Catholicism

Friday Five: Rachel Zoll update, Notre Dame fire, bad vibrations in NYC , Kent Brantly's next mission

Friday Five: Rachel Zoll update, Notre Dame fire, bad vibrations in NYC , Kent Brantly's next mission

This week, GetReligion’s Richard Ostling visited longtime Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll, who is staying with her sister Cheryl in Amherst, Mass.

Ostling and Zoll worked together as AP’s national religion team for years.

Most know that Zoll, recipient of awards last year from AP and the Religion News Association, has been coping with brain cancer since January 2018.

She passed along the following message to her many friends on the Godbeat: “I miss you all. I love hearing what people are doing and working on and wish you the best.”

By the way, Ostling is now on Twitter. Give him a follow!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Once again, we have no clear honoree this week. So I’ll call your attention to Terry Mattingly’s post on a must-read New York Times multimedia report on the Notre Dame Cathedral fire.

In his post, tmatt also links to Clemente Lisi’s piece on how French church vandalism cases finally are starting to get the journalistic attention they deserve.

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And this just in from the 13th century: What did the popes (secretly) say to the Mongols?

And this just in from the 13th century: What did the popes (secretly) say to the Mongols?

I’ve been in Mongolia the past two weeks helping a friend write a book and seeing as much of this Central Asian nation as I possibly can. I say “central” because the ethos of this place is high steppe, not the coastlines of the Far East.

English-language media are almost non-existent here, but I have found one: Montsame, a government-run national news agency, that ran a tiny piece last week about letters between Mongol emperors and medieval popes during the 1200s.

Is that breaking news? Maybe not. But today we will focus on new information.

St. Francis had been dead about 20 years when all this started. Marco Polo was being born (in 1254). A photo I’ve included with this entry shows how folks (minus the 21st century interlopers) dressed during this time.

Ulaanbaatar /MONTSAME — On July 9, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received official copies of letters of khans of the Ilkhanate to the Popes.

Copies of letters from Pope Innocent IV to Guyuk Khan (March 13, 1245), Pope Urban IV to Khulegu Khan May 23, 1263, Abaqa Khan to Pope Clement IV (summer of 1268), Pope Nicholas III to Abaqa Khan (April 1, 1278), a travel permit given to the envoys of Roman Catholic Church by Abaqa Khan, two letters from Pope Nicholas IV to Argun Khan (April 2, 1288) and the letter from Argun Khan to Pope Nicholas IV were received.

Never knew the 13th century had so much ecumenical activity, did you?

The letters were copied according to the official agreement with the Vatican Secret Archives established with the support of the officials of Mongolian Embassy in Italy headed by Ambassador of Mongolia to Italy Ts. Jambaldorj.

This is pretty stilted, but there’s a fascinating story behind it all.

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Today's must-read story: Linger over the @NYTimes multimedia report on Notre Dame fire

Today's must-read story: Linger over the @NYTimes multimedia report on Notre Dame fire

Forget Twitter for a moment.

Forget American politics, in fact and the circular firing squads that both political parties seem anxious to stage at least once a week. Forget You. Know. Who.

What you need to do right now — if you have not, as my colleague Clemente Lisi recommended this morning — is read the massive New York Times multimedia feature that vividly tells the story of the firefighters who risked all to save Notre Dame Cathedral, making decisions in a matter of minutes that kept this holy place from collapsing.

Read and view it all: “Notre-Dame came far closer to collapsing than people knew. This is how it was saved.”

Yes, I know that some readers will say: “You mean the same New York Times that made that embarrassing mistake when covering the fire, confusing a priest’s reference to saving the ‘Body of Christ’ (sacrament) with rescuing a mere statue?

Set that aside for 15 minutes and did into this piece.

The key to the story is the heroism shown by the firefighters who saved Notre Dame’s north tower, where flames were already threatening the beams that held some of the cathedral’s giant bells.

The equation: If those beams broke, the bells would fall. If the bells fell, the north tower would fall. If the north tower fell it was al; but certain that the south tower would, as well.

That would pull down the entire structure of Notre Dame. Here’s a crucial passage linked to that:

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Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?

Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?

I have a question for GetReligion readers, especially those who have experience in journalism or online publishing.

Here it is: Are readers “trolls” if they constantly write comments (and sends emails) that have little or nothing to do the journalism issues covered in our posts, but also provide — on a semi-regular basis — totally valid URLs for stories that deserve the attention of your GetReligionistas?

