As tmatt wrote recently, Get Religion prefers to cheer rather than jeer reporters. It is not just that reading a first-rate news story is satisfying and grounded in reality. It is inspirational. As all of us have been or are reporters, we want to read stories that inform and compel the public, if only to imitate them. One story that bears imitating is a New York Times profile of "The Catholic Guy" on Sirius Satellite Radio. Reporter Paul Vitello distilled the essence of host Lino Rulli's show, its mixture of the sacred and profane. Vitello's lede is a good example:
Mike from El Paso was on the phone line to "The Catholic Guy," the afternoon drive-time talk program produced via the unlikely partnership of Sirius Satellite Radio (familiar to most people as "Howard Stern's network") and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.
"I called the other day?" said Mike. "About how much I miss confession?" This would be the Mike who was barred from the sacrament of confession under church law because he married a divorced woman whose first marriage was never annulled.
"Yes, I remember!" bellowed the host, Lino Rulli, the Catholic guy of the show's title. "Mike the Adulterer! O.K., Mike. Are you ready to play 'Let's Make a Catholic Deal'?"
I thought this opening captured a certain kind of Catholic male sensibility, one informed by Catholic schooling and teaching and American culture. Rare is the newspaper story that gets this right.
In the next paragraph, Vitello told readers the the importance of this Catholic show and similar cultural programs:
It seems an odd marriage of sensibilities: the rough banter of talk radio as practiced by pioneer shock jocks like Mr. Stern and Don Imus, joined at the neck to an official Catholic broadcast whose underlying mission is herding people back into the fold of a religious orthodoxy.
But the stated mission of this new enterprise known as the Catholic Channel is to offer something more than "the audio equivalent of stained glass and incense," as Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, refers to conventional religious radio.
Later, Vitello elaborated:
Young people are the major target of several efforts, official and otherwise. "Theology on Tap," an informal project adopted in hundreds of parishes around the country, attracts young Catholics to lectures booked in bars or restaurants.
The Order of Paulist Fathers has started an initiative aimed at people in their 20s and 30s with an Internet ministry known as Busted Halo, whose mission is basically in sync with a recent series of youth-market books called "The Bad Catholic's Guide to..." In the introduction to their first book, "The Bad Catholic's Guide to Good Living," John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak summarize the creed: Believe in Catholicism, do what you can, admit that you are flawed "and turn to the font of infinite mercy as humbly and as often as you can."
No doubt the Times has written about Theology on Tap before, but Vitello made an important point. Some dioceses, the ones in big cities in blue states anyway, are reaching out to young adult Catholics in new ways. The approach is modeled not on gathering in the church basement but outside it.
Also, I liked Vitello's quote from Zmirak and Matychowiak's book. The reporter told readers about Catholicism in its own terms.
Midway the story, Vitello made an important if somewhat familiar point:
David Gibson, a Catholic writer whose book "The Coming Catholic Church" describes a newly powerful grass-roots pressure for reform in the aftermath of the priest sexual abuse scandal, said the archdiocesan foray into talk radio may reflect some official acknowledgment of the need for a new, more interactive relationship with believers.
"The church really has no choice," he said. "The old Catholic world, where you were born and married in the church and stayed because you were part of a 'Catholic world' -- that's gone. The church has to find people and make them want to be Catholic."
Vitello needed to make this point in the story; it would have lacked context without it. However, I think this characterization of Catholic American life was accepted a bit uncritically. It is still possible to be born Catholic, attend Catholic schools, and spend your adult life largely with Catholic co-workers, friends, and family. Everyone agrees that this is not as common as it was before the 1970s, but I know dozens of friends, family members, and acquaintances whom this is true of. Gibson is a convert, so he is perhaps less likely to know about Catholic pockets in the country.
But that is a quibble. This story got religion.