, thus, the future of North America:

Benedict XVI has long been concerned that the West risks the possibility of a new Dark Age. What he described in a sermon on the day before his election as a new “dictatorship of relativism” is one dimension of the problem. If there is only “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing that we understand as “the truth,” then on what principled basis is the West to defend its greatest accomplishments: equality before the law, tolerance and civility, religious freedom and the rights of conscience, democratic self-governance? If the only measure of us is us, isn’t the horizon of our aspiration greatly foreshortened? (And if you want to see what that kind of metaphysical and spiritual boredom can do to a once-great civilization, look around Western Europe, where self-absorption and a stubborn resistance to saying that anything is “true” has led a continent to the brink of demographic suicide.)

Weigel notes one event for the media to carve on the calendar as a must — World Youth Day, in Pope Benedict’s homeland. That is 117 days away, according to the event’s press-friendly homepage.

The other must-cover scene has not been put on the calendar yet, but I think it is safe to assume it will come relatively soon. If it does not, then that is a huge story.

Think about it: What will this pope say when he addresses a gathering of European Union leaders? This is the mind behind the Vatican’s harsh critique of the EU’s entire approach to faith, secularism and the post-Christian reality of Europe. Watch for that tense media dance to begin — pronto.

We thought this conclave would center on the Third World. It may end up sending shock waves — if modern Catholicism still has the power to trigger shock waves — through postmodern or pre-Muslim Europe.

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Doing the Druidic hokey pokey

OathODruids.jpgTerry wrote yesterday about “the dreaded passive-voice paraphrase quote.” Today I turn to another vexing problem in journalism: the dreaded one-sentence summary of a complex history.

Kristen E. Holmes of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote an engaging update on Tuesday about the Rev. William Melnyk, a former Episcopal priest who has been involved in Druid liturgies. Melnyk recently informed the Institute on Religion and Democracy (the IRD’s Erik Nelson first brought this story to light) that he had renounced his vows as an Episcopal priest to further pursue his interest in Druidism.

Holmes wrote this about a rite composed by Melnyk’s wife, the Rev. Glyn Ruppe-Melnyk:

The controversy had begun after a feminist liturgy written by Ruppe-Melnyk was posted on the Episcopal Church USA Web site. The liturgy, which had references to “God the Mother,” was characterized by conservative watchdog groups as pagan and Druidic when they discovered it also posted on a Web site created by her husband.


In the first article he wrote on this matter, which mentioned neither of the priests, Ted Olsen of Christianity Today described the rite as pagan and Druidic because of its content and not because it appeared on Melnyk’s on-again, off-again website, OakWyse (it’s temporarily disabled).

Olsen wrote:

“A Women’s Eucharist: A Celebration of the Divine Feminine” is taken almost completely (without attribution) from a rite from Tuatha de Brighid, “a Clan of modern Druids . . . who believe in the interconnectedness of all faiths.” But who cares where it’s from? Look at what it says. Here’s how it begins.

We gather around a low table, covered with a woven cloth or shawl. A candle, a bowl or vase of flowers, a large shallow bowl filled with salted water, a chalice of sweet red wine, a cup of milk mixed with honey, and a plate of raisin cakes are placed on the table.

You might be wondering: What’s with the raisin cakes? Is it just Communion wafers with raisins? No.

The plate of raisin cakes is raised and a woman says,

“Mother God, our ancient sisters called you Queen of Heaven and baked these cakes in your honor in defiance of their brothers and husbands who would not see your feminine face. We offer you these cakes, made with our own hands; filled with the grain of life–scattered and gathered into one loaf, then broken and shared among many. We offer these cakes and enjoy them too. They are rich with the sweetness of fruit, fertile with the ripeness of grain, sweetened with the power of love. May we also be signs of your love and abundance.”

The plate is passed and each woman takes and eats a cake.

So those raisin cakes have a historical reference: Those “brothers and husbands” banned them. Sound familiar? It’s a reference to Hosea 3:1:

And the LORD said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.”

Yes, Olsen and other bloggers subsequently wrote about the priests’ composing and participating in Druidic rites. But this was not a case of guilt by association. It was, and remains, a critique of two priests’ liturgies and actions that challenge the boundaries of orthodox Christian teaching.

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TheSun.jpgBoy, when I wrote a piece for The American Spectator suggesting that the next pope not allow most priests to marry, I had no idea that we’d have a new pope so quickly, or that he would be so very likely to resist most calls to reform. The piece may be the fastest-rotting piece of punditry I have ever produced, though that didn’t stop readers from giving it to me good in Reader Mail.

