How to die well: Talking to Jesuit, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel omits a key question

How to die well: Talking to Jesuit, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel omits a key question

I've been hearing and thinking about end-of-life and death issues a lot lately.

In recent weeks, my 90-year-old father has been in the hospital twice and while he's (thank God) coming home tomorrow, the prognosis we got on Wednesday is not good. My brother Steve wrote an amazing column for the Oregonian on my father's journey to Minnesota in July to see his 100-year-old sister, possibly for the last time. And of course there's friend-of-this-blog Rod Dreher's posts on the death of his father on Tuesday. There's a sadness that never goes away and death arrives in the midst of our lives.

We don't talk about it much, but to the people in my parents' retirement home, the imminent end of one's life is a reality they face all the time. This is true for us all.

Man knows not his time. Which is why I was intrigued by a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story on John Schlegel, a Catholic priest who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Dying well seems harder to do than ever, and here's one person taking the not-so-easy way out. 

The Rev. John Schlegel, pastor of the Church of the Gesu, has pancreatic cancer. He is foregoing medical treatment because he does not believe it would increase his quality of life. He has been visiting friends and carrying on his duties while he awaits the inevitable.
Since being diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in late January, the Rev. John Schlegel has given away most of his books, artwork and clothes.

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Concerning Mormons sticking with Boy Scouts, a little creativity goes a long way

Concerning Mormons sticking with Boy Scouts, a little creativity goes a long way

Inverted pyramid, you're still the one.

A staple of news writing for more than a century, the inverted pyramid "puts the most newsworthy information at the top, and then the remaining information follows in order of importance, with the least important at the bottom."

For example, most news organizations went the straightforward, "who, what, when, where, why and how" route with Wednesday's news concerning the Mormon church sticking with the Boy Scouts of America.

From The Washington Post:

The Mormon church announced Wednesday that it will remain in the Boy Scouts, a month after the church expressed major concern about the Scouts lifting a ban on openly gay adult leaders.

From The New York Times:

The Mormon Church announced Wednesday that it would continue its close association with the Boy Scouts for now, ending speculation that it would sever ties because of the Scouts’s decision last month to let openly gay men and women serve as leaders.

From The Deseret News:

SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church will continue to charter the nation's largest Boy Scout organization.

From CNN:

(CNN) The Mormon church will remain affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America despite the organization's decision to allow gay troop leaders, church officials announced Wednesday.

From The Associated Press:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Mormon church announced Wednesday it will maintain its longtime affiliation with the Boy Scouts despite the organization's decision to allow gay troop leaders — preventing what would have been a thundering blow to the national association.

None of those ledes will win a Pulitzer. But they get straight to the point. And in a click-happy world, that's usually helpful.

But what might happen if a journalist tried a different approach?

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Haunted: Jehovah orders troubled reporter to avenge Charleston with race war?

Haunted: Jehovah orders troubled reporter to avenge Charleston with race war?

It was not the kind of place that you expected to see violent images from hell.

This bizarre selfie-style massacre took place in a lovely community tucked into a corner of the Shenandoah Valley up against the Blue Ridge Mountains, off exits I have driven past many times on the way from the land of small towns and cities to the frequently troubled world of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

It's the kind of place where journalists, when they lose two colleagues, can huddle together and sing "Amazing Grace and recite the Lord's Prayer, as well as the 23rd Psalm.

As the stories rushed in yesterday, I asked the GetReligionistas to help me watch for the religious, moral and cultural angles that were almost certain surface. Acts this horrible tend to be haunted by religion ghosts.

As seems to be the norm, it was a British newspaper that took the blunt route. This massive, rambling early headline from The Daily Mail summed up the key details:

Revenge race murder: Bitter black reporter who gunned down white ex-colleagues live on air and posted the video online blames Charleston shootings and anti-gay harassment in manifesto

The Daily Mail wasn't able, apparently, to squeeze in the part about the gunman saying that God told him to do it.

