Clemente Lisi

It's time for journalists to ask: What has happened to the Vatican press office?

It's time for journalists to ask: What has happened to the Vatican press office?

Let’s start with a loaded question. But it’s a questions that journalists really need to ask, because of trends during recent events in Catholic life.

So here goes: Is the Vatican’s press office helping to push a progressive agenda that could forever change the Catholic church?

Here’s the background: The Pan-Amazonian Synod that ended over a week ago wasn’t without controversy, to say the least. The recommendations put forth regarding bestowing Holy Orders to women in the form of making them deacons is something Pope Francis has to make a decision on by the end of the year. Toss in the theological debate over the Pachamama statues present at the Vatican and at a nearby Rome church and there was no shortage of fodder for reporters and columnists.

That takes us to the Vatican’s press office, the people on the front lines of getting out the pope’s message to the world’s media.

Like the White House in the age of Trump, so too does the Holy See’s messaging need some further examination. Former White House Press Secretaries Sean Spicer, followed by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, were all placed under the news media’s microscope for their statements and actions — and rightly so. The PR men and women behind Francis also deserve similar examination by the press.

Long gone are the days of Joaquin Navarro Valls. A “suave, silver-haired Spaniard,” as the Los Angeles Times described him in their 2017 obituary, Valls was both a close confidant of Pope John Paul II and served for more than two decades as chief Vatican spokesman. He defined what it was to be the pope’s press man. And he defended church teachings while doing it.

Navarro-Valls, a lay member of the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, had worked as a foreign correspondent for the Spanish newspaper ABC when the Polish pope offered him the job as director of the Vatican press office. He was the first journalist to hold the post. He was the right man at the right time for a globe-trotting pope at a time when mass media was growing.

Fast-forward to the present. The backlash to Francis by traditionalists is based on convictions that he has politicized the church, wanting to transform it into a social service agency.

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Catholicism at doctrinal crossroads: Three takeaways from tense Amazonian Synod

Catholicism at doctrinal crossroads: Three takeaways from tense Amazonian Synod

It’s been one very busy month at the Vatican. The three-week Pan-Amazon Synod that came to a conclusion this past Sunday in Rome could very well mark the beginning of some major changes within Roman Catholicism.

The battle for the future doctrinal direction of the church was played out among the bishops and others who participated in the synod aimed at addressing issues affecting Catholicism in a region that encompasses a great swath of South America. This synod, however, is likely to have ramifications that will impact the global church. Both conservative and progressive Catholics agree on that.

“We are a bit like tax collectors because we are sinners, and a bit Pharisees because we are presumptuous, able to justify ourselves, masters of the art of self-justification,” Pope Francis said during his homily this past Sunday to close the synod. “This may often work with ourselves — but not with God.”

Those comments underscore the fractious nature of the synod. Indeed, the gathering wasn’t without controversy.

Even before the synod got underway, there were disputes between progressive and conservative factions about the recommendations the synod could ultimately put forth. Some traditionalists warned that any acceptance on the part of Pope Francis to do away with priestly celibacy, a part of the Latin Rite for over a millennium, was heresy.

The synod released a list of recommendations this past Saturday, after three weeks that included debate owner whether married men should become priests (to address the shortage of ordinations in the region) and whether women could be ordained to serve as modern deacons. External forces also played a role in the debate, including a series of missteps by the Vatican press office highlighted by the controversy over wooden Pachamama idols (dumped in the nearby Tiber River and later recovered) that had originally been placed in a Rome church.

Like the press coverage regarding impeachment swirling around the actions of President Donald Trump, so too has the synod been plagued by such partisan bickering in the media. In the case of the synod, conservative websites such as EWTN focused on certain aspects, while the ones on the progressive end of the spectrum, like America magazine, celebrated the changes.

