Godbeat

Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

I realize that it’s rare for me to run a think piece during the week. But let’s face it, the Paul Moses essay at Commonweal must be discussed — as journalists try to figure out what’s happening in, well, the Loggia.

We are talking about some very important tea leaves linked to the biggest religion-news story in the world, which is the Vatican’s ongoing efforts to handle interlinked scandals linked to clergy sexual abuse of some children, lots of teens and significant numbers of seminarians.

When watching the action unfold, I suggest that journalists keep asking this question: What would that great Catholic politico — Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — do in this situation?

The Commonweal headline references one of those stories that religion-beat pros just know is important, but it’s hard to explain to editors WHY it’s so important.

‘Like Cleaning a Sphinx with a Toothbrush’

Greg Burke Resigns from the Holy See Press Office

Before we get to Moses and the tea leaves, here is a typical statement of the basic news, care of the National Catholic Reporter, on the left side of Catholic media.

ROME — The director and vice-director of the Vatican's press office have resigned together, in a move that appears to indicate sharp tensions at the top of the city-state's complicated communications structure.

The resignations of American Greg Burke and Spaniard Paloma García Ovejero seemed to catch their supervisor, Italian Paolo Ruffini, by surprise. In a statement, Ruffini said he had "learned" of the decision, and called it a "free and autonomous choice." …

Burke and García's resignations were announced with a short note in the Vatican's daily bulletin Dec. 31. Pope Francis appointed Alessandro Gisotti, an Italian who had been serving as the head of social media for the communications dicastery, as new interim director of the press office.

No reasons were given for the shake-up.

Click here for a similar story on the other side of the Catholic news world, care of the Catholic News Agency. This Burke quote jumped out at me:

“I joined the Vatican in 2012. The experience has been fascinating, to say the least,” he continued.

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Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

During the year-end news rush, many or most media – and The Religion Guy as well – missed a significant development in the ongoing religious liberty wars that will be playing out in 2019 and well beyond. 

 On Dec. 10, Business Leaders in Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Iowa for removing the group’s on-campus recognition on grounds of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This club for business students requires its leaders to uphold traditional Christian beliefs, including that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife.” See local coverage here.

These sorts of disputes across the nation are thought to be a factor in religious citizens’ support for Donald Trump’s surprise election as president. And the Iowa matter is a significant test case because the Trump Department of Justice filed in support of the club Dec. 21, in line with a 2017 religious liberty policy issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

The DoJ’s court brief is a forthright presentation of the argument the Iowa club and other such organizations make for freedom of association, freedom of speech and “free exercise of religion” under the Constitution. Contact: Eric Treene of the Civil Rights Division, 202–514-2228 or eric.treene@usdoj.gov.

More broadly, what does the American nation believe these days regarding religious freedom?

That’s the theme of a related and also neglected story, the Nov. 29 issuance of a new “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” (info and text here). The years-long negotiations on this text were sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute, which evolved from a Georgetown University initiative, and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. 

The Religion Guy finds this document important, although at 5,000 words needlessly repetitive.  In essence, it asserts that freedom of religiously grounded thought, observance and public action, and the equal rights of conscience for non-believers, are fundamental to the American heritage and the well-being of all societies. 

Adopting lingo from federal court rulings, the charter says these freedoms are not absolute. But any “substantial burden” limiting them “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest” and implemented by “the least restrictive” means possible. The charter also endorses the separation of religion and state.

It is remarkable — and discouraging to The Guy — that basic Bill of Rights tenets even need to be reiterated in this dramatic fashion, because that tells us they are too often neglected -- or rejected.  

The charter has won a notably varied list of initial endorsers because it purposely avoids taking stands on the “sometimes bitter debates” over how to apply these principles, in particular clashes between religious traditionalists and the LGBTQ community.

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Surprise! It's time for another one-sided look at the birth of a new church -- the Women Priests

Surprise! It's time for another one-sided look at the birth of a new church -- the Women Priests

It’s time for another GetReligion post about mainstream press coverage of the Women Priests (or “WomenPriests”) movement. So, all together now, let’s click off the key points that must be made.

(1) As Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway used to say, just because someone says that he or she plays shortstop for the New York Yankees does not mean that this person plays shortstop for the world’s most famous baseball team. Only the leaders of the Yankees get to make that call.

(2) The doctrine of “apostolic succession” involves more than one bishop laying hands on someone. Ordination in ancient Christian churches requires “right doctrine” as well as “right orders.” Also, it helps to know the name of the bishop or bishops performing the alleged ordination. Be on the alert for “Old Catholic” bishops, some of whom were ordained via mail order.

(3) Consecrating a Catholic bishop requires the participation of three Catholic bishops, and the “right orders” and “right doctrine” question is relevant, once again. A pastor ordained by an alleged bishop is an alleged priest.

(4) It may be accurate to compare the apostolic succession claims of Anglicans and Lutherans to those made by Women Priest leaders (although the historic Anglican and Lutheran claims are stronger). This is evidence of a larger truth — that the Women Priests movement is a new form of liberal Protestantism.