Andrew Sullivan, the blogger Time tapped to profile Benedict XVI, was beside himself on Tuesday. He called it an “insular and regressive choice” and speculated that the infamous voting-rules change (which would allow a simple majority to prevail after a ridiculously long period of deadlock) had a lot to do with Ratzinger’s election. Sullivan said a lot of other things, but here was my favorite bit:

THE FUNDAMENTALIST TRIUMPH: And so the Catholic church accelerates its turn toward authoritarianism, hostility to modernity, assertion of papal supremacy and quashing of internal debate and dissent. We are back to the nineteenth century. Maybe this is a necessary moment. Maybe pressing this movement to its logical conclusion will clarify things. But those of us who are struggling against what our Church is becoming, and the repressive priorities it is embracing, can only contemplate a form of despair. The Grand Inquisitor, who has essentially run the Church for the last few years, is now the public face. John Paul II will soon be seen as a liberal. The hard right has now cemented its complete control of the Catholic church. And so . . . to prayer. What else do we now have?

And, compared to his mates in the British press, Sullivan took it easy on the Vatican. The Sun, for instance, led with the fact that the current pope was at one point a Hitler Youth.

The somewhat less sensational [And less British -- ed.] Jerusalem Post jumped to his defense. And I quote:

The choice of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope on Tuesday, Jewish religious leaders say, is a sign that the warming ties initiated by Pope John Paul II between the Vatican and Jews will continue.

Oh but try telling that to the American press. I’ve seen the leading edge of the first reports and columns in my fair country, and the mood can politely be described as irate. More to come, or, as Matt Drudge would say, developing . . .

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Pre-smoke: Passive-voice info on Opus Dei

cilice_2004.jpgAt a dinner last night with some journalists and scholars (not in Rome), I wisecracked that we all needed to head down to Jesuit headquarters to watch the conclave on live video.

Someone else immediately quipped: No, we need to go to Opus Dei headquarters.

Bingo! In that spirit of pre-white smoke anticipation, let me note that I have actually been surprised that the MSM have, for the most part, been able to pass up the whole DaVinci Vote angle of the conclave preparation. Imagine all of those reporters having to look for story angles, day after day, after the silencing of the cardinals. You know that many reporters must have thought about playing the Opus Dei card.

Newsday did elect to go there, with reporter Matthew McAllester jumping straight into the sexy parts.

ROME — Sure, Peter Bancroft said, he does use a small, cotton whip to lash his back or buttocks once a week (in private). And yes, most days he wears an abrasive metal chain around his thigh for a couple of hours that causes him discomfort but no lasting damage.

But no, neither he nor anyone in Opus Dei is a pain-loving murderer like Dan Brown’s villain in the enormously successful novel “The Da Vinci Code.”

“As soon as you meet an Opus Dei member,” said Bancroft, sitting in an ornate room in the headquarters of the conservative Catholic lay group and showing no signs of self-mutilation, “it doesn’t take long to figure out that not all Opus Dei members are masochistic monks.”

The inside story, according to Newsday, is the possibility that the next pope will not be as friendly to the intense and mysterious Opus Dei franchise. While most reporters focus on what may happen to the left if a traditionalist is elected, few are focusing on what may happen to the Catholic right, and Opus Dei in particular, if a more European cardinal emerges as pope.

Newsday responds to the mystery with more mystery, using the usual device — anonymous insiders — to make sure readers know how strange this all is.

Critics within the Church usually prefer to speak anonymously about Opus Dei, citing fear of retribution and an unwillingness to make tense relationships worse. “They’re very, very powerful. . . . They’re so powerful it frightens people,” said a priest in Rome who has regular contact with Opus Dei. Critics say the group deliberately sets out to recruit elites — politicians, executives, journalists, lawyers and, of course, senior churchmen. Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls is a member. Two of the 115 cardinals expected to vote in the conclave are members and two top candidates for pope — Joseph Ratzinger and Dionigi Tettamanzi — are said to be close to the group.

Ah, the dreaded passive-voice paraphrase quote! Mistakes were made, said special people in the know.

You just know that some of the TV reporters want to get this on the air, somehow. When is the sweeps season?

UPDATE: Lo and behold, I just opened up my morning email and learned — push technology is a wonder — that the Los Angeles Times has now played the Opus Dei card, complete with a DaVinci Vote reference.

Now with its papal benefactor gone, Opus Dei’s influence under the next pope — and its role in choosing the new pontiff — have become hot topics in a city awash in speculation as the world’s cardinals meet behind the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel to elect John Paul’s successor. . . .

Officially, Opus Dei has stressed that it is above the fray. Its prelate, Bishop Javier Echevarria, has called for prayer, not politicking. He has also pledged the group’s loyalty to whomever the cardinals elect.

