Is the Crisis crisis a big deal? Of course it is

For the past four or five days -- or whenever it was that I staggered out of registration here at the university and saw the wave of Deal Hudson reports -- I have been trying to recover a piece of information lost in the file cabinets of my brain. Don't you hate it when (a) you forget who said something important that you read, but you can't remember where, and (b) you can't find the quote in Google, because if contains too many common words (or your middle-aged brain does not have enough of the words in the right order).

Whatever. I give up. Here is the gist, as I remember it. Right at the peak of the most recent wave of Roman Catholic clergy-abuse stories, a candid conservative commentator reminded his readers never to forget that sexual sin is not an issue of conservative and liberal, orthodox and progressive. The article was not in Crisis magazine, I know that.

In other words, there are skeletons rattling in conservative cloisters that affect important news stories, as well as in those on the liberal side of the church. The two doctrinal armies do have different responses to sexual sin and they do have clashing beliefs on what is sinful and what is not. But the larger truth is that everyone struggles with these issues and there is no evidence that it is any easier for conservatives to repent than for liberals to do so. Sin is sin. Repentance is repentance. Shame is shame. Secrecy is secrecy.

Which brings us, of course, to the National Catholic Reporter and its red-hot story about the sinful past of conservative Catholic leader Deal Hudson of Crisis magazine and the Bush campaign's outreach program to Catholic voters (or one brand of Catholic voter).

A number of excellent blogs have been all over this story for nearly a week, led by the usual suspects -- the crack teams at Christianity Today's blog (for a sample go here) and the freewheeling folks at TheRevealer.org. At the latter, head hauncho Jeff Sharlet has more than made his feelings clear that this is a story that deserves more attention than it has been given. Are we seeing a strange case of pro-conservative bias, or at least nerves?

Washington Post's Alan Cooperman gets in on the Deal (Hudson) deal with an A-6 snoozer. Why is the resignation of the Bush's chief Catholic advisor -- a position of much greater power than the governorship of New Jersey -- getting so little attention? Even leaving aside the undisputed charges of profound sexual misconduct, why doesn't this story rate? The resignation of the DNC's religious advisor, for the crime of having supported the removal of "under God" from the pledge, won way more column inches. We're not being rhetorical here: What gives?

To which Christianity Today's online maestro Ted Olsen quipped:

Weblog thinks reporters are ignoring it just to see if The Revealer editor Jeff Sharlet merely starts walking the streets of New York in a sandwich board, or if he turns apoplectically into The Hulk, pummeling reporters who haven't followed up on the story.

Sharlet is amused, but ready for another few rounds of debate. His bottom line: There is substance to this story that journalists are struggling to get into print.

The CT folks also chided us here at GetReligion.org a bit for our relative silence, which was, I assure you, based on the event catching Doug in the middle of a trip and me swamped with the opening of the semester here at Palm Beach Atlantic University. But I also have to admit that it took me a few days to sort through what I think is the heart of this story about a news story. Here are some of my other impressions:

* At this point, I agree with Sharlet that this story has been strangely undercovered. Let me state clearly that this is a major news story and its presence in the pages of daily newspapers cannot be written off as a blast of anti-traditional Catholic bias in big newsrooms.

* At the same time, there is no question in my mind that this was a degree of payback at work for the NCR editors, based on Hudson's role in exposing the pro-Kerry work of an employee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is Cooperman on that angle (in a story that I thought was not spectacular, but not a snoozer).

Hudson himself may have gotten the ball rolling with a column early this year revealing that the moderator of the Catholics for Kerry Web site was an employee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference subsequently fired the employee, Ono Ekeh, for using his work computer to make postings to the political Web site.

Ekeh, 34, said yesterday that he sympathizes with Hudson.

"It's come to the point where disagreements about doctrine or ideology have made people consider the other side as bad people," he said. "So it's moved from ideological disagreements to personal disagreements, and that's bound to get destructive."

