Jim Davis

Why can't the pope just change everything? CNN gives (mostly) good answers

Why can't the pope just change everything? CNN gives (mostly) good answers

The bishops "bickered" during the recent synod at the Vatican on families -- yes, the article by CNN said "bickered" -- and a lot of people wondered why Pope Francis doesn't just order changes, rather than call a two-week debatefest.

Good question, and CNN's Daniel Burke has a good answer. Actually, four good answers, highlighting the variety of sources and factions within the Roman Catholic Church. And he lays them out in mostly even-handed fashion. We'll look at the exceptions in a bit.

The Vatican synod, as you may know, was called to spot new ways of helping stressed-out families. The bishops also were charged with seeking out the possibility of providing Eucharist and other Church services to gay couples and to Catholics who had divorced and remarried.

Burke alertly reports Francis' silence throughout the quarrels, as a pope who wanted to encourage dialogue rather than hand down decrees. The reporter even quotes a Latin saying by a Vatican cardinal: Roma locuta, causa finita, or "Rome has spoken, the case is closed." Ergo, if Francis had volunteered opinions, the conferees would have fallen silent.

The bishops, as reports said, considered a passage on accepting gays as members, then watered it down and then erased it altogether. As Burke reports, Francis still tried to prod the meeting his way:

In a widely praised speech, he told them the church must find a middle path between showing mercy toward people on the margins and holding tight to church teachings.

What's more, he said, church leaders still have a year to find "concrete solutions" to the problems plaguing modern families -- from war and poverty to hostility toward nontraditional unions. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for next October in Rome.

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The truth is out there, but does Scientific American want to find it?

The truth is out there, but does Scientific American want to find it?

I recall Scientific American as a stodgy but respected journal. It bristled with challenging but intriguing titles like "The Large-Scale Streaming of Galaxies" and "Branching Phylogenies of the Paleozoic and the Fortunes of English Family Names."

But one of the newest titles -- "Did Jesus Save the Klingons?" -- just doesn't have the same ring. Nor, unfortunately, does the article: a Q&A of an astronomer pontificating on how religion -- meaning, of course, traditional Christianity -- would be undone by the discovery of life on other planets.

Says David Weintraub, author of the new book Religion and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?:

I think at bottom most people have this idea that we humans are pretty special creatures and that God is paying attention to us. If we find somebody else, then there are lots of somebodies, most likely. And if there are lots of somebodies, that somehow would seem to make us less important. I think that is, psychologically, what has happened a number of times in human history. When Copernicus first said the Earth goes around the sun, theologically that meant we’re not the center of the universe anymore. Later on when astronomers said the sun isn’t the center of the universe, it’s just a silly star out in the suburbs of the galaxy, that threatened our well-being again. Suddenly if there are other beings out there, I think it changes completely the way we think about our place in the universe. I think it would be truly profound to know that.

As you read this article, keep in mind that it has little to do with science. You'll find nothing of cause and effect or the scientific method or rules of proof. The article is simply a bit of triumphalistic rhetoric, thinly papered over with an appeal to the authority of science. You could hear opinions at least as urbane over beers at a college rathskeller.

One guess on which religions Weintraub says will have the most trouble adjusting to the news of E.T.s:

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'Bucket list baby' inspired prayers, compassion and sensitive coverage

'Bucket list baby' inspired prayers, compassion and sensitive coverage

Shane Francis Haley's life lasted less than four hours, cut short by a birth defect. Yet he and his parents reached hundreds of thousands of people through social media -- people who were first touched by the "bucket list" of experiences they gave their son before he was ever born.

That's one marvel of the drama that played out in Media, Pa., as Jenna and Don Haley updated their 700,000 Facebook friends over the prenatal months. Another marvel: the simple news narratives -- including Reuters and the Christian Science Monitor -- that told the story without adding some religio-socio-politico-economic payload.

With a story about a doomed infant, it's almost too tempting to resist the urge to add tear-jerking prose. Remarkably, the writers of these stories do resist. In the best tradition of journalism, they let the details carry the emotional weight. Closest to any gimmicky writing is the headline on the Monitor article: " 'Bucket list baby' inspires thousands. Here’s what his parents did."

When the Haleys heard the diagnosis of anencephaly -- in which the baby lacks part of its brain and skull -- they knew it was a death sentence for Shane. Yet instead of planning an abortion, or sinking into grief or rage at God, the parents went through a "nine-month bucket list," as the Monitor dubs it: giving their son the time of his life before he was even born.

