‘Moderate’ cardinal does some brash media criticism

As always, the annual March For Life has unleashed waves of debate and criticism about the news coverage, or lack of coverage, of this event.

In this case, one of the most interesting quotes this week came from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and it related to the ongoing interest in what Pope Francis meant when he offered that famous — all together now — quotation that said:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. … The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

And, of course, he also said that the church:

“… cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. … We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

In the mainstream press, this has evolved into a sound bite in which the pope says Catholics are “obsessed” with abortion and it’s time for Catholics to stop marching, stop counseling at abortion facilities, stop teaching their doctrines to their children in Catholic schools, etc., etc.

Enter Cardinal O’Malley, who is usually seen as one of the more moderate or even progressive voices at the top of the American Catholic hierarchy. He certainly has his share of conservative Catholic critics. Also recall that, as the leader of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Boston prelate also delivered the pre-march homily that annually serves as a kind of state of the union address for the pro-life movement.

Thus, it is interesting that O’Malley, in an interview with The Boston Herald, offered this bit of media criticism about mainstream news coverage of Pope Francis and, in particular, that “obsessed” quotation:

The normal Catholic in the parish might hear a sermon on abortion once a year. They’ll never hear a sermon on homosexuality or gay marriage. They’ll never hear a sermon about contraception. But if you look at the New York Times, in the course of a week, there will be 20 articles on those topics. So who is obsessed?

Yes, there is more:

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Concerning that Milbank column and the WPost news report

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First of all, to those who have written or tweeted on this: Yes, your GetReligionistas saw the Dana Milbank column in The Washington Post, the one in which he goes all Pat Robertson on the March For Life faithful. You know, like this:

James Dobson’s Focus on the Family asked Christians to pray for rain to fall on Barack Obama in 2008 when he accepted the presidential nomination. Various religious conservatives have said that hurricanes, earthquakes and other meteorological phenomena were divine punishment of wayward humans.

So what are we to make of Wednesday’s March for Life on the Mall in Washington? The temperature was 12 degrees at the start of the annual antiabortion event, the wind chill below zero, and participants were trudging about in snow and ice from the previous day’s storm. …

(If) there are weather gods, they may have been making a pointed comment about a movement that has become frozen in time.

The problem, of course, is that Milbank is a full-time liberal columnist and he is on the Post payroll to voice his opinions, not to cover the news. GetReligion rarely focuses on opinion pieces. If guess one could also argue that there is another problem linked to this reality, which is that the roster of full-time columnists on the payrolls (as opposed occasional columnists from think tanks and/or syndicated columnists) in the news-and-editorial departments of the Post contains zero cultural conservatives. Have I missed someone?

The other problem is that the non-satirical point in this opinion column — that the movement to oppose abortion on demand has become “frozen in time” — doesn’t mesh very well with the actual sidewalk-level reporting in the Post about this year’s events. As the main report noted, near the top:

The world’s largest anti­abortion event, held on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, grows younger each year. The Mall between Seventh Street and the Washington Monument was full for a few hours with youth groups from across the eastern half of the country.

Abortion has been legal in the United States for these young people’s entire lives, and the movement’s leaders say the latest generation of activists is creating a more upbeat culture. Graphic images of fetuses and angry sermons shouted through bullhorns were rare Wednesday. Instead, the Mall was filled with people holding placards with such slogans as “We are the pro-life generation” and large images of a smiling Pope Francis. Speakers pumped out dance music.

Although most marchers are Catholic, particularly members of high school and college groups from parochial schools and Catholic universities, organizers closed the event with a well-known non-Catholic — evangelical leader James Dobson, who appeared with his adopted son.

The Post team did, as mentioned in an earlier post, miss crucial content related to the tone and content of the march when it failed to cover the pre-event homily by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a major voice in the middle of the Catholic leadership spectrum at the start of the Pope Francis era. The advance text of that “state of the union” address to the pro-life movement can be found right here.

But the transition at the front of the march was covered in other ways, including crucial material in that calm and newsy event story on page A2. For example:

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Is pro-life state of the union homily a story? In Francis era?

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As I type this with my cold fingers (starting at about 12:30 p.m.), the sun is out here in Washington, D.C., but the temperature is still a frosty 14 degrees. Suffice it to say it has been a cold morning after a night of wild weather here in Beltway land.