As I have been saying all along on the Kerry Communion story, there is more to the situation than politicians trying to grab undecided Catholic voters. It isn't news to note that there are bitter divisions in this country between Roman Catholics and American Catholics, to use the kind of spin that would be common in conservative Catholic publications -- such as Crisis.

* The Hudson story is a valid news story. But, you know what? The Ekeh story was a valid news story and one that cuts to the heart of the Catholic wars in this nation. Conservative Catholics tend to get mad when church employees spend their time promoting the cause of a liberal Catholic politician who has never missed an opportunity to support abortion rights. The bishops conference is Ground Zero for these conflicts.

So what we have here are two valid, important stories -- both of which broke in the pages of highly partisan publications. Thus, the mainstream coverage is, in part, being shaped by reactions to the prejudices of the competing Catholic armies. This is what happens -- think Clinton scandals, if you will -- when news stories are shaped by their first incarnations in fiercely partisan media.

Just ask yourself this question: Would reactions to this story be different if it had broken, not in NCR, but in the pages of Newsweek, written by veteran scribe Kenneth Woodward, or in an Associated Press piece by Richard Ostling?

* So I am hoping that there is more coverage of BOTH of these stories, both the Ekeh story and the Hudson story. They are part of the same larger story, a story that I don't think is wrapped up yet.

At the same time, let me note that the NCR (this is war, remember) told the worst possible version of the Hudson story, even if the most sordid and sensational details of the story were accurate and valid. It is, for traditional believers, crucial to ask if Hudson confessed his sins, paid the price and has been a different man since then. In this case, I think repentance is part of the story, including the story of Hudson's marriage and the future of his family.

Reporter David D. Kirkpatrick of the "issues that divide conversatives" beat at the New York Times ended his report on the crisis with this angle, noting that in his book "An American Conversion," Hudson had:

... discussed his "past mistakes" and "the role they played in my conversion through the grace and the forgiveness I have found in the Catholic Church." At one point in the book, published last year, Mr. Hudson wrote about the cooling of passion in a long marriage. "I experienced, the hard way, that passion does subside, and I was foolish not to realize that the love that follows is better," he wrote. "No doubt this led to unfortunate and destructive behavior on my part," he added. "I am blessed that I have not gotten what I deserve."

He concluded the book by recalling a romantic episode that took place a year before his conversion: "I was jolted by the sudden departure of someone I loved but who I had not treated well. The hurt was compounded by my sense of failure. I spent many months hoping to win her back but without any progress. I was to blame and I knew it."

He wrote that in despair, he prayed to the Virgin Mary at his local parish, the Immaculate Heart of Mary. "My prayers brought me both relief from my loss," he wrote, "and a sense of forgiveness for my failure."

Hudson has spoken out twice on these matters in recent days, first in a "hang a lantern on your problem" piece for National Review Online that tried to knock down some of the affects of the upcoming National Catholic Reporter piece. He also sent a letter to a Crisis e-mail list that was posted in one of the most serious Catholic niches on the World Wide Web, Amy Welborn's "Open Book" blog. For examples of the threads that have spun out of this, click here or here.

Writing to Welborn, Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News (and friend of this blog) sent this sober reminder to his fellow Catholic conservatives. The bottom line: This is a news story, folks. Admit it. When shoes drop, they drop.

Powerful and charismatic older male violates his vows by taking sexual advantage of troubled, emotionally unstable young person, using alcohol. This is a familiar Catholic narrative of late, isn't it?

I wish it weren't so, but come on, y'all, if this were about a liberal priest, or involved two men, most of the people here would be calling for the wrongdoer's head. I used to write for Crisis about a decade ago, and know Deal Hudson a little bit, so I'm not going to kick him while he's down. This is an ugly and sad situation for his wife and children. I only want to say that it's important for those of us who consider ourselves conservative Catholics remember not to be hypocrites when one of our own, so to speak, is revealed to have had feet of clay. Attacking the alleged motives of NCR and its reporter does not make the facts go away, or any easier to take.

Posted by: Rod Dreher at August 19, 2004 03:32 PM

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