Clemente Lisi

Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

If we have learned anything from the clergy sex-abuse scandals that plagued the Catholic church last year — and continue to do so in the form of new revelations — was how important the religious press (especially the voices on the more conservative end of the spectrum) have tried to point out the failings of Pope Francis.

Not to be outdone, the prevailing Catholic press on the doctrinal left continues to exert a lot of influence in church politics. In other words, publications on the left are still required reading not just for Catholics, but anyone who writes about the church for mainstream news outlets.

Take the National Catholic Reporter.

Founded in 1964 (just five years after the Second Vatican Council dramatically changed the church), its aim was to bring the professional standards of secular news reporting to the press that covers Catholic news and issues. That’s all commendable — until one looks at the consistently progressive positions the bi-weekly newspaper (and its website) has espoused at a time when the church is increasingly split between liberals and conservatives.

But here is the twist. In the wake of the crises, people of faith have to deal with why they continue to identify as Catholic and what that means to them. For the first time in modern history, the pontiff’s progressive nature matches what the NCR has championed for years.

If the Catholic voices on the conservative spectrum are getting greater attention at this time, it is also worth noting that several journalistic pillars of the religious left continue to set the agenda for millions of Catholics. That includes clergy and priests as well as the laity and, by extension, politicians.

NCR has won journalistic accolades from the Catholic Press Association (of which I am a proud member) and remains one of the most important voices out there. It isn’t afraid to take on church doctrine and traditional beliefs, becoming a lightening rod for those on the right. For example, the bi-weekly newspaper’s position, in a 2014 editorial, said climate change is the most-important pro-life issue facing society. The paper is anti-Donald Trump and not shy about pointing the finger at St. Pope John Paul II’s inaction when faced with past clergy sex-abuse allegations.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Political reporters take note: There are Catholics on both sides of hot immigration debates

Political reporters take note: There are Catholics on both sides of hot immigration debates

The country is divided. You already knew that.

People are going to argue like crazy about whatever President Donald Trump says no matter that he says. You already knew that, too.

Why America is divided and the issues and people that drive that division on both sides is key to understanding our present situation. Consider, of course, immigration — and specifically the construction of a border wall — that not only shut down the federal government last month, but continues to be a source of debate between Trump and his allies (who want a wall) and Democrats (who do not).

The religion angle? The immigration debate, on the whole, has lacked adequate mainstream media coverage when it comes to how various faiths play a policy role.

Aside from the occasional message from Pope Francis calling on wealthy nations to open their arms and stop the policy of separating families, you don’t see much mention of Catholics — or religion in general — when it comes to this polarizing issue. After all, many of those in Congress who favor and oppose the wall are Catholic and a great many of those seeking asylum share those same religious beliefs. While the border wall remains a thorny issue that has recently dominated news coverage, the media has largely been on the fence when it comes to committing resources that actually looks at the issue from a faith-based perspective of those who favor stricter border enforcement.

The unreported story here is that there are many good Catholics (both politicians and voters) who support efforts to build a wall along the southern U.S. border in order to keep out other (mostly Central American) Catholics.

The truth is there are fissures within the church, the clergy and everyday Catholics (voters to politicians) when it comes to the issue. Those internal debates are a big reason why the overall electorate in fractured on the immigration debate and why Republicans and Democrats have been battling one another for months. This has led to a partial government shutdown and stalemate with Trump over border enforcement funding. Remember when some Democrats mangled the Christmas story to make a point on the issue?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Calling all sportswriters: Don't forget the 'Catholic angle' in those Notre Dame football stories

Calling all sportswriters: Don't forget the 'Catholic angle' in those Notre Dame football stories

December can be lots of things to different people. For Christians, it’s the season of Advent that culminates with Christmas. Jews have Hannukkah. Sports fans have … lots and lots of college football leading into the bowl games that really matter.

The College Football Playoff introduced just a few years back has added that extra layer of excitement to the Bowl season and Heisman trophy contest that highlights the end of every season. The quartet of teams vying to be national champions this year are Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.

While Alabama is ranked No. 1 and the heavy favorite to win the title, the team that stands out from this group for reasons not at all associated with sports is Notre Dame. For sportswriters out in the field covering games and feature stories (and, more importantly, the editors who dictate that coverage), let’s not forget what can be called the “Catholic angle” to any Notre Dame team.

