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Whispering with Rocco Palmo

We usually examine mainstream media reporting here, but we also have our eyes set on non-mainstream sites that cover religion. Earlier this month, tmatt highlighted a piece from the Baltimore Sun on Rocco Palmo who runs Whispers in the Loggia, which regularly scoops mainstream press. A former US correspondent for the London-based international Catholic weekly The Tablet, Palmo has served as a church analyst for many mainstream outlets since he launched the blog in 2004. A native of Philadelphia, he studied political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2010, Palmo received an honorary doctorate from Aquinas Institute of Theology, a Dominican school in St Louis, for services to the church's interaction with technology. In April he was named as one of two chairs of the Vatican's first conference on the blogosphere/social media. Get ready for an epic twist on 5Q+1 with Palmo, especially a bit of hopefulness in the bonus question.

(1) How would you describe the work you do: journalism, advocacy journalism, something else? What are you trying to accomplish?

These days, above all, I’m trying to accomplish not having to sweat the bottom line anymore. It’s been a great almost-seven years now: more fun (and, a lot of days, more exhaustion) than I ever could’ve imagined having in a lifetime. When you’re in a gig to write, though, having to double as CFO/development director/accountant, etc. is the worst energy-zapper there is. It’s probably lost me about four books’ worth of time and material by now.

As for the first part, I’ve never been one to conceptualize things too much -- I’d rather just do the job and let others analyze it. (Not being terribly smart helps, to boot.) As my thinking goes, though, “advocacy journalist” is basically a euphemism for a lobbyist who likes to write, and there are still a lot of people out there who think that for something to qualify as straight-up “journalism,” it needs to read like Xanax and appear on dead trees (or look like it could). I’d like to think I do more of the latter than the former... even if one of my personal Commandments is “For the love of God, Never Be Boring.” Luckily, the beat never is, and I just try to give it that respect.

A big problem with classification is the tendency to keep thinking in terms of templates. To use a common Vaticanese term, the templates “have been superseded,” so with the freedom to approach the story from an unconventional vantage, attempts at pigeonholing can get messy, and sometimes even be unfair. Still, one of the commenters picked up on this, and it’s true: if there’s an analogy that best describes what I’ve always sought to shoot for, it’s “beat writer for the Red Sox” -- not principally in the sense of Boston baseball, but as that’s what cardinals are supposed to wear under their full-dress robes.

I don’t mean to banalize faith here, but when you’ve grown up with the shadow of the ballpark to one side of your house and the parish on the other, they don’t seem all that different: there are rules, traditions, trades, wins and losses; a community, a spirit and, always, a long season. You can’t change any of them, nor should you even think of trying -- that’s part of the magic. What transpires day by day either lifts people up or makes the winter that much tougher to get through. Yet beyond the result, you basically learn to roll with whatever comes down, you remember what’s fleeting and what isn’t, you rejoice and find comfort in those things that neither a run of championships nor a seemingly endless slump could, at its core, have any impact on.

When your team has lost more games over time than any squad in the history of American sports, all these distinctions come fairly naturally. In a word, you’re always a “fan” (i.e. a believer), but reporting that your guys won 12-2 when, in fact, the result was the other way around -- or, alternatively, you confuse a seat in the press box with being the crew-chief on the field -- should get you be banned from walking into a newsroom ever again, let alone running anything from it. Unfortunately, though, I worry that we’ve got some of that around now, and I’m admittedly envious that you can even get a salary and benefits to do it.

It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that -- much as I love Baltimore -- the Orioles aren’t going to the World Series this year, and as a reader, it’s pretty insulting to find the equivalent of stories that say, in effect, that they’re either headed for late October or even a shot of it exists. However much the fans might pine and pray for the postseason -- it’d be more of a story if they didn’t -- and packed the place out every night, if the standings show the dreaded “E” (eliminated), what else can you say?