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Nothing scarier than the press ignoring Catholicism in all of those Halloween features

Nothing scarier than the press ignoring Catholicism in all of those Halloween features

It’s Halloween season. You may have noticed that by walking on the streets near your home and encountering those all-too-familiar garish orange-and-black decorations. Then again, maybe you have visited stores with shelves packed with bags and bags of candy and scary kids’ costumes.

This is also a time when some Catholic churches advertise Halloween get-togethers or parties for children and their families. That’s a reminder that Halloween and religion aren’t such strange bedfellows.

It’s also the time when newspapers and websites start rolling out those often predictable Halloween stories. The reason for this is two-fold.

First, journalists need to find a “news hook” when doing a story. As part of the five Ws — who, what, when, where and why — the reason for doing the story is often answered in the why. Timeliness is a major reason for why a story is being done at this moment in time. It’s the reason why this very piece you are reading is being posted at this moment in time.  

Second, the internet has impacted news coverage in all the ways some of you already know. One big way has been in the use of “keywords” and “algorithms.” All news organizations with a website rely on these two for clicks (readers, that is) and the little money from advertising that they can reap from those page views. Halloween is one of the most-searched words during October. It’s a word that trends on Twitter. Therefore, content is created for this very purpose.   

That sets up my point: Halloween stories are popping up this month because or both timeliness and SEO (Search Engine Optimization, the function that helps you find stories when you use a search engine). It’s this process by which keywords appear in headlines that readers can access them on Google News.

It’s the content in these Halloween stories, however, that often lacks a religion angle.

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Chaput-Martin feud a case study in news media misrepresentation of Catholic teachings

Chaput-Martin feud a case study in news media misrepresentation of Catholic teachings

Who is made a cardinal — and who isn’t — can sometimes be loaded with intrigue. It’s why the Vatican (and much of the Catholic church) is covered more like a political institution (akin to the White House and Congress) and less like it’s part of a global religion. It is this dangerous tendency, largely on the part of the secular press, to reduce most theological positions to political ones that has fueled divisions within the Catholic church during the era of Pope Francis.

For everyday Catholics, the ties to the Vatican are religious, not political. Like Mecca for Muslims and Jerusalem for Jews (and Muslims), Rome is a place of pilgrimage and prayer. Everyday Catholics don’t concern themselves with the backroom politics. The consistory of this past Saturday (where Pope Francis “created” 13 new cardinals) wasn’t a part of Mass or discussion among parishioners in my church the past few weeks. The attitude generally seems to be that these cardinals don’t really affect our lives.

Or do they?

They do. Those chosen to take part in the Amazon Synod taking place at the Vatican starting this week are a good example of this. These men not only elect the next pope, they also guide the flock in their particular metropolitan areas. They help set the agenda. They can influence local and national politics. In other words, they are a big deal. And most metropolitan newspapers, large and small, in this country cover them that way. This is big news, no matter how your define that.

It wasn’t lost on The New York Times, who was giddy in this news story about Pope Francis’ legacy that ran on the eve of the consistory. Add to that this fawning opinion piece posted to the website on the same day under the headline “Pope Francis Is Fearless.” The subhead, on the newspaper’s website, read like this: “His papacy has been a consistent rebuke to American culture-war Christianity in politics.”

This takes us to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and why who will replace him matters. It’s the best example of the fight currently going on between those on the doctrinal left and right.

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Hail Mary passes and Lombardi in daily Mass: Catholicism ignored in NFL 100 coverage

Hail Mary passes and Lombardi in daily Mass: Catholicism ignored in NFL 100 coverage

The NFL turns 100 this season. You may have noticed the “100” anniversary logo on footballs, jerseys and in TV commercials. You may have noticed all of those Peyton Manning mini-documentaries.

This anniversary has also given newspapers, sports sites and TV stations a chance to look back at the players and coaches who made NFL history.

Exactly what is included in those histories matters. Mentioning statistics, great plays, Super Bowl performances and impact on the sport are all a given. What about what players and coaches believed? What about their motivations? es, how about religion and the impact it left on the game? These are very important questions that have not been answered fully (or some cases even explored) in many of the retrospectives that have been rolled out this season.

