Got news? Bishops stand on HHS mandate (updated)

What you see at the top of this post is the content of today’s Baltimore Sun report on yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Catholic bishops — or at least, many of them — to continue their high-stakes fight against the White House and its Health and Human Services mandate.

Right. The box is empty.

I am referring, of course, to the mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called “morning-after pills.” There’s more to that mandate, of course. As I wrote for Scripps Howard News Service:

The key is that the HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of an employer if it’s a nonprofit that has the “inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” primarily employs “persons who share its religious tenets” and primarily “serves persons who share its religious tenets.” Critics say this means the government is protecting mere “freedom of worship,” not the “free exercise of religion” found in the First Amendment.

“Consider Blessed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity reaching out to the poorest of the poor without regard for their religious affiliation,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lorio this June, during the American bishops’ Fortnight For Freedom campaign. “The church seeks to affirm the dignity of those we serve not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic.”

Now, everyone knew — coming into this Baltimore meeting — that there were two big events on the horizon. (1) The election of new officers, including a new president to follow the charismatic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. (2) A decision by the bishops, after what would almost certainly be tense closed-door debates, about whether to fight the HHS mandate, a decision affecting thousands of Catholic schools, hospitals, shelters and other ministries from coast to coast.

In other words, there was one event that looked like a political horse race, framed as who is for or against the new spirit of Pope Francis, and another event rooted in a Constitutional clash over religious liberty (oh, right, that would be “religious liberty”), a clash that way too many newsroom professionals think is a figment in the imagination of theocrats (even though White House officials have acknowledged the tensions).

Thus, that empty box offered by the Sun and most other news outlets. To read the Catholic News Service report, click here.

Want to guess which of these two stories in Baltimore drew the attention of editors at the assignment desks in mainstream newsrooms?

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A mere 1 million 20th century Christian martyrs? (updated)

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Every now and then, a journalist gets pulled into a serious error when covering a speech or some other form of public presentation of complicated material.

It happens. It’s especially disturbing when the speaker — perhaps a person of great authority — makes an error and the reporter is in the position of having to quote the bad information or to challenge the information in print. Awkward.

However, it appears that The Baltimore Sun needs to run an immediate correction after this morning’s coverage of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s final address as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is the context of what almost certainly is a horrible and painful error.

“Painful”? Yes, especially if there are any Orthodox Armenians, Russians, Egyptians, Syrians or Romanians (I could make this list longer with ease) who still read this particular newspaper. Frankly, I know very few who are still subscribers.

Here is the top of the story, including the quote I am questioning:

At a time when the nation’s top Roman Catholic leaders have been making headlines with their stands on religious liberty and immigration reform, Cardinal Timothy Dolan opened this year’s convention of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by focusing his attention beyond American borders.

Actually, this lede is misleading. It’s clear that Dolan’s emphasis was on religious liberty AROUND THE WORLD, including the United States. Let’s move on:

Catholics and other Christians are facing so much violent persecution around the world today that the 21st century could accurately be termed “a new age of martyrs,” Dolan said Monday as he addressed church leaders gathered at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore.

More than a million people have been killed solely due to their faith in Jesus Christ since the year 2000, he said — more than suffered such a fate during the entire 20th century.

What was that again? There were a million Christian martyrs — or fewer than that — in the 20th century?

What about the Armenian genocide alone? That’s a controversial issue, but you will frequently see claims that 1.2 million or more believers died in that wave of persecution.

And what about the persecution of the church in Russia in the decades before and after the establishment of the Communist regime?

Once again, statistics vary widely for the number of Russian Orthodox bishops, priests and believers who died as martyrs. However, most academic studies put the number somewhere between 10 and 20 million killed. And what about Romania and the rest of Eastern Europe? What about previous rounds of persecution in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, etc.? And I in no way mean to imply that the Orthodox in these lands were the only Christians to die for their faith in the troubled 20th century! No way. I am simply noting some obvious cases.

I have searched to see if other media outlets have quoted Cardinal Dolan making this error.

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All together now: Archbishop Lori leads WHAT committee?

It’s that time, again. The U.S. Catholic bishops are back in Baltimore and the agenda includes the election of a new president to replace the remarkably charismatic (especially in his crucial mass-media duties) Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

Speaking of omnipresent, the primary voice of authority in the A1 Baltimore Sun piece on the conference is the one and only Rocco “friend of the blog” Palmo of the Whispers in the Loggia weblog, who basically narrates the whole report. I especially liked his quip on the challenge of replacing Dolan:

Whoever is chosen in Tuesday’s election will have his work cut out for him, according to Palmo, in part because Dolan made such an extraordinary mark.