From the Monitor's account:

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Flaws in new LATimes abortion piece revealed -- by old LATimes study

Flaws in new LATimes abortion piece revealed -- by old LATimes study

Whoaaa. This article in the Los Angeles Times on the "abortion wars." So much bias and tagging and cherry-picking.

If only there were some guide to help us spot the various ploys. Oh, wait, there is one -- from the L.A. Times itself.

It's a four-part study of media bias and abortion written by the late David Shaw of the Times, back in 1990. His 18-month study marked several ways that media push the abortion cause rather than just report. (Thanks to tmatt for finding this study.)

But first to the new Times story, which ran on Sunday. It's mainly on the resurgent pro-life movement, which has scored several legal victories in several states. Among the new laws are a requirement for abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and making abortion clinics conform to the same "stringent" requirements as hospitals. Some states also require pre-abortion ultrasounds or ban abortion clauses for government insurance.

From there, the story centers on Texas and especially Louisiana. The basic enemy, unsurprisingly, is that evil axis -- religion and conservatism:

A conservative juggernaut has sprung to life here along the Gulf of Mexico, where Bayou State politics work hand-in-hand with Christian churches, where some conservative pastors condemn abortion as a sin and tell parishioners that voting for a Democrat is too.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has been so consistent in his opposition to abortion that the state is celebrated as the most "pro-life" in the country by Americans United for Life. The antiabortion lobby's annual scorecards are closely watched by legislators here.
"Abortion until recently was not a front-burner issue in Louisiana," said JP Morrell, a Democratic state senator. "Religious groups have made it a front-burner issue. The grass-roots movement here is as organized and effective as anything you've ever seen."

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'Mass mobs': NYT and NPR report new trend with a bit of flash

'Mass mobs': NYT and NPR report new trend with a bit of flash

Churches are getting hit by "mobs" in several states -- and that's good, as NPR and the New York Times report. So-called Mass mobs -- takeoffs on flash mobs and cash mobs -- are being organized to flood old, historic churches with worshipers and rekindle interest in Catholic heritage.

The Times and NPR work in rich color and emotion, with an eye toward both emotion and architectural beauty. Here's a sample from the NPR piece on a Mass mob at St. Florian Church in Hamtramck, Mich.:

Kinney says there's something special about coming to Mass with so many other people. "To be in attendance when it's full, as opposed to just the sparse. There's an electricity that's amazing," he says.
People trickle in, looking for seats, and then the traditional Roman Catholic Mass begins. There are Polish hymns. The priest, the Rev. Mirek Frankowski — who also doubles as music director — says the crowd nearly brought him to tears.
"Because, I mean, such a big crowd, it's impossible to see these days in any of the churches. But thanks to the mob Mass we have this feeling of what it was so many years ago, when the churches were filled with people," he says.

The Times story goes east, so to speak -- centering on Holy Ghost Church, a Byzantine Catholic church in Cleveland that survives only as a cultural center. The article sets an evocative scene on preserving the sacred in the face of the secular. It even offers a bit of the colors and textures of Eastern liturgy:

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Schoolgirl jihadis: The Guardian does an extraordinary report on a horrific trend

Schoolgirl jihadis: The Guardian does an extraordinary report on a horrific trend

Muslim terrorists are doing more than beheading men. They're also reaching into Europe and the United States, coaxing teenage girls to sneak away, travel to the Middle East and marry jihadis -- and occasionally pose for photos, brandishing AK-47s.

There has been tons of coverage of this issue in advocacy publications, with The Daily Beast leading the way with its whole "bedroom jihad" wave of digital ink. Now, this angle and more has been captured in an extraordinary newsfeature in The Guardian, which fielded six reporters to scan the tragedy in five nations: France, Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The 3,000-word story is sweeping yet precise, penetrating yet personal. And rather than sensationalistic adjectives and metaphors -- the favored tools of tabloid papers -- The Guardian lets the horrific facts speak for themselves:

Girls as young as 14 or 15 are travelling mainly to Syria to marry jihadis, bear their children and join communities of fighters, with a small number taking up arms. Many are recruited via social media.
Women and girls appear to make up about 10% of those leaving Europe, North America and Australia to link up with jihadi groups, including Islamic State (Isis). France has the highest number of female jihadi recruits, with 63 in the region – about 25% of the total – and at least another 60 believed to be considering the move.

For now, the known numbers of "schoolgirl jihadis," as The Guardian calls them, are small: 63 from France, 60 from the U.K., 40 from Germany,  14 from Austria. (Astonishingly, the U.S. apparently has no matching numbers.) What sells this story is the emotional shock of seemingly content girls reading blogs, connecting via Facebook, and deserting their loved ones. And at least one expert says the reported cases may be only the "tip of the iceberg."

