Concerning NPR, 'green frogs,' Humanae Vitae and the Vatican family life conference

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Does anyone remember my "green frog" image from a few years back?

That old post opened with a flashback to my days long ago at the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, in that amazing university town in the middle of the kingdom of Illinois farm country.

I was a brand-new journalist -- working as a copy editor and, yes, the paper's part-time rock columnist. However, the news editor knew that I grew up as a Texas Baptist preacher's kid and that I was active in a local Southern Baptist church, of the "moderate" stripe. Thus: 

Every now and then an angry reader would call and accuse the newspaper of being prejudiced against all religious people. ...  Even when these readers had a valid point to make -- especially concerning errors -- they tended to go completely over the top in their criticism of the staff at the newspaper. In voices that would get more and more enraged, they seemed determined to accuse the editors of sins against God, as opposed to sins against the standards of journalism.
The news editor would bite his tongue and try to listen, as people accused him of taking orders directly from Satan. But after awhile he would roll his eyes, place his hand over the telephone mouthpiece and stage whisper across the news desk, "Mattingly, there's another GREEN FROG on line one. You take this call."

So that's the origin story for my "green frog" image, related to religion news.

Here at GetReligion, I still hear from "green frogs" all the time. I reject about 75 percent of the offerings to our comments pages and here are the two most common reasons: (1) The comments are not about journalism, but about the reader's own views about religion and, usually, politics. (2) The writer simply has an axe to grind about journalism -- period.

However, every now and then someone sends me a link to a person who has valid points to make about a piece of mainstream reporting and has managed to keep her or his wits while doing so. That brings me to a recent NPR report with this headline -- "50 Years Ago, The Pope Called Birth Control 'Intrinsically Wrong' " -- and an interesting GetReligion-esque take on that story's overture.

So here is the top of that NPR report, complete with its crucial hyperlinks. This is long, but essential to understand what follows:

A papal encyclical issued 50 years ago this summer marked a turning point in the way Roman Catholics view the teachings of their church.
On July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI stunned Catholics around the world with his announcement of Humanae Vitae, "Of Human Life," a document in which he forcefully reaffirmed the church's previously stated position on the use of artificial birth control, calling it "intrinsically wrong."
"We are obliged once more to declare that [methods for] the direct interruption of the generative process," the pope wrote, "... are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children."
Humane Vitae came as a surprise to many Vatican observers. Though an encyclical issued in 1930 already prohibited birth control, a papal commission had been assembled to revisit that ban, and a majority of the commission members suggested that it be dropped. Moreover, a Vatican II document stipulated the right of man "to follow his conscience."
Indeed, Catholics were already using contraception. The birth control pill had been legalized by a Supreme Court decision, and a 1965 survey of Catholic women found that more than half were using some forbidden contraceptive method.

So that leads me (following a linked provided by a non-green frog reader) to a National Catholic Register piece by Sophia Feingold, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and Catholic University who blogs at The Girl Who Was Saturday.

The church-niche headline is rather philosophical, "Sanctity Has a Beauty That Will Save the World," but the opening focuses on the contents of that NPR report. Once again, this is long, but essential:

The Tuesday, July 3 edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered” celebrated the anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae with the headline “50 Years Ago, The Pope Called Birth Control ‘Intrinsically Wrong.’ ” The story focuses on how the Church’s stance on contraception has led Catholics to contravene Church authority. Sources include a Jesuit at Boston College (whose Jesuitical charism enables him to twist the Thomistic insight that “‘bad law … breeds contempt for good law’”); a Georgetown researcher; a baby boomer puzzled by how contraception offends God; a millennial who equates NFP with “the ‘rhythm method’”; a divorced mother of seven; a divorced female lay minister; and a priest who finds the word “believe” problematic.

Now, surely, pro-Catechism Catholics are given a chance to offer detailed responses? Back to Feingold:

To believe NPR, pro-encyclical representatives have little to say for themselves: Mary Eberstadt is quoted in generalities, an archbishop talks about a desire to retain the Church’s “uniqueness,” and a lay Catholic is concerned about the dilution of an unspecified “‘message.’” But such “revisionist” views are, according to NPR, in evidence only among “some Catholic conservatives” reacting to “the move toward a more tolerant approach under Pope Francis.” The piece ends by noting that American Catholics mostly don’t accept the prohibition on contraception, and (according to the Georgetown researcher) “‘The American Catholic church is assimilating ever further into American culture.’”
It is hardly accidental that the piece ran a day before July 4: it reads like a veritable declaration of independence from Church teaching. Superficially, the main teaching in question is contraception. But disagreement about artificial birth control is not really the heart of the matter. What is at stake is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the family.

Now, it is possible that other mainstream reporters will take time to dig into this very significant 50th anniversary. Trust me, there are plenty of folks on both the Catholic left and right who would like to discuss Humanae Vitae (full text here).

It would be easy to use, as a news peg in a report on this anniversary, the upcoming Vatican World Meeting of Families, a gathering led by Cardinal Kevin Farrell.

That's a strong news hook for journalists to consider, but here is another. Ferrell is a longtime colleague and associate of Cardinal Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick. (Check out this Rod Dreher analysis of Farrell's episcopal coat of arms, with its symbolic salutes to McCarrick's role in his ministry and career).

Just saying.

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