Cardinal Tobin’s impressive rise to power doesn't need dose of New York Times snark

This article on Newark’s incoming Catholic cardinal sure starts well, as the New York Times evidently thought enough of the man to send a reporter to flyover country to ferret him out and dig for some deep details.

But then, a few red flags began to rear their heads. Instead of being merely a profile of an interesting man plucked from the ecclesiastical backwater of Indianapolis, I began to see a different narrative.

Want to guess what subjects complicated matters in this otherwise fine profile?

Here’s how it starts:

INDIANAPOLIS -- For about a year, the guys at the gym just called him Joe. He lifted weights in the early mornings wearing a skull-printed do-rag. He worked out on the elliptical, wiping it down when he was done.
Then one day Shaun Yeary, a salesman at a landscape supply company, asked him in the locker room what he did for a living. “I used to be a priest,” Joe recalled telling him. “And now,” he said, his voice growing quieter so as not to scare anyone in earshot, “I’m the archbishop of Indianapolis.”
“I was like, for real?” Mr. Yeary recalled. “This guy is benching two and a quarter!” -- gymspeak for 225 pounds.
Joe, also known as Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, recently became one of the 120 men in the world who will choose the next pope. But he wants to be judged by his actions, not his lofty position in the Roman Catholic Church.

After another few sentences on the man’s humility:

… he is just the kind of leader Pope Francis is elevating to realign the church in the United States with his priorities.
As the pope has made clear over the past three years, fancy lifestyles, formality and regal titles like Prince of the Church are out of style for cardinals. So is an emphasis on the divisive issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, even though the church’s underlying position on those issues has not changed.
Instead, in the pope’s view, the church should emphasize humility and service to the poor…

Well, hmm. That's interesting.

What about Tobin's April press release praising then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence for signing a new law banning abortions based on disability? But that doesn't fit the narrative. Now I get that the Times has been reading articles from Crux about Tobin as well as America magazine, so the idea of Tobin as one of Francis’ men is not alien. It's a valid news hook.

My brief is the loaded language. Would the reporter call racism a “divisive” issue? Probably not. Why not use a more neutral word such as “controversial”? The word "doctrine" could even be used in context.

The article then delved into Tobin’s history and how he became a FOF (Friend of Francis).

Cardinal Tobin’s appointment in October as one of the nation’s 18 cardinals came as a surprise to many, including the man himself. But perhaps it should not have. For what his unassuming bearing does not reveal is that he is no stranger to the corridors of power in the church. He is a friend of Pope Francis. And under Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, he had helped lead the Vatican office that oversees the roughly one million men and women in religious orders around the world.
That position did not end so well. It was an open secret that Cardinal Tobin was sent to Indiana as a kind of exile most likely because he questioned an inquiry by his office into supposed doctrinal lapses among the roughly 50,000 nuns in the United States. As he got to know the faithful in the chancery of Indianapolis, he would joke with them about it.

When the Vatican began looking into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 2009, I was still working full time on the religion beat and I did some digging around about the issue. Basically, the Vatican’s gripe is that many of America’s nuns (at least the older ones because the younger ones are much more conservative) were good on social justice issues but not so hot in opposing those “divisive” issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. I’m sure most nuns didn’t think they had a dog in the same-sex issue, but abortion was a different matter.

As I reported on the LCWR, I became aware of a rival organization that represents 20 percent of America’s nuns: the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. A 2012 New York Times column compared the two, although I disagreed with the author’s conclusion that an infusion of younger, conservative nuns won’t save the future of America’s religious orders. Anyway, when I called someone from the CMSWR for comment, she said very little other than she wasn’t surprised at the investigation and that the problems were real.

Anyway, back to the story: I don’t think the reporter should be taking a position on doctrine. Instead of “supposed” doctrinal lapses, which denotes skepticism, the Times could use a more neutral term, please. The rest story details Tobin’s history and how his leadership of the Redemptorist order impressed then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Then:

In 2010, five years after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict, he offered Father Tobin the title of archbishop and the position of secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in the Vatican. ... The office he had been tapped to administer was investigating American nuns for supposedly adopting a “secular mentality” and straying from Catholic orthodoxy.

Again that “supposedly” isn’t needed. Drop that word and the sentence reads fine. But no, that wouldn’t fit into the narrative of the evil Vatican and the virtuous archbishop who, two years into the investigation, was sent packing to Indianapolis. But he caught the eye of then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio –- who became Pope Francis in 2013 --  and the rest was history.

Maybe Tobin is right when he explains in the article that the Vatican investigation of the LCWR was like using a machine gun to kill a mosquito and I don’t mind hearing his POV. But writers can at least try to maintain objectivity. Don’t overload an otherwise excellent article with adjectives that mock one side. Excellent reporting can speak for itself..

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