Clergy

Mainstream press should look at McCarrick (not conservative Catholics) if there's a schism

Mainstream press should look at McCarrick (not conservative Catholics) if there's a schism

Political polarization is nothing new. What about religious polarization? When it comes to matters of faith, specifically the Catholic church and its doctrines, there’s plenty of it these days.

You wouldn’t think there would be much divergence here since adherence to what the church teaches — through the Catechism and centuries of tradition on an array of issues — is the basis for being a member of the Church of Rome. Instead, there is divergence and not just among those sitting in the pews. It’s become all too evident among members of the hierarchy.

To say that the church is at a crossroads isn’t an exaggeration. But fierce arguments between the doctrinal left and right on a host of issues — from Pope Francis’ recent choice of cardinals to how clergy address social issues — are as intense as ever.

But here is the headline right now: Pope Francis has even dared to use a ecclesiastical s-word.”

Yes, that would be schism. That was prompted by a question from The New York Times' Jason Horowitz following the pope’s recent Africa trip. In reporting the Sept. 10 story, Horowitz includes this bit of background :

Critics of Francis, must notably Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been repeatedly demoted by Francis, have argued that Francis’ emphasis on inclusiveness, and his loose approach to church law have confused the faithful on a range of doctrinal issues, from divorce to homosexuality. That critique is frequently aired, in sometimes furious language, on conservative American Catholic television channels and websites.

A former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, who demanded the pope’s resignation last year, has been hailed as a hero in some of those circles. Bishop Viganò has in part blamed the child sex abuse crisis on Francis’ tolerance for homosexuals in the priesthood, despite the scandal having first festered and exploded under his conservative predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

Some of Francis’ closest allies have in recent months publicly said that he is the target of a conspiracy by conservative enemies who are threatened by the more pastoral direction that he has taken the church. One close adviser, Antonio Spadaro, a prominent Jesuit who edits the Vatican-vetted magazine, Civiltà Cattolica, has accused American Catholic ultraconservatives of making an unholy alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians to help President Trump.

Yes, politics has crept into this divide. But why focus on Catholic media as the source of the discord?

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Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Did you need more evidence that we live (and strive to do good journalism) in a broken world?

Did you need a reminder that any journalist who works on the religion-news beat needs to dig into a dictionary and learn the meaning of this theological term — “theodicy.”

The death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson unfolded on social media, with shock waves ripping through the digital ties that bind (including in newsrooms). He had worked to bring comfort to those suffering with mental-health issues — while being candid about his own life. Wilson reminded those struggling with suicidal thoughts that they were not alone and that God knew their pain.

This gifted preacher — married, with two young children — knew that and believed it. But something snapped, anyway.

Here’s the top of the team-written Religion News Service report about this tragedy which, hopefully, will shape the mainstream coverage of that will follow.

(RNS) — Jarrid Wilson, a California church leader, author and mental health advocate, died by suicide Monday evening (Sept. 9) at age 30.

Wilson, known as a passionate preacher, most recently was an associate pastor at megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. A co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope, Wilson was open about his own depression, often posting on his social media accounts about his battles with the mental illness.

“At a time like this, there are just no words,” said Harvest Senior Pastor Greg Laurie in a statement.

But there were words with which to wrestle — from Wilson, on the day he took his own life.

What journalist would imagine details more symbolic than these?

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Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

In my opinion, the world’s two most powerful and influential news outlets are the BBC and The New York Times.

Needless to say, both of these news organizations have offered coverage of Pope Francis and his latest visit to Africa. It’s interesting to note some consistent thin spots — doctrine-shaped holes, really — in the background coverage explaining why this trip matters so much, in terms of certain demographic realities in the modern Roman Catholic Church.

Consider this crucial passage in the BBC advance feature that ran with this headline: “Pope Francis in Africa: Is the continent the Catholic Church's great hope?” This three-nation trip to Africa will be:

… his fourth visit to the continent since he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013, compared to the two his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, made during his eight-year papacy. 