Yes, this new story includes more than its share of passive-voice quotations and anonymous sources. We breathlessly await the next work in this opus. You know that, down in that crowd somewhere, the Da Vinci Code people are taking notes and perhaps even filming some background footage. If Tom Hanks shows up on CNN, please let me know.

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Pre-smoke: Was the pope born again?

tower.gifIt’s time for a last glance at some memorable pre-conclave stories as we watch the press try to handle the hours (or perhaps days) of waiting before the white smoke starts another blitz.

One of my favorites reports was by Tony LaRussa in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, telling the story of evangelical talk radio gabber Marty Minto and what happened when he engaged in a bit of on-the-air speculation about the current location of the soul of Pope John Paul II. This was one of those symbolic-detail stories that captures, in a snapshot, a sea change in religious attitudes.

In this case, the focus is on evangelical feelings about the papacy, or at least the work of this pope. Minto learned the hard way.

Following a week’s worth of conversation on his WORD-101.5 FM show that questioned whether Pope John Paul II’s Roman Catholic beliefs could be an impediment to entering heaven, station management pulled the plug. . . .

“I was called into the office after my show Friday and told that I was being let go because I was alienating the listeners,” said Minto, 39, of New Castle, Lawrence County, who previously did talk-radio shows in Albany, N.Y., Phoenix and Denver. Minto also is senior pastor of the 100-member Turning Point Community Church in New Castle.

Minto defended himself by saying that he tried to focus on Catholic beliefs — such as the veneration of Mary and purgatory. He insists that he didn’t lash out at Pope John Paul II, the man.

Then the question of salvation came up. Minto defended the franchise — saying that heaven is for those who have been “born again.” And what about the pope?

“I said the question of whether a person is born again is something personal, something between an individual and the Creator,” Minto said. “I believe it was a legitimate topic to discuss.”

But that punched the button and the station let him go.

There may actually be another interesting story hidden here. I wonder how many conservative Catholics have, these days, started listening to conservative Protestant radio, searching for niche-market news and commentary on the Culture Wars. If that percentage has risen in the past quarter-century, and I predict it has, then that would mean Protestant media leaders need to think about how traditional Catholics see and hear their work.

Meanwhile, anyone interested in more coverage — waves of it — about evangelical attitudes on John Paul and Rome need only surf over to the amazing Christianity Today weblog for several months worth of reading. Click here for the big hat tip, and here.

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Top ten

Mooremoney.jpgThis week, The Washington Times ran a three-part series (links here, here, and here) by religion reporter Julia Duin. The umbrella title for the series was “Faithless: God under fire in the public square,” and the 7,200-word package serves as an interesting look into the world of the Christian and secular activists who are fighting over how much religion should be allowed to shape public policy and public life.

The stories are rich in the kind of details that make religion reporting fun to read. Did you know, for instance, that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State used to be called Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State? Or that the thing that convinced the Rev. Barry Lynn to enter the political was his intuition that laws against abortion were a sign of too much religious influence in American politics? (Though Lynn opines, “I do have very, very traditional religious beliefs.”)

The second story begins with an “emergency meeting” organized by the American Humanist Association, held the weekend before President Bush’s second inauguration, at which 20 organizations were represented. One of the organizations there was the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a “mom and pop” operation that issued a press calling September 11 “the ultimate faith-based initiative” only days after the attacks.

Duin coveys an impresive of compressed history in order to put the current dust-ups into some kind of reasonable context. She paints the ACLU, for instance, as an organization that was founded by left-wing radicals (including the odd Stalin apologist) but trimmed its sails some over time. She looks at some of the successes the non-God squad has had litigating against religion in the past and at the conservative Christian legal response.

Two issues loom large in this series: the Ten Commandments and the fight to control the judiciary. The first story starts in the Supreme courtroom, with the arguments over whether the Ten Commandments and other venerable religious symbols should be allowed on public property. The final installment begins at a church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the 130th stop in the nationwide tour of former Alabama judge Roy Moore’s controversial two-and-a-half ton tribute to the Mosaic Law.

According to Duin, both religious conservatives and secularists are likely to see the country teetering over a precipice. Christians fear the sort of godless moral anarchy that is only a few unfortunate court decisions away (think Roe v. Wade squared). ACLU types fear that the current president’s judicial appointments will lead to a string of victories for the forces of fundamentalism.

Lots of material in this series — I smell a book in the works — but Duin skimps on some of the practical political fallout of either side gaining ground. For instance, I talked to a political consultant friend the other day who said that if the Supreme Court rules against the Ten Commandments, the Republicans will absolutely destroy the Democrats in the midterm elections.

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