Another clash of dogmas in the New York Times

There they go again. Once again, the New York Times is shocked, shocked to discover that a few of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops believe that there should be a connection between abortion (an issue treated with singular seriousness by the Vatican) and the ballot box (the final holy of holies for newspaper elites).

Thus, the newspaper of record has signaled that it is getting closer to the day when Catholics will have to make a choice -- are you nuanced or are you simplistic? Are you with The Newspaper or with those Catholic fundamentalists? David D. Kirkpatrick and Laurie Goodstein get right down to business in their story entitled "Group of Bishops Using Influence to Oppose Kerry."

Galvanized by battles against same-sex marriage and stem cell research and alarmed at the prospect of a President Kerry -- who is Catholic but supports abortion rights -- these bishops and like-minded Catholic groups are blanketing churches with guides identifying abortion, gay marriage and the stem cell debate as among a handful of "non-negotiable issues."

To the dismay of liberal Catholics and some other bishops, traditional church concerns about the death penalty or war are often not mentioned.

It's all in the quote marks. "Non-negotiable issues" earns them, while "traditional church concerns" does not. In reality, the Vatican itself has ranked abortion as a non-negotiable issue, along with a small number of others, while making serious, but not clearly dogmatic, statements on issues such as just war and the death penalty.

So the grammar of the Vatican is different than the grammar of the Times. This is not shocking. It is hard to write a balanced story about this issue, once the matter of the quote marks is settled.

There needs to be a rebellious leader in this story and that label is assigned to the outspoken, young (in terms of Catholic prelates) leader of the Archdiocese of Denver, Archbishop Charles Chaput (pictured). He has been speaking his mind early and often, especially in his newspaper editorial columns. Here is a sample:

Next month, October, is Respect Life month. It's a good time to reflect on the meaning of the Kennedy-Cuomo legacy. In brief, it's OK to be Catholic in public service as long as you're willing to jettison what's inconveniently `Catholic.` That's not a compromise. That's a deal with the devil, and it has a balloon payment no nation, no public servant and no voter can afford.

Well now, that is certainly an easy quote to interpret. Chaput did not mince words in a face-to-face meeting with the Times.

In an interview in his residence here, Archbishop Chaput said a vote for a candidate like Mr. Kerry who supports abortion rights or embryonic stem cell research would be a sin that must be confessed before receiving Communion.

"If you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil?" he asked. "And if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer is yes."

Much is at stake for the bishops, such as the seriousness of certain sacraments, dogma related to mortal sin and a few other non-trivial matters. Much is at stake for the New York Times, as well. The reporters note that 76 percent of Catholics, in a Time poll, said the church's position on abortion made no difference in their decisions about voting. Then again, in a summer Times poll, 71 percent favored some restrictions on abortion. And GOP politicos note that -- pew-gap alert -- Catholics and others who attend religious services at least once a week tend to be more conservative. Fifty-three percent of those Catholics supported Mr. Bush in 2000 compared with 47 percent of all Catholics.

It is natural to leap from this New York Times discussion to another, centering on a recent column by public editor Daniel Okrent entitled "How Would Jackson Pollock Cover This Campaign?" In it, he notes that he is receiving his usual flood of letters claiming the newspaper is, to one degree or another, biased. His bottom line:

(There) are plenty of press critics in print and on the Web, so I'll cede the general criticism to them. Here's the question for a public editor: Is The Times systematically biased toward either candidate?

No.

If there's a commissariat at The Times ordering up coverage to help or hurt a specific candidate, it's doing a lousy job; close reading shows bruises administered to each (and free passes handed out) in a pattern adapted from Jackson Pollock.

But here is the crucial question, one that links Okrent's column to the actions of Chaput and other conservative Catholic prelates. Chaput would say that he is not trying to support a REPUBLICAN candidate. He would gladly support a pro-life Democrat, if it were possible to find one at the national level. Can we say the same of the Times and its editors? Probably. They would almost certainly be glad to support pro-abortion-rights REPUBLICANS, when offered the chance to do so.

It's all a matter of dogma, you see. Different flocks have different abortion dogmas, often transcending matters of mere political affiliation. In that spirit, I wrote Okrent this letter.

Thank you for the candor and relative calmness of the Oct. 10 column. By way of introduction, I am a journalism professor and a veteran Scripps Howard reporter and columnist. In light of what I will say next, you also need to know that I am an active Eastern Orthodox Christian and a life-long Democrat, of the rare and endangered pro-life species.

You say that you do not believe that coverage in the New York Times has been systematically slanted for or against any particular candidate. Would you say the same thing about coverage of major moral and social issues? Would you, over a decade after the stunning Los Angeles Times series on bias in abortion coverage in American media, say that the New York Times has offered balanced and accurate coverage on that issue? How about on the issue of same-sex marriage? Of free-speech issues involving traditional religious believers?

In other words, might the newspaper see events through a lens, through a worldview, that favors moral progressives over the orthodox?

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