Terry Mattingly

Papal visit takeaway: Why did Pope Francis need to hug hicks and old-school nuns?

Papal visit takeaway: Why did Pope Francis need to hug hicks and old-school nuns?

So what do you think we talked about during this week's extra-long "Crossroads" podcast? 

Might it have had something to do with the thousands and thousands of words that your GetReligionistas contributed to the tsunami of cyber-ink about the Pope Francis media festival in the Acela zone between Washington, D.C., and New York City? #Duh

That was going to be the case no matter what happened in the days after his departure. But then the pope talked with reporters on the flight back to Rome and said all kinds of interesting and even controversial things. Click here for my Universal syndicate column on that. Click here for the transcript of that presser.

And then the mainstream media's all-time favorite pope met, to one degree or another, with you know who. How is that sitting with the chattering classes? This Slate piece by Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart -- creator of the "Tiny Butch Adventures" series -- was not typical. But it collected and openly stated so many themes found elsewhere. These chunks contain the key thoughts:

I woke up this morning to reports that during his recent U.S. visit, Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk best known for refusing to issue lawful marriage licenses, interfering with the ability of her deputies to issue lawful marriage licenses, and making unauthorized changes to the lawful marriage license formsfor her county. When I saw this news, my heart sank. In one 15-minute meeting, the pope undermined the unifying, healing message that many queer people and our supporters were so eager to have him bring.

This blow hit me particularly hard because I had written so hopefully about the pope’s address to Congress. 

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In some news reports, Oregon gunman's motives were bloody specific, but in others...

In some news reports, Oregon gunman's motives were bloody specific, but in others...

Another day, another gunman, another mass shooting. Once again, when government authorities consistently declined to discuss possible motives, it was hard not to assume that the religion shoe was going to drop, sooner or later.

By this morning, journalists have had quite a bit of time to look for witnesses and to sift through social-media looking for clues and quotes. At this point, it's almost like journalists in key newsrooms were not covering the same tragedy. 

Let's look in New York City, for example. That did The New York Times have to say about the religion angle? The world's most powerful newspaper opened with the basic facts and then, five paragraphs in, added:

Law enforcement officials identified the gunman Thursday night as Chris Harper Mercer, and said he had three weapons, at least one of them a long gun and the other ones handguns. It was not clear whether he fired them all. The officials said the man lived in the Roseburg area.
They said one witness had told them that Mr. Mercer had asked about people’s religions before he began firing. “He appears to be an angry young man who was very filled with hate,” one law enforcement official said. Investigators are poring over what one official described as “hateful” writings by Mr. Mercer.

Did he ask anything specific, when it came to religion? Were members of one faith, or no faith, more at risk than others? And those "hateful" writings -- on social media, perhaps -- were about what?

Writing for a radically different audience than the TimesThe New York Post went straight to the point with the religion angle bannered on its website a few hours after the massacre. The most recent version of that story now states, drawing on material from news and social media:

A gunman singled out Christians, telling them they would see God in “one second,” during a rampage at an Oregon college Thursday that left at least nine innocent people dead and several more wounded, survivors and authorities said.

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Kryptonite update: Gray Lady keeps using political labels in Pope Francis coverage

Kryptonite update: Gray Lady keeps using political labels in Pope Francis coverage

Faithful GetReligion readers know that we have, through the years, stressed that reporters are not responsible for the headlines that top their stories. Sadly, it is very common for a simplistic or even inaccurate headline to warp readers' perceptions of the content of a story before they even read it. Reporters are not amused when that happens.

In this online age, reporters at major newsrooms -- The New York Times is about as major as things get -- are also not in charge of writing the promotional materials posted to promote their stories or, in many cases, sent to readers who have signed up for daily email digests describing the contents of the newspaper. The odds that an online editor understands the story as well as the reporters? Not very good.

So with all that in mind, let's note the wording, in the Today's Headlines digest shipped by the Times, of the blurb describing the newspaper's story about the controversial secret meeting between Pope Francis and Rowan County clerk Kim Davis of Kentucky. That promotional summary stated:

Pope Francis' meeting with Kim Davis cheered conservatives troubled by his words on poverty, the environment and immigration, and dismayed liberals who said it negated much of the good will he had built up on his trip.

OK, once again we see a pitch-perfect -- in a negative sense -- use of the flawed, inaccurate political labels that many mainstream journalists keep using when covering this papacy, as well as the Catholic Church and prominent religious institutions in general. This problem existed with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but things have gotten even worse with Pope Benedict. You see, many journalists have developed an image of this pope based on their own interpretations of a few off-the-cuff remarks he has made, as opposed to his writings.

