NYTimes mostly ‘gets it’ on German schools and Islam

A few days ago, George Conger took to this space to “bury” The New York Times for suddenly noticing the rise of Calvinism in unlikely Protestant venues, such as (Southern) Baptist churches.

Today, I’d like to congratulate the Times for, mostly, “getting it” when it comes to Germany’s public schools and religious instruction, in this case about Islam. Here’s the top of that report:

FRANKFURT – For the first time, German public schools are offering classes in Islam to primary school students using state-trained teachers and specially written textbooks, as officials try to better integrate the nation’s large Muslim minority and counter the growing influence of radical religious thinking.

The classes offered in Hesse State are part of a growing consensus that Germany, after decades of neglect, should do more to acknowledge and serve its Muslim population if it is to foster social harmony, overcome its aging demographics and head off a potential domestic security threat.

The need, many here say, is ever more urgent. According to German security officials and widespread reports in the German news media, this past semester at least two young Germans in Hesse — one thought to be just 16 — were killed in Syria after heeding the call for jihad and apparently being recruited by hard-line Salafist preachers in Frankfurt.

This is, in my opinion, Times reporting just about at its best: a crisp, clean lede, and a close-to-the-top explanation of what it means.

Granted, it’s a bit late, I would suggest, in terms of Germany’s government, since questions about assimilation of “guest workers” from predominantly Muslim nations, beginning with Turkey, has been an issue for decades. But better (very) late than never, one supposes.

There’s also a bit of explanation on how “religious instruction” has come to be in “public” (i.e., state-sponsored) schools, a concept that might be a tad jarring in the U.S. of A., where even bringing candy canes to class can get a grade-schooler in trouble. Read on.

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Der Spiegel and the cutting question of circumcision

 The issue of circumcision has returned to Germany’s newspapers — and the manner in which the controversy is being discussed suggests that while the press is aware of the issues of personal autonomy generated by state intervention into the private sphere, the religious liberty (or perhaps the religious sensibility) issue is missing from the story.

The English-language section of Der Spiegel ran a news analysis story on 27 Sept 2013 entitled “Cutting Controversy: German Court Sets New Circumcision Rules”. It also ran a story in the German-language Panorama section entitled: “Kinder müssen vorher aufgeklärt werden” that reported a court in Hamm had ruled that parents and doctors must first discuss the procedure with a boy before he is circumcised.

The issue of circumcision of boys in Germany carries with it the baggage of the Nazi era and is fraught with social, cultural and religious issues. The issue attracted international prominence in 2012 when a Cologne court ruled that religious circumcision of boys constituted “bodily harm”. Der Spiegel noted that court held that as a matter of law:
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Der Spiegel: Never let a good @Pontifex go to waste

The clear differences in the style of Pope Francis as opposed to his predecessors, both as Bishop of Rome and in his former position as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, have electrified the world media. Here, they exclaim, is a clergyperson who is “walking the talk” about living to serve others.

Few places seem to relish this new approach more than Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly issued forth from Hamburg, in the mostly-Protestant north of the country. On Sep. 14, in an article now translated into English, the magazine declares:

Last week Rudolf Voderholzer, 54, the bishop of the Bavarian city of Regensburg and one of Germany’s younger church leaders, was taken to task at the Vatican by the pope himself. In an admonishment to the German bishop and others attending a seminar for new bishops in Rome, Francis said: “Be close to the people and live as you preach. Always be with your flock, do not succumb to careerism and ask yourselves whether you are truly living as you preach.”

Now, there’s nothing in the official text of the speech to suggest a direct attack on Voderholzer or anyone else. In fact, the official text doesn’t even contain the exact words Der Spiegel is quoting here, though the English Spiegel text is a translation from the German; there might have been some modification in the process.