To be sure, there are comparable things on both sides of the Catholic radar, where you’d essentially have to tear up 28 stadiums (or kill off most of the AL East) for them to merely stand a chance of living up to the hype. But if you hear about a high-school kid, “future Cy Young” written all over him, being scouted for the pros in a sandlot 10 minutes away, given the understanding, which one’s your story?

The context of the last ten years has only served to amplify the extent to which, in the general perception, Catholicism has a transparency problem: on one side, you’ve got the the abuse revelations and the impact they’ve had on people’s faith because of how allegations were (or weren't) communicated in many places, and on the other there’s a surreal number of normally reasonable, perfectly well-meaning people who believe that the Vatican has a cadre of albino assassins at its disposal.

It might be more apparent in the former scenario, but both illustrate how the sharing of information isn’t without its consequences on significantly bigger fronts, and a challenge that, for the church, has largely been self-made. And when you see this, if the bigger stuff means something to you, you have to face the question of whether you can sanely keep relying on a 1985 -- or 1965 -- communications model of tone and content, or when you’ve practically got nothing left to lose, do you try throwing some new ideas at the wall and see what sticks?

What comes of it might not be everyone’s cup of tea... but, hey, it’s a big church.

(2) Where do you get your news about religion? How do blogs like Whispers in the Loggia change the way people get their religion news?

If there’s a place to find religion news, chances are I read it -- and not just on things Catholic, either. We’re really lucky to live in a time when there’s so much good stuff out there that’s so easily available, and hopefully we don’t take it too much for granted!

As for any “change” the blogosphere and its offshoots have brought to relaying things, I’d say it’s more a change of accessibility and speed than the nature of the content. For one, Rome being very much a “company town,” the Italian press has been doing this kind of thing from time immemorial (maybe even since before the birth of Jesus). But even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, successive archbishops of New York learned of their appointments from reporters who, having been tipped off by overseas correspondents, showed up on their doorstep. So it’s really nothing new -- it’s just the combination of the medium and, for our time, that it’s in English which have seemingly created the perception of “novelty.”

That said, as a lot has changed in terms of breadth and delivery these last seven years, it might be off-topic, but I’m compelled to toss out a concern here -- how fast is too fast? Or, from another side, have we reached an over-saturation point?

To a considerable degree, the explosion of voices, fed first by the blogosphere, then by more instantaneous social platforms (Twitter and Facebook above all), has sped the news-cycle to what feels like an impossible pace to keep up with, especially when you’ve got several multi-thread stories dropping all at once. As a result, it seems the cycle’s likewise become ever more “flattened” in that a tiered significance of things -- and above all, the top-grade stuff that takes time to wind out -- is lost in favor of the glomming on latest bit atop the timeline.

More and more, I find myself longing for the days of the old, long-frame, color-heavy magazine piece... or, at least, hoping to wean readers away from a mindset in which every day and everything is and has to be Christmas. I’m not terribly optimistic about either.

Hopefully others haven’t had this kind of experience, but having been pelted for -- among other things recently -- not covering new auxiliary bishops in Chicago or Montreal because tracking the pieces of a hundred-year storm in my own backyard was taking up all the energy and brain-space I had, the thought’s been ever more on my mind.

(3) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Obviously, we’re talking just one religion here, so I couldn’t claim the competence to say if there’s a glaring hole (or several) in covering Islam, evangelicals, LDS or anybody else. Just another thing to leave to the legion of my betters.

As the American Catholic beat goes, though, I’d have to highlight the story that I consider my “baby” -- namely, the staggering demographic shift going on in the rank-and-file of the nation’s largest religious body. Sure, one chunk of that storyline -- the data from Pew and others on ex-Catholics being the nation’s “second-largest denomination,” Anglos fleeing in droves, etc. -- is very well-known (...and, admittedly, sometimes I wonder whether there’s an added reason it’s as well-known as it is?). As the long-view and the internals go, though, it seems to be at least as significant that a supermajority of today’s American Catholics under 30 (read: my generation) are Hispanic and, within as quickly as a decade, Latinos are set to comprise a majority of the roughly 70 million national membership, period. To be sure, the Anglo exodus has played a part in speeding up the time-frame, but in terms of raw numbers, the influx from immigration and birth-rates is at least keeping pace with, if not blowing out, the figures of those who are leaving.

