Back it up, please

Back-It-Up-by-Caro-Emerald_DYVHvRL0t4Ux_fullThe other day a reader sent in a story submission with the note, "The story does a good job of laying out the canon law of the bishops' retirement and why this is curious." It included a link to a very brief Associated Press report about Pope Benedict XVI accepting the early retirement of an outspoken bishop in Pennsylvania. At the time, it didn't seem terribly noteworthy, but it was just a straightforward and concise summary of canon law. But I thought of it again after reading this amazing piece in Time magazine. It kind of set me off with the headline:

Was an Anti-Abortion Bishop Too Outspoken?

What? Hunh? Huzzoo? Do the folks at Time know of any Roman Catholic bishops who are not opposed to abortion? I mean, if they do, they should be breaking the news about them. If they doesn't, then the headline is silly. Yes, Martino was known for his strong support of pro-life causes. But he wasn't known for being pro-life. You need to differentiate between bishops a bit better.

And the headline is just the tip of the speculative iceberg penned by one Amy Sullivan:

For suddenly departing politicians and CEOs, the standard line is to "spend time with family." Now the Catholic Church may have its own version of this unconvincing, stock answer. On Aug. 31, Joseph Martino, the controversial bishop from Scranton, Pa., stunned longtime church watchers by announcing that he was resigning his post because of problems with insomnia and fatigue.

The Catholic leader, who has gained national prominence for his outspoken pro-life advocacy and aggressive criticism of pro-choice Democratic politicians, is still more than a decade away from reaching the church's automatic retirement age of 75. Martino's abrupt resignation, along with the fact that he was not reassigned to another position within the church, has some church insiders suggesting that the highly unusual move was far from voluntary -- and quite possibly the work of a Vatican that has been decidedly less openly critical of the Obama Administration.

It's one thing to note that this move was surprising or even to suggest that Scranton just got a major-league housecleaning. It's entirely another to say it's because the Vatican hearts Obama. And the church insiders who are mentioned in the paragraph above are never quoted, not even anonymously. Later in the piece we read that "many think" something or the other about Martino. They are also not quoted or otherwise identified. There is literally not one person quoted in support of Sullivan's thesis (although the piece itself seems to have borrowed heavily from this column at Politics Daily). The piece continues the speculation right through to the end. Note the first line of the following paragraph:

Martino seemed to take special pleasure in castigating institutions and individuals that he felt were failing to properly represent Catholic values. He could be abrasive, blasting Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., for inviting an openly gay writer and former Clinton Administration aide to speak. The university, declared Martino, was "seriously failing in maintaining its Catholic identity." Earlier this year, Martino threatened to shutter Scranton's cathedral on St. Patrick's Day if any local Irish-American organizations included pro-choice politicians in their celebrations.

How does Sullivan determine that Martino was taking "special pleasure" rather than feeling "special pain" about these things? Also, it would just be better to provide an "abrasive" or "blasting" quote from Martino -- they certainly would not be difficult to find -- rather than just saying he was abrasive.

The move is huge news but the Catholic blog Whispers in the Loggia looked at the dramatic departure less with the eye of how it might be related to Democratic Party politics and more with how it might be related to Martino and his administration in Scranton in general:

At the helm of one of the nation's most staunch, reliable bastions of Catholicism, while the kind, bookish cleric's fierce advocacy for the pro-life cause has won him fervent admiration from church conservatives nationwide, the 350,000-member Scranton church has been roiled since Martino's 2003 arrival by swaths of contentious parish and school closings, strained relations with the presbyterate, a perceived indifference to the media, clashes over the diocese's de-recognition of the local union for Catholic high school teachers (a move upheld by the Vatican) and, most famously, a steady stream of statements on politics, parades and public officials which served to draw lines in the sand in the socially conservative, heavily-Democratic area, home to both the revered Casey clan and, in his boyhood, Vice-President Joe Biden.

Note the substantive difference in actual news content between the drowning-in-speculation Time "news" article and the packed-with-facts "gossip" blog post. It's interesting that the blog item was written before author Rocco Palmo even had benefit of Martino's own explanation, in which he concedes that there was no clear consensus regarding his general manner of governance, particularly after parish and school closings caused considerable controversy. His health suffered as a result, he says, and he submitted his resignation.

The story is dramatic enough as it is with the facts. There is no need to devolve into speculation. Or if you are going to speculate, just do it better. Martino was controversial for many reasons. Some of them even have to do with the Democratic Party's support for abortion rights. But to make politics the only angle covered in this religion story does a disservice to the truth.

UPDATE: A few readers have reminded me that Sullivan is a partisan. Fine, if she can't write up newsier op-eds, let her write opinion pieces full of speculative fury. But shouldn't Time report the news anywhere on its pixelated pages?

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