The key to the reporting was the lengthy, carefully prepared suicide manifesto that Vester L. Flanagan II -- who used the name Bryce Williams in his small-market journalism career -- sent to a higher authority, a national television news network.

In terms of religious and moral issues linked to this crime, some editors appear to have been worried about how much of this material to share with readers.

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Looking inside Pew numbers: It appears that black churches are not fading away

Looking inside Pew numbers: It appears that black churches are not fading away

This morning I was doing some search-engine work on African-American churches for my piece on the long, but totally faith-free, news feature about the Rev. Al Sharpton that ran in The Los Angeles Times. In the middle of those searches I hit a link that reminded me of a recent Religion News Service story that I had wanted to bring to the attention of GetReligion readers.

As you would expect, considering the subject material, this piece was written by one of this website's favorite veterans on religion-news beat, Adelle Banks. I do not write about her work as much as I would like, simply because she was a long-time lecturer -- nearly two decades -- in the journalism programs I ran in Washington, D.C., for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

In this case, Banks focused in on a newsworthy wrinkle in a recent tsunami of religion "landscape" numbers from the Pew Research Center. This is one of those cases where church decline made the headlines, but she found an positive exception to the rule. Here is the overture for her report, setting the stage for the summary:

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (RNS) At Alfred Street Baptist Church, the pews start to fill more than half an hour before the service begins. White-uniformed ushers guide African-Americans of all ages to their seats. Some stand and wave their hands in the air as the large, robed choir begins to sing.
In September, after using a dozen wired overflow rooms, the church will start its fourth weekend service. So many people attend, church leaders are now asking people to limit their attendance to one service.

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The Independent takes on journalistic contradictions, faux morality and double standards

The Independent takes on journalistic contradictions, faux morality and double standards

Owned by a Russian oligarch and center-left in its orientation, the British daily The Independent runs a media column that recently addressed the very concerns that prompt me to contribute to GetReligion.

There's no beating around the bush for columnist Ian Burrell.

Here's his opening two graphs:

The need to understand the intersections of religion and civil freedom has never been greater. Hard-won human rights victories of the past century, for women, gays and free thinkers, are still opposed by zealots across the world, while people of faith are under persecution in many lands.
These are complex issues which the news industry has a duty to explain. Instead, however, we have a media rife with contradiction, faux morality and double standards.

I would only make one change to that. I would broaden his lede to include the intersection of religion and the entirety of human culture -- politics, commerce, popular entertainment -- you name it. 

Here's a link to his column; its worth reading in its entirety. I'll return to it below.

Burrell finds fault (as do I) on both sides of the misleading, artificial and media-driven divide that purportedly separates those on the right and left; if only people were that simple to understand and deal with.

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Papal souvenirs get a light-hearted look from the Washington Post

Papal souvenirs get a light-hearted look from the Washington Post

To this day, I regret something I didn't do in 1987. No, not some job choice or stock purchase. It was when I covered the U.S. tour of Pope John Paul II, and didn't buy one of those souvenir T-shirts with three faces: George, John Paul and Ringo.

Fortunately, for me and a new generation of pope-biliaphiles, a new crop awaits in the northeast U.S., where Pope Francis plans to visit in September. The Washington Post surveys the market in a sweeping, good-natured feature.

As the Post notes, the T-shirts, bobbleheads, keychains and more bizarre items have become a standard feature of papal tours; in 1987, I even saw ads for a John Paul lawn sprinkler, with water spraying from his hands. Such things are writ large again for the upcoming visit of Francis.

The newspaper surveys the dizzying array of items being churned out -- from jerseys to holy water bottles to "Papal Pleasure" beer to a toaster that burns Francis' face into bread.

I know from experience that it takes a light touch to make such stories work. You want to convey the silliness and excess, yet keep a respect for the devotion of the people who buy the stuff -- and some of those who make it. And the Post pulls it off, right from the lede:

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Ten years after Katrina, looking for God in the anniversary news coverage

Ten years after Katrina, looking for God in the anniversary news coverage

With the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week, I wrote a column reflecting on covering the "storm of the century" for The Christian Chronicle:

NEW ORLEANS — I see the faces, and the memories come rushing back.

