If you backed up a few years, or even a decade or two, one of the subjects that religion writers in the mainstream press used to debate could be summed up in this question: "Are religion columns a good thing?" You see, when most journalists hear the phrase "religion column," they still think of two things. First, they think of religion pages, those gray ghettos back in the Saturday metro sections where, in most daily newspapers, slightly old wire-service copy went to die. Second, and even worse, they think of religion columns as those strange monstrosities in which a low-level reporter or clerk was asked to type up tiny news bites based on all of the press releases that religious congregations sent in the previous week (so that they wouldn't have to support real news by purchasing advertisements).
The real issue, however, centered on the fact that many mainstream editors used religion pages and columns as excuses to keep religion news and trends out of the main news pages. In other words, religion writers assumed that as long as there were religion columns/pages, there would never be serious religion news on A1 or the metro front.
I always asked, "Why not both? Why not mainstream the coverage and have a religion page?" My assumption was that there would always be religion news that the religion-beat specialist understood was important, but that editors just "didn't get." It was nice, I thought, to have a niche in the newspaper in which a religion specialist could print that kind of news. This option wasn't perfect, but it helped you get some important information into circulation.
Take, for example, meetings of the U.S. Catholic bishops. You know that, whenever they meet, the big headlines are going to be about whatever statement they issue that has something to do with (a) politics, (b) sex or, even better, (c) politics about sex. Trust me: This is the physics of daily journalism.
So what happens if the the bishops discuss other issues that -- if viewed through the lens of doctrine or tradition, rather than politics -- are actually quite important or even, pray tell, earthshaking? That's when you need a religion column really, really bad.
This is why I am glad that veteran Godbeat scribe Julia Duin (who took second in the 2009 Religion Reporter of the Year Award competition from the mainstream Religion Newswriters Association) has a regular column over at the Washington Times.
While catching up with my reading after an almost completely wifi-free Thanksgiving, I came across a perfect example of how she uses her columns to get crucial information into the newspaper. In this case, I ran into a column about the recent survey: "Recent Vocations to Religious Life" (click here for .pdf) done by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research. This was discussed during the recent U.S. Catholic bishops' meetings in Baltimore. Go ahead. Try to find additional coverage of the contents in the secular press.
Why do I think this is so important? I realize that I have, as Bible Belt people say, "gone to preachin'," but let's look at two very newsy passages in this analysis column:
Compared to the 1960s, when there were 23,000 priests, 12,500 brothers (monks) and about 180,000 sisters (nuns), the religious population has decreased by 65 percent. ... Today there are about 13,000 priests in religious orders, 5,000 brothers and 59,000 sisters. Seventy-five percent of men and more than 90 percent of the women are at least 60 years old. Of those who are younger than 60, the majority are in their 50s, with only 1 percent younger than 40.
(That 1 percent, I am guessing, belongs to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, now numbering more than 250 women, who limit their candidate pool to women 30 and younger. They've got 23 postulants this year alone; the largest number of new nuns in training in the country. Which may be why I'm getting fundraising letters from them asking for money to feed, house and train these women.)
What in the world?
After reading that information, a reporter should be asking a logical question: What happened to the support networks that used to support young women and men who were considering entering religious life?
Brace yourselves. The executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference delivered more stunning news:
"When asked to rate the encouragement they received when they first considered entering their religious institutes," Brother Bednarczyk told the bishops, "newer entrants ranked family members (parents, brothers and sisters), people in the parish and diocesan priests as giving the least encouragement when they first considered entering their religious institute."
I'll repeat that. The people from whom the emerging sister or brother expects to get the most encouragement when considering their radical vocation offer the least. Broken down, 30 percent said they were "very much encouraged" by parents, 22 percent were "very much encouraged" by siblings, 31 percent were "very much encouraged" by fellow parishioners and only 17 percent were "very much encouraged" by diocesan priests.
Years from now, decades or centuries even, people who care about the Church of Rome will look back at this trend and say: "What in the world was going on? What happened?"
Answer that question and you have a story that should be on A1, or a series of stories that belong on A1. As for me, I am glad that Duin was able to use her column -- mixing hard facts with her own analysis -- to put at least a small spotlight on these sobering numbers.
This is what religion columns are all about. Here's hoping her editors let her dig deeper, because there is hard news in those statistics.