Regardless of translation, the current pope’s emphasis on austere and authentic living is clear, and it gives Der Spiegel a chance to bash both the German Catholic hierarchy and Francis’ predecessor, who just happens to be German as well:

“This is a new message for German princes of the church. Many of them have long cultivated a lifestyle oriented toward strict dogmas, prestige and a career within the church, much like former Pope Benedict XVI. But now that his successor arrives at meetings in an old car, there has been a fundamental shift. Loyalty to the pope is being completely redefined, and not just in Regensburg, where Voderholzer’s predecessor Gerhard Ludwig Müller, a fervent devotee of former Pope Benedict, alienated many Roman Catholics.”

After repeating the much-told bit about Pope Francis’ eschewing of the papal apartments for more modest quarters, Der Spiegel again hones in on national Catholic officials:

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German cardinal found guilty of being pro-natalist

One of the most common fallacies of our age is the assumption that simply because we prefer a certain set of social policies they must therefore be compatible.

For example, I like donuts and wish they were free. But I also like the people who make the donuts and want them to be able to make a living wage. The only way my two desires can become compatible is if there is a third-party who intervenes, say, by paying the bakers to give me free crullers.

But as economists will tell you, there is no free lunch (or free donuts). That’s why we don’t like economists. We don’t like to be told that we can’t have everything we want, and that we either have to make tradeoffs or give up some of our desires.

This is also the reason that we don’t like certain religious leaders. They too have a tendency to point out when our desires are incompatible. Even worse, they have the audacity to tell us which desire we — both as individuals and society — should put first.

There exists an entire subgenre of religious journalism dedicated solely to pointing out when religious leaders tell certain groups which desires they should prefer. Sometimes the media approves, such as when the pope tells us we should give preference to the poor over the wealthy. But most of the time, journalists are either annoyed or amused that some clergyman (and they are almost always a man) is trying to tell us that we can’t have it all.

Take, for example, a recent article that ran in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph and was distributed by Canada’s National Post Wire Services, titled, “Cardinal says German women should stay home and have ‘three or four children’ to avoid need for immigrants.”

Although the headline is both factual and neutral, it gives the impression the Catholic leader was asked, “So, what do you think about German women?” and answered that they need to get busy making babies. But the context is much more interesting:

German women should be encouraged to “stay at home and bring three or four children into the world,” rather than relying on immigration to solve the country’s demographic crisis, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cologne has declared.

Cardinal Joachim Meisner compared Angela Merkel’s government’s family policies to Communist East Germany, where, he said, women who stayed at home were considered “demented”.

Germany, which has the lowest birth rate in Europe, is seeking more workers from crisis-hit countries, including Spain, to solve its shortage of skilled labour.

In unusually direct criticism of the chancellor, Cardinal Meisner said: “Where are women really publicly encouraged to stay at home and bring three or four children into the world? This is what we should do, and not — as Mrs Merkel does now — simply present immigration as the solution to our demographic problem.”

So Germany has a demographic crisis (which creates an ongoing economic crisis) but the country’s government also, at least according to Cardinal Meisner, has policies that encourage women to work rather than solving the demography problem by having more children.

Germany’s solution is similar to my donut problem: In order to get both preferences, a third-party has to sacrifice. As Cardinal Meisner implies, the third-party in this case is Spain and Portugal.

Instead of having babies of their own, Germany’s plan is to import them when they reach working age. As a representative of a transnational organization with strong pro-natalist leanings, Cardinal Meisner feels an obligation to note that producing the source material for future German journalists and archbishops is an important a job that shouldn’t be outsourced.

This is a legitimate disagreement about policy preferences and could have been used as a starting point for a discussion on how to resolve Germany’s demographic crisis. But instead, the Telegraph uses Cardinal Meisner’s statement as a proxy for pointing out that the Catholic Church’s habit of telling people what they should do is out of touch with the times we live in:

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Der Spiegel really doesn’t like Catholic Bishops

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A European magazine has written a hit piece on the Catholic Church and the clergy abuse scandal that is unfair, incomplete and one-sided … Sound familiar?