Football and religion are not such strange bedfellows. The league has been — and currently is — loaded with outspoken Christians. Evangelicals have included Tim Tebow, Kurt Warner, Reggie White, Tony Dungy, Nick Foles and Carson Wentz. There have also been some prominent men who also happen to be devout Roman Catholics to make gridiron history. Harrison Butker, Matt Birk, Philip Rivers, Don Shula, Roger Staubach and Vince Lombardi are a few notable ones.

Before players took a knee to protest the national anthem, it wasn’t so unusual to see them praying before the opening kickoff. And, of course, some of those kneeling protesters have been praying.

It’s the faith of some of these men that has been overlooked — whether intentionally or not — in the “NFL 100” celebrations. Let’s look specifically at Lombardi, the great Green Bay Packers coach.

Under Lombardi, the team won five NFL championships in a span of just seven years during the 1960s (including three in a row). Those victories also included winning the first two Super Bowls. After all, Super Bowl champions are presented with the Lombardi trophy.

Lombardi isn’t only arguably the best coach in NFL history, but he was a devout Catholic who wasn’t shy about his faith. Major mainstream newspapers and TV networks have largely ignored the Lombardi faith angle.

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While Catholic Twitter rages, Cardinal Sarah takes a sobering look at modern church

While Catholic Twitter rages, Cardinal Sarah takes a sobering look at modern church

The West is in spiritual decline.

The Catholic church is besieged by scandal.

Society has become more secular and less religious, a collapse that can be solved through prayer.

Those are some of the takeaways from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book “The Day is Now Far Spent,” in which he pulls no punches about what he thinks currently ails Europe, the place where Christianity once prospered. Sarah’s diagnosis for what ails the world, but primarily the West, is deeply profound — controversial to some even — and his solutions are equally noteworthy.

“Christians are trembling, wavering, doubting,” Sarah says in the 349-page book. “I want this book to be for them. To tell them: do not doubt! Hold fast to doctrine! Hold fast to prayer! I want this book to strengthen Christians and priests.”

This book is a major statement by a cardinal whose work on theology and liturgy was at the heart of the Pope Benedict XVI era. His voice is hard to ignore and, for journalists, represents an orthodox critique of current trends, but one with more clout than angry voices in the latest storm in Catholic Twitter.

The book, translated from French and released by Ignatius Press, does just that. Before he can offer hope, Sarah outlines what he calls “the crisis of faith.” In a series of interviews with French journalist Nicolas Diat, Sarah discusses how seeking salvation is something that has been lost these days.

“Doctrinal and moral confusion is reaching its height,” Sarah writes. “Evil is good, good is evil. Man no longer feels any need to be saved. The loss of the sense of salvation is the consequence of the loss of the transcendence of God.”  

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Mainstream press should look at McCarrick (not conservative Catholics) if there's a schism

Mainstream press should look at McCarrick (not conservative Catholics) if there's a schism

Political polarization is nothing new. What about religious polarization? When it comes to matters of faith, specifically the Catholic church and its doctrines, there’s plenty of it these days.

You wouldn’t think there would be much divergence here since adherence to what the church teaches — through the Catechism and centuries of tradition on an array of issues — is the basis for being a member of the Church of Rome. Instead, there is divergence and not just among those sitting in the pews. It’s become all too evident among members of the hierarchy.

To say that the church is at a crossroads isn’t an exaggeration. But fierce arguments between the doctrinal left and right on a host of issues — from Pope Francis’ recent choice of cardinals to how clergy address social issues — are as intense as ever.

But here is the headline right now: Pope Francis has even dared to use a ecclesiastical s-word.”

Yes, that would be schism. That was prompted by a question from The New York Times' Jason Horowitz following the pope’s recent Africa trip. In reporting the Sept. 10 story, Horowitz includes this bit of background :

Critics of Francis, must notably Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been repeatedly demoted by Francis, have argued that Francis’ emphasis on inclusiveness, and his loose approach to church law have confused the faithful on a range of doctrinal issues, from divorce to homosexuality. That critique is frequently aired, in sometimes furious language, on conservative American Catholic television channels and websites.