One of our readers, for example, is offended by references to “elite” newsrooms or “elite” U.S. zip codes, especially those along the East and West coasts. All of those studies showing that places like New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley have more clout than cities and towns in flyover country? Who has more power to shape the news, editors at The New York Times or The Oklahoman?

This brings me to a fascinating Axios piece that ran the other day with this headline: “The age of winner-take-all cities.” You have to see the simple, blunt, graphic that Axios editors used to illustrate data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (there’s a screenshot at the top of this post).

Now, what does this story have to say about religion news and trends?

Absolutely nothing, in terms of specific information or explicit references.

However, if you read this piece carefully and think like a reporter who covers issues linked to religion, morality and culture (and, yes, politics) it’s easy to see a burning fuse in this piece that is attached to many explosive stories in the news today. Here is the overture:

For all the talk of American cities undergoing a renaissance, economic success has been concentrated in a few standout metropolises while the rest either struggle to keep up or fall further behind.

Why it matters: This winner-take-all dynamic has led to stark inequalities and rising tensions — both inside and outside city limits — that are helping to drive our politics off the rails.

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Church vandalism cases in France starting to get the journalism attention they deserve

Church vandalism cases in France starting to get the journalism attention they deserve

Spending two weeks in France earlier this summer was a wonderful experience. While I was there to cover the Women’s World Cup, I did get an opportunity to travel extensively throughout Paris and the northern part of the country.

During my travels, I walked into a lot of churches. France is one of the few countries I have ever visited where churches were always open. There was something comforting seeing churches with their doors swung wide, inviting anyone to walk right in.

The other thing I noticed was how empty these houses of worship were. It’s not surprising given that church attendance in France is among the lowest in the world.

I’m used to New York City, where churches are often locked when Mass isn’t going on. The reasons are plentiful. Theft, vandalism and other factors often goes into why this has become a practice. You’d think they would have heeded the warning in France, where the vandalism of Catholic churches has become an all-too-common occurrence the past two years.

This trend has largely been ignored in the mainstream press (we discussed this extensively at GetReligion at the time of the Notre Dame blaze and again in the aftermath). It should be noted, once again, that the fire at Notre Dame was an accident and not part of the spate of attacks.  

This takes us to a great piece of journalism by Real Clear Investigations, the same people who run Real Clear Politics (full disclosure: I have written for Real Clear Sports in the past). A recent piece posted to the site takes a deep dive into the trend, quantifying it with anecdotes, lots of data and interviews with people in the know. The reporting sheds a spotlight on the string of attacks and what it has done to France. It may be one of the best reported pieces on what’s been going on there by any news organization to date.

What Richard Bernstein has been able to do here is the kind of reporting that we no longer see. A former foreign correspondent at The New York Times, Bernstein worked as the paper’s Paris bureau chief from 1984 to 1987. His knowledge of the country, the history and factors that may have influenced the events of the past year shows through his reporting. These two paragraphs early on, for example, illustrate the magnitude of the problem — with help from data collected by various French authorities:

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Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

It’s time for another trip into my GetReligion folder of guilt. That’s where news features go that I know are important, but I cannot — quickly — spot the issue that is nagging me.

Thus, the story gets filed away, while I keep thinking about it.

In this case, we are talking about a Washington Post story that is an important follow-up on the newspaper’s investigation into charges of corruption against Catholic Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of West Virginia — an important disciple of the fallen cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. Click here for the first GetReligion post on this topic, by Bobby Ross, Jr.

The headline on this new expose states: “Warnings about West Virginia bishop went unheeded as he doled out cash gifts to Catholic leaders.” Yes, this story is about money, money, money and then more money.

Oh, there is some signs of sexual harassment of seminarians in there, but that doesn’t seem to interest the Post team. And there are hints that some of the conflicts surrounding Bransfield may have had something to do with Catholicism. Maybe. Hold that thought because we will come back to it. Here is the overture:

Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield as far back as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.

“I beg of you to please look into this situation,” Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote in 2013 to the pope’s ambassador to the United States.

But Bransfield’s conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.

“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Then there is the big thesis statement:

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Friday Five: Billy Graham rule, Marianne Williamson, nun's curveball, MZ's Kavanaugh book

Friday Five: Billy Graham rule, Marianne Williamson, nun's curveball, MZ's Kavanaugh book

A famous steakhouse off Interstate 40 in Amarillo, Texas, offers a free, 72-ounce steak.

The only catch: You must eat it all in one setting.

On a reporting trip this week, I stopped there for lunch. Spoiler alert: I didn’t order the 4.5-pound hunk of beef. I chose something slightly smaller.