To cut to the chase: There’s more to this team than its iconic golden helmets, deep-blue uniforms and movies like “Rudy.”

That’s not to say the Catholic rituals and traditions associated with the school’s football team have been totally overlooked over the year. Michael Leahy, author and award-winning writer for The Washington Post, wrote a column in 2013 about the Catholic connection to the Division I school in South Bend, Indiana. Here is an excerpt from that piece:

If there is a single reason for Notre Dame’s enduring mystique, it is that — putting aside the perspectives of its alumni, students, professors and administrators — the place exists in the American psyche solely as a football team. The school has a top-notch faculty and notable graduates who never played a down, but who in Ann Arbor, Los Angeles or Tuscaloosa cares about that? To them, Notre Dame is the locker room where Knute Rockne exhorted his troops before they stampeded the opposition. It is the Four Horsemen. It is Ronald Reagan as George Gipp. It is a place where greatness, reality and fable mingle, and few know where one ends and the others begin.

For most of the 20th century, the adoration of Notre Dame also reflected the relatively favored status of Catholicism in American culture. Despite unfounded fears over whether a Catholic president could escape the Vatican’s influence, films from the era demonstrate a largely benign perception of Catholicism. The most memorable priests from the period’s major movies possess the same saintly qualities ascribed to Notre Dame: rectitude, hearts of gold and the righteous power to knock out a foe.

Leahy’s commentary is spot on. It captures a snapshot of the school’s religious and cultural relevance to American society like few pieces about Notre Dame ever have previously or since its publication. It is the backdrop and larger context for nearly every story regarding the Fightin’ Irish‘s football program.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

A question for editors: Pondering the difference between the Catholic 'church' and its 'hierarchy'

A question for editors: Pondering the difference between the Catholic 'church' and its 'hierarchy'

Is there a difference between the Catholic ““church and its “hierarchy”?

That’s a question that very few, if any, editors and reporters working in either the mainstream or religious press seem to have asked themselves. It’s just another of the many questions to come out of the clerical sex-abuse scandal and the downfall of now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick that highlighted news coverage since this summer.

It’s a question that was surfaced by Father Thomas Reese (for decades a major source in many mainstream news reports) in a recent opinion piece that ran on Religion News Service. Journalists need to think about what he’s saying, so here’s an excerpt:

I remember in the 1980s taking a tour of the House of Commons in London. The tour guide pointed to a plaque on the wall in honor of a minister “who was killed by the Irish Catholics.” Not the IRA, not the Provos, not the terrorists, but the Irish Catholics.

Today we do the same thing when we say, “Muslims are killing Christians.”

Saying that the Catholic church did not protect children is just as wrong. It was the bishops. It was the hierarchy.

We should not blame the the people of God for the sins of the hierarchy. In many other churches, the people have some say in selecting their leadership and therefore have some responsibility for their hierarchy’s actions. Not so in the Catholic Church, where new leaders are chosen by current leaders.

If the hierarchy had been open with the laity about the sex abuse crisis, if the bishops had listened to the people, we would not be in the mess we are today.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Reese has an interesting take, but one that's loaded with journalistic naivete.

When speaking of Catholicism, the term “church” does often refer to the hierarchy in references used by journalists in news accounts. In this regard, the words “church” and “hierarchy” are often interchangeable.

Catholicism is a hierarchical religion and journalists are, in most cases, not referring to the faithful when saying “the church” failed to protect children or young seminarians. It’s akin to using terms like “the people” when talking about a criminal trial and referencing “prosecutors” or “the government.” It reminds me of some of the gripes Mormons have had, and are still having, with the way the press has identified them.

Dictionaries are still of vital use.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

Elections matter. That’s the mantra you hear from both Republicans and Democrats — usually from the side that won said election — every time a piece of legislation being pushed finds legislative obstacles and serious opposition.

The recent midterm elections saw a split decision (Dems took the House, while the GOP held the Senate), leaving the nation polarized as ever heading into the what is expected to be a political slog heading into the 2020 presidential race. With the Catholic vote split down the middle again following these recent elections, it’s worth noting that Catholics, as well as the church itself, will be tested starting in January with the start of a new legislative session from Congress down to the state level.