Today, at least two of the church’s most storied domestic outposts (New York and Chicago) already have majority-Hispanic Catholic populations, and on the back of what’s now a 70% Latino contingent, LA’s archdiocese of 5 million (at least double its 1985 size) has become the largest local church in Catholicism’s five-century history in the US. It’s bigger than the cited older duo combined... and here’s the kicker: it’s still growing.

You’d think these realities would be sufficient to garner at least as much play as the “Death of the Church” meme. But experience shows that isn’t happening. Why not?

Historically speaking, the last time we’ve seen a shift of this magnitude came in the 1840s, when the first major waves of immigration (above all Irish) transformed the US church from a relatively small, English-dominated group into the nation’s largest religious body. As the makeup changed, it was inevitably reflected in how the wider fold looked and the feeling it exuded, what its emphases were, and how it interacted with society. While a new dynamic at the local level is already well underway over much of the map, we’re only beginning to see it go full-bore on the national stage, and that’ll keep unfolding over the next ten, twenty years. It has to -- at least, if a dramatically different church is going to hold its long-standing population level and not bleed even more millions of its native demo-base.

Maybe it’s a gripe, but since we’re on the topic, it’s worth recalling the story of taking a call a couple years back from a full-time religion writer for a major national daily in an archdiocese where Hispanics were already the dominant Catholic bloc. The writer was doing a story -- candidly, one on a manufactured “controversy” -- that touched on the Latino boom, and I made an offhand comment about how wild the scene was (read: tens of thousands in attendance, flowers everywhere) at the cathedral of the city in question on what’s arguably the linchpin observance for the Hispanic ascendancy: the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12th).

When the scribe interjected by asking, “What’s Guadalupe?” it suddenly became tempting to just hang up and spend the next hour banging my head into a wall. It still is, to be honest.

That’s not to say the Catholic press has been phenomenal in handling the story, either -- if anything, by and large, especially given their prime vantage, they’ve been an embarrassment. We’ve got broad-sweep history on our hands and a narrative even bigger -- and truer -- than “Everybody’s leaving because of birth control bans/no women or married priests, etc.” yet while few national church-beat outlets would dare fail to mention a single DC March for Life weeks later on the Roe v. Wade anniversary (and, even though it’s an ecumenical event, rightly so), you’ve got a crowd at least as large (250,000, all of them Catholic) freezing and singing and praying at a shrine outside Chicago through the night of every 11-12 December, to say nothing of literally hundreds of other packed-out parishes, cathedrals, even arenas all over the country those same hours, and the in-house scribes are asleep. All told, I’d bet that the Guadalupe Mañanitas (Vigil) crowds nationwide dwarf even the totals of those who go to Midnight Mass on Christmas -- it’s just that big, and across most of the country, become so over a staggeringly short space of time.

After a few years of going all-out for the US church’s “Super Tazón” (Super Bowl) and feeling like no one was listening, I thought it’d seemingly make little difference if I wrote Whispers in Spanish for the weekend of the feast. I ended up with more venom-filled hate-mail than I’ve ever gotten on anything else. Thanks to that, it’ll now be an annual custom, and -- if my horrible Spanish can hold up -- for the whole week. Still, for the first time, seeing the response gave me something of a sense of what my grandparents had to deal with coming off the boat and being the only family in a Catholic-to-the-core neighborhood that wasn’t Irish, German or English and been there for three or four generations. And yet again, that same crossroads of hope and conflict is the next chapter in the life of the American church.

While we’re at it, albeit to a smaller degree by numbers, the same thread runs true for numerous Asian (and even, in some parts, African) immigrant communities who’ve quickly emerged to make a significant impact on the life of a good many American dioceses, notably on the front of priestly and religious vocations. With the spirit and sense of contribution -- and, often, a lived experience of real and brutal persecution most of us could barely imagine -- they bring to the table, you sometimes almost think to yourself, “Who needs the Anglos?”

