As faithful GR readers may know, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. My perception of the local media was that it mostly ignored the region's Catholics bishops, though not liberal theologians or dissidents. I read long features on the theology of Matthew Fox and top-of-the-fold stories about lay Catholics' alleged opposition to Church teaching. But I can't ever remember reading a quote-heavy, profile about the local ordinary. So like any such Catholic interested in the faith, I looked forward to reading the Arkansas Times' long profile of the Arkansas diocese's new bishop. Here was a chance to read about the man in full.
Times reporter Mara Leveritt's profile of Bishop Anthony Taylor cannot be faulted for ignoring his spiritual development or theology. To her credit, Leveritt let Bishop Taylor speak at length about these and other topics:
In 1960, Taylor's father, who worked for Conoco, moved the family to Ponca City, Okla. There, as in Arkansas, Catholics constituted a small religious minority. Family life for the Taylors revolved around their parish church. The family prayed before every meal. Taylor and his brothers became altar boys. Their Boy Scout troop was based in the church.
The values taught by scouting made a lasting impression on Taylor, who progressed to the rank of Eagle. But it was the assassination of Martin Luther King, when Taylor was 14, that affected him most profoundly. On the day King died, Taylor says, "God gave me an insight that helped me eventually hear his call to the priesthood."
At the press conference announcing his appointment, he explained: "The insight was this: Being a faithful Christian requires more than just saying prayers, obeying the Commandments and trying to get your own soul into heaven. ... Martin Luther King taught me that being a faithful Christian required that I do whatever I could to help build the Kingdom of God here and now, and that to do so would require courage, not timidity, fear of God, not fear of man."
In his study in Oklahoma, he reflects further on that moment. "From the time of Martin Luther King's death I understood that the teaching of the church and the teaching of the government were not always the same."
In high school, Taylor acted for the first time on that understanding. He organized a black-armband campaign to protest America's war in Vietnam.
"And that very same year," he says, "I got the Knights of Columbus Civics Award. That was interesting because it meant that people got to see that being involved civically didn't necessarily mean agreeing with everything the government was doing."
When Taylor was required to register for the draft at 18, he filed as a conscientious objector. But with the war winding down by then, he didn't have to experience the consequences that had befallen resisters before him. He says, "I never had to defend that decision."
Leveritt's profile was also relevant, and not just because of Taylor's new status. Bishop Taylor is a staunch opponent of tough illegal-immigration measures and proponent of the state's growing Hispanic population. As a priest in Oklahoma, Taylor signed a "pledge of resistance" to a state law that, among other things, makes it a felony for employers to transport or shelter illegal immigrants. That information is important to know for religious, civic, and political leaders.
The problem with Leveritt's feature, however, is the absence of quotes from people familiar with Bishop Taylor or the local diocese. Did Leveritt not speak with anyone or was no one willing to talk? Based on the quote below, the former seems to be more likely:
A blogger on a Catholic website, noting that Taylor had chosen Jesus' words "The humble shall inherit the earth" as the motto for his bishopric, wrote: "Sounds like liberation theology to me." The reference was to a school of Christian thought, popular especially in Latin America, that views Jesus Christ as both Redeemer and Liberator of the oppressed. It regards political activism to achieve justice for the poor as an appropriate part of the Christian mission.
Getting a quote from a blogger is fine, so long as the blogger is identified and the quote verified. Otherwise, depending on anonymous bloggers for quotes is irresponsible. If a source demands anonymity, the reporter should explain briefly to readers why. That's a journalistic fundamental.
I don't want to come down too hard on Leveritt's story. She wrote an in-depth profile of a significant local religious figure, which is more than can be said in my hometown. And if she had quoted others about him and his influence, the story would have been considerably better.