In this blurb, who are the "conservatives" who have been "troubled by his words on poverty, the environment and immigration"? Are they Catholic doctrinal conservatives or activists linked to the Republican party?

When one looks at this statement from a doctrinal point of view, it is simply ridiculous.

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Media Kryptonite incarnate: Why such secrecy for pope's chat with Kim Davis? #DUH

Media Kryptonite incarnate: Why such secrecy for pope's chat with Kim Davis? #DUH

How many of you in GetReligion reader-land were, by the time Pope Francis departed our shores, totally fed up with the number of adults -- priests even, in church sanctuaries --  shooting photos and even selfies during the events?

I mean, was there ANYONE who came within a mile of this pope who didn't whip out a smartphone and raise it on high to record the moment?

Well, it appears that at least one person did not do the selfie thing. That would be Rowan County clerk Kim Davis of Kentucky. 

Of all the questions being asked about the secret Washington, D.C., meeting between Davis and the pope, the one that I find the most interesting is this one: OK, where are the photos? Who would pass up a selfie with Pope Francis? The photo issue has been, on so many levels, a fine symbol for how strange this story has been from the get-go, when the Inside the Vatican report started circulating last night.

Maybe Davis took a selfie. Maybe not. But if so, it certainly appears that someone -- either Davis or a Liberty Counsel pro -- was told to keep it under wraps.

Perhaps this cyber-silence was a condition of the meeting being held? Reports indicate that Vatican photographers did record the meeting, as they do almost anything that involves the pope. Is it safe to assume that Davis was told that official photos would be forthcoming? That would certainly be another nice gift (along with rosaries pictured here) for a Pentecostal convert like Davis to offer to her Catholic parents.

One thing is certain: The Jesuit pope and his handlers knew this meeting, this symbolic gesture linking religious liberty and same-sex marriage, was the ultimate Kryptonite for the vast majority of elite journalists camped in the Acela corridor between Washington, D.C., and New York City.

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Carly Fiorina visits Bible Belt territory and is too serious for the humble natives?

Carly Fiorina visits Bible Belt territory and is too serious for the humble natives?

cult, noun ...

: a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous

: a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much


If you pay close attention to the cult of American political reporting -- "cult" in the second definition shown above -- you know that it has its own unique rituals that are repeated time and time again. This is especially true during its high holy days, which are the two years that precede a presidential election.

One of the cult's most important rites comes whenever a relatively unknown individual suddenly pops out of a pack of candidates -- usually through a strong performance in a debate, or a surprisingly solid showing in a poll or primary -- and emerges as a "frontrunner." Of course, the priests of the political-reporting cult are in charge of determining whether said candidate has or has not achieved "frontrunner" status.

This rite of passage immediately leads to the next, crucial, ritual in which the candidate -- Carly Fiorina in this case -- is placed under a much more intense spotlight in order to judge his or her worthiness in the eyes of the priesthood. This is especially important in Fiorina's case because (a) she is a Republican, (b) she is a woman and (c) her ascent is linked to taking a strong stand in opposition to an institution held sacred by the cult (as in Planned Parenthood).

You know, beyond all doubt, that this rite has begun when something bizarre happens -- such as a Washington Post Style section reporter heading deep into the American South to observe this candidate in the wild. (However, in this case Fiorina was in Charleston, S.C., so the reporter may have been able to do an architecture or food feature on the same trip.)

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Pope Francis exits U.S. stage: Time for thumbsuckers explaining what it all meant

Pope Francis exits U.S. stage: Time for thumbsuckers explaining what it all meant

The pope has come. The pope has gone. Now it is time for mainstream journalists to tell us what it all meant, to show readers the big picture and to reveal larger truths about what Pope Francis said and, maybe, even about what he should have said.

There's more to this process than news, of course.

About a decade ago, New York Times editor Bill Keller -- yes, the man who soon after his retirement offered the "Kellerism" doctrines -- told an audience of young journalists that his newspaper had changed its credo. He told them: "We long ago moved from 'All the News That's Fit to Print,' to 'All the News You Need to Know, and What It Means.' "

The theologians at the great Gray Lady got started even before the pope was gone, offering a "thumbsucker" analysis piece on Sunday A1 (even thought it was not labeled "analysis") that said the "pastoral" tone used by Pope Francis was a loss for conservatives, who wanted him to defend doctrine. The Times team did note that the pope offered no comments that supported the doctrinal left, either. Thus, the bottom line: Compassion is the opposite of doctrinal orthodoxy. Click here for my earlier post on that.