Indeed, elections matter. Here are three storylines editors and journalists at mainstream news outlets should look out for that will impact the church in the coming year:

Clergy sex abuse: As the scandals — that mostly took place in past — continue to trickle out in the form of grand jury reports and other investigations, look for lawmakers to try and remedy the situation for victims through legislation on the state level.

With very blue New York State voting to put Democrats in control of both the state Assembly and Senate (the GOP had maintained a slight majority), look for lawmakers to pass (and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Catholic, to sign) the Child Victims Act. The Empire State isn’t alone. Other legislatures in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey and New Mexico are considering similar measures.

The New York legislation would allow victims of abuse suffered under the age of 18 to seek justice years later as adults. Removing the statute of limitations on cases involving private institutions, like the Boy Scouts and Jewish yeshivas, is at the heart of the battle.

New York law currently prevents victims from proceeding with criminal cases once they turn 23. As we know, many victims don't come forward until years later. The church has opposed past attempts at the legislation — along with the GOP — after successful lobbying efforts by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The ability to sue the church, even many years later, could bankrupt parishes, while public schools would be immune to such penalties. Another source of contention in the legislation is the one-year “look back” window that would allow victims to bring decades-old cases to civil court.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Catholic connection to Thanksgiving Day? That's a great story that is rarely told

Catholic connection to Thanksgiving Day? That's a great story that is rarely told

If Christmas is referred to as “The greatest story ever told,” America’s first Thanksgiving could very well be “The greatest story you’ve never heard before.”

The reason for that is because the first recorded Thanksgiving meal between the Pilgrims and Native Americans at Plymouth in 1621 may not have been the first of its kind. In fact, some historians say it actually took place more than 50 years earlier in St. Augustine.

Spanish documents, first highlighted by University of Florida Professor Michael Gannon, revealed that the first meal between European colonists and Native Americans on U.S. soil took place on the grounds of what is now the Fountain of Youth in 1565.

The city’s founder Pedro Menendez de Aviles and the colonists broke bread with the Timucua Indians soon after the Spanish made landfall on September 8. In Gannon’s book, The Cross in the Sand, he noted, “It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land.”

De Aviles came ashore on that day and subsequently named the land St. Augustine in honor of the saint on whose feast day was August 28, the day Florida was first sighted by the ships. Members of the Timucua tribe greeted the fleet. Records show it was a peaceful exchange.

In his memoirs, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who celebrated mass that day, wrote: “The feast day [was] observed… after mass, [Menendez] had the Indians fed and dined himself.”

Although Gannon’s book was published in 1965, no one paid attention to it until 1985 when a reporter from The Associated Press called the professor looking for a new angle on the holiday. When the wire service put the article out for its member newspapers to print a few days before Thanksgiving, the story sent shockwaves across New England. Gannon was immediately dubbed, “The Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”

The meal celebrated by the Spanish had already been planned as a feast to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus, and coincided with their safe arrival. Historians like Gannon have argued that the first real Thanksgiving didn’t feature Protestant separatists in Massachusetts, but Catholic explorers in Florida.

Gannon, a legendary figure among Florida historians, died last year at age 89. Gannon may have died, but the Catholic case for Thanksgiving lives on thanks to other historians, researchers and writers who argue the honor should go to Spanish settlers.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

This past Saturday, the Jewish sabbath — just two weeks removed from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and 80 years to the day following Kristallnacht -- the Israeli news site Times of Israel ran the following stories on its home page. Each was about anti-Semitism; either a hateful display of it (including one new one in the United States) or warnings about its steady rise in Europe.

Because it would take too much space to explain them all, I’ll just supply the links and note the nation of origin. Please read at least a few of them to gain a sense of the level of concern.

(1) The Netherlands.

(2) The United Kingdom.

(3) Poland.

(4) Germany.

(5) Austria.

(6) United States.

A quick web search that same day uncovered a host of other stories documenting recent anti-Semitic actions, many cloaked in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, including this one from The Jewish Chronicle, the venerable, London-based, Anglo-Jewish publication.

A local Labour party [meaning a regional branch of Britain’s national opposition political party] confirmed it amended a motion about the Pittsburgh synagogue attack to remove a call for all forms of antisemitism to be eradicated and for Labour to “lead the way in opposing" Jew-hate.

