Sigh ... Back into 'On Faith' fog

mistsI know, I know. I have said what I have to say already about the mini-firestorm over Sally Quinn of the Washington Post electing to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion at the funeral Mass for the late Tim Russert. I really don't want to have readers start clicking "comment" again to talk about the theology of this or the state of Catholic canon law. For me, the key is journalism. Why, at the "On Faith" site, is this a subject that is defined in terms of feelings instead of facts. As I said in my last post on the topic:

There are facts that matter here. Facts about history, doctrine and courtesy. Facts matter when you are covering religion news and trends. Facts matter when you are interviewing religious people -- left and right, members of major world religions and members of lesser known bodies that some would be tempted to call "fringe." Facts and doctrine matter to religious people. ...

This isn't about emotions and feelings. It's about getting the facts right and showing respect for the people for whom those facts, doctrines and rituals are a matter of eternal life and death. Facts matter in journalism, religion and journalism about religion

I bring this up, heading once again into the fog bank defined in my first post, because of an email blurb that the "On Faith" team sent out to promote one of its religious questions that are posted for debate. The question:

What do you think about Sally Quinn, a non-Catholic, going to Communion at Tim Russert's Catholic funeral? What are some do's and don'ts for observing the religious rituals of others?

This was, of course, posted to the weblog's 100-plus-member panel of religious thinkers and leaders. Thus, we are told:

With backgrounds and beliefs spanning a wide range, panelists include Rock musician Salman Ahmad, Arun Gandhi, grandson of "Mahatma" Gandhi, best-selling author Sam Harris, Bishop T.D. Jakes, His Excellency Mohammad Khatami of Iran, Reverend Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, Reverend Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life," Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel, Anglican Bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright among others.

The assumption is that all of these people have something to say about this issue. I can see that many would, about the question about the "do's and don'ts for observing the religious rituals of others." In a general sense, they can talk about their various traditions. But that isn't the issue here, is it? The question concerns Quinn's decision to knowingly violate Catholic tradition and law. If she didn't know that she was violating Catholic tradition and law, then that raises another set of journalistic questions.

What do all of these panelists have to do with the question at the heart of the controversy?

If Quinn had chosen to visit a synagogue and break Jewish traditions, the relevant discussion would involve Jews in various traditions.

If she had decided to visit a mosque and do something totally contrary to Islamic law and custom, the relevant discussion would be among Muslims.

The goal would be to explore the facts of that tradition and the differing ways -- perhaps -- that these facts are interpreted by experts and believers in that tradition. Rest assured that there would be a debate between American Catholics on the left and right on the Communion issue at hand, between progressives and the pro-Vatican traditionalists.

Meanwhile, we get all kinds of views on Quinn's act from all kinds of people, including some Catholics. But the emphasis is on the people outside the Catholic fold, with Quinn. It is not surprising that many take her side.

mists trees mtnsideFor example, here is the trailblazing postmodern evangelical "emergent" thinker Brian D. McLaren, who even manages to jump inside the mind of Russert as he argues that traditional Catholics are bad Christian evangelists, because they want to maintain centuries of law and tradition:

Tim Russert, it was clear, lived in this dynamic tension, and created this kind of space for his friends. He was a deeply committed Catholic who welcomed into his circle of friendship people who did not share -- or even begin to understand -- his commitment. My guess is that Tim would not have joined with those who took offense, interpreted her choice with a "hermeneutic of suspicion," and who blasted Sally for taking part in communion.

Instead, I think that Tim would have interpreted her choice with a "hermeneutic of grace," seeing in her action -- which strictly speaking, did violate Catholic protocols -- as a step of faith, and not as an act of disrespect for his religion. All priests and pastors and parishioners, it seems to me, face similar situations, and we all have four options:

A. To show this "hermeneutic of grace" in neither our personal lives nor in our church lives.

B. To show it in our personal lives but not our communal lives.

C. To show it in our communal but not our personal lives.

D. To show it in both.

Protocols? In other words, if a Catholic pope, bishop or priest does not offer nonbelievers Holy Communion, then they are not gracefully taking part in their search for God, truth, etc. They are turning seekers away and, well, bad on them for doing that. Forget centuries of converts, martyrs and everyone else. But I am straying from the subject.

The bottom line: What does this have to do with the journalistic questions being raised? McLaren is a Protestant's Protestant, although that statement will anger many Protestants. He is free to do whatever he wants in his church. The question is whether he would want, let's say, some hardshell fundamentalists coming into his services and taking actions that directly oppose the teachings of his church.

In other words, McLaren makes the rules or anti-rules in his own church, correct? If you are writing about his church, the important thing is to know and understand the teachings and traditions in the context of his flock. You would want to show his congregation respect, by "getting things right" when covering them. That's journalism.

What do feelings and emotions have to do with this, in the context of a journalistic enterprise? There are facts linked to this discussion. Right? Or, is the question of whether there are facts or truth claims about Catholic sacraments what is actually in dispute? Is it a newspaper's job to tell the Catholic Church what is and what is not good Catholicism? Is it the newspaper's duty to call for doctrinal change? Would Quinn do that for other world religions? Questions and more questions.

More fog, instead of information. What we need here is journalism.

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