The latest installment comes courtesy of Der Spiegel. In an English-language piece entitled “German Catholic Church Cancels Inquiry” published on 9 Jan 2013, the mass circulation news weekly takes a stick to the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz, the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference, over the cancellation of a study it had begun on the clergy abuse scandal.

The German bishops could well paraphrase Sally Fields, “You don’t like me, you really don’t like me!”

Here is the lede:

It was a major promise after a major disaster: In summer 2011, the Catholic Church in Germany pledged full transparency. One year earlier, an abuse scandal had shaken the country’s faithful, as an increasing number of cases surfaced in which priests had sexually abused children and then hidden behind a wall of silence.

The Lower Saxony Criminological Research Institute (KFN) was given the job of investigating the cases in 2011. The personnel files from churches in all 27 dioceses were to be examined for cases of abuse in an attempt to win back some of the Church’s depleted credibility.

But now the Church has called off the study, citing a breakdown in trust. “The relationship of mutual trust between the bishops and the head of the institute has been destroyed,” said the Bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, on Wednesday morning.

How’s that for telegraphing your editorial opinions. Der Spiegel opens the story with a slippery trick — it defines the terms of the argument and then savages its opponent for not meeting those terms. The lede all but accuses the church of hypocrisy.  “They promised transparency but have cancelled the investigation.”

It makes an assertion the church is a shallow self-serving institution stating the abuse study was undertaken as a public relations stunt, an “attempt to win back some of the Church’s depleted credibility.” Der Spiegel may well think so, but should not it have cited a statement to this effect by the church, or even from one of its detractors?

Following the bishop’s explanation as to why the study was cancelled — the church did not trust Prof. Christian Pfeiffer of the KFN — Der Spiegel offers Pfeiffer space to air his complaints about the bishops lack of cooperation. A politician is then given a platform to criticize the church for cancelling the study, followed by an old quote from a Church spokesman stating:

Before the inquiry was called off, the spokesman for the German Bishops’ Conference, Matthias Kopp, had insisted that the project should continue regardless of the outcome of the conflict: “Should cooperation with the KFN fall through, there would be a continuation of the project with another partner,” he said.

The story then peters out with a few more quotes from Pfeiffer and a gratuitous editorial aside followed by a spiteful jab at Bishop Ackermann.

The project was of incalculable importance to the Catholic Church, because the loss of confidence after the abuse scandal was enormous. The cancellation of the inquiry throws into high relief Bishop Ackermann’s statement from 2011: “We also want the truth, which may still lie hidden in decades-old files, to be uncovered.”

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Pod people: Don’t mention the war!

“Don’t mention the war!” is the catch phrase from “The Germans” episode of the British television series Fawlty Towers. I thought of this episode and John Cleese when I prepared a story for GetReligion on the New York Times‘ and Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the Bundestag’s vote to protect the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims by forbidding courts to ban the circumcision of infant boys.

The two Times were unable to get past the war in their reporting on this story, and ultimately missed the real story picked up by NBC, which was that German objections to circumcision were not crypto-Nazi prejudices but a consequence of the secularization of German society.

In “The Germans” episode, John Cleese, playing a concussed and bandaged Basil Fawlty, insults a party of German tourists dining at his hotel. Even though he warns his assistant Polly, “don’t mention the War”, he proceeds to do so with each line taking on a sharper tone. The comedy reaches its zenith when Basil gives an impression of Adolf Hitler and goose-steps round the hotel.

The humor in this episode comes from the interplay between the slightly mad Basil Fawlty’s attempts at maintaining  bourgeois respectability and his German jokes. The audience also comes to this episode with a common cultural understanding that the Second World War was the fault of the Germans. However, being British, it is impolite to mention it.

This tone of anti-German animus was the topic of this week’s Crossroads podcast with host Todd Wilken, along with a quick discussion of British reporting on the appointment of Tim Scott as South Carolina’s first African-American senator — but the meat of our conversation was on the dastardly Hun.

