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Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

What we have here are two interesting stories, which appear to be connected by a bridge of New York Times paranoia. It’s that latest addition to a growing canon of work attempting to connect Donald Trump to a vast right-wing Catholic conspiracy to bring down the compassionate, progressive Pope Francis.

The first story is a legitimate profile of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, whose life has taken her from the heights of glitterati fame to where she is now — a Catholic philanthropist with very conservative Catholic beliefs and a willingness to work with the rich and the poor.

The second story is — brace yourself — about Stephen K. Bannon and his ongoing efforts to promote his own power and prestige, primarily by spinning conspiracy theories that make cultural progressives go nuts. (Click here for a GetReligion post about a previous chapter in this drama and here for another.)

That leads us to the New York Times opus with this headline: “The ‘It’ ’80s Party Girl Is Now a Defender of the Catholic Faith.”

This is a story that I would think made Bannon very, very happy.

At the same time, it is a story in which Princess Gloria makes one or two comments about Bannon, but then basically shows herself to be a conservative Catholic who greatly admires the now retired Pope Benedict XVI. Yes, the does have questions about some of the actions of Pope Francis and, yes, she admires Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. You know what that means in mainstream press circles.

Let’s tiptoe into this, looking at the key summary statement and, then, the statement of Gray Lady theology that frames this whole two-stories-in-one train wreck.

Princess Gloria — once christened “Princess TNT” for her explosive years as a hard partying, art-collecting, punk-haired aristocrat — has grown into the sun queen around which many traditionalist Roman Catholics opposed to Pope Francis orbit. Her Regensburg castle is a potential “Gladiator School” for conservative Catholics on a crusade to preserve church traditions.

Her Roman palace overlooking the ancient forum is a preferred salon for opposition cardinals, bitter bishops and populists like Stephen K. Bannon. Many of them are hoping to use the sex abuse crisis that amounts to the greatest existential threat to the church in centuries to topple the 81-year-old pontiff, who they are convinced is destroying the faith.

Now, for that blast of Times theology. The key is that the following shows, once again, that the journalism issue here is NOT an anti-religious bias. No, the key to this piece of advocacy journalism is that there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and that the Times team gets to decide who is who.

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Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

One of the toughest disciplines for journalists to follow — if not the toughest — is setting aside personal judgements about others’ opinions. It’s a struggle for all practitioners of the craft, but it's particularly difficult for religion specialists.

That’s because of the deep and often unconscious psychological ties between personal identity and beliefs about life’s ultimate questions.

It's even harder to handle when covering faith systems outside the mainstream majority religions, with which we’re generally more familiar and, therefore, more comfortable.

I was reminded of this by two recent Religion News Service stories. RNS published them the same day, but what I want to focus on is how they took opposite approaches to covering some exotic territory.

One piece was about a subset of Pentecostal Christian leaders in Uganda warning their followers not to rely upon traditional Western medicine rather than their faith to see them through ill-health. The second concerned the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, the fourteenth in his lineage, and speculated about his reincarnation, or even if he should — which is monumental for Tibetan Buddhists.

Both pieces, I’d say, likely strained the belief systems of the preponderance of Westerners, including religion journalists.

Before we jump into those two stories, let me offer some caveats.

When I talk about putting aside our personal judgements I’m not including niche religion publications written for particular faith groups. Nor am I talking about opinion journalism, which includes the posts here at GetReligion.

Rather, I’m talking about mainstream news reporting, the sort historically defined by professional standards that attempt to provide “objective” journalism.

Frankly, I don't believe objectivity was ever really attainable for subjective humans (meaning all of us). So I prefer the label “fair and fact-based.” And yes, I’m fully aware that highly opinionated journalism is the increasingly preferred format in today’s 24/7, atomized, web and cable TV-dominated news environment.

One more thing. In no way should anything I write here be misinterpreted as an unqualified endorsement of any of the beliefs noted.

