Catholic university acts, well, Catholic — media stunned

“Is the pope Catholic?” is an old question, suggesting a rather obvious answer. Of course the pope is a Catholic, so the old saying flourished.

Neverthelss, there are mainstream journalists who seem to be surprised when a Catholic institution actually acts like one. The sweep of the Second Vatican Council apparently gave lots of people the idea that “Catholic” is some kind of generic brand name and not necessarily an identity, with specific traditions and doctrines, to be maintained or (gasp) even enforced.

Consider the case of Santa Clara University, located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. It’s a school in the Jesuit tradition, as the saying goes, built around a mission whose church is pictured here.

That heritage doesn’t guarantee much in today’s multicultural environment, however. Many Catholic schools allow practices that would make the institution’s founders blush, such as multi-year presentations of a play best described here as “The V-Monologues” at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.

Now, however, there’s an apparent change in the air. Let’s pick up the action with the San Jose Mercury News:

SANTA CLARA — A decision by Santa Clara University’s president to drop health insurance coverage of elective abortions for the Catholic university’s faculty and staff has triggered a serious rift at the school.

Many faculty members say they were blindsided by the move at an institution that has long prided itself on open communication and governing by consensus.

The thorny issue echoes a nationwide debate at Catholic universities over their institutional identities and ability to consider the convictions of those who do not identify with — or who disagree with — certain principles the Catholic tradition holds as central.

The uproar at SCU comes on the heels of a contentious vote this week by trustees of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, another Jesuit school that decided not to provide coverage for elective abortions. And, ironically, the controversy came to a boil on the same day that California Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, went off in a different direction by signing two bills aimed at increasing access to abortion in California.

Well now: “Many faculty members say they were blindsided. …”

As my colleague Bobby Ross was kind enough to point out in discussing this, just how “many”? And, I would add, who are these “many.” Surely those who are Catholics shouldn’t have been “blindsided,” right? Hey journalists: Can you say, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae”?

We don’t know the answers to these questions, because the story quickly moves along.

The Merc, as the paper is known locally, omits mention that Brown is a Santa Clara grad (as is California’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsome, by the way), instead forging ahead to present the (to be expected) opposing reactions to the move:

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Pope Francis on sin, confession and several other things

It was a story that received very little attention in the United States, other than in conservative publications and in the briefs that newsrooms devote to human-interest stories. But here is the top of a longer report in The Daily Mail (with characteristics of British news style intact):

Pope Francis has telephoned a woman who wrote to him to tell her he will baptise her unborn after she refused to have an abortion. …

Shop worker Anna Romano, 35, was on holiday when she received the call from the Argentinian pope, who was elected in March this year.

Anna, from Arezzo near Florence, central Italy, had written to Pope Francis earlier this summer to describe her turmoil at having discovered she was pregnant by a man, who unknown to her, was already married with a child and who demanded she terminate the pregnancy.

In her letter she described to the Pope her dilemma and said to him: ‘I have never been lucky with men, I married when I was young and then things didn’t work out and I got divorced. I then had a few brief relationships until I met a man who I thought was the man of my dreams.

‘In June I discovered I was pregnant through him and when I told him instead of being happy he told me he was already married, already had a child and to have an abortion. I told him that I would not have an abortion and told him to get out of my life.’

Anna added how she was ‘in a desperate and anguished state’ and that she was writing to Pope Francis because she had ‘no-one else to turn to, after being left humiliated and betrayed’.

Let’s assume that this episode was an example of Pope Francis demonstrating what he meant, in the Jesuit publications interview (full English translation here) that is rocketing around the world, when he said that the church needed to focus more attention on helping hurting people and less time — as opposed to no time — expounding its doctrines on moral theology. Let’s say that this episode represents the other half of what the church needs to be doing and saying on this issue.

If so, this symbolic action was hailed by the very conservative Catholics who, in waves of current press reports, are so upset about this pope’s soft approach to the hard social issues.

There is no question that Pope Francis is trying to establish a radically different tone in Vatican public statements. He is the master — similar to the young Pope John Paul II — of symbolic gestures that say more than words, especially in mass media.

However, he is also talking about the fact that the church is a hospital for wounded sinners, such as himself, and that all sinners should be “contrite” — in other words, repentant — and take their wounds into confession, where a spiritual father can help them seek healing.

While saying all of this he has made no attempt to liberalize the content of the teachings that are so controversial to, let’s say, the editorial board of The New York Times.

Now, most people who follow Catholic news carefully — readers on left and right — will agree that John A. Allen, Jr., of the progressive National Catholic Reporter is probably the most consistent, informed news scribe on the planet. So how did he open his report on this remarkable and newsworthy interview?

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Pod people: About those photo ops in Brazil’s slums

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Here a photo op, there a photo op, everywhere a papal photo op.