Germans, like Catholics, remain one of the few “safe” topics of Anglo-American humor, and I find national stereotyping amusing. But when ethnic and national stereotypes blind reporters to the true issues at play, it is a problem for journalism.

My argument in this week’s Issues, Etc., show was that mentioning the war, e.g., alluding the Nazi past when referring to a court ban on circumcision, clouded the issues. As NBC News’ story pointed out, the objections to circumcision arose from the de-Christianized culture of Germany that ascribed no religious significance to the practice, and as such, viewed circumcision as a barbaric cultural practice that should not be permitted in an enlightened European state.

Ignorance of faith, not anti-Semitism, lay behind the circumcision ban. Well, that is what I hoped to have said. Listen — and let me know what you think.

If I blow this gig, could I try my hand at radio?

Scratch a German, find a Nazi, the New York Times reports

The end of term is just round the corner with Christmas less than two weeks away. But before the semester ends we have to sit our exams. You have 45 minutes to compare and contrast these stories from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and NBC on Wednesday’s vote in the German Bundestag on circumcision. Which story “gets religion”?

Each outfit ran original stories on this topic and all touched upon religious element in the stories — but I will give you a hint as to the answer I am seeking and say NBC. The New York Times‘ suggestion that Germans are crypto-Nazis will not receive full marks.

The basic political facts are aptly summarized by the New York Times in its article “German Lawmakers Vote to Protect Right to Circumcision”.

BERLIN — German lawmakers on Wednesday passed legislation ensuring parents the right to have their boys circumcised, bringing a close to months of legal uncertainty set off by a regional court’s ruling that equated the practice with bodily harm.

The measure passed by a vote of 434 to 100, with 46 abstentions, in Germany’s lower house of Parliament, the Bundestag. The vote followed months of emotional debate, and angered and alienated many German Jews and Muslims, for whom circumcision is a religious rite, integral to their beliefs.

But opponents of the bill, including 66 lawmakers who had proposed a version of the legislation that would have banned the procedure for boys younger than 14, insisted that removing a healthy body part from a child too young to have a say in the matter violates basic human rights.

The Los Angeles Times story entitled “Germany votes to keep circumcision legal” pointed out the issue of religious freedom.

The new legislation accommodates Jews who insist that the ritual must be carried out by a specially designated person known as a mohel. The Central Council of Jews in Germany said it would start a training program to ensure that mohels receive proper medical training.

The legality of circumcision in Germany was thrown into question in May after a district court in the western German city of Cologne ruled that the circumcision of a young Muslim boy amounted to bodily harm and was illegal. Jews and Muslims, for whom the practice is a key element of the faith, erupted in protest, and the central government quickly vowed to pass legislation to guarantee its legality nationwide. The months of debate that ensued centered on balancing medical concerns with religious freedom.

And the New York Times drove this point home with some strong quotes.

“There is no country in the world where the circumcision of boys for religious reasons is considered a criminal act,” Ms. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said. “With this legislation, the German government makes clear that Jewish and Muslim life is clearly welcome in Germany.”

The NY Times also provided context for the American reader.

Unlike common practice in the United States, infant boys in Germany and most other European countries are not routinely circumcised for health reasons. Consequently, the practice is unfamiliar to the general public, even to most lawmakers voting on Wednesday, as [Social Democrat Bundestag member of Turkish descent] Aydan Ozoguz pointed out.

The Gray Lady’s sympathies were clearly with the supporters of circumcision. The lower court ruling that banned circumcision as being a form of child abuse:

proved an embarrassment to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, painfully aware that postwar Germany can ill afford to be seen as supporting such a dangerous message of intolerance.

This paragraph is problematic on many levels. It is an editorial assertion. The verb “proved” should be proved by reference to claims of embarrassment, whilst the claim that the Germans would best not appear to be anti-Semitic in light of the Nazi era should spring from the mouths of someone other than the reporter. Without a fuller exposition this paragraph leaves the reader thinking, “What really is behind German opposition to circumcision?