Since Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, I’ve made repeated trips to report on the faith and resiliency of God’s people — both victims and volunteers. 

I’ve lost track of the exact number of times I’ve traveled to New Orleans. However, the faces — and experiences — remain fresh in my mind.

From my personal experience in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, I know the "faith-based FEMA" were a key piece of the recovery — in some cases, the key piece.

In Katrina's wake, thousands of volunteers motivated by faith in God housed, fed and clothed evacuees, cleaned up muck and debris, rebuilt homes and businesses and helped in a million other ways.

Given that, I am curious to see if God will show up at all in the anniversary coverage of Katrina making landfall on Aug. 29, 2005.

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The Los Angeles Times presents the Rev. Al Sharpton, with zero signs of God or faith at all

The Los Angeles Times presents the Rev. Al Sharpton, with zero signs of God or faith at all

A few years ago, I got out a notepad and wrote a list of the "seven deadly sins" of religion writing in the modern mainstream press. 

Right near the top of the list is the tendency among reporters to assume that all religious issues are, in reality, political issues when push comes to shove. It's a kind of militant materialism that assumes the political life is the ultimate reality for all people, since that happens to be the case for legions of people (but not all) in elite newsrooms.

It is especially easy to see this principle at work in mainstream news coverage of the African-American church. Am I the only person that has noticed that major news organizations have started omitting the term "the Rev." when printing the names of many black clergy?

Of course, it must be noted that clergy have -- for generations -- provided crucial public leadership for the entire black community, including in politics. The fact that this is true does not, however, mean that the work these pastors do in the public square has nothing to do with their faith and their role as church leaders.

This brings us to the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Pentecostal preacher turned Baptist whose high-profile work in politics and mass-media career have made him a controversial figure, including among African-American clergy. It is common to hear his critics say that he doesn't deserve the title "the Rev." -- which, in my opinion, only makes it more important for journalists to provide basic facts about who this man is, what he believes and to whom he relates as a minister. The bottom line: He is ordained and he is making faith claims, as well as political claims, when he speaks and/or preaches.

The Los Angeles Times times recently offered up a lengthy news feature on Sharpton that is a perfect, five-star example of all of this. Click on this link and do some searching. Here are some words you will not find in this piece -- "God," "Jesus," "faith," "religion," "Bible" and "ordained." The only reason "church" appears is that there are descriptions of rallies held in churches.

Is this a comment about Sharpton, the Los Angeles Times or both?

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Does 'death with dignity' actually involve indignities for doctors and patients?

Does 'death with dignity' actually involve indignities for doctors and patients?

This notable and quotable line from William Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun” is a good slogan for religion newswriting: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The U.S. Supreme Court supposedly settled the abortion issue in 1973, but -- to the astonishment of many including the Religion Guy -- in 2015  it remains unsettled, all entangled with the presidential campaign, the U.S. Congress and several state legislatures. Will the court’s similar legalization of same-sex marriage be settled, or still unsettled, 42 years from now?

Another issue that’s stirring renewed media interest is physician-assisted suicide, a.k.a. “death with dignity.” Reasons for wariness about this growing practice are raised in two important recent articles that journalists interested in this topic should know about.

New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv offered “The Death Treatment: When should people with a non-terminal illness be helped to die?” Her even-handed 8,700-worder in the June 22 issue largely treated the experience in Belgium. Stateside, an August 18 Wall Street Journal opinion piece by William L. Toffler, professor of family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, had  this strong headline: “A Doctor-Assisted Disaster for Medicine.”

Anticipate more of this. In the wake of the planned suicide in Oregon last Nov. 1 of young brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard, featured in People magazine and other media, legislators in 23 states have introduced new bills to let doctors help patients kill themselves.

Thus far, U.S. doctors have gained that power by legislation only in Oregon (in 1997), Washington state (2009), and Vermont (2013), while a 2009 court edict shields Montana physicians from prosecution.

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