This just in: Burke not Episcopalian

BurkeWashington Post reporter Peter Slevin vented on St. Louis Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke in this diatribe news article published today. It's a very curious read. Anyone wanting to know more about Burke or his theological approach to his office will be disappointed. Anyone wanting to know more about how some religious leaders balance concerns about public opinion and fidelity to doctrine will be disappointed. Anyone wanting a substantive debate about whether the church has the right to be, well, churchy in the public square will be disappointed. Anybody wanting a balanced look at how Roman Catholics in St. Louis feel about Burke will be disappointed. Fact is, I can't think of a single group of people who would have any positive thoughts about this piece, other than folks who oppose church teaching on social issues.

Here's how it begins:

When it comes to expressing his views of church values, Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke has a habit of making headlines, not always to the satisfaction of his flock.

I'm not sure what to say in response to this. The idea that the reporter would take this approach to Burke's behavior is just so . . . mainstream media, isn't it? Oh, so the archbishop makes decisions that are not always to the satisfaction of his flock? Shocking! Name one church leader in the history of the world who has ever made decisions to the satisfaction of 100 percent of the flock. And what the heck kind of measure is that anyway? I think it might be just more honest to say that when it comes to expressing his views of church values, Burke hasn't satisfied The Washington Post.

Anyway, the reporter goes on to discuss some of Burke's more headline-inducing decisions, such as declaring he would deny Communion to Sen. John Kerry because he supports abortion. Or resigning his chairmanship of a hospital board because the hospital invited Sheryl Crow to headline a fundraiser. Crow had campaigned for embryonic-destroying stem cell research in Missouri and is a notorious supporter of abortion. Burke said turning a blind eye from her political activism would be scandalous. Slevin also mentions a case that I'm not sure Burke had anything specific to do with -- the disinvitation of Sen. Claire McCaskill delivering a commencement address at a Roman Catholic high school on account of her support of embryonic-destroying stem cell research and abortion. He sums up:

At a time when significant segments of the Catholic population are breaking with the church on such issues as embryonic stem cell research and abortion, Burke is adhering to Vatican orthodoxy endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI -- and he expects the same of all Catholics in his archdiocese.

Oooookay, Peter. As a Lutheran, I feel confident saying that Rome doesn't exactly have a history of acting like a democracy. Or the faculty of UC-Berkeley for that matter. I understand that Burke is noteworthy for the manner in which he adheres to church teachings . . . but the language of this piece is just so one-sided and out of touch. It reads like Washington Post vs. Catholic orthodoxy rather than insight into Catholic struggles about the proper role for archbishop.

As one reader who sent along the story commented, "This article in the Post by Peter Slevin isn't journalism; it's trash-talk." The reader said Slevin's purpose seemed to be mocking Burke for how he doesn't align his views with the rest of the world and how he's supposedly driving everyone away from the Church.

The article's headfake toward balance occurs with the quoting of Burke defender James Hitchcock, a professor at Saint Louis University who writes for the diocesan press. But the rest of the article -- and particularly the explosive language used by Slevin -- betrays the reporter's bias. I've commented on his bias before -- but at least then he was writing for the Style pages.

He says that Burke has "roiled the church" in St. Louis, but doesn't shed any light on what that statement means or substantiate it with objective reporting. He mentions that Burke is like Benedict XVI, who spoke against Mexican lawmakers who voted to legalize abortion. This is a great line from the article:

In response, 18 Catholic members of Congress declared that "religious sanction in the political arena" violates American freedoms.

I'm confident that the head of the church in Rome feels chastened by the charge that he is not American. Even more so, who are these Congresscritters? A religious leader commenting on the political views of people within his religious community is not violating any American's freedom. See, for instance: every Supreme Court decision ever made on the Establishment Clause. I make this point to note that Slevin isn't really shedding light on any of the deeper issues here or illuminating the actual controversy.

Slevin quotes a pro-choice former Catholic who thinks Burke is awful and tells people how to live their lives. Excellent choice for a quote, Peter. A former Roman Catholic who thinks that church heads should not tell people how to live? Surely she does not represent the views of people who actually oppose Burke. Surely there's something more substantive to this debate. Interesting note: Slevin uses the phrase pro-choice to describe the former Catholic. I'm curious: When was the last time the Post used the term pro-life to describe pro-lifers in a news story?

And then he mentions Rep. David Obey, an abortion-rights supporter. Obey took umbrage at Burke's admonition that voting to have taxpayers pay for the abortions of female military members and voting to have taxpayers pay for the destruction of human embryos conflicted with church teaching. So I guess Slevin's news hook is that Burke is not acting like an Episcopalian?

Slevin portrays Burke's opposition to Crow as something that hurts little sick children and refers to a notable church property dispute and "Burke's wrath" against the parish's leadership.

There is no question that Burke is controversial. I can imagine all the wonderful stories exploring how St. Louisans are responding to his approach. Instead we get hit-piece journalism that serves no one. It's a shame to waste the ink and trees.

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