The great city of Baltimore has a new Roman Catholic archbishop, which means that it is a hard time to be a local newspaper subscriber here unless you want to read story after story dominated by the political implications of a man's beliefs. In short, the Baltimore Sun seems to be very worried on behalf of local Catholic leaders who tend to lean left. You really do not have to try very hard to figure this out. However, what the coverage has lacked -- so far -- is any attempt to offer concrete examples of the doctrinal differences between the outgoing Cardinal William H. Keeler and the incoming Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien.
Here's the lede on the announcement story, which ran with the hopeful headline "Keeler legacy will continue -- O'Brien praises his predecessor's work":
Accepting the resignation of Cardinal William H. Keeler, Pope Benedict XVI turned over leadership of the birthplace of American Catholicism yesterday to Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, a prelate known for ministering to U.S. troops on the battlefield and strictly supervising the education of priests.
O'Brien, a New York native, has presided over the Archdiocese for the Military Services since 1997.
Note the reference to "strictly supervising the education of priests." That's a big deal in Baltimore, for reasons that I wrote about in a post the other day.
If you had any doubts about the exact nature of the doctrinal issues looming in the background, all you had to do was look below the main story on page one in the print edition -- and you saw this stark headline: "Policies: Conservative stance toward gays." It appears that O'Brien not only believes the Catholic Church's teachings on this issue, he may have also been a leader in calling for seminaries to ask tough questions about sexuality of their future priests.
This is crucial, so here is a large chunk from the top of this story:
Months before the Vatican issued a formal policy barring gay men from the seminary, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien made his own feelings clear.
"I think anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity, or who has strong homosexual inclinations, would be best not to apply to a seminary and not to be accepted into a seminary," O'Brien, then the leader of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, told the National Catholic Register in 2005.
His position became the Roman Catholic Church's. It was not the first time O'Brien played a central role in the church's relationship with its gay and lesbian members. In 1978, he helped found Courage, a group in New York that ministers to those with same-sex attractions and encourages them to lead celibate lives.
More recently, O'Brien has headed a seminary review, ordered by the Vatican, that examined all 229 U.S. seminaries for "evidence of homosexuality," as well as for faculty members who dissent from church teaching. The review has been completed but a final report is yet to be issued.
In an interview with The Sun yesterday, O'Brien said homosexuality is "not conducive to a healthy view and living out of celibacy" because "there's secrecy involved." The archbishop, who spent 12 years as a seminary rector in New York and Rome, said his view on admitting gays to the seminary is shaped by personal experience.
"There have been incidents that I've seen in seminaries and after the seminary where homosexual men strongly inclined do have special difficulties in living a counter-cultural value within a church that sees this to be a disorder," said O'Brien, the archbishop-designate of the Archdiocese Of Baltimore.
That's a stark, but very solid, summary of the facts. And, this time around, The Sun follows through and talks about the national reputation of one of the local seminaries that will now answer directly to O'Brien.
St. Mary's Seminary is sometimes referred to as "The Pink Palace" by conservative Catholics (including Michael S. Rose, author of the 2002 book Goodbye, Good Men) for its reputation of tolerance toward gay seminarians. To send O'Brien, who is known for his traditional view on homosexuality, to Baltimore could be a signal from the Vatican that the days of such tolerance are over.
Indeed, some observers have suggested that the seminary review headed by O'Brien and the focus on gay priests that came in the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal have made gay priests and seminarians more cautious of expressing themselves, and they say that is not healthy for those training for the priesthood.
But there is a problem. While O'Brien is interviewed at length, the article essentially pits him against a strong lineup of his critics -- with little or no support from anyone who backs him or a "traditionalist" interpretation of Catholic teachings on the issue.
It is fairly clear, however, that O'Brien uses a case-by-case approach to judging whether celibate gays are called to the priesthood. The critical issue, of course, is whether it is healthy for homosexuals to follow Catholic teachings and live "chaste" lives. Is the church right or wrong? Catholics disagree on this.
