It was a pretty ordinary Catholic news story in The New York Times in the age of Pope Francis. The headline proclaimed: "As Church Shifts, a Cardinal Welcomes Gays; They Embrace a ‘Miracle’."
The story hook was that Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark had welcomed 100 LGBTQ Catholics and members of their families to a Mass on their behalf at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
This newsworthy event was called a "pilgrimage," but the Times called it a homecoming. Here is some crucial material that ran high in the story:
“I am Joseph, your brother,” Cardinal Tobin told the group, which included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics from around New York and the five dioceses in New Jersey. “I am your brother, as a disciple of Jesus. I am your brother, as a sinner who finds mercy with the Lord.”
The welcoming of a group of openly gay people to Mass by a leader of Cardinal Tobin’s standing in the Roman Catholic Church in this country would have been unthinkable even five years ago. But Cardinal Tobin, whom Pope Francis appointed to Newark last year, is among a small but growing group of bishops changing how the American church relates to its gay members. They are seeking to be more inclusive and signaling to subordinate priests that they should do the same. ...
Four years ago, Pope Francis shook the Catholic world with his comment about gay priests seeking the Lord: “Who am I to judge?” But it was unclear how his words would affect Catholics seeking acceptance in the pews.
The story, of course, does not include a crucial word found in all discussions of this topic by LGBTQ Catholics who strive to live out the teachings of their church -- "Confession."
When Pope Francis referred to gay priests who are "seeking the Lord," the implication was that these priests were wrestling with their temptations and sins in Confession. (Click here for a transcript and discussion of news coverage of this issue.)
Thus, who was Francis to judge? This issue was between the sinner and his spiritual father and, of course, the ultimate judge was God. Was this the message in Newark?
But never mind doctrinal details like that. This Times story entered into this week's "Crossroads" discussion for another reason. (Click here to tune in that podcast.)
I am sure that when many Catholics -- or maybe even folks who consume lots of news -- read this story one of the first things they thought was: Well, that was in Newark. In other words, everyone knows that Catholic life is a little bit different in an urban area that is located, shall we say, to the left of New York City.
Would this scene have unfolded in precisely the same way in, oh, Denver? How about in Los Angeles, Philadelphia or, to pick one very precise dot on the map, Steubenville?
Let's go global with this question. Would the doctrinal issues involved in this liturgical drama be handled the same way in Germany as in Nigeria?
Now, let's set aside, for a moment, the question of whether the Times accurately reported what Cardinal Tobin had to say -- before, during or after this event -- about what it means for LGBTQ Catholic sinners to find "mercy in the Lord." Many mainstream reporters, after all, tend to skip over discussions of sin, evil and repentance when Pope Francis talks about mercy.
The Times story did offer this:
“Everyone is welcome in the church, but no one is accepted as they are,” said the Rev. Robert Gahl, a professor of ethics at Opus Dei’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “While I am delighted that they went to Mass in the cathedral, I hope that Cardinal Tobin challenged them, as all good shepherds should, to live according to the teachings of Jesus.”
But Cardinal Tobin said in an interview last week that to combine his welcome with a criticism would not have been a full welcome at all.
“That sounds a little backhanded to me,” he said. “It was appropriate to welcome people to come and pray and call them who they were. And later on, we can talk.”
Now, back to the podcast. The topic this week was a phenomenon familiar to just about anyone who has ever been active in any form of institutional religious life. Simply stated, what the local branch of a religious organization proclaims and how it practices the traditions of its faith is often linked to where it is located.
As I keep saying: Location, location, location.
This is true even in the most conservative of flocks, even if the maps are a bit more complex. Among Southern Baptists, the Gospel sounds a bit different in college towns than in rural communities. Mormons in Provo are probably different than those in San Francisco. Looking for variations on Episcopal and Anglican life? Dallas or Pittsburgh is different than Chicago or, well, Newark. Religious life in Jesusland is different than life in Greater Canada.
What about United Methodists? The podcast discussion returned to the topic of my earlier post -- "Location, location, location: Did the whole United Methodist Church ordain a non-binary deacon?" -- which noted that UMC polity often allows leaders in different regions to have completely different approaches to controversial doctrinal issues.
On ordination issues, for example, bishops have been free to follow their own interpretations of the denomination's Book of Discipline or, some would say, to ignore it altogether. This has been true for decades. The question is whether leaders at the national and global level will ever act to clarify what is orthodox and what is heterodox.
I've been covering these issues among United Methodists since the early 1980s. As I wrote in a GetReligion post three years ago, all of this was brilliantly summarized in a document -- called "The Seven Churches of Methodism" -- published in that era by two United Methodists at Duke University.
One of the authors, a future United Methodist bishop named William Willimon, once told me that it was very painful for the church's leaders to have to admit that United Methodists were already worshiping in what amounted to seven different churches when it came to matters of doctrine and church law. It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the "Yankee Church," "Industrial Northeast Church," "Western Church" and "Midwest Church" with those in the larger and still growing "Church South" and the "Southwest Church."
The clergy in these churches went to different seminaries and had radically different beliefs about biblical authority, salvation, evangelism and moral theology. At the heart of many of their disputes, of course, were differences over sexual ethics, especially the moral status of sex outside of marriage.
Does that sound like recent headlines?
So, if there is anyone out there in cyberspace on a Friday afternoon (here in EDT), I would love for readers to leave us some comments describing how this zip-code effect is seen in their own religious bodies. This is a factor that journalists have to understand, if they are going to do accurate, fair-minded coverage of the news.