Splitting the Catholic labels really fine

It's one thing to try to drag political labels over into religion coverage. That's inevitable, I guess, in this highly politicized world in which we live today. It's something else to use terms that are so vague that they have no meaning and to use them over and over and over without providing the kind of factual context that allows readers to figure out what the words might mean.

This is something different than the journalistic sin that takes place when reporters and editors give "fundamentalist" -- a word that has a perfectly good historical meaning, one even recognized in the Associated Press Stylebook -- some kind of vague and inaccurate new meaning. And I'm talking about something different than using "Islamist" all the time without providing a consistent definition.

To be specific, I'm talking about that beloved weasel word "moderate" -- a term so vague and, at times, slanted that it even alarmed that New York Times self-study team back in 2005 (click here for the .pdf). Do you remember this timely reminder to the newspaper's reporters and editors?

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

I'm waiting for someone to be called a "moderate fundamentalist." It's only a matter of time.

This leads us the following strange reference in a Washington Post story about, of course, Georgetown University and its defiant invitation to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak during one of its commencement events. The key issue, of course, is the new set of HHS regulations that will require the majority of church-based institutions to include all FDA-approved forms of contraception in the health-insurance plans they offer to employees and even students. This would include, with no out-of-pocket payments, sterilizations and the contraceptives commonly known as “morning-after pills.”

Here is the reference, in context:

... (T)he archdiocese of Washington, led by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, criticized Georgetown President John J. DeGioia for remarks he issued a day earlier -- apparently to address the controversy -- saying DeGioia had mischaracterized the issue as being about birth control. As the region’s top Catholic official, Wuerl is responsible for making sure Catholic institutions, including Georgetown, follow church teachings.

DeGioia “does not address the real issue for concern -- the selection of a featured speaker whose actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history,” reads the statement from the archdiocese, which covers the District and suburban Maryland.

The Catholic bishops have led opposition to the mandate, arguing that it violates religious freedom. Liberal and moderate Catholics and other religious advocates also opposed the mandate when it was announced in January but their opposition died down after the White House shifted the requirement from the employers to insurance companies.

No, we are not going to get into a discussion of the fact that the Post let that final sentence stand as proven fact, without any dissenting voices that are allowed to ask -- for example -- what happens to the many religious organizations that self-insure.

No, here's what I want to know: What, precisely, is the difference between a "liberal" Catholic and a "moderate" Catholic in this context?

Most of all, I would like to know the doctrinal differences between these kinds of Catholics, two groups of Catholics whose identities are so established that the Post does not even need to hint at who is who and what is what. Since the story mentions that orthodoxy on "church teachings" plays a role in this drama, we must assume that there are doctrinal -- not merely political -- issues at stake.

So, what are they? So, GetReligion readers, what are the doctrinal differences between "moderate" and "liberal" Catholics?

Discuss, but be nice and look at this in terms that journalists can use in news reports.

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