Does ‘Pope Francis effect’ mean a Catholic growth trend?

The best journalists report what they know — and what they don’t.

Given the flurry of positive press for Pope Francis in 2013, a journalist easily could produce a three-anecdotes-make-a-trend story on how the new pope with a sky-high approval rating has brought a numerical resurgence to the Roman Catholic Church.

But Peter Smith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazetteone of our favorite Godbeat pros — didn’t do that. He stuck to the facts (thank you, ma’am) in a recent story on Francis’ impact on the church:

It’s been called the “Pope Francis effect.”

Priests locally and internationally say they’re seeing a bump in interest in the church through the pope.

But while there are anecdotes of people joining or returning to the church under the influence of Francis, there’s no proof yet that such anecdotes add up to a broad trend.

Pope Francis’ name and @pontifex Twitter handle have become some of the most searched terms on the Internet. The pontiff has been named Time magazine’s Person of the Year and he enjoys high popularity in polls — rated favorably by four in five U.S. Catholics and more than half the American general public, according to the Pew Research Center. Italian priests tell researchers they see a rise in Mass attendance.

But since Francis became pope, there is no measurable increase in Americans either identifying themselves as Catholic (around 22 percent) or in reporting they’re attending Mass more frequently (with about 40 percent continuing to say they attend weekly), according to Pew.

But isn’t it a little early to see fluctuations in such statistics, you ask? Exactly.

Keep reading:

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JFK’s strong Catholic ties and the speech he DIDN’T give

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Ten years ago, while working in the Dallas bureau of The Associated Press, I wrote a national package of stories commemorating the 40th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

As the nation paused today — the 50th anniversary — to remember Kennedy’s death on Nov. 22, 1963, I wondered if any enterprising journalist might produce a compelling religion angle.

Enter Godbeat pro Peter Smith, formerly of the Louisville Courier-Journal and a favorite of your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas.

I say formerly because Smith recently left the Courier-Journal to take over the vacant religion writer post at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As we noted back in September, longtime Post-Gazette journalist Ann Rodgers“Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news” — stepped down to become communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Peter told me he’s still getting settled in Pittsburgh, but that would be difficult to tell based on the quality religion stories he already has produced, including the one on JFK:

They stand among the most eloquent words that John F. Kennedy never said. Instead, they exist in writing only — forming the speech Kennedy was scheduled to deliver at the Trade Mart in Dallas to influential business and research leaders early in the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.

Kennedy was assassinated en route to the gathering, and the words hovered in obscurity amid the panic and devastation that followed.

But over the years, people have taken a fresh look at the Trade Mart speech. The words have inspired a tribute book, choral works and a video tribute in Dallas. They’ve inspired legislation — and litigation — in Kentucky.

For those who continue to ruminate on Kennedy’s truncated legacy, the words have become something of an unintentional last will and testament — a soaring call for progress in space exploration, civil rights, national security, foreign aid and even in critical thinking.

And it quoted freely from the Bible, invoking broad religious sentiments that may seem surprising coming from Kennedy. The nation’s only Roman Catholic president is better known for proclaiming a strict separation of church and state during the 1960 presidential campaign, seeking to allay fears that he would take orders from the Vatican.

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Noooooooooooo!!! Godbeat losing a superstar

 
Please forgive the exclamation points in the title.

But enough already.

On the heels of Bob Smietana leaving The Tennessean, the impending departure of a religion-writing superstar rocked the Godbeat this week.

Ann Rodgers, president of the Religion Newswriters Association, announced that she’s leaving the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after two decades.

In a public posting on her Facebook page, Rodgers wrote:

I will be leaving the Post-Gazette on Sept. 5 to become communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. I haven’t swum the Tiber, but they told me that 33 years of wading in it have saturated me enough to do this job. I am deeply grateful to the Post-Gazette for 20 years of unparalleled support for the religion beat and for me personally. I have the best team of editors anywhere in journalism. But I have covered the beat for 33 years, 25 of them in Pittsburgh, and it’s time for a new challenge. I look forward to a job where I can express my Christian faith, while serving a church that does incredible good in Western Pennsylvania and worldwide. My best to all of you. Stay in touch.

Folks, this is sad news for the religion beat.

Here at GetReligion, we have not critiqued Rodgers’ stories as much as those of some other writers because, quite frankly, there’s only so many different ways to say, “Another fantastic story!”

The Diocese of Pittsburgh reported on Rodgers’ appointment, noting that she is a member of an Anglican church — a fact that didn’t please everyone.

In a 2010 interview with Rodgers, former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey dubbed her “Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news.”

Over at The Deacon’s Bench, Deacon Greg Kandra — reflecting on news of Rodgers’ new position — noted:

She’s one of the best on the beat — and, really, part of a dying breed: a reporter who “gets” religion and has made it her business to understand it from every angle. At a time when the coverage of religion is often sorely wanting, and most writers don’t have a clue what they’re talking about — whether it’s Catholicism or Islam or evangelical Protestantism — Ann Rodgers was in a class by herself.

Rodgers reports that the Post-Gazette is looking to replace her. That will be difficult to do, obviously, but it’s wonderful news — in this age of newsroom cutbacks — that the Pittsburgh newspaper remains committed to religion news.

Beautiful tribute to Catholic sisters in Civil War nursing

On this Independence Day, let’s look at a great story that appeared on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette really pulled out the stops for coverage of this Civil War anniversary and Sunday’s paper had a special section that covered various angles. I’m no Civil War buff but my visit to Gettysburg a few years ago was fascinating and informative.

