All Catholics oppose death penalty and all Baptists favor it?

In the wake of the nation’s first executions since Oklahoma’s botched lethal injection, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has an interesting story on a young Republican concerned about the death penalty:

Late Tuesday, as the clock approached midnight, Marcus Wellons rode to oblivion on a state-inserted needle, his punishment for the rape and murder of a young Cobb County neighbor 24 years ago.

That same day, Marc Hyden, a 30-year-old confirmed conservative Republican from Marietta, hopped a plane for Washington D.C. Today, he will open a booth at the fifth annual gathering of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Hyden is a national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a two-year-old, GOP-based group that carries tea party suspicion of government into a new but highly logical arena:

If you don’t trust your government to deliver a piece of mail to your doorstep, how can you trust it to competently decide who lives and who dies?

To its credit, the Journal-Constitution recognizes that religion plays a role in this debate:

An extensive national survey conducted last year by Barna Group showed that 42 percent of Christian baby-boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, agreed that “government should have the option to execute the worst criminals.”

But among those born between 1980 and 2000, the approval rate dropped to 32 percent among self-identified Christians. Among actively practicing Christian millennials, only 23 percent approved of the death penalty.

Then comes this:

The religious connection is important, especially in terms of Georgia politics. An alliance between Southern Baptists and Catholics has been a large part of the success enjoyed by religious conservatives at the state Capitol when it comes to issues such as gay marriage or abortion.

But the death penalty divides the two denominations. Catholics oppose executions. Southern Baptists do not.

That last sentence assumes a lot. Is it really true that Catholics oppose executions, while Southern Baptists do not? Technically, the answer is probably yes.

From a Pew Research Center primer on religious groups’ official positions on the death penalty:

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NYTimes: Why did two towns produce so many priests?

At least once a year, a major newsroom in the United States produces a big story about the OTHER Catholic crisis in this land, which is the declining number of men entering the priesthood (and women and men entering religious orders, as well). The American priesthood is getting smaller and older.

It is possible to write this story over and over, year after year, covering the same ground and pretending that this is a “news trend.” However, skilled journalists can find new wrinkles within this decades-old story and, thus, do fresh reporting.

That’s good. And that is clearly what The New York Times national desk was going for in an interesting news feature that ran under the headline. “In Two Michigan Villages, a Higher Calling Is Often Heard.”

So what is the new angle? Well, it appears that there are small, intensely Catholic communities that are producing way more than their share of priests. Why is that? What does that look like on the ground?

What really jumped out at me was that the Times team actually — buried near the end of this piece — came close to discussing a really crucial demographics issue linked to this big story. More on that later.

At the heart of this piece are 26-year-old twin brothers, Gary Koenigsknecht and Todd Koenigsknecht, who are about to be ordained as Catholic priests. The story notes that they will be “two of 477 men in the United States expected to be ordained this year.”

They demonstrate that priestly vocations are not evenly distributed by family or geography: they are among six priests in their extended family, and among 22 from their hometown, Fowler, Mich., population 1,224. They officially tie up the leader board with the neighboring village of Westphalia, population 938, which has also produced 22 priests, making for a robust rivalry in both football and Roman collars.

In an era when the number of priests in the United States continues to dwindle — declining by 11 percent in the past decade and crippling the Catholic Church’s ability to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population — this rural patch of Clinton County offers a case study in the science and mystery of the call to priesthood.

With the older generation of priests dying off, it would take three times as many priestly ordinations as is occurring nationwide to maintain the population of 38,600 priests, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The story updates all of the dire statistics, as it should.

But the strongest material in the piece, from my perspective, is the detailed background information — high up in the report — about what Catholic life is like in these parishes. What’s going on here?

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Nuns, strippers and the never-boring Godbeat

Put another one in the “Godbeat sure ain’t boring” file.

I first read about the dispute between a group of Chicago-area nuns and a neighboring strip club in the Chicago Tribune:

A group of nuns is suing to shut down a strip club next to their convent in Stone Park that the sisters say keeps them awake at night.

The Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo Scalabrinians say in the suit that Club Allure has ruined their peace with blinking neon lights and loud thumping music. The nuns say they have witnessed drunken fights and found condoms littering the area.

The suit, filed against the club and the village of Stone Park, states that the club violates a state law against operating adult entertainment within 1,000 feet of a school or place of worship. The club is also near houses, and three neighbors have joined the suit.

“I think most people would find that offensive, to put a strip club next to a home for sisters,” said Peter Breen, attorney for the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that filed the suit on behalf of the nuns.

The Tribune offers a straightforward, non-cheeky account of the conflict, highlighting the nuns’ concerns, the tricky legal issues involved and the strip club’s response — all in less than 450 words.

