Bishop enforces Catholic doctrine; press goes, ‘Wha …?’

A regular reader who is an active Catholic recently sent us a URL to an interesting mainstream news report about religion and, this is the unusual part, even suggested a headline that ALMOST nailed the GetReligion angle in the piece.

So I used the reader’s headline.

However, I think the reader is slightly off and, perhaps, a bit too kind in that headline. I believe the actual journalistic reaction, in most newsrooms, would best — in Internet terms — be described as “WTF.” I could be wrong about that, of course.

So, the big shocking news in this piece from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat is that the local bishop has decided to get on board with the Vatican’s attempts to put the “Catholic” back in Catholic education. Thus, the opening of the story (which should be read while listening, oh, to something like this) offers a gripping account of the current crisis:

The Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese is requiring its 200 schoolteachers to sign an agreement affirming that “modern errors” such as contraception, abortion, homosexual marriage and euthanasia are “matters that gravely offend human dignity.”

The move is an effort by Bishop Robert Vasa to delineate specifically what it means for a Catholic-school teacher — whether Catholic or not — to be a “model of Catholic living” and to adhere to Catholic teaching. That means means abiding by the Ten Commandments, going to church every Sunday and heeding God’s words in thought, deed and intentions, according to a private church document that is an “addendum” to language in the current teachers’ contract.

In his two years as Santa Rosa’s bishop, Vasa has attempted to bring his strict interpretation of church doctrine to a diocese that historically has had a more tolerant approach. But some teachers fear the addendum is an invasion of their private lives and a move toward imposing more rigid Catholic doctrine.

Now, none of this is the least bit shocking for any journalist who has followed events in the American Catholic Church over the past few decades.

Here is the key: This story is not shocking for two well-established reasons.

First, anyone who has ever covered events on the Catholic left (think, oh, a WomenPriests ordination rite or any kind of event linked to the Catholic gay-rights group Dignity) knows that a high percentage of faculty members in many, critics would say most, Catholic schools tend to lean to the cultural and doctrinal left and, as a rule, this includes many non-Catholics who do not respect the ancient teachings of the church.

Second, during the era defined by the work of the Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, key Vatican offices have taken steps to put some degree of orthodoxy back into Catholic schools, including making them safe working environments for pro-Vatican Catholics. At the level of colleges and universities, this trend is perfectly summed up in the controversial, for many Catholic educators, document Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”).

In other words, it is totally missing the point for this Press Democrat story to say that the local bishop is attempting to “bring HIS (emphasis added) strict interpretation of church doctrine” to the diocese, when Vasa is acting in a way consistent with a Vatican-supported effort to defend church teachings. Also, the subjects included in this covenant are all very high-profile issues in the church, rather than obscure points of doctrine. Note, also, that the teachers are protesting an action that is consistent with the right of all private schools — on the cultural left, as well as the right — to define the boundaries of their own voluntary associations.

The bottom line?

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Hey Telegraph editors: Where’s the Catholic left?

One thing is certain, the facts boldly stated in the headline at The Telegraph are enough to grab readers from the get-go.

Gay marriage could signal return to ‘centuries of persecution’, say 1,000 Catholic priests

The story opens with an imposing block of paraphrased and quoted material from the letter, which was signed by some key bishops as well as priests.

The key, however, is the word “some.” More on that later.

More than 1,000 priests have signed a letter voicing alarm that same-sex marriage could threaten religious freedom in a way last seen during “centuries of persecution” of Roman Catholics in England.

In one of the biggest joint letters of its type ever written, they raise fears that their freedom to practise and speak about their faith will be “severely” limited and dismiss Government reassurances as “meaningless”. They even liken David Cameron’s moves to redefine marriage to those of Henry VIII, whose efforts to secure a divorce from Katherine of Aragon triggered centuries of bloody upheaval between church and state.

They claim that, taken in combination with equalities laws and other legal restraints, the Coalition’s plans will prevent Catholics and other Christians who work in schools, charities and other public bodies speaking freely about their beliefs on the meaning of marriage.