The importance of Africa to the Catholic Church can be summed up in a word — growth. 

Africa has the fastest growing Catholic population in the world, while Western Europe, once regarded as the heartland of Christianity, has become one of the world's most secular regions, according to the US-based Pew Research Center. And many of those who do identify themselves as Christian in Western Europe do not regularly attend church.

Here is a stunner of a statistic, care of the Center for Applied Research.

Start here. The number of Catholics in the world increased by 57% to 1.2 billion, between 1980 and 2012. However, growth in Europe was just 6%. Frankly, I am surprised to hear that Catholic numbers rose in Europe at all. I would be interesting to see a comparison of Western and Eastern European nations.

Meanwhile, the Catholic population rose 283% in Africa.

So why is that happening? Thinking like a religion writer, the first things that leap into my mind are (1) African Catholics are having more babies and (b) they are making more converts. Both of those factors have major doctrinal components in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. You could also note that the African church is raising up many more priests than the somewhat frozen European churches.

The BBC team, I think it’s safe to say, saw zero doctrinal component in the African church’s growth.

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Salt Lake Tribune's hit piece on Catholic priest departs from newspaper's typically evenhanded coverage

Salt Lake Tribune's hit piece on Catholic priest departs from newspaper's typically evenhanded coverage

I’m used to good journalism coming from the Salt Lake Tribune, including news on the religion beat.

That’s why a recent story posted about a Catholic priest’s new parish assignment has me wondering if reporters ever leave their desks these days to do actual shoe-leather reporting.

The piece I’m singling out could have been — and probably was — done exclusively over the phone.

I’ve left out the first few paragraphs about the mother of one local Catholic family, preferring to focus on the priest in question.

Over the past year in her parish in the foothills of Salt Lake City — which includes St. Ambrose Church and J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School — problems with priests have riled the small faith community and prompted some, like the Donnellys, to step away.

The previous priest there was charged last fall with patronizing a prostitute. The new priest starting this fall has a history of posting profane things online.

Previous priest Andrzej Skrzypiec, who pleaded no contest, is now being sent to another school. The Rev. Erik Richtsteig, who will replace him at this church, was counseled about his online posts that promote hate of LGBTQ groups and mock women, and will lead weekly Mass for children from 4 years old to 15.

More than 150 parents have signed a petition hoping to block Richtsteig’s move to their parish and school; he’s scheduled to start Thursday.

Various parents have documented Richtsteig’s social media posts.

In one image on his blog, Richtsteig edited an assault rifle into his hands. In a post on Facebook, he said that images shared by LGBTQ individuals in June (which is Pride month) look “like a gnome vomited” and promised he wouldn’t accept a friend request from those with a rainbow filter in their picture.

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Read it all: Slate reporter goes to Kansas and spends a few minutes with 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Read it all: Slate reporter goes to Kansas and spends a few  minutes with 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Ponder this please. When you hear that someone has landed an exclusive “interview” with a leader of global importance, how much content do you expect this “interview” to contain?

I am not, of course, talking about one of those two- or three-minute “Entertainment Tonight” reports — “We’ll be back with an exclusive interview with Brad Pitt!” — in which a star answers two dishy questions during a Hollywood junket. I am talking about an “interview” with a newsmaker about a serious subject.

I bring this up because of a fascinating Slate piece that is billed as the first interview with former Washington D.C. cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who has been exiled to the vastness of Western Kansas, a region that journalists from elite zip codes rarely visit, to say the least. I happened to drive past the Cathedral of the Plains the other day and it just as hard to imagine Uncle Ted McCarrick in Victoria, Kansas, as picturing Truman Capote in nearby (relatively speaking) Holcolm, Kansas.

The dramatic double-decker headline proclaims:

Theodore McCarrick Still Won’t Confess

Banished in the dead of night to a mistrustful Kansas town after sexual abuse allegations, the defrocked archbishop of D.C. speaks publicly for the first time since his fall from grace.