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Rabbi comes out! Washington Post is first with the shocking non-news!

Rabbi comes out! Washington Post is first with the shocking non-news!

How newsy is something if everyone knows about it and agrees with it?

That's the unasked, unanswered question in a breaking story in the Washington Post, in which a leading D.C.-area rabbi announces -- drum roll -- that he's gay.

These days, coming-out stories are about as unusual as entering-rehab stories. But here goes the Post:

The leader of one of the Washington region’s most prominent synagogues on Monday came out as gay, telling his thousands of congregants in a brutally personal e-mail that a lifelong effort to deny his sexuality was over and that he and his wife of 20 years would be divorcing.
“With much pain and tears, together with my beloved wife, I have come to understand that I could walk my path with the greatest strength, with the greatest peace in my heart, with the greatest healing and wholeness, when I finally acknowledged that I am a gay man,” Rabbi Gil Steinlauf wrote to members of Adas Israel Congregation, in Northwest Washington.

The announcement follows activities by Steinlauf including the first gay wedding in that synagogue and an article in a Jewish newspaper called "The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage." The 800+ -word Post story reports also that Steinlauf has been nudging his movement, Conservative Judaism, to embrace same-sex couples. And the rabbi's coming-out gets a nod from two top officials of the synagogue.

So, um, where is the news? Apparently it's the e-mail that the rabbi sent to all 1,420 households in his congregation. The  e-mail tells of a struggle with homosexuality going back to childhood.

He married his wife, Batya, "out of a belief that this was the right thing for me," Steinlauf says in the email.  He doesn't say how long she's known, or whether they discussed the effect of his double life on their three teenage children. He just calls her a "wonderful woman" who has "supported me through this very personal inner struggle that she knew to be the source of great pain and confusion in my life over decades."

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WaPo does a thumbs-up (maybe) report on the Vatican family summit

WaPo does a thumbs-up (maybe) report on the Vatican family summit

As Pope Francis holds his two-week Vatican summit on family issues, Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post zeroes in on one of its topics -- marriage, divorce and annulment -- in a story that is non-sensational but personal and intelligent.

Her 1,400-plus-word story focuses on Catholics who continue to attend Mass and consider themselves close to the church, although they haven't gotten their divorces and/or remarriages legitimized in church eyes.

Boorstein's piece starts out on a familiar tack -- a sympathy anecdote a woman who "kept close to her Catholicism," even though she has married twice outside the church, following in her divorced parents' footsteps. She and others in the article talk out their feelings of ostracism.  And they vent frustration at what they see as rigid, outmoded rules of marriage.

Many stories would make that into a One-Note Samba, then close with a judgment on how hidebound the church remains. Boorstein's piece doesn't. With typical thoroughness, she helps grasp complexities as well as basics.

For one, she shows churchmen themselves as humans who, like the laity, wrestle with dilemmas of keeping faithful to the church while trying to adapt to changing times. Here's a quote from a veteran churchman -- a comment that is at once informed, intelligent and heartfelt:

“This synod will be very important. All of the issues regarding the family, the ones that trouble people the most [about the church] will be on the table. All the neuralgic issues — the ones that cause you pain,” said Monsignor Fred Easton, who led the Indianapolis Archdiocese’s tribunal for 31 years. “And it’s not just rehashing for rehashing’s sake. It’s: When we put them all together, do we need to make any sort of course correction?”

Another plus: Monsignor Easton is from the Midwest, not reporters' favorite source pools on the east and west coasts.

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Shogun wedding: 'Ninja sister wives' attack, insightful reporting flees

Shogun wedding: 'Ninja sister wives' attack, insightful reporting flees

From reports out of Utah, it sounds like two women swapped marital skills for martial arts. And many media swapped solid substance for juicy soundbites.

Here's an early report from The Guardian. Yep, the story even got attention in London.

Two armed “polygamist women” dressed like “ninjas” were subdued by a sword-wielding man during a home invasion, according to police in suburban Utah.
Police said the two women, aged 18 and 22, were attacking the home of a witness and victim in a criminal child sex assault case against a man the women called their “husband”.
The women “violently attacked one of the adult males in the house who came to see who was coming,” Ian Adams of the West Jordan police department told the Guardian.
“Another adult male joined the fray in defense of the first male victim. He was armed with a sword, and using a sword … and with the other male [was] able to subdue the two women until police arrived and took them into custody.”

The account on the same day by the Salt Lake Tribune was more lucid:

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