As Pope Francis holds his two-week Vatican summit on family issues, Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post zeroes in on one of its topics -- marriage, divorce and annulment -- in a story that is non-sensational but personal and intelligent.
Her 1,400-plus-word report focuses on Catholics who continue to attend Mass and consider themselves close to the church, although they haven't gotten their divorces and/or remarriages legitimized in church eyes.
Boorstein's piece starts out on a familiar tack -- a sympathy anecdote a woman who "kept close to her Catholicism," even though she has married twice outside the church, following in her divorced parents' footsteps. She and others in the article talk out their feelings of ostracism. And they vent frustration at what they see as rigid, outmoded rules of marriage.
Many stories would make that into a One-Note Samba, then close with a judgment on how hidebound the church remains. Boorstein's piece doesn't. With typical thoroughness, she helps grasp complexities as well as basics.
For one, she shows churchmen themselves as humans who, like the laity, wrestle with dilemmas of keeping faithful to the church while trying to adapt to changing times. Here's a quote from a veteran churchman -- a comment that is at once informed, intelligent and heartfelt:
“This synod will be very important. All of the issues regarding the family, the ones that trouble people the most [about the church] will be on the table. All the neuralgic issues -- the ones that cause you pain,” said Monsignor Fred Easton, who led the Indianapolis Archdiocese’s tribunal for 31 years. “And it’s not just rehashing for rehashing’s sake. It’s: When we put them all together, do we need to make any sort of course correction?”
Another plus: Monsignor Easton is from the Midwest, not reporters' favorite source pools on the east and west coasts.
The article also explains rules that may confuse some parishioners, not to mention non-Catholics:
The church no longer excommunicates those who divorce, but Catholicism still recognizes only weddings approved by the church (either officiated by a priest in a Catholic church or approved by a person’s priest) and it sees marriage as ending only in death. So when a Catholic has a civil divorce and wants to remarry in the church, he or she may pursue an annulment, which is a Catholically legal way — complete with a tribunal, judge and “defender of the bond” who always argues to keep the marriage together — of saying the marriage wasn’t ever valid. Grounds include: being psychologically or spiritually unprepared for marriage, being unwilling to have children or having not been baptized. The process can take many months and cost hundreds of dollars or more, which is perhaps why only 15 percent of divorced Catholics seek annulments.
Here's more perceptive reporting: Some of the comments by Boorstein's sources actually sound rather Protestant in their critical, independent nature. One says that church parameters for receiving Communion is a "political" decision. Another says, "I respect the church's tradition, but I'm not owned by it." Still another says, “I find comfort in the rituals of the church’s sacraments, and I also believe I can successfully take what feeds me and discard what I consider to be man-made mistakes . . . It’s between me and God.”
Beyond the letter of the canon law, Boorstein also gives us some savvy background on how much it's enforced -- and the vagaries of violations:
How closely priests — or other parishioners — police who comes for communion varies widely. After all, disqualifiers include a lot of things that are invisible and common, including “obstinate denial of a truth of the faith” or not going to confession since the last time you gossiped or skipped Mass.
Priests usually give communion to whoever seeks it, but in cases in which a public violation of teaching is apparent — such as a same-sex married couple or a couple known to have been married outside the church — only the most liberal won’t flinch.
As full as this report is, it has a few soft spots, as in basic holes in the reporting. There are four in all:
* Remember the woman who "kept close" to Catholicism despite her two marriages? Well, her idea of closeness is attending Mass "every month or so." She probably sees a dry cleaner more often. The Post would have done better to get a more-than-casual churchgoer.
* Another soft spot in the article is numbers. It says that one in 10 Americans is a former Catholic, but doesn't cite a source. The Washington Post says also that "many clergy members agree" that the rules for marriage and divorce are alienating people. No numbers or percentages are offered, nor are any clergy quoted saying so.
At minimum, the Washington Post could have cited Father Tom Reese's column, published three days earlier: "There are no simple answers. Simply repeating church teaching won't make any difference. Allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to go to Communion is necessary and compassionate, but it will not cure what ails families."
One curious statement in the Post story: "Catholics’ divorce rates don’t appear to be dramatically different from those of other Americans, but the stigma remains high, some divorced people say." We'll take the first allegation first.
For divorce rates, the online version of the article links to the 2007 Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, but it doesn't say where to look. But on page 70, I found a table of marital status by religion -- and Catholics look a little better: 10 percent are divorced, versus 12 percent of the general population. And Catholics look still better than Protestants, 13 percent of whom are divorced.
The second statement, that the stigma toward divorced Catholics remains high, is very slippery. "Some" divorced people say that? How many is that? Boorstein offers anecdotal evidence: a woman who was ostracized when her parents divorced in the late 1960s, another who felt isolated because her divorced father dropped her off at Mass as a child. Well, anecdotes are valid for illustrating a situation; but for measuring its size or pervasiveness, they fall short.
* The article suffers from a lack of church voices who defend the status quo. Not that a story like this -- an introduction to a church issue -- must have a straight pro/con treatment. But with three lay voices and one clergy voice, the article would have benefited from a Catholic lay leader as well. A good addition would have been someone with the National Council of Catholic Women, a group that coordinates 3,000 organizations with six million members.
* As always, there is no mention of the role of Confession in this process. These active Catholics who are receiving Holy Communion with a wink and a nod from their priests are also going to Confession? If the priests are showing mercy, is this mercy following Confession of sins? It would appear, at this point, that Confession is simply irrelevant or, highly likely, journalists assume that only the rare, traditionalist Catholic feels any need to confess his or her sins.
So four journalistic holes, in all.
All that said, Boorstein still deserves credit for leaving the beaten path and addressing issues that regular Catholics -- not enlightened journalists with liberal agendas -- want to push. She even tempers the prospect of change with a caution: "Nothing concrete will happen this month." The bishops will return next fall to propose a pastoral plan, she says.
At least Boorstein knows what she'll be covering in a year.