Now back to the RNS stories. Here’s the top of the Uganda piece:

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Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

It didn’t take long for the John Allen Chau affair (see previous Julia Duin post) to make the leap from hard-news coverage to newspaper op-ed pages and other “Culture War” venues.

Before looking at two examples, from the cultural left and then the right, let’s pause for a second for a bit of background.

Faithful GetReligion readers may remember the “tmatt trio,” a set of doctrinal questions that I have, for several decades now, found useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks or cultural conflicts about the Christian faith. I am convinced that the Chau affair is linked to one of these hot-button questions.

Please remember that the purpose of these questions is journalistic. I have learned that asking them always leads to answers that contain all kinds of interesting information. Here is the “tmatt trio” once again:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Now, the Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at a Boston Globe piece that ran with this killer headline: “Missionary didn’t die from tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.” The author is Globe associate editor and columnist Renee Graham. Here is a crucial early thesis statement:

In the Old Testament, Proverbs 16:18 warns, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Haughty pride caused John Allen Chau’s destruction and fall.

He’s the young man from Washington state who decided that what a small tribe on a remote island needed was his personally delivered taste of that ol’ time religion. What he found was an early grave.

Chau didn’t die from the tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.

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The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

Saudi Arabia is, currently, for the most part a political story. Though for the sake of historical perspective, let’s not forget that, this certainly is not the first time a United States president has decided to put markets or narrow politics ahead of social justice concerns.

Ever hear of Pinochet’s Chile, Batista’s Cuba, the Shah’s Iran, or Egypt and Pakistan under any number of leaders, just to name a few?

Perhaps it's the ham-fisted manner in which our current self-styled Lord of the Manor, President Donald Trump, has handled the matter that has elevated it to its current degree? Or perhaps it’s because of social media and our rapacious 24-7 news cycle that presidents no longer can easily sidestep policies their political opponents wish to highlight?

Politics aside — if that’s even possible — there are at least four religion angles to the Saudi story that are very much worth considering, however. The first three, I confess, I’m giving short shrift because I want to reserve ample space here for a forth angle, the knottiest of the quartet I’m highlighting.

Here are the first three.

Historically, the most important angle is how the (must we still say, “apparent”?) Saudi murder and coverup of former Washington Post oped writer Jamal Khashoggi has become part of the historic rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for dominance over Sunni Islam.

Here’s a solid backgrounder from Foreign Policy that covers that history.

One wonders whether any number of other Muslim nations would have raised Khashoggi’s death to the level that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did if they lacked his Ottoman fantasies?

The Post, of course, would probably have reacted as it did no matter where Khashoggi was killed — as it should have. But would the newspaper have had the same level of information to go on if not for Erdogan’s desire — remember Turkey is no friend of a free press — to rub Saudi Arabia’s nose in the mud?

A second angle is the nail in the coffin that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman —  the petroleum-rich, absolute monarchy’s de facto ruler — has put in the Pollyanish notion that his ascendancy to power would result in a loosening of the kingdom’s myriad and ultra-conservative religious reins, particularly in their application to women.

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Looking for life-and-death updates on Asia Bibi? You need to turn to European media

Looking for life-and-death updates on Asia Bibi? You need to turn to European media

Here is the religion news question that haunted me over the long Thanksgiving weekend: Why is the unfolding story of threats to Asia Bibi of Pakistan a major story in England and Europe, but not here in the United States? (Click here for recent podcast linked to this topic.)

Let me be more blunt: Are journalists on this side of the Atlantic waiting for you know who — Donald Trump — to address this tense, deadly situation in a tweet?

OK, I will be more blunt: At what point will leaders of the pro-Trump evangelical niche show up at the White House and demand that this Christian woman — cleared of blasphemy charges, but now in hiding, trapped in house arrest — be granted asylum? What if the president sent his own private plane to Pakistan to retrieve her? Maybe this would be awkward with the violent drama on the US-Mexico border?

