NY Times gets religion … in Rome!

The New York Times published a lengthy travel piece with tons of religion in it. It’s written by David Laskin, and nicely weaves religion, history and travel together. A reader complained about one portion, incorrectly, but before we get to that, let’s look at the top of the story.

For half a millennium, the Portico d’Ottavia has been the heart of Rome’s Jewish ghetto, four cramped blocks wedged between the Tiber, the Turtle Fountain, the Theater of Marcellus and the Palazzo Cenci. Amid today’s celebration of earthly pleasures, I had trouble finding the small wall plaque that commemorates “la spietata caccia agli ebrei” — the merciless hunting down of the Jews — that took place here on Oct. 16, 1943.

Seventy years ago, the world was at war, Rome was occupied by the Nazis, and the ghetto was a virtual prison for a large part of the city’s Jewish community. On the morning of Oct. 16, 1943, SS Captain Theodor Dannecker ordered that the prison be emptied.

Trucks pulled up on the cobblestoned piazza beside the Portico d’Ottavia, the neighborhood was sealed, and 365 German soldiers fanned out through the narrow streets and courtyards. Families hid at the backs of their shuttered shops. The able-bodied and quick-witted jumped from their windows or fled along the rooftops. The unlucky were hounded from their homes at gunpoint and herded into the idling trucks. Of the more than 1,000 Roman Jews seized that day and later transported to Auschwitz, only 16 survived.

On a balmy night in April, I sat pondering that dark time with my wife and two of our daughters on the terrace of Ba” Ghetto, a lively restaurant near the Portico d’Ottavia. All around us, waiters were bearing platters of grilled meat and assuring tourists that their fried artichokes alla giudia were the best in Rome. Deep into the night, a sparkler ignited atop a slice of cake and everyone sang “tanti auguri a te” (happy birthday to you) to a 20-something beauty.

It was impossible not to be stunned by the contrast between the festive present and the somber past. Even a dozen years ago, when we first visited the ghetto, the neighborhood felt forlorn and insular. Old, suspicious eyes sized us up as we made our way past kosher butchers and shabby tailor shops. Jews had been confined to these flood-prone riverside streets in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, and in 2001, an aura of melancholy still lingered.

I had irreligious friends who lived near Portico d’Ottavio 15 years ago and they never described the neighborhood as forlorn or insular — far from it. Always good to remember that different people’s perspectives of a given neighborhood might vary quite a bit. This is just one (very good) travel writer’s perspective. And I’m thankful for a religion writer who understands the role religion plays in the character of a place.

The piece is long, and I want to quote extensively from it, but it’s best if you just read it. The writer acknowledges that the nine-month occupation by German forces was just a blip on what he calls “this city’s 2,000 years of glorious and inglorious history.” Of course, if we’re going to include all of its history, might it be better to refer to its 3,000 years? In any case, there’s some great World War II history, a mention of the Protestant cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, and various other tidbits. He visits “San Lorenzo’s mellow 12th-century brick campanile” and learns how American bombs caved in the roof of the basilica’s roof and shattered parts of the mosaic floor, one of the most beautiful in Rome (since set back into place). There:

As my guidebook instructed, I descended a short flight of steps at the end of the nave to find the tomb of St. Lawrence, who was martyred over hot coals in the year 258.

But the moment that will stay with me came in the 12th-century cloister. Amid the dainty paired columns and drifts of myrtle and herbs, I stumbled upon a fragment of a bomb’s casing that was pried out of the rubble in 1943 — a shard of American steel displayed incongruously in a sacred Roman garden.

St. Lawrence’s story is one of my favorites, and it’s nice to see a mention. The next paragraph is poignant as well. He asks locals if they have any bitterness over what the United States armed forces did to San Lorenzo. They explain that they are grateful to Americans for liberating them from the Nazis.

Here’s the part for which we received a reader complaint:

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Hey Reuters: Historic details really matter in Istanbul

Istanbul is the kind of place in which the past often seems to be just as real, or even more real, than the present.

Sometimes this shows up in the headlines.

For example, back in 2004 I visited the center of Eastern Orthodox life there and learned the history of the stark, black, closed gate out front. At that time, I wrote this for Scripps Howard:

ISTANBUL – There are two front gates into the walled compound that protects the home of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar’s main gate because it was welded shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

Please keep in mind that the capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. This is a corner of the word in which more than a few people have long attention spans.

Thus, the thrust of the following Reuters report didn’t really surprise me:

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey is investigating an alleged plot to assassinate Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and has stepped up security around the patriarchate in Istanbul, his spokesman said. …

Spokesman Dositheos Anagnostopoulos said the patriarch had not received any direct threats but had learned of the alleged plot from Turkish media, which was later confirmed to the patriarchate by Turkish police.

