Big question looming over Catholic news: What would it take to pop this pope's media bubble?

Big question looming over Catholic news: What would it take to pop this pope's media bubble?

As a rule, I post "think pieces" -- posts pointing readers toward essays about trends on the religion beat -- on the weekend. I'm going to make an exception because I can't imagine waiting a few more days for readers to see this one.

I mean, we're talking about a John L. Allen, Jr., analysis piece at Crux with this headline: "Can anything burst Pope’s media bubble? Nah, probably not."

Prepare to chat away.

The piece starts off with a complicated drama in the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria, where -- as Allen puts it -- Pope Francis has "thrown down one of the most authoritarian gauntlets we’ve seen any pope fling in a long time."

It's the kind of move, literally threatening the status of every priest of the diocese, that would freak out mainstream reporters if attempted by any other recent pope. But it's not the kind of thing that sticks to Pope Francis, because everyone knows what he is a friendly, populist kind of man who is gentle and kind, etc., etc. As Allen kicks things into gear, he writes:

What all this got me thinking about is the following: Had any other recent pope done such a thing, howls about abuse of power and over-centralization probably would have been deafening, especially from the press, where the rebel priests likely would have become folk heroes. Francis, however, gets more or less a free pass. ...
Yes, some coverage has been more critical of late, especially Francis’s handling of the sexual abuse scandals in the wake of the criminal indictment of one of his top aides, Cardinal George Pell, in Australia. Even then, however, the tone tends to be, “Francis is such a great guy, so why is this area lagging behind?”

The heart of the essay is a bit of speculation about what it would take to pop this amazing papal media bubble.

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Sin and scandal at Ole Miss: This is what happens when outspoken Christian coach calls escort service

Sin and scandal at Ole Miss: This is what happens when outspoken Christian coach calls escort service

Jesus. God. Church. Faith.

Read ESPN's in-depth, behind-the-scenes account of the Ole Miss football coach's resignation — titled "How a phone call to an escort service led to Hugh Freeze's downfall" — and you won't come across any of the above words.

"Sin," too, is missing from ESPN's 2,400-plus words.

Granted, nobody expects a deep exploration of theology by ESPN. Right? The fact that the story focuses on NCAA football is certainly expected and appropriate.

But — and this is a big "but" — it's difficult to give readers a full picture of Freeze and just how far his reputation has plunged without mentioning his outspoken Christianity. More on that in a moment.

First, though, ESPN's dramatic opening provides important background:

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The man who helped take down Ole Missfootball coach Hugh Freeze is a lifelong Mississippi State fan who attended his first Bulldogs game 37 years ago and has the university's logo tattooed on his left hand.
But he insists he never set out to bring down the Rebels and their coach.
It just kind of happened that way.
When Steve Robertson was sifting through Freeze's phone records on July 5 as part of his research for an upcoming book he's writing, he discovered phone calls he expected to see. There were mostly calls to recruits and assistant coaches.
But when Robertson saw a phone number with a 313 area code, he was stunned by what he discovered in a Google search. A call made on Jan. 19, 2016, lasting one minute, was made to a number connected with several advertisements for female escorts. Robertson then asked his wife to read him the telephone number again to make sure it was correct. The escort service ads came up again.
Robertson called Thomas Mars, an attorney who is representing former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt in his defamation lawsuit against Ole Miss. Mars had been introduced to Robertson through a third party he found while doing online research into Nutt's case. They've since developed a close working relationship, talking on the phone several times a day and sharing what they found in their investigations.
"He asked me to fill in some blanks," Robertson said.
When Robertson told Mars to enter the phone number in Google, Mars was silent for nearly a minute before yelling an expletive in excitement.
Ole Miss had unwittingly provided information that would lead to Freeze's resignation.

The rest of the story is worth a read if you have time before finishing the rest of this post.

But the closest the piece gets to any religion is a mention of "Sunday school" — and not the kind at my church:

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Where even God doesn't help: The Washington Post chronicles the despair of rural poor

Where even God doesn't help: The Washington Post chronicles the despair of rural poor

After President Donald Trump’s victory last year, not a few journalists traveled to the hinterland to find out just where were those disenchanted white folks who voted Republican. Who were these people and was it possible to get inside their heads?

The Washington Post has come out with three lengthy pieces about these folks, one of which was set in Grundy, Va., a town I stayed in six years ago when I was researching serpent-handling Pentecostals (which also ran in the Post). This section of Appalachia is where a lot of these believers live. The photo with this story is one I took in a town in Tazewell County, Va., just down the road from Grundy and where one in six working-age residents are on disability.

Would this series, I wondered, mention the faith that sustains many of these residents, who have little else in life to live for? The answer, I found, was yes and no.

The first part of the series, set in Alabama, focused on the stunning percentage of adults who are on disability across the country.

Across large swaths of the country, disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults live on monthly disability checks, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration statistics…
The decision to apply, in many cases, is a decision to effectively abandon working altogether. For the severely disabled, this choice is, in essence, made for them. But for others, it’s murkier. Aches accumulate. Years pile up. Job prospects diminish.

