Is Cardinal Dolan’s star fading? NYTimes ‘somes’ it up

I’ve just made up a rule for reading news: The confidence a writer places in an article is inversely proportional to the number of times he/she uses “some.” Such words often substitute for actual findings.

I know, because I occasionally did it myself as a reporter. But I’m not sure I used it six times in one story, as did a New York Times article on Cardinal Timothy Dolan and his place in the Catholic power structure.

The story’s basic assessment is that Cardinal Timothy Dolan was Pope Benedict XVI’s American culture warrior, fighting trends like abortion and same-sex marriage. Benedict was also fine with Dolan’s upper-middle-class lifestyle, and with Dolan delegating archdiocesan matters to his vicars instead of handling them himself.

But with a new pope in town, Dolan — well, isn’t on the outs, exactly; he’s just out of step with the newer, humbler, more pastoral church of Pope Francis. So says the Times.

But to make that case, the arguments get pretty, well, argumentative.

In the last years that Benedict XVI served as pope, Cardinal Dolan, 64, was America’s top bishop as the president of the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops. Ever the genial guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, he led the charge against the Obama administration’s efforts to require some religious employers to cover birth control for employees. Some church experts say he was also the go-to cardinal for many in the Vatican when they wanted to know what was going on in the American church.

See that? Even that nut paragraph, as journalists call it, uses the “some” qualifier. Here are others:

Some see the influence of Cardinal Dolan, once considered a possible candidate for pope himself, waning in the era of the new pontiff.

And:

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The pope and the Palestinians: AP tries balanced reporting

As Pope Francis prepares to visit the Holy Land this weekend, the Associated Press takes a stab at balance in a story on West Bank Palestinians — a report that nevertheless leaves a number of holes.

The story at first walks the beaten path of the Palestinian plight — poverty, crowded camps, unemployment — but for once, it isn’t all blamed on Israel:

Many feel increasingly neglected by the Palestinian self-rule government and the United Nations agency responsible for their welfare. Resentment can be seen in the rise in stone-throwing protests by camp youths and a recent two-month strike of thousands of local employees of the U.N. aid agency demanding higher wages.

The article does play a familiar note: the supposed right of return of Palestinians to their homeland.

In Palestinian public discourse, a large-scale return is seen as the main goal. Israel vehemently objects, saying this would dilute its Jewish majority. Palestinian leaders say each refugee has the right to choose where to live, including in a future Palestinian state. The Palestinians want to set up such a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

As you can see, however, the story does give at least a sentence to Israel’s position. And in a previous paragraph, it points out that Palestinian refugees and their descendants now number more than 5 million people.

The AP story has other fresh material as well. It tells of a budget cutback in free meals in schools by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. It says that the refugees “feel looked down upon by their better-off urban neighbors” and ignored by the Palestinian Authority. And it cites an unemployed refugee accusing the PA of nepotism, saving jobs for families of officials.

AP also says that “Teens routinely throw stones at Israeli troops or at cars with Israeli license plates passing near the camps,” blunting the image of refugees as total doves. But AP also reports a “sharp rise” in Israeli troop violence against Palestinian refugees — from zero dead and 38 injuries in 2012 to 17 dead and 486 injured in 2013. Fair enough.

What’s wrong with the AP article, then? At least four things.

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NPR asks Vatican experts to discuss hopes of the Orthodox

Try to imagine a story about crucial, tense talks between Democrats and Republicans that only offered material drawn from interviews with Republicans, even when talking about the beliefs and aspirations of the Democrats.

Try to imagine a report about, oh, talks between liberal Episcopalians and conservative Anglicans that only featured commentary from one side or the other (actually, in some mainline publications that’s pretty easy to imagine). Or how about a pre-Super Bowl story that tried to cover the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams in the big game, but only talked to experts skilled in covering one of the teams or only talked to the coaches on one team. Can you imagine veteran journalists doing that?

This brings me to a report by NPR superstar Sylvia Poggioli that ran, online, under this headline: “The 1,000-Year-Old Schism That Pope Francis Seeks To Heal.”