“Later in the day, police informed the patriarchate of a possible threat and dispatched additional police officers,” Anagnostopoulos said.

Turkish broadcaster NTV said one man had been arrested in relation to the alleged plot, after state prosecutors in central Kayseri province received an anonymous letter saying there was a plan to assassinate Bartholomew on May 29, the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of present-day Istanbul.

Like I said, this didn’t surprise me very much, in light of unfolding events in that region. So what DID surprise me in this report?

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All the anonymous Vatican voices in the Gray Lady

At this point in the conclave process, I’m sure that millions of liberal Catholics are carefully watching The New York Times daily coverage to see what the world’s most powerful newspaper has to say about who will be, and who should be, the next occupant of the Throne of St. Peter.

At the same time, I would imagine that traditional Catholics, as defined by doctrine rather than politics, are parsing the daily Times coverage from Rome with another agenda altogether. At this point, it is really interesting to pay close attention to who is, and who is not, continuing to talk to the representatives of the Great Gray Lady.

That’s a very interesting question, at the moment.

Why? Because it’s almost impossible right now to know who is providing information to the Times, if you expect to learn that kind of information by reading the attribution clauses in the newspaper’s own stories.

This steady use of anonymous sources should trouble supporters of the newspaper’s credibility — especially those of us who were encouraged, back in 2005, when we read the New York Times Company self study called “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” (.pdf text is here). It included quite a bit of material urging Times editors to minimize the use of anonymous sources. The review panel offered three recommendations:

* Reporters must be more aggressive in pressing sources to put information and quotations on the record, especially sources who strongly desire to get their viewpoint into the paper.

* Editors must be more energetic in pressing reporters to get that information on the record. They must also recognize that persuading reticent sources to put their names behind sensitive disclosures is not easy; it may slow the reporting.

* When anonymity is unavoidable, reporters and editors must be more diligent in describing sources more fully. The basics include how the anonymous sources know what they know, why they are willing to provide the information and why they are entitled to anonymity.

Now, with these worthy Times standards in mind, read through the news story that ran under the headline, “Pope Wanted. Must Possess Magnetic Charm. And Grit.” It opens like this:

ROME – No candidate for pope can have it all. But the cardinals who will elect the next pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church seem to be looking for someone who combines the charisma of Pope John Paul II with the grit of what one Vatican analyst called, only slightly tongue in cheek, “Pope Rambo I.”

While it is too early to talk of front-runners, hints to the characteristics sought in a future pontiff can be discerned from the utterances of the cardinals who have spent the past week in meetings at the Vatican. Before Wednesday, when they stopped giving interviews, the cardinals frequently cited attributes the church now needs: a compelling communicator who wins souls through both his words and his holy bearing, and a fearless sheriff who can tackle the disarray and scandal in the Vatican.

Now, while the word “seems” is always a bit edgy in a lede, the key is that this material assures readers that they will be hearing information based on the “utterances of the cardinals” who are gathered at the Vatican. That would be a good thing — lots of direct quotes from specific cardinals.

Now, let’s look for that kind of authoritative material in the story. Let’s keep reading, because the next two paragraphs state the thesis:

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Where’s the faith content in these sex scandals?

On one level, that New York Times feature story on the fall of Msgr. Kevn Wallin of Connecticut has everything one would want in a religion scandal. I mean, it’s got sex, crystal meth, Broadway show tunes and a hazy link to a future cardinal.

Consider this summary material:

At a time when priests from California to Delaware have been accused of loathsome deeds, the allegations against Monsignor Wallin, the former pastor of the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Bridgeport, are of a notably different dimension: that he was a drug dealer and addict who was buying an adult novelty shop to launder ill-gotten proceeds, a priest who was cross-dressing and having sex with men.

The enigmatic double lives of Monsignor Wallin burst into public view last month after federal prosecutors announced they had arrested him on charges of possessing and conspiring to sell drugs that could send him to prison for life. Now 61, he languishes in jail, having pleaded not guilty to behavior that many who know him find both twisted and ungraspable.

Or how about this?

After his departure, church officials found a bag stowed in the rectory containing adult pornographic videos, sexual toys and leather masks, according to church workers.

Alarmed at the possibility of child pornography or child abuse, the diocese hired an outside lawyer. The diocese said Monsignor Wallin was questioned and denied interest in children. An expert searched his computer, but found nothing related to children.

The diocese decided it had a priest who had committed a sin but not a crime.

Anyway, I think that we will skip the part about the “lace panties and other articles of women’s clothing” in his laundry.

