After the synod: Was 'confusion' caused by the press, the pope or the devil?

Let's walk into this minefield very slowly and carefully.

This week, "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about the recent Synod on the Family at the Vatican and some of the themes that emerged out of it. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Truth be told, that primarily meant discussing the tsunami of news coverage about an interim report earlier in the week that was hailed by a major gay-rights group, and thus the elite media, as a "seismic shift" in Catholic attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, the divorced, cohabiting couples, etc. By the end of the week, following blasts of input from cardinals and bishops from around the world, the synod's more modest official report placed a heavier emphasis on affirming Catholic doctrine and, thus, drew far less coverage.

Once again, many Catholics were asking a familiar question: Is there some way for the Catholic church to let the public, especially the world's Catholics, hear the full sweep of what the pope is actually saying? The pope keeps talking about sin, penitence, mercy and salvation, with a strong emphasis on the symbols and language of mercy, and elite news headlines usually report him as saying something like, "Who knows what sin is, anymore, let's show mercy -- period."

After that, criticism of of what the press reported the pope as saying -- including attempts to note the content and context of whatever Pope Francis actually said -- is hailed in the same news outlets as criticism of the pope or a rejection of his alleged new direction for the church.

Rise. Cycle. Repeat.

Now we have a great example of this process to examine, in the latest clash between a news outlet and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who for years has been one of the most pointed critics of press coverage of Catholicism. For background, here are some links about an earlier clash with The New York Times, in which Chaput circulated a transcript of his actual words as a way of criticizing what the Times alleged that he said. Also check out this interesting 2009 Chaput speech and dialogue with reporters at the Pew Forum in Washington, D.C. As always, I will mention once again that I have known Chaput since his Denver days as a priest and campus minister, back in the mid-1980s. I consider him a friend and write about his work in the context of columns and commentary (such as this).

Thus, we have a headline on Religion News Service piece by the liberal Catholic columnist David Gibson that states, "Archbishop Chaput ‘disturbed’ by Vatican synod debate, says ‘confusion is of the devil.' "

Let's go to the transcript of part of the question-and-answer session that followed Chaput's Erasmus Lecture the other night in New York City (full video here). This is now being circulated online in an attempt to clarify what the archbishop actually said.

Audience member: I would be very grateful for your comments on the recent Synod on the Family in Rome.
Chaput: Well, first of all, I wasn’t there. That’s very significant, because to claim you know what really happened when you weren’t there is foolish. To get your information from the press is a mistake because they don’t know well enough how to understand it so they can tell people what happened. I don’t think the press deliberately distorts, they just don’t have any background to be able to evaluate things. In some cases they’re certainly the enemy and they want to distort the Church.
Now, having said all that, I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.

The archbishop then stressed what I have heard other Catholic insiders (left and right) express, which is that they really want to (a) talk to people who took part and (b) read the final translations of the key statements and documents. As opposed to what? As opposed to the tsunami of early "seismic change" reports.

Continuing in his answer to the synod question, Chaput added: 

There’s no doubt that the Church has a clear position: on what marriage means and that you don’t receive communion unless you’re in communion with the teachings of Christ, that gay marriage is not a possibility in God’s plan and therefore can’t be a reality in our lives. There’s no doubt about any of that. I think when it’s all said we have to be charitable toward people who disagree with us and we certainly welcome into the Church sinners. I’m one, and they usually welcome me when I come to the parishes. 
I think we have to be better at reaching out to divorced Catholics so they don’t think that they’re immediately excluded from the Church because they’ve been divorced and remarried. Some people think that even when they get a divorce they’re not welcome in the Church. So I think we need to work on that.
We have deep respect for people with same-sex attraction, but we can’t pretend that they’re welcome on their own terms. None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’ terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian -- you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality.

Now, that is pretty nuanced material that, to me, sounds a lot like some of the language in the final synod statements and the pope's final synod sermon.

So what was the substance of the Gibson analysis that prompted that Chaput and the devil headline? Here are the key passages, starting with the lede:

NEW YORK (RNS) Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leading culture warrior in the U.S. hierarchy, says he was “very disturbed” by the debate over church teachings on gays and remarried Catholics at this month’s Vatican summit, saying it sent a confusing message and “confusion is of the devil.”

And later:

Chaput is expected to host Pope Francis in Philadelphia next September for a global World Meeting of Families, and his criticisms tracked complaints by other conservatives who were upset with Francis for encouraging a freewheeling discussion among the 190 cardinals and bishops at the Vatican’s two-week Synod on the Family. ...
“I was very disturbed by what happened” at the synod, Chaput said. “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.”

So here is the question: What is missing from the Gibson analysis that played a central role in the full Chaput statement?

