Proving the value of religion reporters

majerus biondiThere's a controversy brewing in St. Louis that poses some interesting questions for journalists. St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus went to a Hillary Clinton campaign rally on Saturday night where he was interviewed by KMOV, a local television station. During the interview, he expressed some views that are not in line with Catholic teaching. Which wouldn't be news if he weren't also being paid $650,000 a year by a Catholic university. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's first story was written by a political reporter and a sports reporter and it showed:

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said this morning that St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus should be disciplined over his public comments supporting abortion rights and stem cell research.

Since when is the Catholic Church against stem cell research? The fact is that it's not. It's against stem cell research that kills embryos. I thought this media-perpetrated myth might be on the wane after November's stem-cell breakthrough of obtaining pluripotent cells without destroying embryos. Apparently it's not. Anyway, Burke's position is that you can't have a Catholic university with one of its prominent staff members making statements in conflict with the church.

The story doesn't quote Majerus, although there's a link to watch the interview here. It's actually a really good off-the-cuff interview by an informed reporter. There's also a video interview of Archbishop Burke at yesterday's March for Life.

For its part, the university says Majerus' comments weren't made on behalf of the university. The story then tried to characterize the relationship between St. Louis University and the St. Louis Archdiocese:

Last year, St. Louis U. celebrated a legal victory that affirmed it is not controlled by the Catholic church or by its Catholic beliefs.

The Missouri Supreme Court agreed with the school in handing down a decision that the city of St. Louis did not violate state and federal constitutions by granting the university $8 million in tax increment financing for its new arena.

Opponents of the $80 million arena sued the school in 2004, halting construction.

The Missouri Constitution prohibits public funding to support any "... college, university, or other institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church or sectarian denomination whatever."

The debate came down to two words: "control" and "creed." Does the guiding mission of a Catholic university align with the specific system of religious faith espoused by the Catholic church? And if so, does that system of faith control the actions of the university?

In a 6-1 decision, the court said SLU "is not controlled by a religious creed."

Burke 02 So . . . what does that mean? I honestly have no idea. I feel like there are key details missing. Could we get someone to explain the significance of this?

Thankfully the St. Louis Post-Dispatch brought religion reporter Tim Townsend into the loop for this morning's story. It's like night and day -- it's got a more interesting lede, it doesn't make the "stem cell" mistake, it quotes Majerus, and it provides context:

The archbishop said Majerus should be disciplined but did not say how. At issue is the Catholic concept of scandal, a perennial concern of Burke's defined by the catechism of the Catholic church as "an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil."

Townsend has covered Burke and the concept of scandal before.

Also, compare the excerpt about SLU's religious identity from the previous story with how Townsend handles it:

Burke has no direct control over SLU, and it is unclear what he will do if the university does not discipline Majerus.

SLU is nominally a Catholic institution, but last year the Missouri Supreme Court said, in a 6-1 decision, that SLU "is not controlled by a religious creed," which cleared the way for public funding of the university's new, $80 million arena. . . .

The school reminded the court of its decision to sell St. Louis University Hospital to Tenet Healthcare in 1998 "despite the strong and well-publicized objections of the Archbishop of St. Louis."

Townsend explains that the school also claimed in its legal brief that the university doesn't require employees to be Catholic, and that few employees are Jesuit and few students are Catholic. Townsend explains SLU's governing structure as well as the history and governance of the Society of Jesus. The story also explains Burke's interest in the school given that it resides within the borders of his archdiocese.

Townsend's contributions to the second story prove why religion reporters are of such tremendous value in any newsroom.

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