Even the freedom to speak from the pulpit could be under threat, they claim. And they fear that Christians who believe in the traditional meaning of marriage would effectively be excluded from some jobs — just as Catholics were barred from many professions from the Reformation until the 19th Century.

Now the key to this story is who signed this document and who did not.

Some of the important facts are clearly stated in the story. The letter — apparently sent to The Daily Telegraph, not to a government office of any kind was signed by 1,054 priests as well as 13 bishops, abbots and “other senior Catholic figures.” In all, these Catholic leaders are said to “account for almost a quarter of all Catholic priests in England and Wales.”

A quarter signed. There’s the key to the whole matter.

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How to bury a link to the Catholic scandal of this age

Anyone who has followed the mainstream media’s coverage of the Catholic Church over the past decade or so knows that the biggest story out there — for perfectly valid reasons, let me stress — has been the latest wave of evidence that some members of the church hierarchy have hidden the sins and crimes of many clergy who have abused thousands of teens and children. These scandals have been drawing waves of coverage since the 1980s, although there are reporters out there who seem to think that this hellish pot of sin, sacrilege and clericism didn’t boil over until the revelations in Boston about a decade ago.

Let me stress, as your GetReligionistas have noted on numerous occasions, that this has been a scandal that has touched both the Catholic left and the right. To be perfectly blunt, quite a few Catholics on both sides of the theological spectrum have been hiding skeletons in their closets. If you have the stomach for it, the most intense, searing take on the scandal can be found in the book “Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church” by the conservative scholar Leon J. Podles.

With that in mind, it is interesting to take a careful look at the recent Associated Press feature marking the death of former Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of Richmond, Va.

What he have here is best described with the term “hagiography,” which one online dictionary defines as:

1: biography of saints or venerated persons

2: idealizing or idolizing biography

How did such a feature make it into global print, in an age in which Catholic leaders have faced — often with justification — withering scrutiny from the mainstream press? Let’s look at one or two chunks of this:

As the 11th bishop to head the Richmond diocese, Sullivan was known as one of the more progressive leaders in the Catholic church. He caused controversy by opening his churches to gays and lesbians, condemning wars in Vietnam and the Middle East and speaking out against the death penalty.

Under Sullivan, women found a greater role in the church as lectors and Eucharistic ministers, and seven of the diocese’s 145 parishes were run by women.

Sullivan also was instrumental in reaching out to minorities and other groups. Before he retired in 2003, the diocese had 24 advisory committees representing youth, women, homosexuals, blacks and senior citizens — all of which he consulted regularly.

The Commission on Sexual Minorities was the first official attempt by a Catholic diocese to reach out to homosexual parishioners when it was established in 1977. While it was not instantly accepted by many in the church, there were more than 40 commissions like it 20 years later. The commission was disbanded shortly after Bishop Francis DiLorenzo took over for Sullivan in 2004.

And further down in the piece, there is this bit of sacramental innovation:

He also helped found the Church of the Holy Apostles in Virginia Beach in 1977, a joint parish of the Catholic and Episcopal dioceses. Co-pastors conducted services at side-by-side altars — one for Catholics, the other for Episcopalians. … Last month, the Richmond diocese said the church could continue to longtime practice of allowing the blended church to remain under one roof, but it ordered clergy to devise a plan to meet in separate rooms for Holy Communion.

Finally, near the end, in the 16th paragraph, there is this nod to the elephant in the sacristy. The placement of this information is interesting, to say the least:

In the wake of the national sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church, Sullivan was chastised by many for not admitting that the Richmond diocese had had priests accused of molesting children in the 1970s and ’80s until after victims came forward. Three priests were ousted from the diocese in the wake of the national Catholic organization adopting new rules for dealing with allegations in 2002.

The “national Catholic organization”? Might that have something to do with the U.S. Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas and the resulting charter that, finally, offered some realistic strategies to force some of the shepherds to stop hiding the wolves who were abusing their spiritual sheep?

Why did the accusations against Sullivan, in this crucial matter, get pushed all the way down to the bottom of this rather long wire-service report?

Just asking. Meanwhile, in the very next paragraph, AP goes right back to the business of its fawning salute to Sullivan, a salute unmarred by the voices of any critics of his work, either here in America or in Rome.