Hear me now: This is not a fatally flawed news story, although some of the information is rather shallow. For example, any discussion of attempts to heal the painful schism between the ancient churches of East and West simply has to begin with, or at least mention, the efforts of St. John Paul II and this issue was a high priority for Pope Benedict XVI as well. NPR didn’t need to get these two popes into the headline, but one sentence in the story itself? That’s a must.

Also, let me note that the sources quoted in the piece are very qualified, especially when it comes to all things Rome. However, let’s see if we can spot a pattern in this report:

Meeting in Jerusalem in 1964, Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras set a milestone: They started the process of healing the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity of the year 1054. Moves toward closer understanding followed, but differences remain on issues such as married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican.

OK, pause. It’s crucial to know that the smaller Eastern Rite Catholic bodies, like the large churches of Eastern Orthodoxy, already follow the ancient tradition of having married priests and celibate, usually monastic, bishops. While the celibate priesthood is the norm in the West, I have never heard anyone say that this is a big issue affecting healing between Catholics and Orthodox. What’s up with that strange unattributed claim?

Back to the story:

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WPost probes hot debate on the banks of River Jordan

I have crossed the Jordan River twice in my life and both times the experience was quite memorable. The river itself isn’t much to look at, but the social dynamics surrounding the location are fascinating.

The first trip was a singer in a choral music tour, done with the cooperation of the U.S. government, to perform “The Messiah” for cultural and political leaders in both Israel and Jordan. No big deal, right? However, this effort took place in late December, 1972. Look that up in the history of the Middle East. The second trip was linked to the 2000 pilgrimage that St. John Paul II made to the region. Look that one up, too.

Do the math and I am automatically going to be interested in the Washington Post news feature that ran under the following headline: “Pope picks one of dueling baptism sites in visit to Holy Land.”

This is a solid story and, first things first, I want to praise the wide variety of images and information contained in it. However, at the same time, I want to challenge the Post assumption that most readers would be most interested in the financial and political angles of this story, as opposed to the religions questions that it raises. You can get to both of those subjects from the material at the top of the report:

WEST BANK OF THE JORDAN RIVER – Christians believe that Jesus was immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist, who wore a cloak of camel’s hair and lived on locusts and honey in the desert wilderness.

But the Gospels are not precise about which side of the river the baptism took place on — the east bank or the west.

Although it might not matter much to a half-million annual visitors who come to the river for sightseeing or a renewal of faith, it matters very much to tourism officials in Israel and Jordan, who maintain dueling baptism sites, one smack-dab across from the other, with the shallow, narrow, muddy stream serving as international boundary.

Since many of those “visitors” can also be called “pilgrims,” as in believers making pilgrimages, it matters that Pope Francis is poised to become the latest major religious leader — more on that in a minute — to symbolically visit the Bethany Beyond the Jordan site on the Jordanian, or the east, side of the river.

Thinking hard news, it’s logical that the Post team jumped from the Pope Francis news hook straight into dollars, cents, tourism and politics. Viewed from this perspective, what we have here is Israeli tourism officials fighting to protect their market share in a tussle with Jordanian tourism officials.

I get that. I’ve seen that first hand, because the tourism battle is decades old. For starters, it’s easier — some say safer — to visit the Israeli side.

But is that the most important, the most interesting angle to take on this matter, from the viewpoint of the typical reader? I’m not convinced. I would ask: Why are most people going there? Trust me, this dispute is not about the scenery.

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Nuanced portrait of a rising Catholic star: Cardinal Wuerl

Well, darn. Someone in the media remembers that there are other Catholic leaders besides Pope Francis. For a recent profile in the Washington Post, it’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

The head of the influential Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., received a long-form, 1,500-word look in his hometown newspaper, The Washington Post. That in itself is a welcome change from wire style: The Associated Press has announced that most of its stories will henceforth run 300-500 words.

Blending a seasoned eye with a fluid writing style, Michelle Boorstein of the Post packs several sage observations into a few paragraphs:

With his unassuming and reserved style, Wuerl is not a well-known figure to the region’s growing number of Catholics, many of whom probably don’t realize that their leader is one of the world’s most influential bishops. Pope Benedict had already named the slender 73-year-old in 2010 to craft the church’s modern-day evangelization message, but Pope Francis in December further solidified Wuerl’s stature by picking him as the only new American on the powerful, 30-member Vatican body that selects bishops.

