Quote of the year on Catholics and American politics

I don’t know how you feel about anonymous quotes, but, as a rule, I am opposed to them.

However, when faced with an important anonymous quote, one of the first questions I always ask as a journalist is, “Who is the author of the piece and does this person have the kind of authority and access that makes this anonymous quotation believable”?

In this case, the author of the following Our Sunday Visitor column is a person who every religion-beat reporter in her or his right mind just knows has the kind of access to land this killer quote. We are, you see, talking about Russell Shaw, author of one of the essential books for those who work the religion-news beat: “Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church.”

What does Shaw know about serious discussions that go on behind closed doors when the U.S. Catholic bishops get together? How much does he know about the delicate dance that goes on in the halls of Catholic power, when it comes to dealing with politicians and with reporters? Scan this short biography and tell me. The key is the nearly two decades as a press spokesman and information director for the American bishops.

Several years ago, I used this anecdote to capture some of the lessons Shaw learned about religion news and the Catholic hierarchy. This guy knows things. He also knows what he cannot know.

If you want to cause trouble for American bishops, stick them in a vise between Rome and the armies of dissenters employed on Catholic campuses.

But the bishops had to vote on Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”). After all, they had been arguing about this papal document throughout the 1990s, trying to square the doctrinal vision of Pope John Paul II with their American reality. Rome said their first response was too weak, when it came to insisting that Catholic schools remain openly Catholic. Finally, the bishops approved a tougher document on a 223-to-31 vote.

Soon after that 1999 showdown, someone “with a good reason for wanting to know” emailed a simple question to Russell Shaw of the United States Catholic Conference. Who voted against the statement?

“There was no way to know. In fact, the Vatican doesn’t know — for sure — who those 31 bishops where,” said Shaw, discussing one of the many mysteries in his book. …

“The secret ballots were destroyed,” he noted. “These days the voting process is even more secret, since the bishops just push a button and they’ve voted. Even if you wanted to know how your bishop voted, or you wanted the Vatican to know how your bishop voted, there’s no way to do that.”

Professionals have learned to read between the lines of debates held in the open sessions that the U.S. bishops choose to schedule. Outside those doors, insiders talk and spread rumors. Some bishops spin the press and others, usually those sending messages to Rome, hold press conferences, publish editorials or preach sermons. But many of the crucial facts remain cloaked in secrecy.

With all of that in mind, please scan the list – click here – of the Americans who are currently cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church.

Then read this recent offering by Shaw, which contains the anonymous quote mentioned at the top of this post. I offer this as part of our ongoing post-2012 election discussions here at GetReligion about why it is unwise for journalists to keep pinning current-day political labels on the foreheads of people whose lives are defined by centuries of religious doctrines.

So here is the soundbite that I think might be the religion-beat quote of the year.

The cardinal looked grim. “This is the situation now,” he said. “One political party is dangerous and the other is stupid.”

Since that was said in a private chat, it wouldn’t be fair for me to name the speaker. But his comment expresses sentiments that probably are widely shared in the American hierarchy today, as indeed they’re shared widely by many Americans. Bipartisan disgust with politics is a sorry byproduct of our recent, toxic election campaign. If the country should actually topple over the infamous fiscal cliff, plenty of people would suppose both parties gave it a shove.

The cardinal’s words also have considerable relevance for the Church, underlining something that’s now more clear than ever. While the Church is obliged to take both deeply flawed political coalitions as facts, it has no natural home in either. No cause for smugness here, though. Before lecturing the parties, the Church needs to face up to internal problems of its own, which requires recognizing what those problems are.

Yes, some of the paragraphs that follow in his column are linked to familiar patterns about the various kinds of “Catholic voters” and how the pronouncements of bishops inspire some of them, primarily those who embrace Confession and other Sacraments, and infuriate many others, especially cultural Catholics who go to Mass one or two times a year, if that. This is old terrain here at GetReligion.

The reason I think Shaw’s column should matter to informed reporters is that he digs into this subject — Catholic life beyond normal political labels — deep enough to end up in a totally logical place, yet a place that few politically-obsessed reporters would end up.

Where is that? Pulpits.

At their fall assembly in November, the bishops approved a document on preaching (.pdf) that makes the familiar point that a typical congregation today includes a lot of people who are “inadequately catechized.” Here is a delicate way of saying even many who go to Mass don’t have a clear notion of what the Church teaches and don’t see how it applies to them. That has deeply negative implications for political behavior and nearly everything else.

If Catholic teaching matters, this needs to change. The bishops should give early attention to a massive, continuing and intellectually serious program — one not directly tied to politics and the election cycle — to educate Catholics in the doctrine of their Church, including social doctrine and doctrine on human life and marriage. Isolated statements in the face of election year passions aren’t enough.

Homilies should be a part of this new effort but only part.

Read it all.

I mean, read all of Shaw’s column or read all of the U.S. Catholic bishops document on preaching. Take your pick or read both. There’s news in there, news that is hard to label.

