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Down memory lane: A brief history of Catholic leaks that made news

Down memory lane: A brief history of Catholic leaks that made news

This is another of those religion beat nostalgia Memos, inspired by a pretty sensational March 22 scoop  in America magazine from its Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell. He reported the precise number of votes for all 22 candidates on the first ballot when the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis in 2013.  

The cardinals’ first round usually scatters votes across assorted friends and favorite sons, but a telltale pattern appeared immediately. The Italian favorite, Angelo Scola, got only 30 votes, with the eventual winner, Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, close behind at 26 and Canadian Marc Ouellet at 22. In a major surprise, Boston’s Sean O’Malley was fourth with 10 votes, and New York’s Timothy Dolan got two. Clearly, the electors would forsake not just Italy but the Old World entirely and choose the Western Hemisphere’s first pontiff .

As so often occurs, the Washington Post immediately grabbed an important religion story that other media missed, with Michelle Boorstein adding a beat specialist’s knowing perspective (behind pay wall).

O’Connell likewise demonstrates the virtues of specialization. He has worked the Vatican beat for various Catholic periodicals since 1985, a task that requires long-term cultivation of prelates who spill secrets. (Or did his wife, a Vatican correspondent from the pope’s homeland, acquire this leak?)

Adding to the intrigue, in papal elections each cardinal must take a solemn oath before God to maintain strict secrecy on everything that occurred, under pain of excommunication.

Yet O’Connell’s oath-busting leak appeared in a magazine of Francis’s own religious order, the Jesuits.  The article was excerpted from “The Election of Pope Francis,” O’Connell’s fuller version to be published April 24 by  another Catholic entity, the Maryknoll order’s Orbis Books.

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#BishopsToo has arrived? Let's see what happens at Vatican 'World Meeting of Families'

#BishopsToo has arrived? Let's see what happens at Vatican 'World Meeting of Families'

It has always been hard for religion-beat pros to convince editors to open the newsroom checkbook to back coverage of a story on the other side of the country or somewhere on the other side of the world. It's even harder today, with the horrifying economic crisis that shaking newsrooms in the age of Facebook, Google and the digital advertising pirates.

The key is to be able to link an event to a really big, really hot topic in the news. Why? That's one of the big ideas in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Let's cut to the chase: Newsroom managers! Who wants to say "Yes!" to sending a skilled religion-beat professional to cover the Vatican's World Meeting of Families, which will be held Aug. 21-26 in Dublin, Ireland?

Yes, Pope Francis will be there. But it also helps to know that this gathering -- "The Gospel of the Family, Joy for the World" -- is being run by the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Note that ecclesiastical office is led by Cardinal Kevin Farrell. That's a name that has been in the news quite a bit because of he is the former auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., where he served alongside his mentor Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Editors should note that this is "Uncle Ted" -- the cardinal at the heart of the current firestorm about accusations that he sexually abused young boys and teens, as well as decades worth of seminarians and young priests

This is the same cardinal who has been given credit for helping several other U.S. Catholic leaders -- in addition to Cardinal Farrell -- win their red hats. This is the same Cardinal McCarrick who, in a remarkable speech in 2013, described his (wink, wink) behind-the-scenes role in helping elect Pope Francis.

Hey editors: Need another news hook before you write that check? 

One of the major topics at this conference will be how the church relates to young people. It's hard to imagine that decades worth of scandals linked to clergy abuse of children and teens will not be discussed. That sounds like a news hook, to me. 

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Sally Quinn and her ghosts: A memoir about magic, sex, spirituality and the religion beat

Sally Quinn and her ghosts: A memoir about magic, sex, spirituality and the religion beat

Now this is what the DC chattering classes desperately needed right now -- something to talk about other than President Donald Trump and his wife's controversial choices in footwear.

If you have followed post-1960s life in Washington, D.C., you will not be surprised that the person in the center of this hurricane of whispers is none other than journalist and social maven Sally Quinn. Yes, we're talking about the much-talked-about lover and much-younger wife of the great Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

Once the most feared "New Journalism" scribe covering DC social life, Quinn later used her personal charisma and clout to create the "On Faith" blog at the Post -- opening a window into the religious beliefs of her corner of the DC establishment. Hint: Mysterious progressive faith is good, traditional forms of religion are bad, bad, bad. Meanwhile, the former atheist became -- in her public persona -- a rather visible Episcopalian.

