"On Fog" -- A Meditation

1247602 The Fog PostersIt's a question that has been bugging me for a long time: What, precisely, is that sprawling "On Faith" site over at the Washington Post Online? It's a question that I've been asking ever since that site opened, as you can see by clicking here. You may recall that the very first "On Faith" question to its Parliament of Religions panel was this:

If some religious people believe they have a monopoly on truth, then are conversation and common ground possible? If so, what would be the difficulties and benefits of such a conversation?

Great question. But is that a news question?

It has become clear that "On Faith" is, in reality, a gigantic and very ambitious op-ed page for discussions and arguments about issues, beliefs and feelings linked to religion. What is not clear is what all of this has to do with news coverage of religion news. I, for one, really wish that there was some way for the "On Faith" site to at least -- this would cost nothing, really -- gather together all of the news reporting that takes place in the Washington Post newsroom and in its wire-service offerings (Religion News Service, for heaven's sake) and put it together in a one-stop shopping grid on the weblog so that there is more interaction between the opinion and essays at "On Faith" and, well, the world of facts, doctrines and events that drive religion news.

That's N.E.W.S. Or is this op-ed-only approach actually the message, implying that there are no real facts to report about religious life, doctrine, history and events? That religion is, in reality, a subject in which everything is opinion and fog and that everyone should just accept that and move on? Thus, there is no transcendence and revelation that is not completely and utterly personal and private. Thus, it is hard to do hard journalism in this realm -- other than op-ed opinion.

You can see signs of this approach in founder Sally Quinn's famous -- for the Divine Ms. MZ that was infamous -- essay on the weblog's one-year anniversary. Remember this paragraph?

When we started this I knew practically nothing about religion or the internet. I was not a believer (Jon Meacham is an Episcopalian, a practicing Christian) so I felt secure that I had his experience and knowledge to give us the grounding we needed. Even so it was such an unlikely subject for me to get involved with that even my husband was in shock. My friends still report people sidling up to them at cocktail parties and saying, "What's with Sally and this religion thing?"

If you don't know the identity of her husband, then you don't know Washington, D.C.

Anyway, there is now a new discussion taking place near the often troubled intersection of Catholicism and journalism, linked to Quinn's affectionate online essay entitled "The Faith and Joy of Russert." The key section is linked to the recent funeral for the NBC politico, who was an active and outspoken Catholic:

Last Wednesday at Tim's funeral mass at Trinity Church in Georgetown (Jack Kennedy's church), communion was offered. I had only taken communion once in my life, at an evangelical church. It was soon after I had started "On Faith" and I wanted to see what it was like. Oddly I had a slightly nauseated sensation after I took it, knowing that in some way it represented the body and blood of Jesus Christ. ... I was determined to take it for Tim, transubstantiation notwithstanding. I'm so glad I did. It made me feel closer to him. And it was worth it just to imagine how he would have loved it.

As you would imagine, traditional Catholics were not amused, in part because one takes communion in an evangelical church and Communion in a Catholic parish. Thus -- no surprise -- Bill Donohue at the Catholic League quickly expressed displeasure and that reached The New Republic:

"Just reading what Sally Quinn said is enough to give any Christian, especially Catholics, more than a 'slightly nauseating sensation.' In her privileged world, life is all about experiences and feelings.

"Moreover, Quinn's statement not only reeks of narcissism, it shows a profound disrespect for Catholics and the beliefs they hold dear. If she really wanted to get close to Tim Russert, she should have found a way to do so without trampling on Catholic sensibilities. Like praying for him -- that's what Catholics do."

items in the sacristy 06TNR called Quinn and she had just received a really nasty voicemail. The conversation, in effect, led to this Quinn statement to the press and her public:

I'm very pluralistic about religion, and I feel that everyone should respect everyone else's. ... I was really close to (Russert), and I was grieving. And I thought me taking the Eucharist would be a thing that he would really enjoy. And all these things are what religion should be about. ... There's no sign out there that says you're not allowed to take Communion. [The Catholic Church is] like, "Everyone is welcome. This is God's house." God doesn't turn people away, supposedly.

I think it's really an important issue. The Pope doesn't want people who are pro-choice to take it. John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Chris Dodd, even the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, and others were not allowed. ... Frankly, none of that was going through my mind. I was feeling absolutely destroyed. It felt right to do it as a tribute to him. I wasn't thinking politically at all.

I've become a champion of pluralism and a spirit of inclusiveness. Any religious people who purport to be Christians, or whatever faith you might be, would do everything they could to welcome others -- in the case of Catholics, to welcome others the way Christ would welcome others. This is a perfect example of WWJD. Would Jesus have said, "No you don't, Sally Quinn. You're not going to get away with this one!"

This kind of more-Catholic-than-the-pope logic tends to make pro-Vatican Catholics upset. To read an essay on the traditions and doctrines linked to "closed Communion," click here for a few words from Mark Shea.

Also, one of the nation's best-known Jesuits, Father James Martin, said just about everything that a Catholic would want to say to non-Catholics on this topic in a quick online response for America. Yes, on the one hand, Jesus was all about inclusion and welcome, especially when it came to healing and invitations for repentance and forgiveness. However:

On the other hand...

Catholics believe in the "real presence," the actual presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist: the bread and the wine. It is a central element of our faith, and reception of Communion is something that a Catholic does not do lightly. Which is something of an understatement. "First Holy Communion" is an important passage to adulthood; and even afterwards adults are asked to approach Communion reverently and without being conscious of any grave sin. Catholics also know that the very word "Communion" means that you are in "communion" with the rest of the Catholic church, and accept its beliefs.

Therefore, it is probably not too much to expect that the co-founder of a prestigious online blog about religion run by two of the nation's premier journals, would understand something about the most basic practices of the Catholic church. Most intelligent people know a few facts about the Catholic church: this is one of them. And even if one doesn't know this, one would know to act with great care when in the midst of a worshiping community not your own. (For example, I am always exceedingly careful not to offend anyone's sensibilities when in a synagogue, a mosque or a Christian church or meeting place not affiliated with the Catholic church.) An essential element of respect for another religious tradition is approaching their holy places, people and ceremonies with sense of reverence, even awe.

And right there is the point that makes this subject crucial to your GetReligionistas, rather than simply piling on with others who want to knock Quinn for her emotion-driven approach to what it means to partake of a Sacrament in an ancient, doctrinal, Sacramental Church.

There are facts that matter here. Facts about history, doctrine and courtesy. Facts matter when you are covering religion news and trends. Facts matter when you are interviewing religious people -- left and right, members of major world religions and members of lesser known bodies that some would be tempted to call "fringe." Facts and doctrine matter to religious people, even to people who are very specific and highly creedal about the doctrines that they reject. I have interviewed many an atheist who had more doctrines in his anti-creed than I recite in the Nicene Creed.

This isn't about emotions and feelings. It's about getting the facts right and showing respect for the people for whom those facts, doctrines and rituals are a matter of eternal life and death. Facts matter in journalism, religion and journalism about religion. Amen.

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