(5) It is not enough for journalists to offer an obligatory “Catholic press officials declined to comment” paragraph on this issue. Legions of scholars, lay activists and articulate priests are available to be interviewed.

(6) Sacramental Catholic rites — valid ones, at least — are rarely held in Unitarian Universalist sanctuaries.

Once again, let me make a key point: Would your GetReligionistas praise a mainstream news story on this movement that offered a fair-minded, accurate, 50-50 debate between articulate, informed voices on both sides? You bet. Once again: If readers find a story of this kind, please send us the URL.

That brings us to yet another PR report on the Women Priests, this time care of The Louisville Courier-Journal and the Gannett wire service. The headline: “Condemned by the Vatican, women priests demand place at Catholic altar.”

Kudos for the “Condemned by the Vatican” angle in the headline, which — sort of — addresses the New York Yankees shortstop issue. Another careful wording shows up in this summary passage at the top of the long, long, very long story, which opens with — you guessed it — a rite in a Unitarian church office:

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2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

End of the year lists of best-of or most-important stories have several major deficiencies.

The first is that they are wholly subjective. While the top choice may be obvious to all, ranking the stories that round out such a list in order of importance is far less so. It’s here where personal preferences, and even guesses, take over.

Not too mention that such lists often do not distinguish between single headline-grabbing event stories and the trend, or ongoing story line, that the event underscores.

The second is that such lists tend to be completed before December ends because editors and readers have come to expect such lists to be published prior to the actual start of the new year. This means the mid- to late-December stories tend not to be included to meet deadlines.

Then there is another truth that journalists need to recognize: Often we miss some of the most important stories when they happen, but recognize their magnitude later.

All of this, in fact, is what has happened to one of the more reliable top-10 story lists — the one done annually by Rabbi A. James Rudin, the long-time Religion News Service columnist, former American Jewish Committee senior interreligious director and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author.

Rudin’s list pertains to the Jewish world, which includes the global Jewish diaspora and Israel and the Middle East. It's because Rudin’s list is confined to the relatively small Jewish world that he knows so well, that I consider his list one of the “more reliable” year-end features of this sort. 

This year — just as the top story in the Catholic world is obviously the ongoing priestly sex abuse scandal and hierarchical cover up — Rudin’s top Jewish story is also obvious.

It’s the increasing displays of anti-Semitism, including, of course, the shooting in Pittsburgh that ended with the deaths of 11 Jewish Sabbath worshippers, slain by a lone gunman with a  beef against Jews and, in particular, a Jewish community agency that helps settle immigrants in the U.S.

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When covering Catholic wars over sex, it's clear there are questions the Gray Lady refuses to ask

When covering Catholic wars over sex, it's clear there are questions the Gray Lady refuses to ask

You have read this story before. You can count on reading it again and again.

In recent years, American newsrooms have produced a river of stories about LGBTQ Catholics who have lost their jobs in Catholic schools, parishes or other institutions. In most cases they were fired after announcing a same-sex marriage or taking part in some other public act stating their views on sexuality.

Why did they lose their jobs? There are several possible answers that need to be explored in these stories.

(1) They had signed a doctrinal covenant of some kind (usually in a school) in which they promised to affirm Catholic doctrines or, at the very least, not to openly oppose them.

(2) They faced opposition from conservative Catholics who reject their acts linked to LGBTQ issues. The opposition could be ugly, graceful or some combination of both.

(3) They worked in actual parish ministry or administration positions in which they were expected to teach or, at the very least, affirm Catholic doctrines. This would include leadership roles in worship.

Once again, let me stress that journalists do not need to agree with Catholic doctrines in order to do fair, accurate, balanced coverage of these debates. The key is whether the coverage includes accurate information that allows readers to grasp the beliefs of articulate, honest, qualified people on both sides.

This brings us to the latest New York Times jeremiad on this topic, which ran on the front page with this headline: “He Was a Gay Man on Staff at a Catholic Parish. Then the Threats Began Coming In.” Readers will be hard-pressed to find a single sentence in this story that would be affirmed as accurate or complete by pro-Catechism Catholics. There are entire paragraphs, often without attribution, that provide the talking points of liberal Catholics who want to see their church’s doctrines modernized.

The person described in the headline is Antonio Aaron Bianco, a “gay layman in charge of managing St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church” in San Diego. Right up front, readers learn — as they should — the content of these threats, as described by Bianco. Then there is this summary statement:

Located in the heart of San Diego’s largest gay neighborhood, St. John the Evangelist is one of about 300 Catholic parishes around the country that quietly welcome gay Catholics. Although the Catholic church teaches that same-sex relationships are sinful, growing pockets of the church have accepted openly gay parishioners, staff members and even priests.

But after this summer, when the church faced renewed allegations of clergy sexual abuse, some bishops and conservative Catholic media outlets immediately blamed the crisis on homosexuality. That set off a backlash, fueling a campaign to purge the church of gay clergy members and church workers.

The key word in this passage, of course, is “welcome.”

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Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

So, did you hear that there are now more Wiccan believers in America than there are Presbyterians?

If you’ve been on social media lately, there is a good chance that you have heard this spin on some Wicca numbers from — Who else? — the Pew Research Center.