“Like him or not, you couldn’t ignore him,” Palmo said. “He’s a once-in-a-generation leader. It’s like Elvis is leaving the building. Who’s going to take the stage now?”

There are at least two other “must cover” news angles in this bishops conference advance piece, with one angle of special importance to a newspaper in Baltimore. Alas, only one really made it into print, and it wasn’t the all-news-is-local one.

There is, of course, the Pope Francis angle, which shows up early. Note the careful attribution (not) of the opinions expressed in this passage:

This week’s meeting is the first during the tenure of Pope Francis, the first Latin American-born pontiff and a man widely seen as offering a friendlier face to the non-Catholic world than many of his predecessors.

It also comes in the wake of Dolan’s term, which many felt gave the bishops a more unified public presence than they had enjoyed in years.

Who are the Catholic voices of authority hiding in the phrase “widely seen” on this back-handed slap at the Blessed John Paul II and, of course, the bookish Pope Benedict XVI? Then, a few phrases later, we have a vague reference to “many” Catholics feeling such and such. Lots of people talking, but few willing to be quoted? Not a good sign.

The other key topic that must be addressed is the presence of Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori in the short list of candidates to fill Dolan’s chair as conference president. While he is not a lock-in, there is at least one reason to think that Lori could get the nod. This force in his favor, however, could be a reason he would not get the presidency in the new media-friendly age of Francis.

So, all together now, what is the primary leadership post held by the articulate and scholarly archbishop of Baltimore? Why has he been in and out of the headlines in recent years? What national church work has he performed (often in a partnership with Dolan)?

The story gives a hint, but never states the obvious.

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Preachers and politics: Be careful out there folks …

Today’s digest from the Religion News Service (sign up for this very helpful service, if you have not already done so) points readers toward a very important story in the wake of this year’s White House race. Come to think of it, this story has been highly relevant in every single national election year since, oh, 1973. Here is the short RNS blurb for this story:

Church-state and atheist groups have long complained about churches endorsing candidates; now they’re going to court in a bid to force the IRS to do something about it.

The key word in that statement? The answer is “candidates.”

Thus, the actual RNS news report, as it should, provides the following crucial information:

IRS rules state that organizations classified as 501 (c) (3) non-profits — a tax-exempt status most churches and other religious institutions claim — cannot participate or intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any political candidate.” …

IRS rules do allow for some nonpartisan activity by religious institutions, including organizing members to vote and speaking out on issues. But endorsing or supporting specific candidates could jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

Thus, it is acceptable for religious organizations to discuss the specific doctrinal stands taken by their faith and then to apply them to specific issues in the public square. It’s fine for African-American congregations to tell members that the God of Holy Scripture demands that his people fight to defend the poor and the weak. It’s fine for Catholic bishops to tell their flocks that, for those in sacramental relationships with ancient churches, it is a sin to support the killing of unborn children and the unnatural deaths of the elderly.

But this is where things get interesting, in light of the new lawsuits by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and others. Thus, the RNS report notes:

The lawsuit … challenges the legality of several full-page newspaper advertisements paid for by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, another 501 (c) (3), that exhorted voters to vote along “biblical principles.”

Other complaints include:

– Roman Catholic Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., who wrote an appeal on diocesan letterhead inserted in parish bulletins warning voters that they could “put their own soul in jeopardy” if they voted for a party or candidate that supports same-sex marriage or abortion rights.

– Roman Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., who criticized President Obama in a homily and then exhorted parishioners that “every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences.”

– Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino, who, in an article appearing in the local diocesan newspaper, wrote of “non-negotiable” political issues, and that “No Catholic may, in good conscience, vote for ‘pro-choice’ candidates (or) … for candidates who promote ‘same-sex marriage.’ ”

Now, that second Catholic case — the Jenky case — is interesting. One must assume that it would also be illegal for pastors in African-Americans to praise Obama and then to urge the faithful to vote according to their consciences.

In light of surveys from the Pew Research Center, it does appear that journalists need to be probing these issues on both sides of church aisles. We know that it is illegal for churches to endorse specific candidates by name, which, for example, the Graham advertisements did not do. We also know that it is legal for churches to preach on specific issues, to relate them to church teachings, and then to remind their members what actions their churches consider sinful and what actions they consider to be faithful to scripture and tradition (whether we are talking about the environment, the death penalty, health care, abortion, gay rights or whatever).