Turn to the NBC story written by Donald Snyder you can see the difference between adequate and great reporting. The article entitled “Circumcision to remain legal in Germany” provided the same political background and offering quotes from a number of MPs. It also addressed the religious freedom question from the perspective of Judaism and Islam. But in the same space as the New York Times it did a better job in conveying why this issue was important to supporters and opponents of circumcision.

While the Times noted the infrequency of circumcision in Germany, NBC took this angle further.

German society is highly secular. Religion is generally viewed as a relic from the past. This is especially true in what was formerly Communist East Germany, where atheism was the official doctrine for 44 years.

“The basic sentiment here is anti-religious,” said Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of Internationale Politik, a foreign policy journal published by the German Council of Foreign Affairs. “And Germans throw overboard anything that has to do with tradition.”

According to Tempel, the Cologne ruling was not a deliberate attack on Islam or Judaism but showed a total misunderstanding of how important circumcision is to both religions. TNS Emnid, a German polling organization, found in a July 2012 survey that 56 percent of Germans agree with the Cologne ruling.

Deirdre Berger, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, a Jewish advocacy organization, said that the Cologne ruling can be traced to a body of law and medical literature that has been accumulating over the past decade. This school of thought, based on little scientific evidence, holds that circumcision does irreversible physical damage and causes emotional trauma, a view held by the German Association of Pediatricians, which has called for a two-year moratorium on circumcisions. By contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization endorse circumcision for its medical benefits, particularly in fighting the spread of HIV in Africa.

These closing paragraphs from NBC provided context missing in the two Times pieces — making it far and away the best story of the three, I would argue. Now for the extra credit question.

Why do we go on so much about “religion ghosts” in the media, highlighting the absence of the faith angle in news reporting here at GetReligion? Yes, reporting on the reporting is what we do — but are we merely a bunch of cranks who have found a niche from where we can fling out sarcasm and snark at the passing parade of news reporting? Laying aside the issue of personal failings and character flaws — a topic that keeps our analysts gainfully employed — what drives the work of GetReligion is the quest for quality.

My approach to the stories I write for GetReligion is founded upon the belief that the journalist is an artist who is guided by moral precepts. The journalist has an obligation as a literary artist to chronicle, to create, to order, and thereby serve not merely personal and superficial truths but universal ones. This obligation to the truth is the goal of classical journalism. A journalist need not be conscious of the philosophical theories behind his profession any more than a driver need understand the laws of physics that propel his automobile — yet the obligation remains to speak the truth.

Many European newspapers do not see their task in this  light. Advocacy newspapers are guided by the truths of their ideologies and consciously and publicly present stories in the light of these principles. My criticisms of American newspapers have been that they are unaware of their biases. Whilst claiming to print all the news that’s fit to print, as often as not, the definition of “fit” is constricted by intellectual and ideological blinkers. And at other times, they just make a hash of it.

The two Times pieces mention the religious obligations of circumcision for Jews and Muslims, but it was NBC who fleshed the story out by placing circumcision within the religious/medical/philosophical context of German society.

Without this crucial bit of news from NBC, the reader is unlikely to get past the New York Times implicit assertion that German objections to circumcision had some sort of latent Nazi overtone to them. There may be something in this, but that is not the whole story.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

Celibacy and the clergy abuse scandal

Last Friday the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz, the German Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church, released the results of a study on the psychological make-up of clergy who had sexually abused children. I was surprised by the weak coverage of this story, especially in light of the 2010 German media frenzy when the clergy abuse scandal broke.

I  am also wondering: How many reporters actually attended the press conference in Trier given by Bishop Stephan Ackermann? The Reuters story had a Paris date line, the Frankfurter Rundschau story was written from Cologne, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung was written from Munich. Other German newspaper accounts were re-writes of the press release from the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz. Might this explain the lousy job two of Germany’s major newspapers did in reporting this story?