Now she is tweaking that image with a spiritual memoir entitled "Finding Magic" in which, in the words of a must-read Washingtonian profile, the "gatekeeper of Washington society turned religion columnist and about-to-turn evangelist for mysticism, magic, and the divine."

Journalists reading this profile will marvel at the personal details. However, it's also important to keep remembering that Quinn -- during some crucial years -- served as a major influence on religion-beat debates. My take on her approach: Why focus on hard news when everyone knows that religion is really about emotions, feelings and personal experiences?

OK, back to the Washingtonian article itself, which details the degree to which Quinn has decided to let her "spiritual freak flag fly." The summary statement is:

It’s a spiritual memoir, called Finding Magic, that charts her path from “angry atheist” to -- well, Quinn’s spiritual classification is a bit hard to define, even for her. A sort of Eat Pray Love for the This Town set, the memoir offers an intimate, at times painful look inside her exceedingly public life. There’s less glamour and cutthroat ambition, more vulnerability and personal anguish. She outs herself as a believer in the occult and as an erstwhile practitioner of voodoo, and she packs the book with moments that have made anxious friends wonder: Are you sure you want to share that?

Really? #Really.

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Are American Christians 'Gnostics' in disguise? Revisiting an odd old theory

Are American Christians 'Gnostics' in disguise? Revisiting an odd old theory

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

How do you feel about Professor Harold Bloom’s contention (1992 book) that all American religion is more Gnostic than Christian -- that Americans believe in “God and me,” which is not historic Christianity at all?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This question regards the American literary critic’s book “The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation.” When first published, many saw eccentric or crackpot thinking as Bloom contended that most Americans’ belief “masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian,” floating into Gnosticism.

One might  immediately ask, Do Catholics count?

Two of his chief examples of a supposed indigenous “American Religion” were the Southern Baptist Convention and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormonism). The two groups’ theologies are radically different from each other, and from the original “Gnostics” who were cast aside as heretics during Christianity’s early centuries.

Reactions were more favorable toward Bloom’s “The Shadow of a Great Book: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible,” published in 2011 (“a fascinating, intellectually nimble tour de force” -- Washington Post).

To begin, we should sketch what the Gnostics of ancient times actually believed, guided especially by Pheme Perkins of Boston College and the late Dutch expert Gilles Quispel. Gnosis is the Greek word for “knowledge.” There were numerous varieties, but the typical form of the faith was radically dualistic, presenting an obscure or unknown deity sharply different from the familiar and well-defined God of the Bible.

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After all the debates, the 'saint of the gutters' was officially proclaimed St. Teresa of Kolkata

After all the debates, the 'saint of the gutters' was officially proclaimed St. Teresa of Kolkata

So Mother Teresa of Calcutta is now officially St. Teresa of Kolkata.

Most of the coverage of the canonization rites played the story straight, with the joy -- and tensions -- of the day included in hard-news reports. We can let the Associated Press report that will be read by the majority of American news consumers sum up the coverage.

Oh, and tensions during the rites?

My only real criticism of the solid AP report is found right up top, when a key fact about the event was separated from its cause. Read carefully:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Elevating the "saint of the gutters" to one of the Catholic Church's highest honors, Pope Francis on Sunday praised Mother Teresa for her radical dedication to society's outcasts and her courage in shaming world leaders for the "crimes of poverty they themselves created."
An estimated 120,000 people filled St. Peter's Square for the canonization ceremony, less than half the number who turned out for her 2003 beatification. It was nevertheless the highlight of Francis' Holy Year of Mercy and quite possibly one of the defining moments of his mercy-focused papacy.

Look at that second sentence. Why the smaller crowd for this ceremony? Has enthusiasm for the cause of the tiny Albanian nun declined in the past decade?

Actually, no. Much, much later in the report there is this crucial reference.

While big, the crowd attending the canonization wasn't even half of the 300,000 who turned out for Mother Teresa's 2003 beatification celebrated by an ailing St. John Paul II. The low turnout suggested that financial belt-tightening and security fears in the wake of Islamic extremist attacks in Europe may have kept pilgrims away.

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News trends in latest numbers from Italy: What is going to happen to all those churches?

News trends in latest numbers from Italy: What is going to happen to all those churches?

Several years ago, I had a chance to go to Italy for a quick first visit. The work I was there to do involved lots of churches, naturally, and riding around in a van that seemed to pass 100 churches for every church that we went in.