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Wave of distressing news underscores intersection of issues for American and Israeli Jews

Wave of distressing news underscores intersection of issues for American and Israeli Jews

A Yiddish word came to mind as I mentally organized this post about the Jewish world’s recent run of distressing news. The word is fakakta, which, out of respect for my audience, I'll politely translate as “all messed up.” It was one of my mother’s favorite rebuttals.

Yiddish terms tend to sound humorous when plopped into English conversation. But for Jews such as myself who are deeply connected to the tribe, there’s nothing’s humorous about the current spate of headlines.

They include the religious turmoil between and within Judaism’s traditional and liberal movements -- plus, of course, the deadly violence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians over political control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif.

One slice of this balagan (a Hebrew-Russian word translated as “chaos”) was recently covered — and admirably so -- by The Atlantic magazine. The piece probed North American Conservative Judaism’s internal and ongoing struggle over the place of non-Jews within in the center-left (doctrinally speaking, that is) movement.

I’ll say more about this below.

The quickly evolving Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif story is, undoubtedly, as much a political issue as it is religion story. I'll give it its own post once the situation solidifies.

For now, suffice it to say that for many Jews and Arabs and Muslims, even for whom the issue is more political than religious, the site is a powerful symbol of their side’s just rights in the entire Israel-Palestine conflict. To underscore just how fixed the sides are in their narratives, you might read this piece from the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and this piece from Al Jazeera.

Then there’s the ongoing conflict between Jewish Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment and Judaism’s more liberal Diaspora movements over prayer space at the Western Wall. I wrote about this a few weeks back, while in Israel.

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Mark of the Beast: 666 reasons to look for religion angle in microchips installed in employees' hands

Mark of the Beast: 666 reasons to look for religion angle in microchips installed in employees' hands

A technology company's plan to install microchips in employees' hands has been making the rounds on social media the last few days.

ABC News notes that the chips — not the chocolate kind — will allow workers "to enter the office, log into computers and even buy a snack or two with just a swipe of a hand."

"Want those vending machine snacks without digging for change? There's an implant for that!" proclaims the NBC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth.

How convenient! (And creepy!)

My friend Alan Cochrum, a former copy editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, posted the story on my Facebook page and issued a challenge to me:

Your next religion-coverage mission, should you choose to accept it: See how many reporters pick up/report on the reaction to this in some religious circles, and how many don't or are completely baffled by it.

It sounds like Cochrum sees a potential holy ghost (or perhaps 666 of them) in these microchips.

Another GetReligion reader — Texas journalist and author Deann Alford — also called our attention to this story. In an email, she wrote:

Yes, I knew about the technology, which is routine now from pets adopted from shelters. It’s been around more than a decade. Our cats Weasley and Murph both have chips. Lusia, who went to kitty heaven in 2015 at age 21, did not.
A stunning one-big-happy-family story that has ZERO about what this ushers in. Thing is, with horrid Bible literacy rates in society, even in the church, not surprising that the journalist raises no alarms about this. The only voice of dissent included in this otherwise cheery story has to do with privacy concerns.
Without revelation from Revelation in the story, in this age of ever-rising identity theft, what’s a reader not to love about a secure way to do transactions? 

So apparently, the religion angle has something to do with Revelation. (Yikes! I am no expert on that.)

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The New York Times runs two Charlie Gard editorials, with one in the news pages

The New York Times runs two Charlie Gard editorials, with one in the news pages

At the heart of the tragic Charlie Gard case are two clashing values.

On one side: Doctors and UK officials who argue that they have the power to rule that cutting life support, and ceasing an further experimental treatments, is in the child's best interest.

On the other side are the stricken infant's parents, who believe that they should have the right to care for their child with their own funds and with the help of other doctors who want to treat him.

Pope Francis, of course, issued a statement backing the rights of the parents:

“The Holy Father follows with affection and commotion the situation of Charlie Gard, and expresses his own closeness to his parents. ... He prays for them, wishing that their desire to accompany and care for their own child to the end will be respected.”

It's impossible to understand this story without a clear presentation of the parental rights claim, which clashes with the rights articulated by UK officials and a specific set of medical experts. There are two essential points of view.

Editors at The New York Times know this, of course. They know this because one of their own columnists -- while expressing his convictions -- clearly described the standoff. However, it's interesting to note that the latest Times news story on this case covers the arguments of the state, but contains zero clear references to the parental-rights arguments. The pope is mentioned, for example, but the content of his words was ignored.

In other words, the Times ran two editorials: one an op-ed column and the other, alas, an unbalanced, advocacy news report in the news pages.

Columnist Ross Douthat opened his essay like this:

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Crikey! Top Aussie journalists insert obvious errors into serious spousal abuse story

Crikey! Top Aussie journalists insert obvious errors into serious spousal abuse story

I've never been to Australia, but I've had a large enough circle of antipodean friends to know that "Crikey!" is an exasperation often used in conversation. What does the term mean? Click here.

