Define ‘practicing Catholic;’ report the Virginia options

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Surely it will come as little surprise to faithful readers of this hear blog to learn that your GetReligionistas are not fond of the term “devout Catholic,” a foggy, meaningless label that is used way too often in mainstream news reports.

Several years ago, when writing about one rather extreme case (I’m not joking!) of “devout Catholic” syndrome, I noted:

You see, of all the labels used by journalists to describe believers — from “apostate” to “zealot” — surely “devout” has become one of the most meaningless. While this is true in a variety of world religions, for some reason things get especially interesting when “devout” appears in front of “Catholic.”

The bottom line: What’s the difference between a “practicing” Catholic and a “devout” Catholic? Do journalists simply know one when they see one?

The problem is that the term “devout” is ultimately subjective. How does one use the basic skills of journalism to gather facts that prove someone is devout? I mean, that person on the kneeler at the back of the church may be fingering a Rosary, but how does one know that this Catholic’s mind is not focused on planning a quick trip to Las Vegas with a hot next-door neighbor?

Now, is the term “practicing” any better?

I would argue that it is, for the simple reason that journalists can demonstrate — with practical questions and answers that can be verified — the degree to which an alleged “practicing” Catholic is active in a parish, the sacraments and in service to God and humanity. It is also possible to take the facts about a public person’s words and actions and compare them with the doctrines found in the Catholic Catechism. A truly enterprising reporter may even, with a nod to sacred Watergate scriptures, be able to “follow the money” (or the trips to Mass).

In other words, “practicing” implies activities that can be investigated and reported. This word implies facts, as opposed to “devout” feelings.

So what are readers supposed to make of the following material at the top of a recent Washington Post political report?

The two major-party candidates running for governor in Virginia are both practicing Catholics. But when it comes to the contentious issue of abortion, they stand on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli opposes abortion in almost all circumstances — including rape and incest. He makes an exception when the life of the mother is endangered.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe supports most Virginia laws that prohibit third-trimester abortions except to protect the life or health of the mother. But he opposes further restrictions and says he supports a repeal of mandatory ultrasounds before abortions.

In a state considered one of the most antiabortion in the nation in terms of state laws restricting the practice, the issue has often been front and center as national antiabortion and abortion rights groups spend heavily on harsh ads.

Now, throughout the race Cuccinelli has been called an extremist, by those in the McAuliffe camp, for backing public-policy decisions — on this issue — that are very close to the teachings of his church.

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