The paper even provides a link to the lawsuit.

All three sources quoted — one each on behalf of the nuns, the municipality and the strip club — are attorneys. While that is entirely proper and journalistically sound, I found myself wishing I could hear directly from a nun. Or even a stripper.

The Chicago Sun-Times did quote a nun (although I’d rank its overall story below the quality of the Tribune’s):

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Immigration: Its not just Eric Cantor’s problem anymore

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: Sure, if the other man is an idiot. Was Martin Luther King Jr. a terrorist? Was Bin Laden a freedom fighter?

Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Clichés (2012)

Immigration is the issue of the moment in the United States following Rep. Eric Cantor’s primary defeat this week. But the U.S. is not alone in playing host to illegal immigrants and struggling with sharply divided views over what to do about them.

Yet the coverage of the substance of these issues has been rather thin. The press here and abroad has been resorting to stock phrases and cliches to describe the controversies.

But where would newspapers be without cliches? In trouble most likely — for cliches enable authors to communicate ideological assumptions to their readers thus avoiding having to take the time or space to make an argument. European-style advocacy journalism relies on cliches to set the ideological tone of a story. Stock language lets the initiated know how they should approach an issue before they are presented with the facts.

For the party faithful cliches are a virtue. For the rest of us their use in political and social discourse destroys debate, limiting our autonomy of choice.

The language used by some French papers in their coverage of the trial of Father Gérard Riffard illustrates the methodology of cliche newspaper reporting. The language used at the top of the story sets the moral and ideological tone for the newspapers readers. It saves us the trouble and time of thinking through the issues and coming to our own conclusions.

So who is Riffard and what has he done to merit coverage in all the French dailies? The septuagenarian parish priest is on trial for harboring illegal immigrants (the view from the right) or for sheltering asylum seekers (the view from the left) in his rectory.

The classical liberal school of Anglo-American journalism would lay out his story along these schematic lines.

The opening paragraphs would report the who, what, when, where, why and how — Riffard stood trial last week before a court in Saint-Etienne in the Loire facing charges that he refused to obey the orders of the government ministry charged with overseeing refugees and stateless persons (Ofpra) that he desist from providing accommodation in his rectory and parish hall at the Church of Sainte-Claire in Montreynaud to migrants who had entered France unlawfully or who had overstayed their visas.

The article would have a lede sentence that would give the author’s editorial view of the matter, but then lead into the facts. Quotes from the trial would follow — the prosecutor’s denunciation of Riffard followed by the priest’s statement that he would not comply with the law. The potential penalties should he be found guilty would be presented — fines of almost $2000 a day for each day he is in contempt — followed by third-party commentary. Context would be provided that would ask whether the priest’s actions were representative of the views of the Catholic Church and his reasons and motivation would be spelled out. If space was available, the article would close with statements about immigration issues in France.

How have the French papers responded?

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Christians attacked in Iraq: Media finally paying attention

Finally, someone notices that Christians are suffering and dying in the Middle East. With few exceptions, many western secular media have seemed blind to the rising tide of antagonism and outbursts of violence against believers there. It apparently took the naked aggression of jihadists who have swallowed up much of Iraq’s northern sector to get some attention.

Whether it’s in time is another matter.

Holly Williams of CBS Evening News did a brisk but vivid report on Christians in Bartella, near Mosul, where a militia of 600 has organized after the Iraqi army ran off.

Williams says Christians have inhabited the town for almost 2,000 years, and the residents still pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. She deserves some kind of award for even visiting: She ventured to a checkpoint only 50 yards from the front line.

An evocative AP story details the plight of Chaldean Christians in Iraq, interviewing believers from Mosul who have taken refuge in the ancient city of Alqosh:

In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mosly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press, consulting first on the number with his wife by speaking in Chaldean, the ancient language spoken by many residents.

AP writer Diaa Hadid works in historical and cultural details that give us a feel for the long heritage of Christians in a land that is being brutally overrun by Muslim militants. Hadid says that Mosul is the traditional burial site of Jonah, and that Chaldean Christians were trying to celebrate a harvest festival — including a portrait of Pope Francis with white beans on the church floor.

The article distinguishes itself also for its numbers. Documenting population movements is hard in wartime, but Hadid offers some good guesses:

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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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Politico’s long-but-shallow exposé on Hobby Lobby family

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Cue the dramatic music.

Politico has a breathless, 2,200-word profile of the Greens — the Hobby Lobby family — out this week with this sensational headline:

Hobby Lobby aims for Obamacare win, Christian nation

Stop the presses!

