Mysterious deluge of unreported Catholics

Mysterious deluge of unreported Catholics April 17, 2013

I’m on a few of those neighborhood list-servs. One of them is for area parents. One of the members is a local reporter and she asks for interviews with folks for various stories she’s working on.

Well, one of her recent stories was related to the Newtown massacre. Had any parents, she wanted to know, removed toy guns from their home in response to the Sandy Hook massacre? Some time later, she asked again. And again. One mother responded that the reporter should “give up” trying to force a story that wasn’t there.

Now, as someone who has used social media to find sources for stories I’m working on, I’ve given some thought to this. I think the best way to handle such searches for sources is to not constrain them too much to your particular idea of what the story should be. So here’s a great example of how to do it, from the Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein:

Discussing Matthew Warren suicide at your church service? Bible study group? I’d love to hear:

In general, you want to keep the query as broad as possible so you don’t end up with a story where you’re forcing a few weak anecdotes into a preconceived hook that may or may not be valid.

Which brings us to this NBC News story  headlined “‘It was a sign’: Lapsed Catholics lured back by Pope Francis.” Now that reporters have a pope they like, instead of the last few, whom they clearly didn’t like, we’ll probably see a lot of coverage like this. I sort of imagine it all began with a social media request.

It begins:

Twenty million Americans consider themselves lapsed Catholics, but Pope Francis is convincing many to test the holy waters again with his bold gestures and common touch.

After years of disenchantment with the church’s hierarchy and teachings, former members of the flock say they are willing to give the Vatican a second chance under new leadership.

So of these 20 million, how many other than the three anecdotes in this story are we talking about? Well, it will not surprise you that it’s “unknown.”

What a trend piece!

We have a Dallas Baby Boomer Latina who generally drifted away from the Catholic Church after a divorce and such and switched to an evangelical church three years ago and recently started visiting Catholic Masses again.

We have a priest who says some people told him they’re coming back because of Pope Francis.

The article says that church teachings on abortion, homosexuality, birth control and “treatment” of women are the reason people have left the Catholic Church. Then it admits that Pope Francis “hasn’t given any hint of radical change on those issues.”

But the president of a website for returning Catholics says traffic is way up.

Anyway, here’s a sample anecdote:

Brian O’Neill, 48, an Irish-American cop from Washington State, went to Catholic elementary school and a Jesuit high school but hasn’t practiced since graduating from a secular college. He says that could change soon.

The Vatican’s stance on social issues, along with the gilded lifestyle of some higher-ups previously drove O’Neill away. Francis’ embrace of the poor and his background as a service-minded Jesuit might bring the father of two back.

“I was shocked and amazed when he started doing those things — you know, ‘No Popemobile for me,'” said O’Neill, who wrote a column for his local newspaper about possibly returning to Catholicism.

He said that while Francis’ views on church teachings might still be far from his own, his election heralds change.

“When the church says that’s the guy we’re going to put on St. Peter’s throne, that says enough about where the church wants to go,” O’Neill said. “Will I go back? I’m planning on it — if I can find a good service.”

But then we hear from a 70-year-old Unitarian who is totally not returning to Catholicism since Pope Francis isn’t going to change church teaching on birth control or homosexuality.

I mean, I love the idea for the story — but unless you want major tyranny by anecdote, it’s worth it to report this a little better. One teacher who might come back, one cop who couldn’t sound less committed to coming back and a Unitarian who is not coming back do not make for the strongest story.

Deluge image via Shutterstock.

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6 responses to “Mysterious deluge of unreported Catholics”

  1. Two religious consumers and one honest (and accurate) Unitarian really are pretty thin evidence for a trend. But what the heck, it fits the preferred narrative for thus new papacy. But I’m thinking the narrative may change soon.

    It’s funny: all the reporting when Papa Benedict came in was “God’s Rottweiler”, then it switched toward a more gentle image. Methinks it’s going the opposite direction this time

  2. There is no story of a trend until at least a year or two has gone by. This is a person (I would say journalist, but it is so clearly not the case) projecting her values onto the storyline … unconsciously or not. Sad but typical. The bigger damage is to the steady discrediting of journalism as a profession. That has an impact on whether or not we have a functioning republic.

  3. I don’t see this story the same way.

    There are two key facts in the story that make it hang together well in my judgement. The first is the statistic about lapsed Catholics. The second is the fact of the traffic at that web site for lapsed Catholics being way up. That is meaningful to me and supports the story. Also besides the anecdotes there is the statement by one pastor that he considered it “remarkable” that five people told him they were returning to the faith because of Pope Francis.

    Beyond those facts, there is one carefully worded line former members of the flock say they are willing to give the Vatican a second chance. There is, as you note, nothing about how many are thinking about it.

    The one thing I do object to is the word “many” in convincing many to test the holy waters again . “Some” would have been a better word to use because the number is unknown.

    One final note: So this is clearly a “developing story” story and should be judged as such There does need to be a followup story in a year or five about the lasting effects on the Catholic church because of the Papacy of Francis. And that story will hopefully be what you wanted, prematurely, to be written now.

  4. What is confounding the statistics, and would have been helpful to know in the article, is whether the uptick a the website for lapsed Catholics is purely due to the pope or if it’s seasonal because the Church usually has a “come home” campaign in Lent that ends at Easter time. Pope Francis has been in the news, so that would certainly have an impact, but I wonder if it’s magnified by the church’s other efforts.

  5. I don’t know if it signifies a trend, but we had a bigger than usual uptick in Easter attendance at our Easter Sunday Masses and the uptick seems to have continued. As AB said, it could be the “come home” campaign which around here( Boston) had ads on the very popular History Channel Bible series. Or it could be the Pope Francis effect.
    But already the more radical religious order sisters are finding out that the pope is still Catholic and that major or important projects put in place by previous popes to protect Catholic orthodoxy and ancient apostolic teachings or Traditions are not going to be tossed overboard to please what is increasingly becoming a fringe group as more traditional religious orders grow and expand.

  6. I think we don’t know enough about what Pope Francis will be like to make these kinds of judgements one way or the other. I note he’s getting a lot of praise for his humility in the media, and that really is great, and I don’t deny it – but what nobody seems to have thought about is that he really is strong-willed under it all (e.g. putting his foot down about the papal apartments, for one), and if they’re expecting a kind of cuddly grandpa who’s going to be all “Who cares about that sin thing? What’s important is that you’re nice and a good person!”, then they’ll be surprised.

    As Fr. Z points out in his post on the meeting of the delegate from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the presidents of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, Pope Francis has affirmed the CDF “crackdown” on the nuns:

    “Finally, Archbishop Müller informed the Presidency that he had recently discussed the Doctrinal Assessment with Pope Francis, who reaffirmed the findings of the Assessment and the program of reform for this Conference of Major Superiors.”

    How this will play out in the media about cuddly Pope Francis supporting the meanies against the Nuns on the Bus will be interesting to see 🙂