Pod people: Digging for old news on ‘Nones’

Friends and neighbors, the whole media world continues to buzz with news (me too, of course) about the “Nones,” that growing coalition of religiously unaffiliated voters that showed up big time in that recent survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

This was an important survey, don’t get me wrong. It was also a survey that was packed with interesting angles — many of which get dissected in some depth in this week’s GetReligion podcast — so click here to go listen to that!

One one level, the whole Nones thing isn’t that big of a change in the landscape of American religious practice. The action, it seems, is taking place on the left-to-secular side of things. The bottom line: Lots of people who used to describe the state of their souls by saying things like, “I was raised Southern Baptist (Catholic, Mormon, Episcopal, United Methodist, etc.), but I don’t really go to church much, ’cause I really don’t belief most of that stuff anymore” are now being more honest and saying, “I have no religious affiliation at all” (or less wonky words to that effect).

Is this a new trend? Yes and no.

Four years ago, scholar John Green of the University of Akron, and the Pew Forum team, spoke to a Media Project seminar for journalists from around the world — focusing on religion in the 2008 election. He wrote all kinds of data on the board, but what it came down to was this. People who truly practice their faith make up about 20 percent of the population. People who are religiously unaffiliated (including the slowly rising camp of atheists/agnostics) have been around 10 percent of the population, but their ranks are rising toward 20 percent.

In the middle, the territory I have always called “Oprah America,” are lots of mushy believers who have little institutional commitment to practicing a specific faith. They come and go and their beliefs blow with the cultural winds. What’s the big news? That percentage is down from about 70 percent to 60 percent — because lots of “Nones” are hitting the exit doors.

That’s the news: There is a growing candor on the religious/secular left.

The other angle that fascinated me, since it’s election crunch time, is that this whole “Nones” coalition — secular, plus the spiritual-but-not-religious folks — has become the largest religion-related group in the modern Democratic Party, larger than African-American Protestants, liberal Catholics, liberal white Protestants, etc., etc. What unites this crowd? Well, to be blunt, what unites them is the Sexual Revolution and their opposition to cultural traditionalists.

The more I thought about that, the more I had a nagging sense of deja vu. Where had I heard this before?

Well, join me in this flashback to 2004, via one of my old Scripps Howard News Service columns. Here’s a major chunk of two of that:

Any Top 10 list of slogans for abortion-rights signs would include “Curb your dogma” and “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” … George W. Bush will receive few votes from these voters. They’re not fond of Pope John Paul II, Jerry Falwell and other conservative religious leaders, either.

Political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce call them “anti-fundamentalist voters” and their rise has been a crucial — yet untold — story in U.S. politics. Many are true secularists, such as atheists, agnostics and those who answer “none” when asked to pick a faith. Others think of themselves as progressive believers. The tie that binds is their disgust for Christian conservatives.

“This trend represents a big change, because 40 or 50 years ago all the divisive religious issues in American politics rotated around the Catholics. People argued about money for Catholic schools or whether the Vatican was trying to control American politics,” said Bolce, who, with De Maio, teaches at Baruch College in the City University of New York. “That remains a concern for some people. But today, they worry about all those fundamentalists and evangelicals. That’s where the real animus is.”

In fact, Bolce and De Maio argue that historians must dig back to the bitter pre-Great Depression battles rooted in ethnic and religious prejudices — battles about immigration, public education, prohibition and “blue laws” — to find a time when voting patterns were influenced to the same degree by antipathy toward a specific religious group.

Where was this data coming from?

Bolce, an Episcopalian, and De Maio, a Roman Catholic, have focused much of their work on the “thermometer scale” used in the 2000 American National Election Study and those that preceded it. Low temperatures indicate distrust or hatred while high numbers show trust and respect. Thus, “anti-fundamentalist voters” are those who gave fundamentalists a rating of 25 degrees or colder. By contrast, the rating “strong liberals” gave to “strong conservatives” was a moderate 47 degrees.

Yet 89 percent of white delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention qualified as “anti-fundamentalist voters,” along with 57 percent of Jewish voters, 51 percent of “moral liberals,” 48 percent of school-prayer opponents, 44 percent of secularists and 31 percent of “pro-choice” voters. In 1992, 53 percent of those white Democratic delegates gave Christian fundamentalists a thermometer rating of zero. …

What about the prejudices of the fundamentalists? Their average thermometer rating toward Catholics was a friendly 62 degrees, toward blacks 66 degrees and Jews 68 degrees.

How did the press handle this trend, back in 2000 or thereabouts?

Surprise! The elite, mainstream press ignored it. Between 1990 and 2000, Bolce and De Maio found that the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post published 929 stories about the political clout of conservative Christians and 59 about that of secularists and religious liberals. They checked the major television newscasts between 2000 and 2004 and found zero stories on the political rise of the, well, “Nones” and the religious left.

So are the “Nones” new? Not really.

So what now? Someone should interview pollsters in Democratic Party offices. That’s where reporters will find lots and lots of detailed info about this rising force in American politics.

Enjoy the podcast.


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