Let’s settle one issue right up front, so that readers know what this post is about and what it is not about.
Yes, it is bigger news -- in the heat of a White House race -- when the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate (he would be one blood clot away from naming several U.S. Supreme Court nominees) openly attacks a sacramental doctrine of his church, as in the Church of Rome (Catechism reference here).
Truth is, a giant chunk of space rock could wipe out Jerusalem -- at this point in the sacred rites of American horse-race politics -- and elite journalists would immediately calculate the impact on Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers.
My question today is whether news organizations should have paid any attention to the response by the actual Catholic bishop who, for those who care about Catholic theology and tradition, is the shepherd for the church in which Sen. Tim Kaine is an active communicant. Also, if a newsroom decided to cover that story, would the bishop’s actual words deserve attention? How much attention?
Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine, a practicing Catholic, on Saturday described his evolution on same-sex marriage and predicted that his church would change its views as well.
“My full, complete, unconditional support for marriage equality is at odds with the current doctrine of the church that I still attend,” Kaine said at a dinner celebrating gay rights. “But I think that’s going to change, too.”
It’s crucial that Kaine also signaled that God is for same-sex marriage and the Vatican has not caught up to the implications of its own theology. Kaine threw down a doctrinal glove and asked for a fight.
“My church also teaches me about a Creator in the first chapter of Genesis who surveys the entire world including mankind and said, ‘It is very good. It is very good,’” Kaine said.
“Who am I to challenge God for the beautiful diversity of the human family?” he added. “I think we’re supposed to celebrate, not challenge it.”
That is pretty much that. The Post, with this news breaking, did not seek out quotes from pro-Catechism Catholics who could have placed these words in context. That would have been easy, in Washington, D.C., but, hey, deadlines are deadlines and politics trump theology, even when a politician is talking about theology.
In other words, no one expects 50–50 coverage in the first news reports about this statement. The balance needed to come in follow-up coverage.
This brings us to the responding statement (.pdf here) by Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond, Va., which drew very little mainstream coverage. I would like to quote the Post follow-up report, but there does not appear to be one — not even a wire-service report. So let’s look at the story in CNN, which opens like this:
(CNN) The Bishop of Democratic vice presidential hopeful Tim Kaine's home diocese re-affirmed the Catholic Church's stance opposing same-sex marriage following comments the Virginia Democrat made recently predicting a change in church doctrine.
Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond, Virginia, released a statement Tuesday that doesn't mention Kaine specifically but makes clear, from his view, there is no chance of the church ending its long-held policy.
"More than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on marriage, and despite recent statements from the campaign trail, the Catholic Church's 2,000-year-old teaching to the truth about what constitutes marriage remains unchanged and resolute," he said.
In this context, what do the words “from his view” mean? That this doctrinal statement is the mere opinion of one Catholic shepherd?
The Kaine speech included, of course, the famous out-of-context “Who am I to judge?” quote from Pope Francis. Might it have been possible for CNN pros to have produced one of the dozens of quotes in which Pope Francis has affirmed traditional teachings on marriage and family?
"There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
As for DiLorenzo, that was all CNN had to offer -- the first sentence of the short statement.
In other words, most media reporters offered Kaine a chance to explain his beliefs, even in theological terms. With CNN, the bishop in charge of Kaine’s spiritual care -- we are not talking about Protestantism, here -- was allowed to say, “We have not changed,” and that was that.
The CNN article, in the end, offered way more information and content about Kaine and his evolving views -- in the story focusing on the bishop’s statement. The bottom line: Even the story about the bishop’s views is unbalanced, with more material offered presenting the views of the VP candidate.
So what else did DiLorenzo have to say? Well, for starters, some doctrinal conservatives would sadly note that he did not call out Kaine by name. However he did add this:
As Catholics, we believe, all humans warrant dignity and deserve love and respect, and unjust discrimination is always wrong. Our understanding of marriage, however, is a matter of justice and fidelity to our Creator’s original design. Marriage is the only institution uniting one man and one woman with each other and with any child who comes from their union. Redefining marriage furthers no one’s rights, least of all those of children, who should not purposely be deprived of the right to be nurtured and loved by a mother and a father.
We call on Catholics and all those concerned for preserving this sacred union to unite in prayer, to live and speak out with compassion and charity about the true nature of marriage -- the heart of family life.
Ironically, the report from the Catholic News Agency (an openly conservative outlet) about DiLorenzo’s statement offers a more traditional, from a journalism point of view, balance of new material from the bishop, balanced with background from the earlier Kaine story. Here is a crucial sample from that:
Bishop DiLorenzo’s statement does not mention Kaine. The former U.S. Senator is a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in the Diocese of Richmond. …
Kaine made his comments in a Sept. 10 keynote address at the national dinner for the influential LGBT advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign. He said his “full, complete, unconditional support for marriage equality” is at odds with “the current doctrine of the church that I still attend.”
“But I think that's going to change, too,” he said.
He cited God’s declaration in the Book of Genesis that creation, including mankind, is “very good.” He also cited Pope Francis' “who am I to judge” comment, and then said: “I want to add: Who am I to challenge God for the beautiful diversity of the human family? I think we're supposed to celebrate it, not challenge it.”
So here is the ultimate journalism irony. Many would say that Job 1 at the Catholic News Agency is to slant its coverage to favor the Vatican point of view. That is a topic worthy of debate.
However, in this case, CNA offered a substantial amount of material from the critic of the Catholic church, in a story about a new statement from the critic’s own bishop.
CNN, on the other hand, barely quoted the bishop’s words -- in a report in which the new news is about this statement by the bishop. Instead, this CNN report was weighed in favor of background material about the previously reported views of the candidate who had criticized Catholic doctrines on the sacrament of marriage.
My question: If CNA is defending the Catholic hierarchy, in a report that offered key information on both sides of this hot-button debate, then what “church” is CNN defending, with its strangely unbalanced report about the bishop’s response to Kaine? Didn’t the content of the bishop’s statement deserve careful attention in a story that supposedly is about that statement?
Meanwhile, there is that other question: Why didn’t more elite newsrooms cover the DiLorenzo statement at all?