(4) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two? Just one? Over years? I’ve got a handful just between now and December. Just indulge me with two -- Lord knows where I’ll be in 2014.

First, and it’s not just my local side coming out, anyone with an interest in the future of American Catholicism should be watching my hometown very closely over the next year... and definitely not because of Whispers. As the whole world seems to know by now, Philadelphia has a new Archbishop, and Charles Chaput has arguably inherited the steepest mountain of internal challenges to face an American bishop in at least a half-century, and perhaps even longer.

Of course, media attention’s focused on the fallout of the second grand-jury to investigate the archdiocese’s handling of sex-abuse cases -- above all, the five criminal trials which are slated to begin in the spring (with a prosecution witness list said to number at least 70, including several bishops), plus seven pending civil suits. As things go on the ground, though, when you see the other looming hurdles, among them a costly, century-old parish and school structure in need of significant overhaul; a famously potent administrative apparatus run amok; broken survivors and their families seeking justice and healing; 30 priests suspended over the last nine months and hanging in an investigatory limbo, while their confreres who remain are shaken and furious over “guys being thrown under the bus,” and a hurting, often angry people in the pews at their wit’s end (to say nothing of those who’ve gone) -- and all of it in the glare of the nation’s fourth-largest media market -- you can’t help but think, “How on earth does anyone handle all this?” And just thinking about it is enough to make you tired. Put simply, the grunt-work -- and tough calls -- of three tenures will need to be tackled in roughly a decade.

On top of that, there’s the clash of cultures -- a rare face-off between two very distinctive ecclesiologies. Chaput, of course, comes steeped in the vibrant, lay-heavy, orthodox but decidedly post-Vatican II church of the West, while Philly has long been viewed as American Catholicism’s “Last Great China Shop” -- the ultimate bastion of a triumphalist, hidebound clericalism of an earlier age that coats everything in glory, yet whose yield on numerous levels over recent decades has been anything but golden. It might sound too colorful to be true, but it’s now the case that the nation’s emblematic “Catholic, Inc.” diocese, its institutional structure having bred over a century of “ecclesiastical tycoons,” rests in the hands of a bishop long on-record declaring that “The Church is not General Motors.” And with it, Rome has set a fascinating experiment into motion -- a push for the most thorough revamping of a US diocese since the period immediately following Vatican II, one whose developments could have ramifications up and down the East Coast.

As the outlook goes, another nearby bishop once told me that he and his counterparts in the region were privately resigned to the task of “managing decline,” and I just can’t see that concept computing in Chaput’s mind. So, come 2020 or thereabout, will the result be Denver on the Delaware, or will internal resistance to a 21st century reboot prove too powerful for the archbishop’s ambitions to be realized? From another angle, might an energized, collaborative vision of a gilded church’s new possibilities be enough to rally the faithful and reach the disaffected, or will the daily drip of the trials and, likely, costly settlements -- not to mention what always hurts most: the closing or consolidation of scores of parishes and schools -- be too much for people to hang on through?

I’ve followed the prelate closely for over a decade and know the place better than anything, and my hopes for the union of the two are sky-high, but predicting how this most unlikely of marriages will pan out is beyond me; right now, there are just too many variables, and it’s simply uncharted territory for everybody involved, which makes it all the more compelling to watch. Either way, having had a front-row seat for the astonishing cultural collapse of the last seven months, I don’t think I’ll ever know a more intense story in my professional and ecclesial life. In its wake, though, while I’ve always maintained that appointments matter -- and can never underscore enough the degree to which they do -- I honestly can’t remember one whose significance and potential rise to the epic level of this.

(Wait... did I miss something in all that?)

The other impending biggie begins in about six weeks -- the first ad limina visit of the US bishops to Rome in Benedict XVI’s pontificate. While the world’s 5,000-odd prelates are supposed to make their visits every five years, Benedict’s spaced them out on a seven-year cycle for two reasons: his desire to pace himself at 84, and above all, the time he invests in poring over the extensive reports submitted on the state of each diocese. (For purposes of context, a friend in one mid-sized diocese reported the other day that his place’s report filled up a one-inch binder.)

