Dig through the Rolodex


We've previously looked at media coverage of the rather public dispute between Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Bishop Thomas Tobin. Last week I suggested that reporters at least explain the Catholic understanding of scandal as it relates to the case. And this week, I noted the confusion many reporters have between banning a communicant and suggesting he refrain from taking communion. There's been a lot of coverage and much of it is inadequate. Take this Agence France Presse story's incorrect description of what Roman Catholics teach about communion:

Communion is a church ritual that involves the sharing of bread and wine meant to represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

No, Catholics don't believe that. They believe that they receive the body and blood of Christ, not representations of them.

Or note this lede to an Associated Press story:

A month of harsh words between Rep. Patrick Kennedy and a strident critic, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin, escalated Sunday when the bishop acknowledged asking Kennedy not to receive Holy Communion because of the Democratic lawmaker's support for abortion rights.

The bishop's attempt to publicly shame Kennedy comes just a few months after the death of his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Did the reporter even read Tobin's statement acknowledging that he asked Kennedy not to receive Holy Communion? If so, how could he write that it was an attempt to publicly shame Kennedy since the request was made in a confidential letter from 2007 . . . that only came to light when Kennedy told the media about it? I also note that Kennedy is not strident but Tobin is. Why is that?

The article does have some helpful things, including a paragraph explaining that church teaching on abortion is definitive and unchanging whereas teaching about the death penalty is less definitive. It also references Gov. Mario Cuomo's infamous "Religious Belief and Public Morality" speech at Notre Dame where he launched the "personally opposed, publicly supportive" stance on abortion rights.

But I've noticed this other trend in many of the stories. Reporters will get comments from, say, a Rev. Thomas Reese or Gov. Mario Cuomo. These people will speak against Bishop Tobin, which is certainly their right and it is absolutely important to get that perspective in the story. But I've yet to see any quotes from scholars, priests or observers who defend Tobin. And it's laughable to think that this is because Tobin doesn't have defenders.

This Associated Press story used the hook of Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Penn., defending Kennedy as a fellow Catholic who supports abortion rights. Murphy says that millions of Catholics across the country are disheartened at what happened to Kennedy and he says that Catholics who support legalized abortion agree with the Catholic Church on "99 percent" of the issues. There's another reference to Cuomo but nobody is quoted defending Tobin.

Or take this CNN story headlined "Kennedy abortion debate puts politics, religion back in spotlight." It explains the Tobin request and, unlike so many other stories, it notes that the request was made privately to Kennedy. In fact, it actually includes more of Tobin's perspective than most stories and it explains some history of the Kennedy family and that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes the Senate version of the health care bill for lacking the Stupak Amendment provisions in the House bill.

But then there's the section on how "other Catholics" feel about Tobin's stance. We get the Rev. Thomas Reese calling Tobin more Catholic than the pope. And we hear from CNN's senior Vatican analyst John Allen. He talks about how Tobin is using communion as a "political weapon."

And also in the "other Catholics" category, we get the emergent movement's Brian McLaren. He also opposes Tobin, saying that the Catholic Church is risking its moral authority by focusing on abortion. He also dislikes the church's "binary" thinking on homosexuality. And then he says that the bishops are inconsistent because they don't withhold the Eucharist to folks who support increasing nuclear stockpiles.

And that's it. That's how "other Catholics" feel about Tobin. Reese, Allen and, um, Brian McLaren. Reporters simply need to do a better job of getting perspective on this issue. Reporters should talk to Tim Townsend at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He always got great quotes from folks on all sides when he was covering Archbishop Raymond Burke. Or just read through his old articles and see if they can steal some of his sources.

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