Please understand: I think that reporter Ruth Graham’s brief encounter with McCarrick showed moxie and yields interesting and, some will say, predictable answers from the fallen prince of the church. I also enjoyed (I kid you not) her 2,500-word introduction to the interview, which is both a quick summary of the McCarrick disaster story and a touching look at the lives of the intensely Catholic Volga German culture of West Kansas. If this second subject does not intrigue you, reading this intro is going to seem like a long, long drive across the Kansas plains.

The interview itself is short — but important. This is true even though it reinforces many themes that have been woven through this tragedy from the start. McCarrick, for example, does believe that he was the victim of a conservative-Catholic plot.

When the reader finally reaches the encounter with the fallen cardinal, Graham stresses that she had been told he was not doing interviews. Still, she rang the doorway at the friary he now calls home:

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Don’t forget about the role of Catholicism in those ‘Back to School’ stories

Don’t forget about the role of Catholicism in those ‘Back to School’ stories

It’s back to school time. For much of the country, Labor Day officially signaled the end of those lazy summer beach days. Students of all ages across the country are again worried about grades and homework. For many, school began a few weeks ago.

In the Northeast, where most of the major news organizations are located, schools opens this week. That means readers are seeing lots of back-to-school stories.

These features typically range from the mundane (which notebooks are in style this year) to scary (involving enhanced security following a summer of mass shootings). There are also plenty of stories regarding the cost of books and supplies — something that seem to rise in cost each year.

In New York City, where I live, there are roughly 1.1 million students who attend public school when counting kindergarten through high school. Students who attend private schools and Charter ones make up about a quarter of the total number of the 1.24 million children who call one of the city’s five borough’s home.

That’s a significant part of the larger story. Yet Catholic schools — religious schools in general — are usually lost in the back-to-school news frenzy.

The bottom line: The Catholic church has done a lot for education in New York and indeed across the country and around the world. Catholic schools don’t get much coverage — in New York or elsewhere — unless the news involves clergy sex abuse.  

That’s unfortunate because Catholic education continues to be an important resource and major factor in the lives of so many families. As we approach the start of school, here are a few story ideas editors and education beat reporters should ponder:

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Another abuser Catholic bishop: Crux pieces together the long, painful story of Joseph Hart

Another abuser Catholic bishop: Crux  pieces together the long, painful story of Joseph Hart

Every so often, a piece of investigative journalism shows up that bears mention, which is why I wanted to draw attention to a three-part Crux series on the disgraced former Wyoming Bishop Joseph Hart and the tale of sex abuse allegations that have dogged him for years.

There’s more. This is also the story of the bishop who took his place and how he was determined to bring some just into the situation. Not all bishops are so minded.

The series, written by their national correspondent Christopher White, ran this past week and starts here with the story of one family.

KANSAS CITY, Missouri — As parishioners attended the Feast of the Assumption Mass inside Guardian Angels Catholic Church on August 15, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) gathered outside on the sidewalk for a press conference marking an occasion that many believed would never come.

Less than 24 hours earlier, police in Cheyenne, Wyoming recommended to prosecutors that a one-time Guardian Angels priest, who would go on to become a beloved Catholic bishop, face criminal charges for the sexual abuse of minors.

Prior to being named a bishop, Joseph Hart had served in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for the first two decades of his priesthood, following ordination in 1956. Although his ecclesial career has spanned over five decades, serving in two states where he was widely popular, he has been trailed by allegations of serial abuse — which he has consistently denied — dodging both civil and canonical adjudication for more than two decades.

Now, in the twilight of his life he not only faces criminal charges, where he could become the first U.S. bishop ever to face criminal prosecution for abuse, but also the possibility of being stripped of his title of bishop and removed from the clerical state as a church trial in the Vatican is also underway.

By the 1960s, Hart is accused of moving on to:

… organized sexual assault, becoming close companions with two of the diocese’s most notorious abusers: Monsignor Thomas O’Brien and Father Thomas Reardon…

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Are arguments about allowing more married Catholic priests strictly left vs. right fights?