My office in the District’s Northeast quadrant is only about a 10 minute walk from the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, because I’ve been in class all morning, I have no idea how many people were able to make it into the city for the annual March For Life. I imagine that the crowd is smaller than the usual 300,000 or so, in part because the throngs were much smaller than normal last night and early this morning in Union Station (through which I commute).

There will be the usual, and valid, debates about whether the mainstream media did an adequate job of covering the march. If the march was smaller than normal, will that be seen as a fact of the weather or the political climate? Inquiring minds will want to know.

I do know, however, that there was a major story in Washington last night linked to this event. At least, the pre-march Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception should have been a big story for the mainstream press if reporters and editors are serious about the effect of Pope Francis on the pro-life movement and, specifically, how the Catholic Church expresses its teachings about the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.

Why? The speaker at last night’s Mass was Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Why does that matter so much? More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile here is a sample of the Washington Post story on the pre-march activities:

The March for Life draws mainly high school and college youth groups, many from Catholic schools, and buses from around the country had already poured out thousands who attended a Mass on Tuesday night at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington. Through the night, priests there heard confessions as people held a vigil in the Crypt Chapel of the huge basilica.

Thousands of abortion opponents, many from outside the region, were in Catholic Masses on Wednesday morning, praying, receiving confession and listening to music before heading for the Mall, where a concert and rally are scheduled to run from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Seventh Street. Marchers, as they do each year, will head up Capitol Hill at 1 p.m. to the Supreme Court, where they hold a prayer vigil and are always met by a handful of abortion rights supporters and inevitable debate and discussion. …

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of the country’s best-known church leaders — he is also Boston’s archbishop and an adviser to Pope Francis — spoke at the Tuesday night Mass. And movement leaders noted that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had rejiggered the schedule of the party’s winter meeting Wednesday morning to allow delegates to attend the march.

First things first. What, pray tell, does it mean for these believers to be “receiving confession” before the march? Penitents will “receive absolution,” but they do not “receive confession.” Might this be a rather obvious typo that made it into the story? Surely this was supposed to have said that these Catholics “received Communion” in numerous settings before the march? Just asking.

Here’s my other question: So Cardinal O’Malley was there, but what did he SAY in this sermon at this highly symbolic Mass? After all, the sermon was on television (which was convenient on such a cold and snowy night). Did editors at the Post actually assign coverage of the event itself?

Now, let’s compare the Post language and factual information about this event with that of veteran Catholic-beat scribe Rocco Palmo at the Whispers in the Loggia website. This is long, but essential:

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‘God’s representative on Earth to Catholics’

From time to time, readers send notes to your GetReligionistas in which they ask us to pass journalistic judgments on whether this or that mainstream newsroom has successfully split a fine theological hair.

In this case, several Catholics were either offended or bemused by an interesting choice of words in a recent lede at The Washington Post.

Yes, this is another papal horse race news feature. Here’s the top:

When someone becomes pope — God’s representative on Earth to Catholics — he dons all white, takes the title “his holiness” and is greeted even by top cardinals with a kiss of his ring. Can a cardinal who pals around with Stephen Colbert fill such a vaunted role? How about one with a style so simple that he serves tuna sandwiches and chips to even his most important guests?

Yet these two men — Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — are being talked about as contenders for the papacy, marking the first time an American has ever been seriously considered.

The phrase that jumped out at readers, of course, was “God’s representative on Earth to Catholics.”

As I see it, there are two questions here. The first concerns “God’s representative on Earth” and the second is connected to that interesting addition at the end, which is “to Catholics.”

First, one of the formal titles attached to the papacy is that the pope is said to serve as Vicarius Christi, the vicar of Christ. That’s pretty explicit, especially if one looks up the meaning of the term “vicar,” as it is used by Catholics.

Roman Catholic Church

* an ecclesiastic representing the pope or a bishop. …

* a person who is authorized to perform the functions of another; deputy: God’s vicar on earth.

So, seeing as how Trinitarian Christians believe that Jesus Christ is part of the Holy Trinity, it is pretty easy to accept the paraphrase that the “vicar of Christ” could also be called “God’s representative on Earth.” Of course, a wide variety of people in various flocks would want to debate the meaning of the term “representative” and whether this term is singular.

But let’s move on.

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