For two days, I kept thinking the same thing: In a land with a sinking birthrate of about 1.40 -- that number would be lower for non-immigrant populations -- who was going to be worshiping in all of these lovely sanctuaries? You know, the whole demographics (and doctrine) is destiny equation.

This led to another thought: If there were no people to worship in these buildings, then what (Hello P.D. James) was going to happen to these treasures?

So with that in mind, reporters in the audience, look at this amazing little Religion News Service story from the other day.

ROME (RNS) -- Italy may be the spiritual home of 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church around the world, but a new poll shows only 50 percent of Italians consider themselves Catholic.
The poll, published in the liberal daily L’Unita ... challenges long-held perceptions that Italy is a ”Catholic” country, despite the popularity of Pope Francis and the historic role of the Vatican City State in the heart of Rome.

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John L. Allen, Jr., notes some behind the scenes tension about the people's pope

John L. Allen, Jr., notes some behind the scenes tension about the people's pope

So the pope's quiet little tour of the deep blue zip codes in North America's media corridor is done and now, largely behind closed doors, the 2015 Synod of Bishops in Rome is up and running.

If you read the headlines, this gathering is essentially about the moral status of homosexual relationships, attempts to modernize church teachings on divorce and, oh yeah, there is that whole family crisis thing that Pope Francis has been talking about so much (cue: yawns in offices of elite editors).

There are huge, complex topics on the docket at the Vatican right now and reporters, sitting outside the closed doors, are doing what they can to follow the action.

Naturally, one of them is Vatican veteran John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux. We give him a lot of ink around here because, frankly, he produces a lot of ink and many of this analysis pieces contain more on-the-record information than other scribes' hard-news features. And every now and then he writes something really unusual, showing readers what is going on in his mind as he looks at the bigger picture.

Consider the Crux essay that just ran under this headline: "Pope Francis is playing with house money in betting on the 2015 Synod."

The basic thesis, as I read it, is that Pope Francis is letting lots of loud, even tense, debates play out -- because he knows that in the end he has the only vote that matters. Does that sound like the "people's pope"? Meanwhile, it seems that the "teflon pope" strategy is evidence that Francis believes he can live in his own papal narrative, in part because -- at this point -- the mainstream press remains convinced that he is steering his church toward compassionate, pastoral "reform" -- which means changing many of those bad doctrines.

This led to a series of very blunt tweets from Ross Douthat of The New York Times, who is both an active Catholic and a doctrinal conservative: 

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ISIS, Palmyra and glass houses amidst the antiquities of Israel and Sicily

ISIS, Palmyra and glass houses amidst the antiquities of Israel and Sicily

I've been fortunate to spend the past couple of weeks traveling in Israel and, now, Sicily.

Religious and cultural ruins are virtually everywhere I turn, and in Israel, at least, ISIS is never far below the surface of any meaningful discussion. After all, Israel does have the Islamic State lapping at its northeast and southern borders, from where it threatens death and destruction.

Not to mention the fanatical Sunni Muslim group's attempts to become established in Israel itself. Then there's the horrific situation in Sicily involving the many thousands of North African and Middle Eastern refugees desperate to escape ISIS and a variety of other deprivations, and dying by the boatload in the process.

Which brings me to the handwringing in the Western press over what ISIS is doing in the Syrian city of Palmyra. There, ISIS is destroying priceless and, of course, irreplaceable antiquities connected to the region's pre-Islamic past.

This is despicable, the work of barbarians seeking to control minds by rewriting history to their liking. 

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State of Palestine coverage: What did pope say? What did it mean?

State of Palestine coverage: What did pope say? What did it mean?

It broke as do so many stories that burst upon the 24/7 media scene these days -- with a tweet, followed by nearly 3,000 retweets.

The Associated Press (@AP) tweeted at 9:26am -- 13 May 15: "BREAKING: Vatican officially recognizes `state of Palestine' in new treaty."

A major diplomatic step forward for Palestinians in their quest to establish an independent state, right?

Sure sounds like it. But no, although clearly another international boost for the Palestinians, it was not the groundbreaking achievement the initial Tweet implied.

That's because the Vatican actually recognized Palestine as a state in 2012. What happened this time was the Vatican referred to Palestine as a state, a reaffirmation at most, in a new treaty between the two entities concerning Church interests in the Holy Land. (The Vatican recognized Israel in 1993.)

What it was, instead, is another example of how the ultra-competitive race to be first to break news too often results in incomplete information that, for a spell, sets the journalistic world abuzz for no good reason.

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