The journalistic question, for me, is this: What about the actual content of this talented clergyman’s faith and ministry? I mean, was he one of those priests who was silent on the church’s teachings? Was he a progressive who gently undercut the doctrines of the church? Was he a traditionalist to preached one thing, while secretly living a life that completely contradicted the doctrines he had vowed to defend? Was he high church or low church?

Readers don’t get much on that side of the equation, which is strange since many unnamed Catholic leaders — we are told — believed that this man was on his way to being a bishop.

I mean, we are told that he was “erudite” and that the faithful “felt buoyed by his homilies.” He apparently loved to talk about church history and to take people on pilgrimages of some kind or another (other than to the opera and Broadway shows). Then there was this interesting paragraph that combined both sides of his life in a mysterious and unexplained manner:

Monsignor Wallin’s fall seems precipitous. But colleagues said that his faith had been weakening for years under the imperatives of running a financially crippled church, and that he had long been sexually active with men. His drug use, they suspect, may have been more recent, and the final tinder that exploded his life.

And then there is this glimpse of spiritual issues:

“His lifestyle was go-go-go-go, doing 50 things at once,” said a businessman who knew him. “He loved to mix with the big shots.”

But there was evidence he was wrestling with his faith. A church worker who has known him for decades described a session with other priests years ago during which they spoke of things like the mercy of God, and Monsignor Wallin said, “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“He had become disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the church,” this worker said. “You’re always doing the ceremony. You’re always dealing with the paperwork. You’re not shepherding souls.”

But the fact everyone agrees on was that, before the drugs, before his mental breakdown, there was always his double life in which he was violating his oath of celibacy. So whatever his approach to the Catholic faith, it was one in which his public, celebrated priesthood was mixed with his life as a sexually active homosexual and church officials close to him seemed to have known about that, according to the Times.

So there is a crucial question here, once again.

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Alas, next pope will probably defend same old doctrines

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So here is an interesting journalism question for this digital age: What do we do with the earlier versions of stories by major news organizations if the editors later take them down and replace them with cleaned-up, expanded versions?

Do all of those headlines and paragraphs go into journalistic limbo? Were they ever published in the first place?

Take, for example, the following headline from The New York Times:

Pope’s Successor Is Likely to Share His Doctrine

By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO 4:08 PM ET

You have to admit that this is a stunner. Doctrinal stability! You mean the Catholic Church doesn’t change doctrines whenever the top man steps down, rather like a National Football League team losing its head coach? For many journalists, the more likely parallel in their minds is the White House, with entire policies going up for grabs after a change in the Oval Office.

Anyway, I saved the URL for the story that went with that headline, which featured a lede that clearly inspired the headline. Only now, when you click that URL, one goes to a new story in which the gist is the same, but the wording is less, well, funny.

The key to this rather magisterial report is — as usual — the almost complete lack of attribution attached to its many sweeping fact statements. Readers are left with this undeniable impression: People are talking to The New York Times and the editors of The New York Times do not want to tell us their names, perhaps because they all come from the same camp in the battles over the direction of Catholic life here in North America and spiritually frosty Europe.

Check this out. Yes, I removed one quote with a clear attribution, simply to save space:

The resignation sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mold, who advocate a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who believe that the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like allowing divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment to receive communion or loosening restrictions on condom use in an effort to prevent AIDS. There are no plausible candidates who would move on issues like ending celibacy for priests, or the ordination of women.

Many Vatican watchers suspect that the cardinals will choose someone with better management skills and a more personal touch than the bookish Benedict, someone who can extend the church’s reach to new constituencies, particularly to the young people of Europe, for whom the church is now largely irrelevant, and to Latin America and Africa, where evangelical movements are fast encroaching. …

The other big battle in the church is over the demographic distribution of Catholics, which has shifted decisively to the developing world. Today, 42 percent of adherents come from Latin America, and about 15 percent from Africa, versus only 25 percent from Europe. That has led many in the church to say that the new pope should represent a part of the world where membership is growing quickly, while others say that spiritual vision should be paramount.

The questions are obvious: Who are the “many Vatican watchers”? Who, precisely, are the “many in the church” who are debating the voices captured in that “while others say” reference?

Oh, and why would there be a tension between “spiritual vision” and the Catholic leaders who represent parts of the world in which the church is thriving? Are there really people in Catholic circles who believe that “spiritual vision” conflicts with church growth? Perhaps these mysterious voices are talking about some other kind of vision, perhaps a vision of change and progress for the future. It’s hard to tell, since we have absolutely no idea who the Times team is quoting.

The story, of course, also offers a political-horse-race list of candidates, complete with lots of labels and, once again, no indication of who is going the evaluating.

Later on, a real live scholar with a name — a totally logical one, too — shows up, to address the crucial issue of Catholic work in the Global South.

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