In any case, Ann Rodgers had a piece in that special section on an under-covered religion angle. It’s fantastic:

The Daughters of Charity at their provincial house in Emmitsburg, Md., could hear the cannons of Pickett’s Charge 10 miles off. They helped their chaplain pack a wagon with medical supplies and, when the cannons were silenced, a dozen sisters rode with him to tend to the wounded.

“They had already been on battlefields in the North and the South,” said Lisa Shower, who gives Civil War tours at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. In 1863, nuns were the nation’s only trained nurses.

A dozen orders sent sisters to battlefields and military hospitals. Rodgers lays out the general nursing situation (such as that most nurses were men because it was considered disreputable for women to be exposed to nakedness and filth) and ads:

But among the most effective were 571 Catholic sisters, who were often appointed to oversee military hospitals. The Sisters of Mercy of Pittsburgh were twice personally requested by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to run military hospitals in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.

Because many religious orders were founded to care for the sick, the sisters had accumulated centuries of experience. By 1860, they ran 28 American hospitals. They were the only trained nurses in the nation.

“The sisters didn’t have what we would consider today to be professional training, but the documents of every community had … a section on care of the sick,” said Sister Mary Denis Maher, archivist of the Sisters of Charity in Cleveland and author of “To Bind Up the Wounds” about sisters in the Civil War.

While no one yet understood infection, their time-honored practices stressed cleanliness and good food, she said.

Dix, who was anti-Catholic, didn’t recruit sisters, but generals and Cabinet members begged for their services. After the Battle of Antietam in 1862, Union Gen. George McClellan asked the Daughters of Charity for every available sister.

Then we get to the specifics of how they helped out at Gettysburg, overrun by 21,000 wounded men, by dressing wounds:

The sisters dressed wounds, fed patients, helped soldiers write letters home and tended to the spiritual needs of soldiers. They often baptized dying men.

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Journalism highs and lows: Christianity and gays edition

YouTube Preview ImageI’m elated to be able to highlight a wonderful article headlined “Christians’ views vary on gay marriage.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news piece shared just that — how Christians view marriage and why.

A sample from the work:

Most opposition to same-sex civil marriage is rooted in religious conviction. A recent Pew poll found that 73 percent of those who believe that gay sex is sinful oppose it, while 84 percent of those who say it’s not a sin support it.

Leviticus 20:13 says, “If a man has sexual relations with a man … both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death.”

That Bible verse isn’t what led Wesley Hill, assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, to conclude that his gay sexual orientation requires him to be celibate. The first two chapters of Genesis, which “presents male and female as the partners of one another” and Jesus’ affirmation of that in Matthew 19, are far more important to him.

Mr. Hill, 32, grew up in a Baptist family where homosexuality was unacceptable, but he knew that other traditions found it compatible with Christianity. He studied all sides, he said.

“I found myself convinced of the more traditional reading of scripture, that marriage between one man and one woman was the only context for sexual expression in a Christian setting, and that if I intended to remain a traditional orthodox Christian, I needed to be celibate.”

He believes people are born with same-sex orientation as a result of the fall — humanity’s original rebellion against God — which brought imperfections to the world. He hasn’t settled his view of same-sex civil marriage.

I wish I could excerpt the whole thing. It’s full of descriptions that are nuanced and balanced and really dig down into the doctrinal views of the various parties. We hear from many sides and we get to hear them explain themselves in their own words. How sad that this is so rare in reporting on the matter. But what a great contribution to civil discourse.

For the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, I offer the video embedded above from ABC “News.” A reporter sent it to us with a note saying that the program should be called “To Catch A Christian” (a riff on “To Catch A Predator”). The piece is so appalling I almost don’t know what to say about it.

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Pod people: One more Easter home run

As most of you know, Sunday was an important religious holiday.

In my “All hope is not lost” post, I already highlighted eight compelling enterprise stories that graced the nation’s Easter front pages.

But I’m not talking about that religious holiday.

I’m referring, of course, to Opening Night and the beginning of a new Major League Baseball season. (Even though my beloved Texas Rangers lost that first game, they came back and won the next two against the lowly Houston Astros, including an almost-perfect game pitched by Japanese sensation Yu Darvish).

In my original Easter post, I purposely did not mention one story with a strong religion angle that I found on the Sunday front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That’s because the story — a profile of Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen — was related more to the new baseball season than the Christian holiday.

The gist of the 3,700-word profile: star center fielder stays humble and remembers his faith.

The lede:

FORT MEADE, Fla. — Four men look at an 18-year-old baseball player, and they see a blessing.

The young man sitting in front of them has been picked by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first round of the 2005 draft, and his life is already changing, to the tune of a $1.9 million signing bonus. The men are here, at a Red Lobster in Lakeland, Fla., a half-hour’s drive from home in the small town of Fort Meade, to pass along some wisdom before the long journey begins.

In a matter of days, Andrew McCutchen’s professional career will set sail with the Gulf Coast League Pirates. A team scout has told him that he is special, that he could be Pittsburgh’s baseball savior, the next Barry Bonds. It’s a lot for a teenager to handle, so Lorenzo McCutchen asked three trusted men of God to help lay a foundation for his son to fall back on when the world gets crazy around him.

They are attempting to speak directly into Andrew’s heart, about staying true to himself, about keeping God first, about the pitfalls of the fame that could come his way.

“We were giving him his wings,” Lorenzo recalls.

It’s truly an exceptional story that revolves around the role that faith played — and plays — in the life of McCutchen’s parents and the baseball star’s upbringing. And the piece hints at the importance of God in the center fielder’s own life:

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