With popes typically replacing about a third of bishops every five years or so, Wuerl will play a key role in shaping the next generation of church leaders. As a careful insider, he is in some ways a surprising choice of partner for Francis, who makes constant news with spontaneous, often provocative comments and came to Rome without experience there.

But the pope’s and the archbishop’s contrasting personalities — one longtime bishop’s aide jokes that Wuerl has “cuff links on his pajamas” — could be seen as appropriate at a time when people seem to be seeking a spirituality both timeless and flexible.

The Post article paints Wuerl as a cautious diplomat, a “savvy and gifted administrator who knows how to get things done without a lot of drama.” That’s a big difference not only from Francis but, of course, from the flamboyant John Paul II. But if the reporter’s picture is accurate, Wuerl may help bridge the rift between church liberals and conservatives.

Boorstein (surprise, surprise) seems to lean a lot on the omnipresent priest-journalist Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University, who offers quotes and anecdotes on Wuerl’s measured speech and self-effacing style. But she seems to have trouble figuring out how the archbishop will work in the influential position — the 30-member Congregation of Bishops, the pope’s brain trust for recommendations for new bishops.

She scans the numbers on Wuerl’s successes in raising millions for social service and for needy students. She also notes how he listens to parishioners, including a request for feedback on an upcoming archdiocesan synod — reaping 15,000 responses. But how will he do on the world stage?

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Devil in the details: WPost on Francis teaching about Satan

The current head of the Catholic Church has often shocked liberals by showing he actually believes Catholic dogma. In the newest chapter of this saga, Pope Francis spooks ‘em by preaching traditional doctrines about Satan.

An account of this situation by the Washington Post isn’t half bad. Written by Anthony Faiola, the Post‘s London bureau chief, it skims the pope’s pronouncements on the devil and quotes a couple of worriers. But Faiola also quotes a couple of believers, including attendees at a conference on exorcism that’s the clear time peg for this article.

The article doesn’t start out promising: “A darling of liberal Catholics and an advocate of inclusion and forgiveness, Pope Francis is hardly known for fire and brimstone.” But it gains depth and shows savvy.

Faiola alertly notes how Francis shows an awareness of how un-trendy is the belief about Satan. He has the pope paraphrasing critics: “But Father, how old-fashioned you are to speak about the Devil in the 21st century.”

And he provides good background of Church teachings on Satan:

Since its foundation, the church has taught the existence of the Devil. But in recent decades, progressive priests and bishops, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, have tended to couch Satan in more allegorical terms. Evil became less the wicked plan of the master of hell than the nasty byproduct of humanity’s free will. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a lofty German theologian, often painted evil with a broad brush.

Enter the plain-talking first pope from Latin America, where mystical views of Satan still hold sway in broad areas of the region. During his time as cardinal of Buenos Aires before rising to the papacy, Francis was known for stark warnings against “the tempter” and “the father of lies.”

Faiola shows a way with clever phrases. He says Francis wants to “rekindle” the old image of Satan. He says some people view exorcists as “crazy uncles” of the Church. And he mentions “hellish forces plotting to deliver mankind unto damnation.”

The reporter shows an old hand’s touch in a quick two paragraphs on the drift of opinions about evil, from personification in a devil toward a “nasty byproduct of humanity’s free will.” He also shows that Francis hasn’t changed his tune over time — it’s just that more journalists are paying attention:

Since its foundation, the church has taught the existence of the Devil. But in recent decades, progressive priests and bishops, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, have tended to couch Satan in more allegorical terms. Evil became less the wicked plan of the master of hell than the nasty byproduct of humanity’s free will. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a lofty German theologian, often painted evil with a broad brush.

Enter the plain-talking first pope from Latin America, where mystical views of Satan still hold sway in broad areas of the region. During his time as cardinal of Buenos Aires before rising to the papacy, Francis was known for stark warnings against “the tempter” and “the father of lies.”

Some of Faiola’s remarks take risks, but he proves most of them. He says Francis is fighting the devil in words and deeds. He then quotes the pope warning the faithful, even laying hands on a man and praying for him after the man claims to be possessed.

