Pod people: Indulgences & WYD in The Guardian

Coverage in The Guardian, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and the editorial board of The New York Times were the targets of my wit on last week’s GetReligion podcast. Crossroads host Todd Wilkens and I discussed the media coverage of the Vatican’s announcement that those who followed Pope Francis’ tweets from the World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil would be granted an indulgence.

My colleague M.Z. Hemingway looked at this topic last week in a post entitled “Media: Pope says retweets spring the soul!” that focused on the Telegraph. Mollie seemed to be having so much fun with the topic that Todd and I decided to join the party and focus on the Guardian story “Vatican offers ‘time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets”. The subtitle was even better: “Papal court handling pardons for sins says contrite Catholics may win ‘indulgences’ by following World Youth Day on Twitter.”

Wilkins opened the program by asking my expectations and reactions to the story. I responded that the Guardian story was “wonderfully awful.” It  played into the anti-Catholic animus that resides just below the surface of English life and would elicit a visceral response from some readers — the liberal secularist left would find comfort in reading about the latest foolishness from those enamored with sky pixies. The Little Englanders (who don’t normally take the Guardian as they place their full faith and credit in The Daily Mail) would respond with two words — “bloody papists.”

While the tone of the article was problematic, it was not in error. The Guardian did not make the mistake of conflating absolution and indulgences: forgiveness for sin over against the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin. But the article could have provided context, offering examples of indulgences granted for Bible reading, praying the rosary or adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

And, good Protestant that I am, I offered my view that indulgences were nonsense. And admitted to a liking for ridicule — stating this was part of my repertoire in reporting on Anglican affairs.

But in this instance, if you did not believe in purgatory, indulgences could have no theological meaning. The disdain that was so close to the surface of the Guardian article, and animated my off the cuff remarks, had its roots in one of the significant divisions between Protestants and Catholics, Todd (a Lutheran) and I (an Episcopalian) observed.

Yet the misreporting of this story chronicled by Hemingway also had its roots in the lack of knowledge or interest in religion found in news rooms. I told Todd:

I would not be quick to say there is a vast left-wing conspiracy out there to smack down the Catholic Church. Where I think it comes from is an inveterate hostility found in 99 percent of news rooms against the Christian religion, against organized Christianity. You are going to find the greatest concentration atheists not in the Soviet Politburo but in the editorial offices of the New York Times. Their coverage is filtered through that worldview. So they don’t understand what is going on. They don’t understand the attraction of faith. They don’t understand the mystery of faith and frankly ridicule is the easy way out.

While the Politburo reference dates me — I believe this quip holds true.

Australian Anglican Indulgences

An Australian bishop’s veto of a gaming industry proposal to donate funds to a church social service agency to hire additional gambling addiction counselors has been met with incredulity by the Sunday Telegraph.

In a story entitled “Unholy fight over gaming as Bishop refuses money from clubs” the Sydney-based newspaper’s editorial voice spoils an otherwise interesting story. It does not appear to comprehend that the Anglican Bishop of Armidale Rick Lewers is taking a moral stand that the gaming industry cannot buy redemption.

This is not a bad article in that there is an attempt to present both sides of the story. We do hear from the bishop and the casinos — but the context is missing and the story framed so as to paint the bishop as a prig. The article begins:

A BISHOP has refused thousands of dollars from clubs to pay for more counsellors to help problem gamblers.

Clubs around Tamworth and Armidale, in the state’s north, want the local Anglicare counselling service to put on extra staff as demand grows across the region. After nearly two years of talks, the clubs have agreed to give a percentage of their takings – up to $30,000 a year – in return for access to additional counsellors. However, the talks unravelled last week after the Anglican Bishop of Armidale, Rick Lewers, canned the idea as he felt it would compromise his ability to speak out about gambling.

Instead, Bishop Lewers wants gamblers to consider joining their local church to socialise instead of spending hours “pouring pension money” into poker machines.

The construction of the lede determines the trajectory of the article. Proposition A holds that clubs, private gaming establishments, have created a need for gambling addiction counseling services. Proposition B is that these counseling services are provided by Anglicare– a church-run social services agency.

Fact A is the news that the casinos and Anglicare have been in talks about providing addiction counseling services and that the casinos would donate “up to $30,000 a year”. Fact B is the bishop’s refusal to take the funds. Fact C is the explanation that the Bishop believes he would be compromised by taking casino money.

Assertion A by the Telegraph is that the bishop does not want to help gamblers and B is that he wants to steer them away from casinos so that they may join “their local church to socialize”.

Standing in back all of this are the assumptions that the casino industry can atone for its sins by giving money to the church — Australian Anglican indulgences — and that the church should be a good sport and take the cash. The implications of the construction of the lede are that the bishop is opposed to a good deed because of petty concerns about pumping up church attendance — perhaps pulling in the punters to the church hall for bingo rather than have them use the slot machine at the casino.

The Telegraph does give the bishop three paragraphs to explain his position — that gambling is a social evil; the church’s social service agency will help anyone with a gambling addiction problem; the church would welcome the opportunity to minister to those with gambling problems on casino grounds; taking money from the casinos — who facilitate the addiction — in order for the church to help them break the gambling addiction is morally compromising. Well and good.

The article then moves to comments from the casino industry criticizing the bishop’s moral qualms. It then closes with a jab from a casino executive that seeks to puncture what he believes to be the bishop’s moral pomposity.

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