This chunk of the Pew report is long, but essential reading:

While many regular churchgoers say they have been encouraged to vote by their clergy, relatively few say church leaders are discussing the candidates directly or favoring one candidate over the other. Black Protestants are far more likely than white Protestants or Catholics to say they are hearing about the candidates and the importance of voting, and the messages they are hearing overwhelmingly favor Barack Obama.

Among those who attend religious services at least once or twice a month, about half (52%) say their clergy have spoken out about the importance of voting over the past few months. Just one-in-five (19%) say their clergy have spoken about the candidates themselves, according to the survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) black Protestant churchgoers say their clergy have spoken out about the importance of voting, compared with about half of white evangelical Protestant (52%) and white Catholic (46%) churchgoers. Only about a third (32%) of white mainline Protestants who attend services say their clergy have discussed the importance of voting.

Black Protestants are twice as likely as churchgoers overall to be hearing about the candidates at church. Among regular churchgoers, four-in-ten (40%) black Protestants say their clergy have spoken directly about the candidates, compared with 17% of white Catholics, 12% of white evangelicals and just 5% of white mainline Protestants.

Most regular churchgoers say the messages they are hearing in church are neutral when it comes to the 2012 election — whether or not they mention the candidates directly. Only about three-in-ten say what they are hearing at church is more supportive of one candidate or the other. Among those who feel their clergy’s messages favor a candidate, roughly equal numbers say the messages support Obama (15%) as Romney (14%).

What people are hearing varies greatly by race. Nearly half (45%) of black Protestant churchgoers say the messages they hear at church favor a candidate, and every one of those says the message favors Obama. Fewer white churchgoers say they are hearing things that favor a candidate, but among those who are, the messages are far more favorable to Romney than Obama. In particular, white evangelical churchgoers say their clergy have tended to be more supportive of Romney (26%) than Obama (5%). Among white Catholic churchgoers, 21% say their clergy’s messages have been more supportive of Romney, compared with 4% who say the messages have been more supportive of Obama.

What, precisely, does it mean to say that sermons “favor a candidate” or that they are “more” supportive of one candidate or another?

This is where journalists must be very, very precise about the actual language that preachers are using. Is it illegal for a black pastor to urge church members to vote for the candidate who will best understand the concerns of African-Americans, in a race involving a black candidate? Is it illegal for a Catholic priest to remind parishioners that abortion is intrinsically evil in a race in which one candidate has a muddled record on sanctity of life issues and the other has one of the most faithfully pro-abortion-rights records possible in American politics? It’s easy to do similar equations when dealing with other cultural, moral and political issues that, beyond all doubt, are linked to centuries of doctrine.

Journalists must remember that activists on both sides — left and right — are wrestling with these issues. Be careful out there, because God is in the details and the same is true of the First Amendment.

Stay tuned.

What should be tweeted via @ThroneOfPeter?

Let’s drop the media criticism for a moment and have a bit of fun (about a topic that is actually pretty serious).

What was your first reaction if and when you saw this short news story? I’ll link to The Los Angeles Times take on it:

Digital white smoke signals may soon be rising on Twitter. The Vatican says Pope Benedict XVI will begin tweeting from a personal Twitter account, possibly before year’s end.

This clearly won’t rival Pope Benedict XVI’s first appearance on the St. Peter’s balcony –- or even his first appearance on Twitter. But it should give him a far more apostolic follower count than his Vatican account (some 28,000 faithful).

The 85-year-old Benedict first tweeted from that Vatican account last year. That’s when the Vatican launched a news portal. No one was really a fan of the handle @Pope2YouVatican. No word yet on the new handle. …

The Vatican says the Twitter account will belong to Benedict (though it’s likely he will write 140-character messages in longhand and let someone else do the actual tweeting).

That’s most of it, aside from the obligatory joke about the possibility that the pope will give up tweeting for Lent. Actually, this whole “give one thing up for Lent” story is rooted in myth, not Catholic (or Anglican or Lutheran or Orthodox) tradition, but that news hook lives on and on.

Anyway, if @Pope2YouVatican didn’t work, what do the headline writers in our cyber-midst think would be a better handle for Benedict XVI? What do you think the pope should try to accomplish with his Twitter account?

The latter question, truth be told, is connected to an interesting event that took place yesterday in Baltimore — when a pack of bloggers met with a smaller pack of bishops to talk about a new research report (click here for the document) on the state of Catholicism in social media. After spending several days deep down South (speaking at the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi), I rushed back to take part as the only non-Catholic on the main panel.