The question explored in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast is not whether all of those media-friendly events during World Youth Day are, in fact, “photo ops” — chances for Pope Francis to be photographed making the kinds of symbolic gestures for which he (and the soon to be John Paul the Great) is already famous.

Of course, these are photo ops. Michelle Obama visiting an inner-city vegetable garden is a photo op, too. This is a part of leadership in a visual, 24/7 cable age.

The question Todd Wilken and I explored this past week (click here to listen to that) is whether or not these events — which are almost always directly linked to formal or informal papal remarks/texts — are MERELY photo ops or events that often contain a doctrinal level of content that is linked to newsworthy subjects.

What are we talking about?

A reader cited a perfect example of this syndrome the other day, drawn from coverage in The Los Angeles Times:

“Thousands of young pilgrims filled a rainy Copacabana beach to attend a series of religious-themed concerts that were part of World Youth Day, which, despite the name, is a five-day event that began Tuesday and is ostensibly the reason for the pope’s visit to Brazil.”

Commenting on an earlier World Youth Day post, reader Martha O’Keefe remarked:

I love that “ostensibly”; sure, ‘the Vatican’ says he’s there because of this event, but that’s only a coincidence! Why is he really in Brazil? Who can say, maybe he felt like a holiday?

Yes, that is the key word. And what, pray tell, does “ostensible” mean?

os·ten·si·ble — adjective …

(1) intended for display: open to view

(2) being such in appearance: plausible rather than demonstrably true or real — the ostensible purpose for the trip


When John Paul — wrestling against the doubting Vatican powers that be — first created World Youth Day, he wasn’t actually (from his point of view) trying to make a case for faith and social action in the confused spiritual ocean that is the postmodern age?

He wasn’t trying to recruit young men and women for worship and service in the church, especially young men for the priesthood and women and men into religious life?

He wasn’t, knowing that he lives in a visual age, trying to create living symbols that would speak — even heroically — to the young?

The pope is “ostensibly” at World Youth Day to, well, talk to young people and, on a second level, to the complex world of Latin American Catholicism?

Of course, there are political implications. That is part of the story. Part. Of.

Of course, these are symbolic photo ops. But is that all that they are?

And the arguments that he is making to the faithful: Is it possible to cover the actual content of his remarks without including any of the explicitly Christian material that is at the heart of his sermons, at the heart of his visit?

Then there is the issue of this particular pope’s past history.

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Ssssshhh! Conservative Catholics may exist at Georgetown

When the news broke about the election of the first Jesuit pope, several on-air commentators offered variations on the following line: “You know, I bet they are popping the corks on champagne bottles right now out at Georgetown University.”

The assumption, of course, is that all Jesuits would be equally exhilarated about the election of Pope Francis, a man who at first glance appears to be a quite loyal, traditional Catholic. If he is as doctrinally conservative as it appears that he is, then perhaps it is relevant to ask if Pope Francis could land a faculty position at the prestigious university here in D.C. that has long served as the May pole around which progressive American Catholics dance.

I bring this up because of feature story that ran the other day in the Style pages at The Washington Post about life behind the scenes at Georgetown. In particular, it focused on recent online controversies about a secret network — cue appropriate sounds of amazement at the thought of Jesuits involved in a secret operation — called the Second Stewards Society.

Here’s the key: It’s a society that thinks some of the old-time values found in Catholic education are (wait for it) good and worthy of defense.

Now, note the key word in this following factual summary early on:

The all-male group, which doesn’t identify its members or detail its activities, has long been a source of rumor and controversy on the 104-acre campus, where some students harbor suspicions that group members are pushing a right-wing political agenda — charges the Stewards call absurd.

The last time the society made big news was back in the late 1980s, when, after students’ complaints about elitism and sexism, the Stewards declared themselves dead. Now, thanks to an anonymous blogger with the very Washington moniker “Steward Throat,” the Stewards are back at the center of Hoya scuttlebutt. The most entertaining conspiracy theories — cabals, power grabs, sinister alliances — sound a lot like a campus version of “House of Cards,” the Netflix political drama.

“Whenever our name comes up, immediately a lot of people come to the conclusion that something must be awry,” acknowledged Chief Steward Sam Schneider, a Montgomery County senior who is authorized to speak to the media on the group’s behalf. Some people think that the Stewards are seeking political power, he said, “but that’s simply not true. Our anonymity is about our public service. We find that not taking credit for service can be much more rewarding, in the same way people make anonymous donations to buildings.”

The key word, of course, is “political.”

It is in this context that the name Manuel Miranda surfaces. This is a conservative Catholic activist whose path I have crossed a number of times while covering events linked to Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), the “apostolic constitution” on Catholic education issued in 1990 by Pope John Paul II. It’s considered a master work by pro-Vatican conservatives, in part because it says things like this:

“Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.”

This is not the kind of sentiment that causes champagne corks to pop in many faculty offices at Georgetown.

Thus, the Post report on the Second Stewards Society notes:

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