Define 'practicing Catholic;' report the Virginia options

Surely it will come as little surprise to faithful readers of this hear blog to learn that your GetReligionistas are not fond of the term "devout Catholic," a foggy, meaningless label that is used way too often in mainstream news reports.

Several years ago, when writing about one rather extreme case (I'm not joking!) of "devout Catholic" syndrome, I noted:

You see, of all the labels used by journalists to describe believers -- from “apostate” to “zealot” -- surely “devout” has become one of the most meaningless. While this is true in a variety of world religions, for some reason things get especially interesting when “devout” appears in front of “Catholic.”

The bottom line: What’s the difference between a “practicing” Catholic and a “devout” Catholic? Do journalists simply know one when they see one?

The problem is that the term "devout" is ultimately subjective. How does one use the basic skills of journalism to gather facts that prove someone is devout? I mean, that person on the kneeler at the back of the church may be fingering a Rosary, but how does one know that this Catholic's mind is not focused on planning a quick trip to Las Vegas with a hot next-door neighbor?

Now, is the term "practicing" any better?

I would argue that it is, for the simple reason that journalists can demonstrate -- with practical questions and answers that can be verified -- the degree to which an alleged "practicing" Catholic is active in a parish, the sacraments and in service to God and humanity. It is also possible to take the facts about a public person's words and actions and compare them with the doctrines found in the Catholic Catechism. A truly enterprising reporter may even, with a nod to sacred Watergate scriptures, be able to "follow the money" (or the trips to Mass).

In other words, "practicing" implies activities that can be investigated and reported. This word implies facts, as opposed to "devout" feelings.

So what are readers supposed to make of the following material at the top of a recent Washington Post political report?

The two major-party candidates running for governor in Virginia are both practicing Catholics. But when it comes to the contentious issue of abortion, they stand on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli opposes abortion in almost all circumstances -- including rape and incest. He makes an exception when the life of the mother is endangered.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe supports most Virginia laws that prohibit third-trimester abortions except to protect the life or health of the mother. But he opposes further restrictions and says he supports a repeal of mandatory ultrasounds before abortions.

In a state considered one of the most antiabortion in the nation in terms of state laws restricting the practice, the issue has often been front and center as national antiabortion and abortion rights groups spend heavily on harsh ads.

Now, throughout the race Cuccinelli has been called an extremist, by those in the McAuliffe camp, for backing public-policy decisions -- on this issue -- that are very close to the teachings of his church.

Thus, it is easy to argue that one of these "practicing Catholics" is out of the Virginia public mainstream, while the other is out of the mainstream when it comes to the doctrines defended by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

But that is not my journalistic point. The problem with this story is that it does absolutely nothing to defend the accuracy of the "practicing Catholic" label in reference to either man in this race. There are no facts here at all to support that label.

The story does go out of its way to show that McAuliffe opposes the defense of his church's teachings in the public square and, thus, has earned the staunch support of groups that oppose Catholic teachings on life issues. But what has happened, in the past, when he was asked about his actual involvement in the practice of the Catholic faith?

Conservative media critic Brent Bozell found some interesting quotations linked to that subject, gleaned from a 2007 appearance by McAuliffe on a radio talk show:

When radio show host Hugh Hewitt pressed him in 2007 about his church attendance after McAuliffe repeatedly cited his “Irish Catholic” bona fides in his autobiography “What a Party,” McAuliffe shot back “I don’t pretend to be a priest, and I don’t pretend to be citing ... I don’t cite the Bible once in the book.” ...

When Hewitt asked how his liberal stands clash with the church, McAuliffe snapped: “I wish I could follow 100 percent the teachings of the Catholic Church, but believe it or not, much to your chagrin, I am not Jesus Christ.”

It doesn't sound like McAuliffe wants to answer questions about his parish life.

It is likely that Cuccinelli would love to answer parish and sacramental life questions, but might not welcome questions about, oh, immigration and the death penalty.

That does not mean that these kinds of questions shouldn't be asked.

Bozell has an interesting way of looking at this "practicing Catholic" question, one that is actually rather journalistic in approach.

The goal is to ask factual questions. How would reporters handle a news story about a "practicing vegetarian" who, in practice, rejected many of the central ideas that went along with being a vegetarian? Would it be fair to ask why he supports the eating of meat, since vegetarians do not eat meat? Why is he so tense when asked if he ever eats at vegetarian restaurants, as opposed to the many times that he praised the work of steakhouse owners?

Now, I hear some readers (especially journalists) thinking: These guys are not running for pope, they are running for governor of Virginia. What right do we have to investigate their parish life and their practice of the Catholic faith?

Great question! If that is the case, then why should journalists use the term "PRACTICING Catholic," which implies that there is actual Catholicism being practiced? Why not just ask them pointed questions and print the answers? Why rely so much on that old tired label?

Try using a journalistic approach.

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