That would be the press coverage. When it comes to the confusion surrounding the synod, is the archbishop primarily pointing a critical finger at the synod or at the press coverage of the synod?

Let me stress that I am not saying that that readers need to agree with Chaput's analysis. I am asking a journalism question: In the quotes cited above, what did the archbishop actually say, in terms of the primary source of the confusion surrounding the synod and its work?

If the key was that the "public image" of the synod, to quote Chaput, was an image of confusion and that this "public image" of confusion was of the devil, then who or what was he saying was the primary source of the confusion seen by the public?

Again, you don't have to agree with him. But what did he actually say in his answer to this question about the synod, the answer that supposedly led to the headline?

Once again, was Chaput saying that Catholics and the public could not trust the synod, or was he saying that they should not trust the press coverage of the synod? One more time: you do not have to agree with him: But what did he say in his New York City remarks?

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Southern evangelicals dwindling?: RNS blogger examines the numbers behind The Atlantic's claims

Southern evangelicals dwindling?: RNS blogger examines the numbers behind The Atlantic's claims

Is the South losing its "cultural Christianity," as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler describes it?

New research indicates that "the percentage of Alabamians not affiliated with a specific religion surpasses the percentage of white mainline Protestants, ranking it third among 'religious' groups," Alabama Godbeat pro Carol McPhail recently reported.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic made a big splash on social media this week with this provocative headline:

Southern Evangelicals: Dwindling—and Taking the GOP Edge With Them

However, the stats reported by Jones made Religion News Service blogger Tobin Grant's "spidey-sense start buzzing," as he put it. Grant decided to examine the numbers behind the numbers.

 

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'Magic underwear' is offensive term, but AP uncritically accepts church's PR spin on Mormon undergarments

'Magic underwear' is offensive term, but AP uncritically accepts church's PR spin on Mormon undergarments

On the positive side, an Associated Press story this week on Mormon underclothing — sacred attire derided by critics as "magic underwear" — handles the subject matter with discretion and respect.

On the negative side, the widely distributed wire service report uncritically accepts the church's public relations spin.

Let's start at the top:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Mormon church is addressing the mystery that has long surrounded undergarments worn by its faithful with a new video explaining the practice in-depth while admonishing ridicule from outsiders about what it considers a symbol of Latter-day Saints' devotion to God.
The four-minute video on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' website compares the white, two-piece cotton "temple garments" to holy vestments worn in other religious faiths such as a Catholic nun's habit or a Muslim skullcap.
The footage is part of a recent effort by the Salt Lake City-based religion to explain, expand or clarify on some of the faith's more sensitive beliefs. Articles posted on the church's website in the past two years have addressed the faith's past ban on black men in the lay clergy; its early history of polygamy; and the misconception that members are taught they'll get their own planet in the afterlife.
The latest video dispels the notion that Latter-day Saints believe temple garments have special protective powers, a stereotype perpetuated on the Internet and in popular culture by those who refer to the sacred clothing as "magical Mormon underwear."

The video contains 90 seconds of explanation about the underclothing and does not address the markings on the garments. I'm not certain I would characterize that as "explaining the practice in-depth." 

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Here we go again: What does 'moderate' mean in today's Syria warfare?

Here we go again: What does 'moderate' mean in today's Syria warfare?

Several years ago, I was asked to travel to Prague to speak to the newsroom staff at Radio Liberty. The topic: Efforts to improve news coverage.

However, once I was there it became clear to me that some members of the staff wanted me to discuss a much more specific topic. Thus, I ended up in a small room with a circle of Muslim journalists linked to radio broadcasts into Afghanistan and surrounding regions. The key question: Why do American journalists insist on using "fundamentalist" and "moderate" as labels to describe Muslims, since these are terms never used by members of that faith? Don't they know these labels are offensive?

One journalist said, and I paraphrase: Do Americans basically use "fundamentalist" to describe Muslims that they don't like and "moderate" to describe Muslims that they do like?

I said: "Yes." What to do? Instead of accepting these labels, I urged them to try to use quotes that showed where different Muslim leaders stood in relation to the issue or issues being covered in a particular story. Show the spectrum of belief, in practice.

Oh, and I also read the following passage from that famous "Preserving Our Readers' Trust" self study of The New York Times self study published in 2005 (and quoted many times here at GetReligion):

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By George, I think she's got it: Chicago Tribune reporter has in-depth questions for outgoing archbishop

By George, I think she's got it: Chicago Tribune reporter has in-depth questions for outgoing archbishop

Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear Pashman, past subject of a GetReligion interview, asks all the right questions of Cardinal Francis George OMI, the soon-to-retire Chicago archbishop, and is rewarded with newsworthy answers.