While I savor the delicious memories, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This may not be the most important story of the week. In fact, veteran religion journalist G. Jeffrey MacDonald questioned on Twitter whether it’s news at all.

But I’m fascinated by the coverage of a little-known Mississippi gubernatorial candidate who invoked the “Billy Graham rule” in declining to allow a female journalist to shadow him for a day. I wrote about all the national media attention state Rep. Robert Foster has received — and the lack of details on Foster’s actual religious beliefs — in a post Thursday.

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Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

During my four decades or so in religion-beat work — as a reporter and then as a national columnist — I have covered or attempted to cover countless (trust me on that) stories linked to the lives of LGBTQ Catholics.

I also, in the early 1990s (after I had left the Rocky Mountain News) interviewed for a teaching post at a Jesuit university, where I was grilled about my support for many Catholic Catechism statements on sexuality (I was an evangelical Anglican at the time). I was told that I would threaten gay students and others in the campus community.

Through it all, I have learned one thing: It is impossible to stereotype the lives or beliefs of many, many gay Catholics. There is no such thing as an archetypal “gay Catholic.”

This brings me — I apologize, right up front — to yet another mainstream news report about Catholic schools, church doctrines, teacher contracts, doctrinal covenants and “gay” teachers. Yes, here we go again.

In this case, look at the overture in this CNN story, under this headline: “An Indiana teacher is suing his archdiocese, saying he was fired from a Catholic school for being gay.”

The key words, of course, are “fired … for being gay.” Here’s the top of this story:

A former Catholic school teacher is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, saying that he was fired because of his sexual orientation.

Joshua Payne-Elliott had taught at Cathedral High School for 13 years. But despite renewing his contract in May, the school fired him a month later under the directive of the archdiocese, he says.

On Monday, Payne-Elliott's attorney announced a confidential settlement with Cathedral High School. His new lawsuit is against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which he says forced the high school to fire him.

The dispute between the archdiocese and Payne-Elliott, who is publicly named for the first time in the suit, is unusual because his husband is also a teacher at a Catholic high school in Indianapolis. His husband teaches at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, which was also asked by the archdiocese to fire their teacher after the same-sex marriage was made public in 2017 on social media. The Jesuits refused.

Fired “for being gay” then leads to the follow-up statement that this teacher was “fired because of his sexual orientation.” The key term is “orientation.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a second.

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Frederick Brennan created 8chan, hyped eugenics and then became a Christian (-30-)

Frederick Brennan created 8chan, hyped eugenics and then became a Christian (-30-)

Destroyer of Worlds” by Nicky Woolf is a longform profile of a man who helped spread shortform jibber-jabber. The platform for this piece is Tortoise Media in London, a worthy journalistic venture with a witty name: in a culture of ceaseless notifications, pseudo-events and listicles of outrage, it strives to slow readers down with subscription-funded longform reporting.

The profile’s headline creates a hope that here is a journalist with religion literacy. It alludes to a verse from the Bhagavid Gita that theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said he thought about during the successful test of the atomic weapon he helped create.

Tortoise editor Ceri Thomas loses no time in warning readers that in creating the Web space known as 8chan (which I have no interest in visiting), Fredrick Brennan did a very, very bad thing:

There’s no room for argument about whether hate-filled internet message boards encourage real-world violence: they do, and none more so than 8chan. It normalises racism, misogyny, and extremism — and helps turn nightmarish, loud-mouthed talk of action into reality. What kind of person would set up a site like 8chan? 

The question matters if we’re serious about trying to regulate it, or prevent similar sites coming into being. We might assume that the brains behind 8chan would belong to a committed, hard-line ideologue; someone, perhaps, we could identify and deal with. But what if other impulses are in play? How do we deal with the motivating power of poverty, disability, anger and self-loathing? Meet Fredrick Brennan.

Likewise, Woolf spends considerable time warning readers away from what is possibly the most concentrated evil (click for classic movie finale) since Terry Gilliam directed Time Bandits in 1981.

But when Woolf has an exquisite plot twist — Brennan became a Catholic — this amazingly symbolic development becomes a drive-by detail in a penultimate paragraph.

How symbolic? Brennan, who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), spent several years writing about his attraction to eugenics, on the theory that it could have prevented his suffering by preventing his birth. But that attraction has dimmed a bit since his conversion:

He is married, has converted to Christianity, and spends his time designing his own fonts. Asked what he would say to his 14-year-old self, he pauses. “Um. It sounds like a cliché, but it gets better. You’re not going to feel like that for ever.”

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