The thumb-sucking process continued in American papers yesterday. The Times weighed in, once again, with a piece stressing that the pope showed a "deft touch" when handling issues in American politics (since we all know that politics are what ultimately matter):

... Mostly Francis demonstrated a nuanced political dexterity, effectively sidestepping the familiar framework of American debate while charting his own broader path. He advocated “life” but emphasized opposition to the death penalty, not abortion. He made strong stands for religious freedom -- a major issue for American bishops -- but refocused the concept on interfaith tolerance and harmony.

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Quotes and video: Ross Douthat on Fiorina, Planned Parenthood and her media critics

Quotes and video: Ross Douthat on Fiorina, Planned Parenthood and her media critics

I need a break from @Pontifex posting for, well, a few hours at least.

So let's do an evening think piece on a different media storm, the one that has in recent days surrounded Carly Fiorina and her GOP debate comments challenging President Barack Obama and others to actually watch some of the Planned Parenthood sting videos that (a) they seem to deny exist, (b) they dismiss because of editing (while the unedited videos are even more horrific) or (c) haven't addressed in public in the first place.

Journalists know that it really matters how truth claims are stated. For example, with my reporting students I always talk about the implications of the following statements.

Millions of people believe that God hears their prayers and sometimes people are healed. Again, it's absolutely true that millions of people believe that. Is it true that this happens? Hard to prove. Ah, but what if Ivy League medical studies show that prayer is positive for your health? That still doesn't prove something, but it is another level attribution linked to a source of authority. Alas, I have heard journalists in real newsrooms say that they would never quote any of that because they know that healing is a fraud. End of story.

OK, back to candidate Fiorina. In her case, the accuracy of her statements depends, in part, on how one interprets key statements in connection with video images that are taking place at the same time. It also matters whether one admits that the videos exist. Here is what she said:

"I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.' This is about the character of our nation. If we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us!" 

Now to the think piece. Take it away, Ross Douthat of The New York Times:


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Thus saith The New York Times: Compassion is the opposite of Catholic doctrine

Thus saith The New York Times: Compassion is the opposite of Catholic doctrine

In the end, the Jesuit pope added to the debates, but did not openly address the key doctrines linked to marriage and sexuality that are causing so much tension in his flock, as in so many others.

Don't take my word on this. We have The New York Times saying on the record that the pope kept speaking in a pastoral tone, asking his shepherds to be more loving and compassionate as they strive to welcome wayward Catholics back into the sacramental fold. But did he actual show his hand in terms of the cards he may or not play on the truly explosive doctrinal issues, such as changing the contents of the Catholic Catechism on divorce and gay sex?

In a remarkably blunt sermon from the Times -- which ran above the fold on Sunday's A1, with no hint of an "analysis" label -- this was the ultimate word:

Those who know Francis said they did not expect his other remarks this weekend to give fodder to conservatives or, for that matter, directly address the issues in the church that liberal Catholics have championed.

So no words of support for the doctrinal right, but also no words of explicit support for those who want to change church teachings.

But wait, what was the headline on that story? 

A Pastoral Pope, Slipping Conservatives’ Grasp

And the crucial Times proclamation -- note the word "seemed" -- to support that? 

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Got news? So this powerful cardinal claims he helped oust Benedict and elect Francis

Got news? So this powerful cardinal claims he helped oust Benedict and elect Francis

As Pope Francis-mania rolls into its final hours in the Acela zone, The National Catholic Register -- part of the Eternal Word Television Network operation -- has tossed a genuinely unsettling story into the news mix, along with its stack of glowing papal news reports. This shocker contains one or two crucial facts that cannot be denied, yet ultimately stands on the word of one very controversial cardinal.

The problem is that this cardinal has very little incentive, at this moment in time, to making an outrageous claim -- that he was part of an organized coup that all but forced Pope Benedict XVI to resign. The goal of the coup was to elect the man who became Pope Francis.

So, we have one of those "Got news?" stories that jumps straight into, you got it, conservative social media and news -- alone. The question is whether a similar story linked to a less popular pope would have, because of the timing, received major play in the American mainstream press. 

Here's the top of the National Catholic Register report by Edward Pentin, which apparently echoes coverage in La Stampa in the Italy. Read carefully. You are looking for the one word, and one word alone, that should matter to mainstream reporters evaluating this material:

Further serious concerns are being raised about Cardinal Godfried Danneels, one of the papal delegates chosen to attend the upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family, after the archbishop emeritus of Brussels confessed this week to being part of a radical "mafia" reformist group opposed to Benedict XVI.
It was also revealed this week that he once wrote a letter to the Belgium government favoring same-sex "marriage" legislation because it ended discrimination against LGBT groups.

A quick comment: Passive voice in two straight paragraphs is NOT how a reporter builds credibility with savvy readers. But read on:

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