John L. Allen, Jr. slaps some wrists

This is one of those cases in which your GetReligionistas are tempted to simply put an item up on this here weblog and say ... What.



Of course, it matters that the "he" in this case is one of the top writers on Planet Earth about all things Catholic (and I imagine he could cover just about any other beat to which he set his mind). Then a man writes for the National Catholic Reporter and consistently earns the praise of conservative Catholics for his fairness and accuracy, you know that he is doing something right.

That man, of course, is John L. Allen, Jr. And he has a new "All Things Catholic" essay out entitled, "This is no way to end religious illiteracy." It is a must read. Here is how things get rolling:

Mayor "Diamond" Joe Quimby, from the TV series "The Simpsons," once found himself listening to talk radio while a Rush Limbaugh wannabe derided him as an "illiterate, tax-cheating, wife-swapping, pot-smoking spendocrat." Quimby's wounded response was, "Hey ... I am no longer illiterate!"

I sometimes flash on that scene while listening to people complain about media coverage of religion, and of the Catholic church -- that it's biased, sensationalistic, sloppy, or whatever. I wish I could reply, "Hey ... at least we're no longer illiterate." By that I mean "illiterate" about religion, lacking a grasp of the A, B C's of belief and practice.

Three items this week, however, suggest we've got some ground to cover if we want to catch up with Quimby.

First was a correction in the New York Times to a story about reports that Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium tried to cover up charges of sexual abuse against another Belgian bishop. The item had referred to Danneels as a "former cardinal," which obviously isn't correct, and the Times set the record straight.

Yet in doing so the Times actually perpetuated another error, by identifying Danneels as "the former head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium." (In fairness, virtually every story about Danneels in the last couple of weeks has used some variant of that formula.)

Here's the problem: There is no such thing as the "head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium," or any other country. Epic battles fought by the Vatican in the 18th and 19th centuries against Gallicanism, Febronianism, etc., were based on the principle that there is no "national church" with its own president or patriarch. There's the pope in Rome, and then there are dioceses around the world led by their bishops, with no real layer of authority in between.

You get the idea.

Once again, the point is that words are tricky things and, in the world of religion, picky little things like facts, history and doctrines matter, as well.

However, there is more to Allen's piece than mere whining about one factual error. This kind of picky mistake is often a symptom that a newspaper is a few tacos short of a combination platter when it comes to the big ideas that drive major news events. In other words, keep reading:

True, the Archbishop of Brussels is the metropolitan of the whole country and holds a few carefully circumscribed powers over the other "suffragan" dioceses. Basically, however, each bishop calls his own shots; there's no "head of the Belgian church" to whom they report.

Some observers believe this reality is part of the problem when it comes to the sexual abuse crisis. There are more than 5,000 bishops in the world, and their only supervisor is the pope -- who can't, and probably shouldn't, be expected to ride herd on specific personnel moves and so on. Critics say that until there's a way to hold bishops accountable short of direct papal intervention, an important cause of the crisis will remain untreated.

Calling Danneels the "former head of the church in Belgium" thus perpetuates a misconception about how the church works -- one with consequences for diagnosing what went wrong in the sexual abuse crisis, and what may be needed to fix it.

So that is error No. 1 in this piece. There are more to come.

Read it all. And when you are done, click here for a classic flashback on this same topic (but looking at a wider array of screw ups), care of sociologist Christian Smith.

Illustration: This is not John L. Allen, Jr. This is a stereotypical piece of art for which I apologize.

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