If you are looking for a blunt, crystalized statement of an alleged story in American culture, it never hurts to turn to The New York Post. Here is the top of a recent story that ran with this trendy headline: “Witch population doubles as millennials cast off Christianity.”

If you were interested in witchcraft in 1692, you probably would have been jailed or burned at the stake. If you’re interested in witchcraft in 2018, you are probably an Instagram influencer.

From crystal subscription boxes to astrologist-created lip balm, the metaphysical has gone mainstream. Millennials today know more about chakras than your kooky New Age aunt. That’s why it’s no surprise that the generation that is blamed for killing everything is actually bringing popularity to centuries-old practices.

According to the Pew Research Center (click here for .pdf), about 1.5 million Americans identify as Wiccan or pagan. A decade ago, that number was closer to 700,000. Presbyterians, by comparison, have about 1.4 million votaries.

It would be interesting to know how this story hatched at this time, seeing as how the Pew numbers — which are certainly interesting — are from 2014.

No doubt about it, this is a story. However, this specific twist on the numbers depends on definitions of two crucial terms — “Wiccans” and “Presbyterians.” It’s an interesting comment on the age in which we live that the first term is probably easier to define than the second.

So let’s think about that for a second, with the help of a GetReligion-esque piece by Mark Tooley, over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog. Yes, that site is operated by the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy. However, I think this discussion — centering on the challenge of defining denominational terms — will be of interest to all journalists who are about accurate, when using statistics and basic religious terms. Here is a crucial statement early on:

… Faddish stories can sometimes be ginned up based on old numbers.

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A GetReligionista looks back on some of his — and his colleagues' — most-clicked posts of 2018

A GetReligionista looks back on some of his — and his colleagues' — most-clicked posts of 2018

I write more than 200 posts a year for GetReligion.

My pieces range from our bread-and-butter critiques of mainstream news media coverage of religion to our weekly Friday Five columns highlighting each week’s major (or just plain quirky) developments on the Godbeat.

At the end of each year, I’m always curious to see which posts caught the attention of the most readers.

What makes a GetReligion post go viral? In 2017, key ingredients included Joel Osteen, same-sex wedding cakes and the Mark of the Beast. The previous year — 2016 — Donald Trump’s “Two Corinthians,” Merle Haggard’s Church of Christ mama and a rare opening of a Chick-fil-A on Sunday were in the mix.

2018? Well, let’s check out the top five posts for GetReligionista Julia Duin, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly and myself.

We’ll start with Julia, for reasons that will become obvious:

5. How journalists can nail down the rest of the Cardinal McCarrick story – for good

4. Cardinal Ted McCarrick, Part II: The New York Times takes a stab at this old story

3. Catholic News Agency pulls off investigative coup in the 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick saga

2. Another #ChurchToo: The Chicago Tribune investigates Bill Hybels in 6,000 words

1. The scandal of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and why no major media outed him

See any common thread there? That’s right — McCarrick and the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal were huge news and big traffic drivers to GetReligion in 2018, as was the related #ChurchToo news that also made headlines.

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File this info: Here’s another Orthodox Jewish rabbi for journalists' source lists

File this info: Here’s another Orthodox Jewish rabbi for journalists' source lists

The Guy Memo last April 26 recommended that source lists include Orthodox Rabbi Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva University and Tradition journal, also a columnist for the interfaith First Things magazine. This is important because Orthodoxy is more complex and more difficult to cover than Judaism’s other branches.

For the same reason, journalists should also be familiar with Meir Soloveichik, 41, the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City and director of Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. Contacts: 212–873-0300 X 206 or msoloveichik@shearithisrael.org or msolo@yu.edu. He has become a powerful voice in discussions of religious liberty, among a host of other topics.

The rabbi studied at Yeshiva’s seminary and Yale Divinity School, and earned a Princeton Ph.D. in religion. In 2012 he was a rumored candidate for chief rabbi of Britain and the following year assumed leadership at Shearith Israel, America’s oldest synagogue (founded 1654) and the only one in Gotham till 1825. He is a great-nephew of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (note different spelling), the revered “Modern Orthodox” teacher.

Meir Soloveichik is most visible to the general public as the columnist on Judaism and Jewish affairs for Commentary magazine. A good sample of his cast of mind is the cover article in the magazine’s December issue headlined “ ‘May God Avenge Their Blood’: How to Remember the Murdered in Pittsburgh.”

Soloveichik observes that the customary phrase to mark the deaths of fellow Jews is “may their memories be a blessing.” But with the 11 victims slain at a Pittsburgh synagogue, this is “insufficient and therefore inappropriate.” He believes the very different traditional phrase in that headline above must be used when Jews are “murdered because — and only because — they are Jews,” whether by a Nazi, a Mideast terrorist or a Pennsylvania anti-Semite.

Jews “will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ ” because a man who shoots up a synagogue “knows well what he does. … To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.”

The intent of the curse is “to inspire constant recollection of their murder, to inspire eternal outrage, on the part of the Jewish people — and on the part of God himself.” And so it has been since biblical times, he writes.

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A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

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