It fits, in some respects, to the remarkable story the Australian Broadcasting Corp., known as "ABC," has put together -- on its website and on air -- about the links between spousal abuse and religion, specifically, in this case, Christianity.

Let me assert, up front and in the strongest possible terms, that anyone who abuses a spouse or domestic partner or boyfriend/girlfriend -- anyone -- deserves to be fully investigated and if circumstances warrant, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There is no excuse, whatsoever, for any violence in the home. For reporting on faith-based connections to domestic violence, ABC deserves to be praised.

Praise isn't all the web version of story deserves, however. It also merits some scrutiny, especially when paired with a video interview with reporter Julia Baird (see clip above).

The web story, with the click-attracting headline "'Submit to your husbands': Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God," begins with a suitably dramatic (and long) retelling of a harrowing incident:

The culprits were obvious: it was the menopause or the devil.
Who else could be blamed, Peter screamed at his wife in nightly tirades, for her alleged insubordination, for her stupidity, her lack of sexual pliability, her refusal to join him on the 'Tornado' ride at a Queensland waterpark, her annoying friendship with a woman he called "Ratface"? For her sheer, complete failure as a woman?

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Wait just a minute: Fading Lutherans (ELCA) in Waco sold their lovely building to Anglicans?

Wait just a minute: Fading Lutherans (ELCA) in Waco sold their lovely building to Anglicans?

I think leaders of The Waco Tribune-Herald team had an interesting religion-beat story on their hands the other day, but it appears that they may not have known that.

It's easy to see the some predictable news trends looming over the recent headline: "Dwindling congregation forces sale of 133-year-old Waco Lutheran church."

There are several valid news angles here, the first of which is that lots of fading urban churches are being squeezed by similar financial and demographic issues. You can see that in this recent story from The Nashville Tennessean that was picked up for further distribution by Religion News Service.

If you visit the core streets and neighborhoods of almost any American city you will find lots of churches -- often from the old "Seven Sisters" flocks of liberal mainline Protestantism -- sitting on what is now prime real estate for re-developers appealing to the gentrification and young singles Millennial crowds. Many of these churches now face a tornado of red statistics, with aging members, low birthrates and declining numbers of converts.

Yes, there are doctrinal issues linked to some of those issues, especially in the American heartland and Bible Belt (think Waco, Texas). However, the Tribune-Herald team isn't very interested in these issues.

Hold that thought, while we look at some summary material near the top of this report. The symbolic voice is that of 94-year-old church member Joyce Heckmann:

Through the years, there were countless Christmas celebrations, church-wide smorgasbord dinners, Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible Schools and more.
But while the years have been kind to Heckmann, they have taken their toll on the aging church building and congregation, members say. The once-vibrant church family boasted 450 members, requiring an extensive expansion project that more than doubled the size of the building in 1958.
Now, members say, they are lucky to have 40 worshipers on Sunday morning. Members recently came to the painful but practical realization that their smallish group could no longer support such a large building.
So they voted to sell the property -- Texas Historical Commission landmark medallion and all -- to Christ Church Waco, an up-and-coming Anglican congregation that has met in least 10 temporary locations since it was formed in 2009.

Now stop the train right there for a minute.

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Faith on both sides of abortion? Yes, according to AP — but this is why debate falls short

Faith on both sides of abortion? Yes, according to AP — but this is why debate falls short

Over the weekend, an Associated Press national story highlighting the abortion battle in Kentucky got a bunch of play by major news organizations.

In general, this coverage impresses me as more balanced than most mainstream news reports on abortion. 

And the piece even delves — a little bit — into the religious beliefs of sources on both sides of the abortion debate. More on that in a moment.

But first, let's start at the top with AP's lede:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Both sides in the abortion fight raging in Kentucky agree on one thing: The stakes are as high as ever in a state that could become the first in the nation without an abortion clinic.
Political pressure has intensified since the Kentucky GOP took control of state government and moved quickly to pass new restrictions on abortions. And Republican Gov. Matt Bevin makes no apologies for waging a licensing fight against a Louisville clinic that is the last remaining facility performing abortions in the state.
Another battle-tested participant joins the fight this weekend. Operation Save America, a Christian fundamentalist group, plans to mobilize hundreds of activists to protest against EMW Women’s Surgical Center.
The group’s leaders state their purpose unequivocally: to rid Kentucky of its last abortion clinic. Some of the group’s followers were arrested during a protest outside EMW in the spring. The group has said it won’t use those same tactics in the coming days, but a federal judge on Friday ordered the creation of a “buffer zone” to keep protesters out of an area in front of the clinic. The pre-emptive move was requested by federal prosecutors to prevent protesters from blocking access to the surgical center.

A quick aside before I get to the real point of this post: You probably noticed that AP characterizes Operation Save America as "a Christian fundamentalist group." That's also how Wikipedia defines the group, previously known as Operation Rescue National. Is that proper usage of "fundamentalist," according to AP's own stylebook?

Here's what the stylebook says under its "religious movements" entry:

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