Churches for sale: New York Times visits a sexy former Catholic sanctuary in Quebec

In case you have been on another planet for a year or two, let me state something rather obvious.

Lurking behind all of the confusion about what is and what is not "fake news" (click here for a tmatt typology on that term) is a reality that should concern journalists of all stripes. It is becoming more and more obvious that readers are having trouble telling the difference between hard news and analysis/commentary work.

For example, consider the New York Times piece that ran with this headline, "Where Churches Have Become Temples of Cheese, Fitness and Eroticism."

At the top of this piece is this label -- "Montreal Dispatch." 

Now, is that part of the headline or is that a clue to readers that this is some kind of ongoing analysis feature in which the reporter is going to be given more freedom, when it comes to using loaded language and statements of opinion?

I'll confess that I don't know. I do know that this feature is an amazing example of the GetReligion truism "demographics shape destiny and doctrine does, too." It's a great story and one that will, at this moment in time, cause further pain for Catholic readers. But there is one, for me, disturbing passage that I want journalists to think about, a bit. Hold that thought.

At the center of this piece is the sanctuary known as Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours -- which was once a Catholic parish in Montreal. Here is a long, but essential, summary of the changes that have taken place there.

The once-hallowed space, now illuminated with a giant pink chandelier, has been reinvented as the Théâtre Paradoxe at a cost of nearly $3 million in renovations. It is now host to, among other events, Led Zeppelin cover bands, Zumba lessons and fetish parties. ... And it is one of dozens of churches across Quebec that have been transformed -- into university reading rooms, luxury condominiums, cheese emporiums and upmarket fitness centers.
At another event at the church, devoted to freewheeling dance, dozens of barefoot amateur dancers filled the space and undulated in a trance-like state in front of its former altar amid drums and chanting. Two men in tank tops clasped hands and twirled each other. A woman in blue juggled three white balls, putting one on her head.
Several wooden pews were recast to build a handsome bar for alcohol-fueled banquets. The former sacristy where priests prepared for Communion is now a dressing room fit for a diva.
While the church has welcomed a “Crucifix Halloween” party featuring barely dressed, leather-clad dancers gyrating in front of a lit-up cross, its director, Gérald St-Georges, a Roman Catholic, stressed that its main function was still sacred rather than profane. It teaches former addicts, juvenile delinquents and high-school dropouts technical theater skills so that they can enter the job market.

Now, I would have liked to have known more about that altar.

It's clear -- based on comments by Catholic officials -- that these churches have been taken out of the line of duty, to say the least. But what do Catholic leaders do with altars that have been through rites that make them, literally, holy in the eyes of the church? 

When Catholic numbers are in sharp decline -- free fall, even -- some churches are going to be closed and/or sold. (I assume lots of Anglican churches are up for grabs, too.) I think some readers would like to know why, for example, the altars remain in place (if the Times piece is accurate on that point). Or is the altar gone, but the altar "area" is now a space for fun and games?

Details matter when you are dealing with sacred space.

But here is the really crucial material explaining what has happened in Montreal and in Quebec as a whole. 

The radical makeovers of Quebec churches reflect the drastic decline of the Catholic Church in a majority-Catholic Canadian province, where 95 percent of the population went to Mass in the 1950s but only 5 percent do so today.
The sharp drop in church attendance, coupled with spiraling maintenance costs, has made heritage groups, architects and the church itself think creatively to conserve historic buildings at risk of being shuttered or demolished. As of April, 547 churches in Quebec had been closed, sold or transformed, according to the Québec Religious Heritage Council.
Throughout the centuries in Quebec, the church provided health and education, and dominated life. Towering old crosses still dot hills across the province, monuments to this past.
But the church also opposed divorce, censored books and bullied women to reproduce, and in the 1960s, a generation rose in revolt, a period known as “The Quiet Revolution.”

Yes, Catholic readers, the word there -- with no attribution -- was "bullied." 

Now, in light of the very next passage, it is clear who provided this historical material.

Mr. St-Georges, 54, of the Théâtre Paradoxe, recalled being told that when his mother was ill and already had nine children, the local priest had insisted that she have a 10th: him. She died shortly thereafter.
“The clergy crossed the line into people’s private lives, so people rebelled,” he said, noting that although he worked in a former church, he no longer attended services.

Now, to be honest with you, I have no doubts (based on my studies through the years) that the world "bullied" certainly applied in some cases, in terms of how Catholic officials dealt with crisis pregnancies. However, I think that is a rather amazing summary statement, with zero material from Catholic officials, historians, etc., discussing the issues involved.

As I said: Is this a hard-news story or an analysis piece? I would have never used that term without attributing it to someone and, in a hard-news piece, I would have certainly sought out another on-the-record source to discuss this point. After all, the decline of Catholicism in this region is the cornerstone reality in this "story."

Many Catholic readers are going to be uncomfortable with this story, no matter what. I get that. But I think the subject is of great importance and parts of this story are solidly reported.

Why not nail down that crucial issue, with more than one person taking part in the discussion.

Then again, if this is a commentary piece, all bets are off.

So what are we dealing with here? Just asking.


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