As you would hope, and expect, Ann Rodgers of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette went the extra mile and covered the event. Another Godbeat veteran, Cathy Grossman of USA Today, was also there and I hope we see a report from her soon.

Meanwhile, you can also dig into a few of the remarks via, naturally, the event Twitter feed: #bpsblog

Here is the top of the Rodgers story:

BALTIMORE – The majority of Catholics use social media, but only the most ardent visit Catholic sites, which typically do a poor job of attracting fallen-away Catholics and those searching for a faith connection.

The statistics came from a study released just before the annual Baltimore meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. About 25 bishops arrived early to learn from bloggers and other social media experts how to have a more effective online presence.

The gathering, sponsored by the bishops’ communications office, was modeled on a similar session held last year at the Vatican.

“Catholic media, at this point, is very effectively preaching to the choir … and to the very small percentage that agree with you on almost everything,” said panelist Terry Mattingly, religion columnist for the Scripps-Howard news service and co-founder of, which analyzes religion coverage in secular media.

But if a bishop is trying to engage in evangelization without a sophisticated social media outreach, he said, “you have a promising future in ministry to the Amish.”

The study from the bishops’ research agency, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, showed that 62 percent of Catholic adults, including 37 percent of those 70 and older, have a profile on Facebook. Two-thirds of Catholic adults, including 84 percent of those 30 and younger, visit YouTube. Yet just 5 percent of Catholic adults with Internet access follow blogs related to the Catholic faith, though that number rises to 13 percent who attend Mass weekly. Despite a vigorous Vatican website and countless official and unofficial Catholic sites, 53 percent of more than 1,000 self-identified Catholics surveyed weren’t aware of a significant Catholic presence on the Internet.

Believe it or not, the subjects that interest Catholic readers the most — according to Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate — are church history and the lives of the saints.

Yes, much of the information was THAT inside baseball. Thus, I asked if bishops were willing and able to supply digital offerings linked to film, dating, family life, humor, liturgical music, books and other normal, everyday topics. Would anyone else be willing to join Cardinal Timothy Dolan in reaching out to the Comedy Central world?

The most stunning moment in the afternoon, for me, was supplied, naturally enough, by the unofficial czar of the Catholic blogosphere.

Several bloggers specifically mentioned problems with racist posts from professing Catholics. Rocco Palmo, whose “Whispers In the Loggia” blog on church leadership is nearing 25 million site visits, pointed out that 60 percent of Catholics under 30 in the United States are Hispanic, but the Catholic blogosphere doesn’t reflect that.

When he writes an annual post in Spanish for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “I never get more angry, vitriolic hate mail,” he said.

He advised bishops to directly address bigotry online.

“We have a major problem when people in our church think they can get away with that and be in communion with the Catholic Church,” he said.

The bishops, in chorus, expressed several common concerns. Many were concerned that life in cyberspace would be too hectic, too shallow and too divisive. How could they keep up? Would any opinions they expressed be blown up into controversies?

Listen to these voices:

“I’m afraid of making a fool of myself,” said Archbishop Roger Schwietz of Anchorage, Alaska. “This is personality driven. What I’m used to is to focus on the message and stay out of the way.”

Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City, Mo., compared the digital age to the era that saw the birth of Christianity. “It spread like wildfire. You had the system of Roman roads … and the spiritual hunger of people who would go after any new mysticism,” he said.

Panelist Mary DeTurris Poust, who has spent a 30-year career in Catholic media, said Google searches for “Catholic” and related words are declining while searches for “spiritual” and its variants are rising.

“That should send up a warning flare,” said Ms. Poust, who blogs at “Not Strictly Spiritual.” “It reflects a virtual version of what we are seeing in [bricks-and-mortar] searches. People are searching, but they are not searching for us. … How do we reach Catholic adults who are disconnected from the church but are desperately seeking a spiritual connection?”

By all means, read all of the Rodgers story. Then you can turn to this Catholic News Service report. If you would, please point us toward other online reports about this gathering and this subject.

In the end, I concluded that the issue is not whether bishops should blog or tweet. That’s a question for each shepherd to make on his own. If you can preach, you can blog.

The key for me is whether the bishops can find talented Catholics — with or without collars — who are talented enough to write quality, provocative material that can attract and hold the overloaded eyes of modern Catholics, sort-of Catholics, young Catholics, ex-Catholics and, yes, unbelievers. Do these bishops have talented people on their staffs? If so, all they have to do is support them and work with them. Just do it.