“As a bishop, he took risks to try to create an atmosphere in the church where all literally all could find their place in the Church,” the Rev. Michael Renninger, now a priest at St. Mary Catholic Church in Richmond, told The Virginian-Pilot.

By the way, Catholic readers: Might anyone care to wager a guess where Sullivan went to seminary?

The Sun mourns death of a liberal priest

It’s a question that journalists debate from time to time in major newsrooms: To what degree are obituaries news stories?

Other questions quickly follow this one: To what degree should an obituary cover any controversies or painful elements of a person’s life? To what degree should an obituary be written with the family of the deceased in mind, as opposed to the interests of readers? Are things different if we are talking about the lead obit in the day’s news, the most prominent person being profiled?

One more time: Are we talking about a news story or not?

You can see all of these questions tugging at the editors in The Baltimore Sun‘s obituary describing the death of a young leader in local Catholic social services. The headline is totally normal, with no hints of complications:

Rev. Edward F. McNally, Franciscan Center director

Roman Catholic priest directed outreach center since 2010 for those in need

Yet, in the photo used in the online edition, as opposed to the small photo in the printed newspaper, McNally is shown standing at work in secular business attire, complete with Oxford button-down collar and tie, cellphone on his belt. He is the perfect image of the young urban professional, as opposed to being a Franciscan or even a diocesan priest.

The lede is strangely and carefully stated:

The Rev. Edward F. McNally, a Roman Catholic priest who later became executive director of the Franciscan Center, died Saturday of lymphoma at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The Mount Washington resident was 46.

“Ed had volunteered here when he was a seminarian at St. Mary’s. Afterward, he saw an ad in the paper for executive director of the Franciscan Center and applied,” said Sister Ellen Carr, former interim director of the center and now a member of its board.

So what, precisely, does the lede say?

The bottom line: Was this young man ordained as a priest, before leaving the priesthood and entering another form of service to the church and the larger community? Yet the headline still identifies him as a priest. The story never clearly answers this question, while offering lots of information about his studies in business, the decision to earn a law degree, his work teaching comparative religion, etc., etc. There are lots of hints, but no clarity.

Toward the end of the obituary there is this additional — once again, very carefully worded — information linked to his work at the Franciscan Center.

In a 2010 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Mr. McNally explained how he confronted the mission of the center. “We operate as a community effort. We get donations and help — time, talent and treasure — from parishes, high schools, universities, foundations and individuals,” he said. …

Mr. McNally, who was diagnosed in July 2011 with the cancer that eventually claimed his life, stepped down as the center’s executive director on a medical leave earlier this year.

Mr. McNally offered his last Mass at the time of his mother’s death in 2008. Mr. McNally had not formally resigned the priesthood but was on official leave, said the Rev. Timothy Elmer, chancellor of the Diocese of Syracuse.

So he never officially resigned the priesthood, yet he is “the Rev.” in the headline and “Mr.” in the text of the story. Finally, the story features another significant voice:

“He was vitally interested in social justice issues and was very politically oriented,” said his partner of a year and a half, Jennifer Maurer of Mount Washington, who is a clinical social worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “He was also into fitness and cycling, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to ride 20 or 30 miles at a time,” said Ms. Maurer.

So was this very committed, very political Catholic social activist a priest, or not? Was he married, or not? His ministry, of course, was in Baltimore. What was his status with the local church during his tenure as the leader of a Catholic ministry in this area? What is going on here?

In the end, I know that there are many conservative Catholics in Maryland who are convinced that the Sun, in its news coverage, actively opposes the Catholic faith — period. There are times (click here) when it is tempting to think that.

However, I think it is more accurate to say that the Sun serves as the official public-relations voice of liberal Catholics who live, work and worship in this overwhelmingly secular- and progressive-Catholic region. The goal seems to be to promote and protect the careers and work of Catholics whose views on doctrinal and public issues are acceptable to the newspaper.

Thus, the Sun is not anti-Catholic. It’s increasingly pro-liberal Catholic and, often, this bias is clearly stated. In this case, it’s hard to name the forces that shaped this complex obituary.