USA Today: 'Conservative' friar dies -- oh, and did we mention he was 'conservative'?


USA Today has picked up an obituary of Father Benedict Groeschel that ran in the Westchester County (N.Y.) Journal News, thereby giving readers a classic example of the Department of Redundancy Department, Godbeat style. 

I'm not talking about the lede, which is fine, albeit with the detail overload that has become typical in dailies:

LARCHMONT, N.Y. -- The Rev. Benedict Groeschel, a writer and preacher who became one of the country's best-known Catholic priests, long operating out of a tiny bedroom in Larchmont, died Friday at the age of 81 after a long illness.

The redundancy arrives in the second and third paragraph -- emphasis mine:

Groeschel spent decades leading retreats, writing books and offering his conservative perspectives on EWTN, the Catholic television network. He founded a religious order, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, ran a retreat house for priests in Larchmont and taught pastoral psychology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers.
He was a hero to conservative Catholics – a wise-cracking friar in a gray robe who shuffled among the elite of the Catholic Church, always speaking of the need to serve the poor.

Got that? So, Groeschel offered "conservative perspectives" on television, and in case you didn't know, he was a hero to "conservative Catholics."

Why does he qualify as "conservative"? Concern for the poor? Alas, no, I fear the implication is that Groeschel was a hero to conservative Catholics because he "shuffled among the elite of the Catholic Church" to express his concern for the poor. Because, you know, conservative Catholics are all about the elites ... or something.

I wrote in this space last week about how Religion News Service, as a matter of course, misappropriates the loaded political label "conservative" to describe official Catholic doctrinal positions and those who adhere to them. With this obituary, we see the same problem -- with added confusion, given the lack of explanation as to why the label is being thrown about. Then tmatt dug into that same subject this past weekend.

Basically, is someone a conservative for defending church doctrines? So moderates are for changing doctrine and liberals are for changing doctrine really fast? What do these words mean, in debates about doctrine?

I'm especially sorry to see the unnecessary and misleading language used in Groeschel's obituary. His long years of apostolic labor ministering to God's poor -- both the materially poor and the spiritually poor -- deserves a more substantial remembrance.

Granted, the remainder of the piece fills out the picture of Groeschel a bit, noting the ways he lived his faith and helped others put it into practice:

The Rev. Thomas Collins, president of Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, recalled Groeschel as a leader who was "not only spiritual but entertaining as well." ...
"He had a way of always taking the spiritual concepts and putting them into practical applications in the day to day," Collins said. "When we hear the invitation to feed the poor, clothe the naked, he took it so literally. How can we do that within our own circle of intimacy, how can we do that within our own community?"
Groeschel was a visible figure in New York's Catholic community, as he long lived in a small room at Trinity Retreat House in Larchmont. He slept on a thin mattress surrounded by books, rising by 5 a.m. to take phone calls from around the world and write.

Go here to read the rest. Then read the National Catholic Register's obituary for a picture of Groeschel from those closest to him and see how much better the Journal News piece could have been, had the reporters not let the labels obscure the man.

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