Pashman starts with a punchy lede and then launches right into a quote in which the cardinal offers some potent media criticism:

In a sweeping interview weeks before he steps down, Cardinal Francis George expressed frustration that his defense of church doctrine has ever caused offense, discussed the story behind his successor's selection and voiced concerns that expectations placed upon the popular Pope Francis could backfire.

"They've got the pope in a box now. … The danger of that is he's like a Rorschach test, sort of," George, 77, said Monday during an hourlong conversation at the archbishop's Gold Coast residence in which he expressed both pride and remorse about his 17 years as archbishop.

"People project onto him their own desires, and so you've got people who are expecting all kinds of things. Some of them might happen. A large number of them won't and so there will be great disillusionment. … People will write him off."

George's observation about people projecting their own desires onto the pope will ring familiar to anyone who has read GetReligion's coverage of media misinterpretations of Francis, especially our reminders that context is essential to understanding "Who am I to judge?" 

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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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Writing about religion news: Getting past Ben Bradlee's 'SMERSH' verdict

Writing about religion news: Getting past Ben Bradlee's 'SMERSH' verdict

If you were looking for a quote that perfectly captured the attitude that crusty old-school newspaper editors used to have about religion news (see my 1983 Quill cover story on life in that era), then here it is.

And let's face it, the fact that the quote comes from an NPR piece about the death of the legendary editor Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post -- the ultimate symbol of the politics-is-the-only-reality school of journalism -- just makes it more perfect.

"Major regional newspapers mimicked the format he devised for the Post, with a Style section devoted to features involving politics, regional personalities, celebrity and popular culture and highbrow culture alike. He also insisted on a high profile for beats on the subjects he vigorously and vulgarly called "SMERSH -- science, medicine, education, religion and all that s - - -" -- the subjects from which Bradlee personally took little enjoyment."

So the low-prestige beats were covered, but were not on the radar of the powers that be that ran the big-city newsrooms of that day. This is precisely what I used to hear from the Godbeat scribes who were weary veterans in the 1980s, at the time I hit The Charlotte Observer and then The Rocky Mountain News.

Of course, it is also important that one of the key players who helped create the current religion-news marketplace -- in which, all too often, politics defines what is real and religion is essentially emotions and opinion -- is Beltway matriarch Sally "On Faith" Quinn, who was the talented and high-profile wife of Bradlee's mature years.

This brings me to two items of religion-beat news for the day, both care of friends of this weblog. 

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Religious liberty in Idaho: Going to the chapel, and we're going to get married ... maybe

Religious liberty in Idaho: Going to the chapel, and we're going to get married ... maybe

Earlier this month, I dinged Reuters for a "two-sided news story" that really only told one.

I argued that the piece on "a new battleground of religious freedom" was framed almost entirely from the perspective of same-sex marriage activists.

This week, Reuters reported on two Idaho pastors opposed to gay marriage:

(Reuters) - Two pastors in Idaho, who fear they could be penalized for refusing to perform newly legal gay marriages at their private wedding chapel, have filed a lawsuit, saying an Idaho anti-discrimination law violates their right to free speech and religious liberty.
Donald and Evelyn Knapp, who run the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d'Alene, are asking a federal judge to temporarily bar the city from enforcing a local ordinance that bans discrimination tied to sexual orientation in businesses that are used by the public, their attorney said on Monday.
The couple, both ordained Christian ministers, say that under the ordinance, they could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine each time they decline to wed same-sex couples in line with their religious beliefs.
"The government has no business compelling ministers to violate their beliefs and break their ordination vows or risk escalating jail time and fines," said the Knapps' attorney, Jeremy Tedesco.

Alas, Reuters does a much better job this time of fairly representing the arguments of those with religious freedom concerns.

What's missing? Once again, it's the other side.

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The protest beat at The New York Times? Silence from Paris

The protest beat at The New York Times? Silence from Paris

News reports on political demonstrations and protest marches have kept the New York Times busy this past week.

In the print and on the web it has run a least three dozen articles on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while also covering civil rights protests in Ferguson, Mo., student protests in Egypt, pro-Kurdish protests in Ankara, and Shia protests in Yemen.

Perhaps this surfeit of protests was what led the Times to ignore demonstrations in that far off place called France. 

Paris police reported that over 78,000 “pro-family” demonstrators (organizers claim several hundred thousand) marched through Paris on Oct. 5, 2014, with tens of thousands marching in support in Bordeaux, denouncing the Socialist government’s support for same-sex marriage and IVF and surrogacy rights for same-sex couples.
 
The marches have dominated the headlines of the French newspapers and animated political discourse. The Friday before the rally organized by the Manif Pour Tous coalition, Prime Minister Manuel Valls caved into one of the groups key demands.

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