I really can't run as much of the story as I need to for readers to see what is going on. It only needed one or two more voices to offer an excellent overview of this hot-button issue.
Some of the same issues carry over into the rest of the newspaper's coverage, which has been, as you would imagine, extensive. The Sunday package includes two major stories and you can see that the coverage is headed in a predictable direction. How will the arrival of this more conservative shepherd affect local Catholics who do not support their church's social teachings, including those in high office?
Here's a sample from the main story, which is a lengthy profile of O'Brien's roots in the Bronx and greater New York:
... (It) is his time in New York -- in a working-class neighborhood church, in a lush Westchester County seminary, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and in the archdiocesan headquarters in Manhattan -- that helped shape the meticulous, courtly, tradition-minded leader, according to interviews with friends and fellow priests.
A lifelong student of church history, O'Brien largely hews to conservative Vatican teachings in his public comments, observers say. But his deep background in the education of priests and his current position as leader of the Catholics in the U.S. military have made noteworthy his critiques of the war in Iraq and his personal opposition to gays wanting to enter the priesthood.
The phrase "conservative Vatican teachings" kind of leaps out, since it becomes rather clear that O'Brien supports Vatican teachings -- period.
Why is the adjective "conservative" needed, in this case? They are what they are. He likes Roman Catholic tradition, including the Latin Mass, and is an outspoken advocate of a consistent approach to the sanctity of human life (a stance that is often hard to label, in terms of politics). He raised questions, very early on, about whether U.S. actions in Iraq met the test of Catholic "just-war" theory.
O'Brien posed a series of questions in a 2002 statement as the Bush administration was pressing toward an invasion of Iraq. Has every other means to eliminate that danger been exhausted? What will be the cost in lives and money of a U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the impact on stability in the Middle East? And on what terms will U.S. forces exit from Iraq?
The archbishop noted his "profound respect" for Bush and his advisers but wrote, "Americans, our allies and the world community expect more [answers] if military action must ultimately be taken as a last resort."
However, to really understand the newspaper's worries, one has to read the analysis piece by Ideas section editor Larry Williams, which focuses on the origins of Baltimore's reputation as a safe haven for Catholic liberals.
It is also important to dig into one more story, which ran in the second-day coverage. At first glance, this story -- "New home for a new archbishop" -- seems to focus on merely practical matters, including O'Brien's decision to live in the residence located at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Roland Park. However, reporter Liz F. Kay's wide-ranging report deals with controversial issues, as well as domestic details.
Take this section, for example:
Maryland is ... the home of several prominent elected Catholics, such as Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, both of whom support abortion rights.
O'Brien stated just before the 2004 elections that Catholic politicians who disregard the tenets of their faith should refrain from Communion, according to the Catholic News Service. That falls short of some other bishops who have said they would refuse Communion to politicians who differ with church teachings.
"I think our job is to educate, to persuade, and privately to work with individuals -- if they believe that abortion is the taking of a human life -- to do everything we can in a persuasive way to have them live that out," the archbishop said yesterday.
"If it got to a point where a serious scandal was being created, maybe it would be a point to go further and to deny [Communion]," he said.
"Even that should be done in a private manner and not in headlines," he said. "I would be very strong in speaking about the issue and challenging anyone with responsibility -- Catholic or not -- to respect life in all its stages."
In other words -- stay tuned.
As a rule, I would say that The Sun's coverage has been quite good at getting at the issues and some key facts. However, and this is no surprise, the stories are in serious need of balance and diversity when it comes to allowing input from traditional Catholics.
You hear the voices of articulate Catholics on the left, loud and clear, early and often. That's good. But where are the voices -- other than the voice of O'Brien himself -- on the conservative, pro-Vatican side of the church aisle? I mean, is it appropriate for the local newspaper to play such an active role in defending the Maryland Catholic establishment?
Are the editors trying to send a message to the new archbishop or, to be blunt, are there no conservative Catholics left in Baltimore?
Photos: The historic Baltimore basilica. Cardinal William H. Keeler. Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien blesses the library at the conservative Christendom College near Washington, D.C.