In one sense, it’s a long piece seemingly designed to expose the Greens’ desire to promote the Bible as truth. At the same time — despite its length — the report ends up feeling rather shallow in the true depth it provides.

Like a child playing with a water gun on a hot summer day, Politico attempts to cover a lot of territory. But nothing really seems to stick in this game of journalistic hopscotch.

Let’s start at the top (and don’t bother looking for any named sources up high):

The evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby made a fortune selling crafts supplies and made headlines fighting government-mandated birth control coverage. They’re also using their billions to sell the American public on the literal truth of Scripture — through a public school Bible curriculum, a huge museum around the corner from the Smithsonian and public forums on the faith of the Founding Fathers.

The Green family may be best known in secular circles for their lawsuit against Obamacare, a high-stakes — and highly political — case that could undercut the administration’s goal of setting minimum standards for health care coverage. By the end of this month, the Supreme Court will decide if the federal government can force the Greens to include methods of contraception they deem sinful as part of employees’ health insurance.

The pending Hobby Lobby ruling has thrust the Greens into the national spotlight, but the family’s mission is far bigger than a single court case. The Greens are spending hundreds of millions on a quiet but audacious bid to teach a wayward nation to trust, cherish — and heed — the Bible.

They’re building a huge museum dedicated to the Bible a few blocks from the Mall in Washington , with as much public space as the National Museum of American History. They’ve financed a lavish traveling exhibit as well, complete with a re-created Holy Land cave, a “Noah’s Ark experience” for kids and animatronic characters such as William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for daring to translate the New Testament into English.

The Greens are sponsoring scholarly study of the Bible and hosting forums such as a recent panel on faith’s role in shaping early America, which they hope to package for national broadcast.

Most provocatively, they’ve funded a multimillion-dollar effort to write a Bible curriculum they hope to place in public schools nationwide. It will debut next fall as an elective in Mustang High School, a few miles from Hobby Lobby’s Oklahoma City headquarters.

I previously critiqued a one-sided Associated Press report on the Mustang Bible elective. Politico never gets around to identifying the source or explaining the specifics on the “multimillion-dollar effort.”

Roughly 600 words into the story, the first named source — besides a reference to a Steve Green quote last spring — shows up. That source is a critic:

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Jihadists in Iraq: NYTimes reporting gets it right

After calling out the New York Times for misreporting several stories, I’m tempted to say the newspaper got religion in one of its latest reports on the collapse of Iraq under the blows of Islamic militants.

The report is not flawless, as we’ll see. But it gets maybe a silver medal.

It opens with the blend of faith and ferocity we’ve already come to expect from ISIS, the militant army known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria:

ERBIL, Iraq — When Islamic militants rampaged through the Iraqi city of Mosul last week, robbing banks of hundreds of millions of dollars, opening the gates of prisons and burning army vehicles, some residents greeted them as if they were liberators and threw rocks at retreating Iraqi soldiers.

It took only two days, though, for the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to issue edicts laying out the harsh terms of Islamic law under which they would govern, and singling out some police officers and government workers for summary execution.

For this story, the Times uses four reporters in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Washington, D.C. Much of it is the keen analysis and expert sourcing at which the newspaper excels. It includes a timeline of attacks that could be attributed to ISIS or its predecessor, the ISI — a sobering chart if true, because it reaches back a decade.

On the ground, via experts and through other media, the Times reports the ruthless nature of ISIS:

Perhaps the best indication of how the group sees itself these days is a recent promotional video called “The Rattling of the Sabers.”

The hourlong video is a slickly produced, hyperviolent propaganda piece that idolizes the group’s fighters as they work for two of their main goals: founding an Islamic state and slaughtering their enemies, mostly the Iraqi security forces and Shiites.

Some scenes show bearded, armed fighters from around the Arab world renouncing their home countries and shredding their passports. Other scenes show them preaching at mosques and soliciting pledges of allegiance to Mr. Baghdadi. Still other scenes emphasize attacks. Its fighters carry out drive-by shootings against men they accuse of being in the Iraqi army, in some cases chasing them through fields before grabbing and executing them.

No excuses for the downtrodden here. No misdirection about the need to solve the “problem” of Israeli settlements or the “treatment” of Palestinians. The focus is on the fighters, what they’re doing, what drives them and what they want.

And the religious nature of the group has been plain for years as well:

“What we see in Iraq today is in many ways a culmination of what the I.S.I. has been trying to accomplish since its founding in 2006,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS.

I guess it took a secular think-tanker to convince the Times that more than politics or ethnic differences were at work in Middle Eastern conflicts. The newspaper also calls ISIS a “Sunni extremist group” that wants a caliphate, which it defines as “an Islamic religious state.” And more:

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