A former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, who demanded the pope’s resignation last year, has been hailed as a hero in some of those circles. Bishop Viganò has in part blamed the child sex abuse crisis on Francis’ tolerance for homosexuals in the priesthood, despite the scandal having first festered and exploded under his conservative predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

Some of Francis’ closest allies have in recent months publicly said that he is the target of a conspiracy by conservative enemies who are threatened by the more pastoral direction that he has taken the church. One close adviser, Antonio Spadaro, a prominent Jesuit who edits the Vatican-vetted magazine, Civiltà Cattolica, has accused American Catholic ultraconservatives of making an unholy alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians to help President Trump.

Yes, politics has crept into this divide. But why focus on Catholic media as the source of the discord?

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Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Looking back at the events on Sept. 11 and its aftermath requires looking back into time and also looking within, deep into the mind, the heart and the soul.

If it’s true that time heals all wounds, 9/11 could be the exception to that adage. As a reporter for the New York Post that day, I was a witness to the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

How did I feel? What did 9/11 do to me? How did it affect the way I did my job? These are all questions I get from students each time I do a talk about the attacks.

Looking back on 18 years ago, I remember feeling angry at God. Had He allowed for this to happen? I yearned for the answer to that question. I looked to my church (I am a Roman Catholic) for adequate ways to quell my inner frustrations. I recall saying a prayer the morning after the attacks on my way to work. It was my way of trying to find some inner peace.

So I am looking back on that stunning day as a journalist and as a Christian.

The entire time, I had a job to do. I had to divide the personal from the professional. Never in my life has that been so hard to do. It wasn’t until three days later, after hearing Billy Graham speak, did I feel more at ease with what had happened. It helped me make sense of the brokenness.

Indeed, one of my first reactions had been, “God, how could you let this happen?” Of course, God didn’t let this happen. What happened that day was pure evil, the work of Islamic militants who had perverted their religion to justify death. It was the good that would later come out of the tragedy, the stories of heroism and sacrifice, that reflected God’s love.

In the weeks that followed, I covered dozens of funerals, primarily those of firefighters. I found those funeral masses both extremely sad and comforting. I participated in them. When I wasn’t taking down notes and interviewing grieving family members, I remember praying along within everyone else at each one of those services. I was grieving along with everyone else.

There was, you see, no way around the faith elements in this event and this story. That was part of the pain, as well as the basic facts.

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Don’t forget about the role of Catholicism in those ‘Back to School’ stories

Don’t forget about the role of Catholicism in those ‘Back to School’ stories

It’s back to school time. For much of the country, Labor Day officially signaled the end of those lazy summer beach days. Students of all ages across the country are again worried about grades and homework. For many, school began a few weeks ago.

In the Northeast, where most of the major news organizations are located, schools opens this week. That means readers are seeing lots of back-to-school stories.

These features typically range from the mundane (which notebooks are in style this year) to scary (involving enhanced security following a summer of mass shootings). There are also plenty of stories regarding the cost of books and supplies — something that seem to rise in cost each year.

In New York City, where I live, there are roughly 1.1 million students who attend public school when counting kindergarten through high school. Students who attend private schools and Charter ones make up about a quarter of the total number of the 1.24 million children who call one of the city’s five borough’s home.

That’s a significant part of the larger story. Yet Catholic schools — religious schools in general — are usually lost in the back-to-school news frenzy.

The bottom line: The Catholic church has done a lot for education in New York and indeed across the country and around the world. Catholic schools don’t get much coverage — in New York or elsewhere — unless the news involves clergy sex abuse.  

That’s unfortunate because Catholic education continues to be an important resource and major factor in the lives of so many families. As we approach the start of school, here are a few story ideas editors and education beat reporters should ponder:

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