The story, of course, included the usual explanations meant to excuse actions of this sort. And, for the record, while I do not consider all criticism of Israeli government actions to be anti-Semitic, I do believe that the line between legitimate political criticism of Israel and hatred of Israel because its a Jewish nation is frequently blurred.

I listed all the above stories to make some journalistic points. The first of them is to point out journalism’s unique internal clock.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

It's a new fact of news life: Reporters have to start reading the alternative Catholic press

It's a new fact of news life: Reporters have to start reading the alternative Catholic press

The scandals that have engulfed the Catholic Church the past few months are only intensifying.

The allegations to come out of Pennsylvania (as well as Ireland and Australia) and accusations against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick not only revealed how much the church is hurting, but also the stark ideological split within it. These events have also seen a rise in the power of online media.

The growth of conservative Catholic outlets, for example, and their ability to break stories against “Uncle Ted” has coincided with the internal struggle contrasting what traditionalists see as inadequate news coverage from the mainstream media regarding Pope Francis’ leadership. Filling that void are conservative journalists and bloggers on a mission to expose what they see as the Vatican’s progressive hierarchy.

In 2002, an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by clergy never before reported to civil authorities (click here for links). These days, accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church are being exposed by smaller news organizations. No longer are mainstream outlets setting the pace here. Depleted newsrooms and not wanting to do negative stories about the pontiff have spurred conservative Catholic media to fill the journalism void.

Indeed, it’s a small group of influential blogs and news websites that has helped to inform millions as well as drive the debate.

The sex-abuse scandals that dominated news coverage over the summer are not going away. In the latest allegations to hit the U.S church, John Jenik, an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of New York, is under investigation after being accused of sexual abuse. First to the punch with the story soon after Cardinal Timothy Dolan made the announcement was CruxNow, a Catholic news site, and not any of the three competitive New York City dailies.

The revelations regarding Jenik could be just the start of a new flood of allegations going into 2019. The Justice Department recently sent a request to every Roman Catholic diocese in the country ordering them not to destroy documents related to the handling of child sexual abuse cases. The request to preserve those files, first reported by the blog Whispers in the Loggia, is yet another sign that the prove is expanding after the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Time for next wave of election ink: So it's time to look for the elusive Catholic vote -- again

Time for next wave of election ink: So it's time to look for the elusive Catholic vote -- again

Election Day is upon us. You may have noticed what a big deal the midterms are given the extensive coverage and hype from both the networks and cable news channels over the past few weeks.

While the fight for Republicans to maintain control of Congress has been framed, of course, as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s first two years in office, there is also a religion angle — specifically a Catholic one) to examine. These elections could also serve as a litmus test for
American Catholics and whether they opt to go left or right. After all, Catholicism is the country’s single largest religious denomination, and the ultimate swing vote, although you wouldn’t know it from all the aforementioned news coverage.

Overall, the data is mixed on whether Catholics as a whole backed Trump or Clinton.

But there’s the key fact. There is no one Catholic vote. That’s a myth.

It’s that elusiveness that makes Catholics and the midterms a difficult story for news organizations to tackle. In a polarized world where loud voices on Twitter get lots of attention,
black and white issues and point-of-views reign supreme. There isn’t much room for gray.

Nonetheless, moral and religious issues like abortion, religious freedom and immigration could make the Catholic vote – even if split — an important factor in the midterms. While immigration, climate change, abortion and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings have gotten lots of attention this election cycle, the religious angle — specifically looking at Catholic candidates and voters — is what has been lacking from mainstream news coverage.

Let me stress: It isn’t that coverage has been devoid of religion. In the Trump age, evangelicals are the group news organizations like to focus on because so many of them backed the
president (see this tmatt update on that).

The Catholic vote has become even harder to pin down in recent years.

Catholics have not voted as a bloc since the 1960s when John F. Kennedy became the first, and to date the only, Catholic to win the White House. In recent decades, Catholics have been evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The key? Look for information about how often a Catholics go to Mass.

Journalists should look at the nation’s political divisions and how they are akin to what we see in the current church. Catholics are divided among conservatives (of various kinds) and liberals (of various kinds) — which means there are a lot of people in between. As always, abortion and immigration remain hot-button issues.

Please respect our Commenting Policy