The lede from the English-language Reuters’ story states:

A German Catholic Church study showed most priests found guilty of sexually abusing minors were psychologically normal, according to survey results presented on Friday. Only 12 percent of those surveyed were diagnosed as paedophiles, said the report released by Trier Bishop Stephan Ackermann, the church’s spokesman on abuse cases.

Psychological tests commissioned by priests’ dioceses around Germany found only five percent could be classified as ephebophiles – attracted to teenagers, it said. “There are no significant differences to results found in the general population in Germany,” said Dr Norbert Leygraf, one of the experts reviewing reports on predator priests found out in the past decade.

All of the newspaper stories I have looked at have reported this basic information, but each developed their own angle. The Frankfurt-based national daily, the Frankfurter Rundschau, had a balanced story in its article „McKinsey auf Katholisch” — the balance being half news-half hit piece. The first five paragraphs of the Frankfurter Rundschau’s story summarized the bishops’ press release. It then moved to the attack.

The first voice speaking in response to the news conference was identified as a spokesman for “Die katholische Reformbewegung „Wir sind Kirche“.” (The Catholic reform group “We Are the Church”). The label a newspaper gives to an advocacy group is one way it expresses its editorial voice. “We Are the Church” is a group of German and Austrian Catholic clergy and lay people who have been advocating for a change in the church’s teaching on clerical celibacy, women priests, married priests, birth control, homosexuality and so forth. For the Süddeutsche Zeitung these innovations are reforms, e.g., changes for the good.

“We are the Church” takes exception to the findings as well as cites them as an example of the need for the Catholic Church to come over to their way of thinking. Mandatory celibacy is part of the problem, they argue.

„Welche Männer werden Priester? Und wie werden sie in der katholischen Kirche sexuell sozialisiert?“

Roughly translated as: “What kind of man becomes a priest, and how are they sexually socialized in the Church?”

A professor of pastoral theology at the University of Augsburg (and a supporter of We are the Church though that is not mentioned) Fr. Hanspeter Heinz, is then brought on board to criticize the church, this time noting that as half of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse were heterosexual, the church’s ban on homosexual clergy is wrong. And to present the other side of the argument we hear from? … no one.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung is not as heavy handed. It offers the same general facts as the Frankfurter Rundschau, but provides some context. Its article Studie sieht bei Priestern keine besondere Pädophilie-Neigung” states that a study conducted by psychologists at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York in 2011 found the same rate of psychiatric disorders among American clergy child sexual abusers.

However, in its closing paragraph, the newspaper’s editorial voice wondered if the cause of clergy sex abuse may be linked to mandatory clerical celibacy.

So bleibt die Frage offen, warum einige Priester offenbar Kinder oder Jugendliche missbraucht haben, obwohl sie nicht unter einer entsprechenden psychischen Störung litten. Spekuliert wird häufig, dass Priester – besonders katholische Geistliche, die im Zölibat leben – möglicherweise ihrem Sexualtrieb dort nachgeben, wo sich eine Gelegenheit bietet. Kinder würden sie dann missbrauchen, weil diese sich im Gegensatz zu Erwachsenen leicht manipulieren lassen und die Täter aus Angst danach nicht verraten.

This leaves open the question of why some priests abused children or teenagers even though, apparently, they did not suffer from a mental disorder. A common speculation is that priests — especially Catholic priests who live celibate lives — may yield to their sex drive where the opportunity arises. They would abuse children because in contrast to adults, children can be easily manipulated and the perpetrators have little fear of being betrayed afterwards.

The clerical celibacy angle as a contributing factor in the child abuse scandal should be explored. But in raising this issue on their own, the newspapers should also have included Bishop Ackermann’s statement at the press conference that there was no link between mandatory celibacy and child abuse. Reuters managed to report this — the Frankfurter Rundschau and the Süddeutsche Zeitung should have done so also.

Sloppy reporting or anti-Catholic animus? You decide. Or, does it really matter what the cause of this omission was? The result was these two major German national newspapers mangled the story.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.


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