One more blunt thought: Is part of the problem that Bibi is Catholic, not evangelical? I keep watching the headlines for evidence that Pope Francis might intervene. Right now, the main news on that front consists of fake photos circulating online claiming to show a Bibi meeting with the pope. Let me stress: The reports are fake.

For those seeking an update, here is the top of a recent Daily Mail report. Do I need to note that this outlet is considered “conservative” news?

Asia Bibi may have escaped the hangman, but her freedom comes with a heavy price. Today, when she should be reunited with her five children, she is being hunted across Pakistan, forced to scuttle under cover of darkness from one safe house to another in fear of her life.

It is a desperate situation — and one not helped by Britain which refuses to offer the mother-of-five sanctuary.

Last month the Supreme Court in Pakistan decided that Asia, 52, who spent eight years on death row, had been falsely accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. While most of the country erupted in fury at her release, nowhere did the anger burn more fiercely than in her home village of Ittan Wali, 40 miles south-east of Lahore, where her extraordinary ordeal began. Following news of her reprieve, women took to the streets to protest, a bus was torched and children ran riot.

Until now, beyond a few sketchy details, little about Asia’s persecution has been forthcoming.

The Mail team sent reporters to Bibi’s home village and came back with plenty of harrowing details about her history and the current crisis.

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The death of a U.S. missionary: Was John Allen Chau's effort mere imperialism?

The death of a U.S. missionary: Was John Allen Chau's effort mere imperialism?

A few days ago, when news was dribbling out about a hapless American Christian missionary speared to death on an Indian island, I figured the story would be just a blip in the daily news flow.

Since then, a geyser of coverage of enveloped this story; not only about the slain man himself, but on the justifications used for missionaries being there in the first place. For some journalists, this has turned into another opportunity to bash missionaries, especially evangelicals, with one-sided stories that feature major holes, in terms of content.

Being that the John Allen Chau was from the southern half of Washington state, the Seattle Times (my local paper) has been full of coverage from the Associated Press.

SEATTLE (AP) — John Allen Chau spent summers alone in a California cabin as a wilderness emergency responder, led backpacking expeditions in the Northwest’s Cascade Mountains, almost lost his leg to a rattlesnake bite, and coached soccer for poor children in Iraq and South Africa.

But kayaking to a remote Indian island, home to a tribe known for attacking outsiders with bows and arrows, proved an adventure too far for the avid outdoorsman and Christian missionary. Police said Wednesday that he had been killed, and authorities were working with anthropologists to try to recover his body from North Sentinel, in the Andaman Islands.

“Words cannot express the sadness we have experienced about this report,” his family said in a statement posted on his Instagram account. “He loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people.”

Since his Nov. 16 death, everyone has gotten in on this story either to editorialize on what those stupid missionaries are doing in parts of the world that clearly don’t want them or to puzzle out what drove a healthy 26-year-old to face certain death.

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O, Canada! And no, this 'God optional' story isn’t from The Onion or the Babylon Bee

O, Canada! And no, this 'God optional' story isn’t from The Onion or the Babylon Bee

Maybe you saw this headline, or variations on it: “Clergy No Longer Need to Believe in God, Liberal Protestants decide.”

That looks like a satirical “news” headline from TheOnion.com or its religion equivalent, BabylonBee.com. However, it’s a real-life precedent set by the United Church of Canada — an event with considerable interest for religionists and journalists. The progressive UCC (not to be confused with the edgy United Church of Christ in the United States) has allowed ample flexibility on much else, but the optional God is brand new.

The Rev. Gretta Vosper (see www.grettavosper.ca), far more publicized in Canada than the U.S., is the pastor of West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario. She faced a church tribunal this month over her atheism. But a terse announcement Nov. 7 said Vosper and the UCC’s Toronto regional body “have settled all outstanding issues” and she “will remain in ordained ministry.” Further explanation of the deal is sealed by court order.