Are arguments about allowing more married Catholic priests strictly left vs. right fights?

Here is a mild complaint that I never expected to make about an elite newsroom’s coverage of a hot-button Catholic issue. The Washington Post just produced a story about married Catholic priests — “A bid to allow married priests in the Amazon ignites debate about celibacy“ — and didn’t quote Father Thomas Reese. In this case, I really think they should have quoted him.

Imagine that.

Who is Reese? He is a Jesuit who has, for several decades, been an omnipresent news source and quotable progressive Catholic insider for religion-news reporters. He writes for Religion News Service and used to write for National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of America until a 2005 clash with the Vatican on doctrinal matters. Need I say more?

So why did I miss the familiar voice of Reese in this Post report on celibacy and the ongoing shortage of Catholic priests? Here is a key chunk of this story:

One new proposal to ease the shortage would allow older, married men in the region to be ordained as priests. South American bishops have advocated for the idea, and Pope Francis has indicated some willingness to narrowly open the door to married men in this specific case. But the proposal has set off a debate about whether Francis is trying to bolster the ranks of the priesthood or upend its deep-rooted traditions.

A vocal band of conservatives says permitting married priests in the Amazon could alter — and undermine — the priesthood globally, weakening the church requirement of celibacy. …

The Amazon would not be the first exception. Married Anglican ministers, in some cases, have been welcomed into the Catholic priesthood after conversions. And Eastern Catholic churches, even those in communion with Rome, allow for married men in the priesthood.

There’s more that could be said, right there, about church history.

The key is that this new door into the priesthood could be used elsewhere. And this worries You Know Who.

… Conservatives note that the rationale for installing married clerics in the Amazon exists, too, across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, where seminaries are closing and dioceses are sharing priests.

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Is Cardinal Pell guilty? Some believe that how a Catholic answers signals virtue or vice

Is Cardinal Pell guilty? Some believe that how a Catholic answers signals virtue or vice

So, is Cardinal George Pell of Australia guilty or innocent?

If you say “yes,” is that answer a form of virtue signaling during the ongoing hell of the multi-decade Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis?

If you answer “no,” does that mean that you aren’t taking the crisis seriously and that you want bishops and priests to be able to escape justice?

If you answer “yes,” are you a loving pro-Pope Francis progressive?

If you answer “no,” does that mean that you are a hateful traditionalist who is on the wrong side of history on this issue and many others?

What if you say that you are worried about the quality of the evidence and that you are worried that public officials in Austrailia have listened to an anti-clerical mob and rushed to judgement? If you are hard questions about the evidence — like a good skeptic or journalist would — does that mean you are a hater and don’t care about the victims?

It’s somewhat unusual to run a think piece on Monday, but I really think that readers — especially journalists — will want to read the short Crux essay that ran the other day with this headline: “Ruling cements Pell’s profile as the Dreyfus or Hiss of the Catholic abuse crisis.” The author, of course, is John L. Allen, Jr.

Allen uses a genuinely scary metaphor — if you know your European history — to describe this case. Here is the key, thesis passage, after Pell’s recent appeal was rejected:

Though Pell’s judicial odyssey may not be over, [the] ruling likely does represent the final word on another aspect of the case: George Pell is now officially the Alfred Dreyfus of the Catholic abuse crisis, meaning that opinions about his guilt or innocence are at least as much a reflection of one’s ideological convictions as about the actual evidence in the case.

Dreyfus, of course, was the French artillery officer of Jewish descent charged with treason in 1894 for allegedly passing military secrets to the Germans, spending five years on Devil’s Island. Dreyfus was eventually acquitted and reinstated to his army position, but for more than a decade, opinions about his guilt or innocence functioned as a bellwether for broader political and cultural tensions, pitting Catholic and traditionalist “anti-Dreyfusards” against pro-Republican and anti-clerical liberals.

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