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Pope Francis on economics: How innovative? How savvy?

JIM ASKS:

Conservative commentators ridiculed [Pope Francis's decree Evangelii Gaudium] for its criticism of the free market system. But how different, really, is Francis’s thinking from his predecessors?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The Catholic Church is experiencing Hurricane Francis, the early phase of what may become the most liberal pontificate in a half-century. The new pope’s eyebrow-raisers including his words on economics. An April 28 Twitter feed from Francis (or his handlers) said “iniquitas radix malorum,” (“inequality is the root of evil” — or should that first word be translated “injustice”?). David Gibson of Religion News Service says some wonder whether the Vicar of Christ is “playing into the hands of President Obama and the Democrats, who have also made the wealth gap a major talking point” in the 2014 campaign.

The papal tweet followed the November text Jim asks about. Francis declared, among other things: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

There’s broad continuity between Francis and the prior popes in warning against greed and materialism, insisting that moral concerns must control money-making, and mandating concern for ordinary workers, their families, and those mired in poverty. But what economic setup best helps the dispossessed? On that, various Catholic conservatives have fretted that the Argentine pontiff’s views are “highly partisan and biased,” or “inaccurate and even irresponsible.”


It’s important that Evangelii is a preaching document or “apostolic exhortation,” as opposed to an “encyclical,” the highest-level papal pronouncement to carefully define official teaching on a single theme. Francis’s headline-grabbing economic comments were a minor aspect of a verbose text (47,600 words in English translation) that bounced among numerous topics.

Modern popes have issued a series of “social encyclicals” beginning with Leo XIII’s groundbreaking Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”) in 1891. Leo applied perennial Christian concern for low-income families in a new era of industrial development. He fervently supported private property rights over against socialism, championed workers’ moral claim to a living wage, and endorsed trade unions to negotiate fair labor conditions.

Subsequent social encyclicals that focused on economics have been Quadregesimo Anno (by Pius XI, 1931), Populorum Progressio (Paul VI, 1967), Laborem Exercens (John Paul II, 1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (John Paul II, 1987), Centesimus Annus (John Paul II, 1991), and Caritas in Veritate (Benedict XVI, 2009). The third encyclical from John Paul (who was canonized a saint the day before Francis’s “iniquitas” tweet) merits special attention since it marked both the centennial of Leo’s first social encyclical and the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Francis’s Evangelii had only one citation from Centesimus and that had nothing to do with economics.

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LATimes offers readers a simple, one-sided take on Vatican

Every niche website has a few “big ideas” that drive its work day after day. Any GetReligion reader knows — duh — that one of our big ideas is that the press often doesn’t see crucial religious themes and facts that are at the heart of important news stories. That’s the whole “ghost” concept that is explained in the essay published when we opened for business. If you never stopped to read that one, please do.

Another crucial concept for your GetReligionistas is that we are convinced that the “hotter” the story, the more a topic causes public division and debate, the more journalists should commit themselves to seeking out informed, qualified, representative voices on both sides. Of course, there are two sides or more, in many complex stories. This concept is central to what journalism textbooks would call the “American model of the press,” as opposed to the various forms of advocacy journalism in which the editors of publications openly slant their coverage to favor the editorial viewpoint that defines their newspaper.

That’s why it was so important when Bill Keller, days after he stepped down as New York Times editor, said the following in a public forum when he was asked if his newspaper slanted the news to the left:

“We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So what were the crucial “social” or moral values stories in American life during his tenure? And how about in the news today? Well, any list would have to include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other topics that, for a majority of Americans, are inevitably linked to religion.

That brings me to yet another mainstream journalism story in which editors appear to be totally comfortable publishing a one-side advocacy piece that offers zero content from informed voices on one side of a global debate.

Journalists in the audience: Raise your hands if you know that there are multiple camps in the Catholic Church today on issues related to sexuality? If you are breathing right now, your hand should be raised high.

So what are the editors of The Los Angeles Times trying to do in the piece that ran under this headline: “Vatican to debate teachings on divorce, birth control, gay unions.”

Note the word “debate.” That implies that there are competing voices, correct?

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