Vosper, who took over West Hill in 1997, says she “came out as an atheist” in 2001, stripping language about any supernatural God from prayers and hymns, followed by her 2008 book “With or Without God.” She openly embraced an “atheist” identity in 2013. Meanwhile, her congregation officially defined itself as “theists, agnostics and atheists” with “roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition” who seek truth and justice.

There’s no mention of any role in this for Jesus or the Bible

The UCC was formed in 1925 through a union of Canada’s Congregationalists, Methodists and a majority of Presbyterians. On paper, it still enshrines an orthodox founding creed that includes worship of “the one and only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being and perfections.” The United Church of Canada was a celebrated ecumenical milestone, the world’s first major Protestant union across denominational lines. In 1962, U.S. “mainline” Protestant churches launched a similar merger effort that fizzled.

As with U.S. “mainliners,” the UCC has suffered steady decline in numbers and vitality. By government data, Canadians identifying with this body went from 3,769,000 in 1971 to 2,008,000 in 2011. The number of congregations dropped a third over those years to the current 2,894. Currently, the church reports only 424,000 full “communicant” members and average attendance of 139,000.

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Friday Five: Thanksgiving, missionary death, Jordan Peterson, hurricane heroes, homeless church

Friday Five: Thanksgiving, missionary death, Jordan Peterson, hurricane heroes, homeless church

Happy (day after) Thanksgiving!

I’ve been mostly away from the news this week, enjoying my favorite holiday.

If I missed any important headlines that I should have included here, by all means, leave a comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

In the meantime, let’s dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is an international story, so you might have missed it. The Washington Post reports from New Delhi on an American missionary who tried “to meet and convert one of the most isolated hunter-and-gather tribes in the world” by offering them “fish and other small gifts.”

Instead, the Post reports that “the tribesmen killed him and buried his body on the beach, journals and emails show.”

The story offers revealing insights from the journal as well as quotes from the missionary’s mother.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: As often happens, the words “Jordan Peterson” in a headline tend to attract attention.

Last week’s No. 1 most-read post was by our editor Terry Mattingly — the piece that he wrote to support last week’s “Crossroads” podcast. The headline on that: “Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?” Here’s a bite of that:

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Missing in (news) action? Seeking coverage of missing underground bishop in China

Missing in (news) action? Seeking coverage of missing underground bishop in China

The end of 2018 is getting closer, and you know what that means. Here come the end-of-the-year features listing the Top 10 stories on a wide variety of topics — including religion.

I expect that one of the most important stories on the global scene will be the Vatican’s decision to accept, just a few weeks ago, a provisional deal with the Chinese government on a process to select bishops.

This was the Communist government’s first indication that it would accept papal authority in the Catholic Church in China. At the same time, Pope Francis agreed to recognize the legitimacy of seven bishops — previously excommunicated — raised up by the Chinese government, alone.

Several inches down into the New York Times report on this topic, there was this important note:

China’s Catholics are divided among those who attend government-approved churches and underground churches that are loyal only to the Vatican.

For decades, many Chinese Catholics have risked arrest and persecution by worshiping in the underground churches led by bishops appointed secretly by popes. China’s Communist government has erected a parallel structure: a state-approved, state-controlled Catholic church. For years, dating back three papacies, the Vatican has sought to unify the two communities.

Later, there was this sobering information:

The Vatican took a step in January in its efforts to unify the two Catholic communities in China, asking two underground bishops to step aside in favor of government-appointed bishops. One of the two preferred by the government was a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.

The state-sanctioned bishops who took the places of the two underground bishops were among the seven the Vatican formally accepted on Saturday. It was not clear what would become of more than 30 underground bishops working in China who were chosen by the pope but not recognized by the Chinese government.

With that in mind, consider this headline from the conservative Catholic News Agency: “Underground bishop in China reported missing.”

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