So I had a meeting the other day with a former GetReligionista and, within minutes, the topic of the conversation turned to a subject many religion-beat professionals (past, present and future) have been discussing in recent weeks: Now that the folks who run The Boston Globe have John L. Allen, Jr., what precisely are they going to do with him?
In a way, this is a variation on one of the big questions looming over our age, journalistically speaking.
At the heart of the debate is an agonizing economic equation that is driving many old-school journalists crazy: Opinion is cheap; information is expensive. Some people word the second half of that equation differently: Opinion is cheap; reporting is expensive. The end result is usually the same, as far as I am concerned. And, of course, freelance opinion is the cheapest option of all. We've been on this foggy road (yes, that fog) for quite some time now.
Allen, of course, is a great reporter whose years of work -- while at the liberal National Catholic Reporter -- was taken seriously because he relentlessly provided waves of new information from high-quality voices on all sides of Catholic debates at the local, regional, national and global levels. He was working at a publication with an obvious point of view, but he kept producing real reporting, even in his columns and works of analysis.
Now Allen is at the Globe, which is a mainstream newspaper that, one can only hope, remains committed to coverage built on the classic American model of the press, with journalists striving (yes, often imperfectly) to achieve high standards of accuracy, balance and fairness. Some professionals continue to use the word "objectivity" with a straight face. However, the Globe team has also talked about starting its own online publication about Catholic news, period. What approach would that start-up use?
Allen has started work and is producing a wide range of material. I thought his mini-feature on the style of Pope Francis -- which was for some reason labeled "analysis" -- was especially delightful, as a quick overview of symbolic details that add up to a larger whole.
The headline: "New reality in Vatican: Surprise, it’s the pope!" Basically, the idea is that it's getting harder to predict where Pope Francis will, literally, show up. Here is a key slice:
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is a member of a Vatican council that oversees the Synod of Bishops, a summit of Catholic prelates from around the world. The council meets every so often in a building a few blocks from St. Peter’s Basilica, and the practice has been that it passes conclusions to a papal aide without getting face time with the boss.
In October, however, Francis decided to walk down the Via della Conciliazione, the broad Roman street leading away from the basilica, to join one of their meetings. It was an act akin to the President of the United States heading over to Congress to sit in on a meeting of a House committee – i.e., something almost inconceivable to anyone accustomed to the usual protocol.
Francis spent six hours over two days with the council. Aside from his presence, what struck members was the informality of his approach.
“He came over like it was just another day at the office, with his lunch box,” Dolan said. “We couldn’t believe it.”
And this, too:
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, Texas, described a surprising run-in.
“We went down for the coffee break in the morning, and I’m in the crowd at the bar,” DiNardo told the Globe. “I turn around, and it’s the pope! He’s in line to get coffee himself, no flunkies surrounding him.”
This was not a heavy story full of complications and doctrinal twists. It was simply a collection of voices talking about a symbolic -- there's that word again -- subject that points toward matters of substance. This is precisely the kind of insider REPORTING that one expects from Allen, built on years of face-to-face and cellphone-to-cellphone contacts.
I am sure that we can expect to see more and more of that. Amen, I say.
Then again, there was another Globe feature the other day that left me puzzled and a bit disappointed. It was labeled "Q&A" and focused on a book-tour-style interview with the controversial Catholic writer John "Hitler's Pope" Cornwall. The topic was his new book, "The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession."
Before the interview, there is this overture:
COLLAPSE is not too strong a word. Fifty years ago, the great majority of Catholics in this country confessed their sins regularly to a priest. Confession, after all, is one of the seven Catholic sacraments. But now only 2 percent of Catholics go regularly to confession, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Georgetown University -- and three-quarters of them never go, or go less than once a year. In many parishes, the sacrament is currently available only by appointment, and in Europe it has declined to such a degree that groups who study Catholic practice there have stopped even asking about it on their questionnaires. Visit a Catholic church today, John Cornwell writes in "The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession," and you're likely to find that church janitors have transformed the box into "a storage closet for vacuum cleaners, brooms, and cleaning products."
To traditionalists, this might seem like yet another sign of decline in the post-Vatican II era, but Cornwell shows that this isn't the first time Catholics have largely abandoned confession.
It will surprise few faithful GetReligion readers to learn that Cornwell thinks that, to achieve renewal, Catholics need to start acting more like Episcopalians. But, hey, this is his argument and his book. My question is this: What is the Globe doing with this feature?
Let me be clear: The collapse of confession in the modern Catholic church is a huge hard-news topic that, frankly, is worthy of a major feature story or even a multi-day investigative project during Lent. I also think that Cornwell would be an essential source for reporters pursuing such an effort, including his arguments linking a rise in the sexual abuse of children to the early 20th Century decision to begin requiring weekly confessions at seven years of age.
These confession-related topics deserve lots and lots of ink. My point is that I fear that this is the kind of serious news subject that the Globe -- which wants to be seen as a key player in news about Catholicism -- will be tempted to approach as fodder for opinion and advocacy writing, only.
Why Cornwall, alone? Why not do a real story that also interviews key thinkers on the other side of the Catholic aisle? Why not approach this, literally, sacramental subject in a journalistic manner? In other words, why not let Allen take it on.
Maybe that is what will happen and a serious Globe report on the confession crisis is forthcoming. We can hope.