Most of the week-long visits -- in our case, the US is split into 15 regional groups -- are taken up by prayer-stops and informational meetings with the offices of the Roman Curia, but their highlight tends to be the one-on-one meetings each individual cleric has with the pope. As a point of contrast, John Paul II used to begin the sit-downs by asking his guest to point out his diocese on a map. Benedict, however, already knows where his visitor’s diocese is, and isn’t afraid to grill a prelate with questions from his reading -- “Why don’t you have more seminarians?” “What are you doing to raise your levels of Mass attendance?” and, quite possibly for the US hierarchs, “What do you do when an allegation of abuse is received?” (Remember here that the zero-tolerance provisions of the USCCB’s Dallas Norms are, by Roman decree, national canon law for the States.) In other words, much as the accountability of church leadership has become a hot topic over recent years, as things stand, the ad limina is its unparalleled exercise, and one the reigning pontiff has taken to wielding to maximum effect.

At the close of each group’s visit, the pope gives a public talk to the bishops, summarizing his impressions of Catholic life in their area, offering advice, and candidly zeroing in on his concerns, so things ranging from proposals for same-sex marriage, the polarization of the church’s cultural and intellectual realms, parish closings and responding to the abuse crisis or demographic shift, and perhaps even the use of digital media in church life are likely to come up. The results tend to be reflected in policy emphases and decision-making for the years ahead, both domestically and at the Vatican level. And if nothing else, against the backdrop of a presidential election, what the pontiff says in his sum-up speeches could end up being very, very newsworthy.

What’s more, to a heightened degree even from the last visit (2004), something especially striking about this time is that, in effect, two very different US churches with starkly divergent realities and challenges will be heading over: the bishops of a shrinking, aging “Rust Belt,” and the prelates of the booming South and West, who often can’t build parishes and schools large or quickly enough to keep up with their population spikes.

Bottom line: anybody who thinks that the modern reality of American Catholicism can be encapsulated in a single overarching storyline might want to pay extra attention to what comes from these meetings over the next year; the visit begins with the Northeastern bishops through November and December.

(5) How might religion reporters cover the Catholic Church differently from other religious bodies? Are there certain aspects to keep in mind that might be different from covering Islam or Protestantism?

I’ve gone on more than enough, so let’s just say the aspects are too numerous to mention -- if anybody needs a hand on anything, just give me a shout.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I always get hammered for saying this, but I’ve always found it to be true: what’s far too often chalked up to some sort of “anti-Catholic” bias (or conspiracy thereof) in press coverage owes itself considerably more to a simple lack of understanding a staggeringly complex culture in all its depth and nuance, and -- while not universally -- the inability of much of the church’s communications apparatus to sufficiently address the questions that come up, or anticipate the blanks that a reporter might have to fill in but, in many cases, won’t even know to ask about.

Where these go lacking, suffering can unwittingly end up going around, and when that happens, the people in the trenches -- who’ve already got more than enough to deal with -- tend to undeservedly bear the brunt of it. And when you’ve got ever fewer specialists to write the stories, the responsibility of providing a comprehensive, engaged, accessible and palpably Christian “one-stop shop” falls all the more on the church side of the equation. Fail that, and you’re essentially playing Russian roulette with coverage. In a time when, nationally, roughly a quarter of the church makes it to a parish on any given Sunday, the stakes are too high to even think of taking that risk.

I’ve dealt with reporters -- given the tides, mostly impromptu religion beaters -- by the hundreds over the years and, with fewer exceptions than I could count on one hand, have always found a tremendous amount of respect and fairness toward the church and its ways, and a desire to genuinely grasp the story at hand for what it is. I’m immensely grateful for that.

One bit of advice, though: when it comes to this corner of the beat, assume nothing. When in doubt -- however minor the point might seem -- please, just ask.

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