B16: Obscuring sixth storyline -- relativism

pb 04 Tmatt will write about The Washington Post's fine job in linking the church sex-abuse crisis to "the wider context" of relativism. Three other dailies also mentioned Pope Benedict's critique of secularism and relativism, though not to the extent that I think they should have. The three papers focused attention on the seventh storyline: The Pope's Response to the Sex Abuse Crisis. The Los Angeles Times gave the most attention to it. Reporters Tracy Wilkinson and Rebecca Trounson described the sexual-abuse crisis this way:

The pope, speaking to Catholic bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic church in North America, used some of his strongest language to date to condemn the sexual-abuse scandal and its enduring damage.

He urged the bishops to "strive to eliminate this evil wherever it occurs" and to give priority to care for the victims "of such gravely immoral behavior" by clerics who "betrayed their priestly obligations."

"It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged," he said.

The pope referred to what he called the "deep shame" of the sexual-abuse crisis that he said has inflicted "enormous pain" on Catholic communities across the nation.

Wilkinson and Trounson put the pope's language in the proper context: his words were unusually strong. In addition, the reporters got helpful reactions from three people, two of whom are bishops. Both of these features of the story suggested to readers the gravity of the sex-abuse scandal.

The New York Times' story on the pope's visit yesterday contained a few paragraphs about the sex-abuse crisis. In the closing paragraph, reporters Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Laurie Goodstein added a quote from a survivor of the abuse:

Peter Isely, an abuse survivor and a national board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said of the pope's speech to bishops: "We were hoping for a reprimand. He was looking into the faces of the men who were directly responsible, and instead of a reprimand, he praised them."

Isely's moral claim cannot be questioned. But his quote struck me an unfair slap at the bishops. Before readers start typing angry replies to this opinion, let me explain. The reporters did not quote a church official who could respond to Isely's criticism. Also, the reporters did not specify which reprimand Isely sought from the bishops; after all, they noted that the pope told the bishops that the crisis had "sometimes been very badly handled."

In The Washington Times, reporters Julia Duin and John Ward gave readers enough pertinent information about the pope's comments regarding the crisis:

Benedict was blunt last night in his speech to 350 U.S. bishops and cardinals at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast, admonishing them to show more spiritual and moral leadership, including cleaning up the sex-abuse crisis and providing "a clear and united witness" on legislative issues.

Filled with declarative statements such as "It falls to you" and "It is your task," his hour-long speech in the Basilica's crypt chapel touched on enormous challenges that his bishops face in pastoring the nation's 67 million Catholics, including the priest sex scandals.

"It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of its use, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with love and concern to those so seriously wronged," he said.

My main criticism with the three stories was their insufficient attention to the relativism theme. I thought that The Los Angeles Times underplayed this angle. Reporters Trounson and Wilkinson devoted as much space to the sex abuse crisis as to relativism. This strikes me as a mistake.

Yes, the Los Angeles Archdiocese was forced to pay out record amounts of money to compensate the victims of clerical sex-abuse. Yet Los Angeles is also home to two certain industries (this one and this one) that came under implicit attack from Benedict:

Benedict suggested that the crisis has occurred at a time when society devalues human dignity and distorts the role of sexuality through pornography and violence.

Children, he said, must be taught "authentic moral values" and spared "the degrading manifestations and the rude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today."

Might representatives of those industries want to respond to Benedict's comments? On second thought, no, they probably don't. But his remarks do affect those businesses, if indirectly.

The New York Times stressed the relativism theme far more. In fact, Stolberg and Goodstein gave it pride of place in their lede:

Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House on Wednesday, his 81st birthday, and praised America as a nation where strong religious belief can coexist with secular society.

But he later warned, in a speech to American bishops, of the "subtle influence of secularism" that can co-opt religious people and lead even Catholics to accept abortion, divorce and co-habitation outside of marriage.

"Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs?" he asked in a lengthy address to the bishops. "Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?"

"Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted," he said.

I found it striking that the Times emphasized the pope's remarks to the bishops about secularism. My experience of the paper is that only Islamic leaders are quoted criticizing secularism.

In any event, The Washington Times hit the relativism theme harder, giving readers a wider frame in which to grasp his speech to the bishops:

Benedict's address was more expansive, touching on the role of faith and morality in America's founding, and then moving on to the need for preserving freedom by cultivating "virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate."

"Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility," the pope said in English.

He also warned that "a democracy without values can lose its very soul." Leaders are needed, Benedict said, who are "guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions."

It was a theme that he picked up on at the Basilica last night, telling the U.S. bishops that "it is not enough to count on this traditional religiosity and go about business as usual, even as its foundations are being slowly undermined."

The "American brand of secularism," he warned, "can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator."

Ward and Duin did a commendable job, reflecting some of Benedict's own emphasis to the topic. In addition, Ward and Duin noted that Benedict urged the bishops and, to a lesser extent, priests to tackle relativism and secularism. The LA Times ignored this angle altogether, while the NYTimes observed that "the prelates were charged with carrying out that vision."

Yet the stories' reporting on relativism and secularism was somewhat disappointing. None of the stories mentioned that in his speech to church prelates, Benedict also critiqued materialism and individualism. His words struck me as a rebuke of American society, the virtual birthplace of the free market and rugged individual. Take this passage:

For an affluent society, a further obstacle to an encounter with the living God lies in the subtle influence of materialism, which can all too easily focus the attention on the hundredfold, which God promises now in this time, at the expense of the eternal life which he promises in the age to come (cf. Mk 10:30). People today need to be reminded of the ultimate purpose of their lives. They need to recognize that implanted within them is a deep thirst for God. They need to be given opportunities to drink from the wells of his infinite love. It is easy to be entranced by the almost unlimited possibilities that science and technology place before us; it is easy to make the mistake of thinking we can obtain by our own efforts the fulfillment of our deepest needs. This is an illusion. Without God, who alone bestows upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain (cf. Spe Salvi, 31), our lives are ultimately empty. People need to be constantly reminded to cultivate a relationship with him who came that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10). The goal of all our pastoral and catechetical work, the object of our preaching, and the focus of our sacramental ministry should be to help people establish and nurture that living relationship with "Christ Jesus, our hope" (1 Tim 1:1).

Benedict made a bold statement in his speech. Christianity, he said, is the true religion -- not capitalism, not individualism, not libertinism, not techno-philia. Is that not an angle worth pursuing?

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