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Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Back in the religion-beat Good Old Days — roughly 1985-95 or hereabouts — religion-beat professionals in most American newsrooms could count on getting travel-budget money to cover at least two major events every year.

That would be the annual summer meeting of the national Southern Baptist Convention — prime years in the denomination’s civil-war era — and a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, where some progressives were wrestling with Pope St. John Paul II and there were rumblings about a massive sexual-abuse scandal among priests and bishops.

Along with meetings of the Religion Newswriters Association, these were the dates on the calendars when the pros could get together and talk shop over a few modest meals/drinks on the company dime.

Well, those meetings roll on, of course, and continue to make news. A few reporters get to attend these major events, since they represent newsrooms that are (a) still quite large, (b) led by wise editors or (c) both. Lots of others scribes (speaking for a friend) catch key moments via streaming video, smartphone connections and transcripts of major speeches and debates.

With that in mind, here is a double-dose of weekend think-piece material linked to these two events which will take place in the next week or so in Birmingham, Ala., and Baltimore. Some people get barbecue and some get crab cakes.

First up, an essay by a key SBC voice, the Rev. Russell Moore of Beltway land, entitled: “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Southern Baptists.” There are some important topics early on (“Westboro Baptist Church isn’t one of us” and “There are some things in our past we’re ashamed of”) but the most important info comes near the end, in terms of topics currently in the news. For example:

#8. We’re more ethnically diverse than you might think.

Among the fastest growing demographics in the Southern Baptist life are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American congregations. The most vibrant of our churches often include many languages and ethnic groups.

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Some blunt Leon Podles comments on Benedict XVI's statement on sex-abuse crisis

Some blunt Leon Podles comments on Benedict XVI's statement on sex-abuse crisis

It isn’t everyday that you get to point readers toward a think piece written by a pope, even if we are talking about a retired pope, in this case.

It also helps that retired Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the hottest of hot-button topics in Catholic life — the ongoing scandal of Catholic priests sexually abusing children, with the vast majority of the victims being teen-aged males. That has created all kinds of hot topics to debate or to attempt to avoid debating.

Reactions to the letter have been predictable, to say the least, renewing discussions of the church of Pope Francis and the church of Pope Benedict XVI. The same has been true in the press, with this New York Times story being so predictable that, at times, it verges on self-parody. This Washington Post story hows evidence that reporters tried to gather cheers and boos that were linked to the crucial passages in the retired pope’s text. Here’s the Post overture:

ROME — Breaking years of silence on major church affairs, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written a lengthy letter devoted to clerical sex abuse in which he attributes the crisis to a breakdown of church and societal moral teaching and says he felt compelled to assist “in this difficult hour.”

The 6,000-word letter, written for a small German Catholic publication and published in translation by other outlets Thursday, laments the secularization of the West, decries the 1960s sexual revolution and describes seminaries that became filled during that period with “homosexual cliques.”

It helps, of course, to read the actual text of “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse.” Click here for an English translation, care of Catholic News Agency.

The key is that Benedict — returning to a theme voiced throughout his long public life — warns believers that they are living in an age in which the basics of Christian faith are under attack (even in seminaries). Thus, Christians in a smaller, embattled, church must be prepared to get back to the basics of doctrine and sacraments. Just going to Mass will not be enough. Note this passage:

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'Pope is the sole legislator' -- Real lives, real cover-ups, overshadow global abuse summit

'Pope is the sole legislator' -- Real lives, real cover-ups, overshadow global abuse summit

Catholic shepherds from around the world gathered at the Vatican to talk about clergy sexual abuse, surrounded by journalists and victims asking lots of questions.

In the end, the only words that will matter — in terms of shaping life in Catholic institutions rocked by decades of scandal — will come from Pope Francis himself, aided by the close circle of cardinals and aides who helped plan this much-anticipated summit and kept it focused on a narrow and relatively safe subject — the abuse of “children.”

In other words, this painful puzzle will be solved by the men who have been in charge all along, including some men involved in the long and complicated career of former cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. That’s all Catholics around the world are going to get, for now.

You can sense the anticlimax in the first lines of this wrap-up report from The New York Times:

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis ended a landmark Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse by calling “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and insisting that the church needed to protect children “from ravenous wolves.”

But for all the vivid language and the vow “to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission,” the pope’s speech was short on the sort of detailed battle plan demanded by many Catholics around the world.

Francis had barely finished speaking before some abuse victims and other frustrated faithful began expressing outrage and disappointment at his failure to outline immediate and concrete steps to address the problem.

After spending most of this weekend swimming upstream in the coverage from Rome (along with early #hashtagconfusion news from the United Methodist LGBTQ conference), I actually think that the most important story was a blockbuster Associated Press report from veteran Nicole Winfield.

This story focused on two topics that the principalities and powers in Rome worked so hard to keep out of the headlines — seminarians and the pope’s on connections to the issue of episcopal oversight.

The headline on this story at US News & World Report captured the timing issue: “Argentine Bishop's Case Overshadows Pope's Sex Abuse Summit.” Here’s the overture:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis may have wrapped up his clergy sex abuse prevention summit at the Vatican, but a scandal over an Argentine bishop close to him is only gaining steam.

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What do we know? Drum chants 3.0 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (updated)

What do we know? Drum chants 3.0 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (updated)

So what else happened after the 2019 March for Life?

At this point, do new developments matter? What are the odds of journalists managing to cover them in a calm, professional manner?

However, I think it’s crucial to keep paying attention and asking practical journalism questions.

So with that in mind, let’s turn to the Catholic News Agency — yes, a conservative Catholic news outlet — report about a tense confrontation at the faith’s most symbolic site in Washington, D.C. Here’s the overture:

While chanting and playing ceremonial drums, a group of Native American rights activists reportedly led by Nathan Phillips attempted Jan. 19 to enter Washington, D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during a Saturday evening Mass.

The group of 20 demonstrators was stopped by shrine security as it tried to enter the church during its 5:15 pm Vigil Mass, according to a shrine security guard on duty during the Mass.

“It was really upsetting,” the guard told CNA.

“There were about twenty people trying to get in, we had to lock the doors and everything.”

The key phrase, of course, is this one — “reportedly led by Nathan Phillips.”

In light of the ongoing journalism train wreck surrounding the confrontation between Phillips and students from Covington (Ken.) Catholic High School, it’s totally valid to ask questions about sourcing on volatile information such as this.

What’s going on? If you read carefully, it appears that the “reportedly” reference is to draw a distinction between information that is clearly shown on videotape and information drawn from eyewitnesses.

Normally, journalists place a high degree of trust in eyewitness accounts — especially the testimony of participants in an event. However, these are not normal times.

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Another big story from alternative Catholic press: Cupich and Wuerl teamed up on what?

Another big story from alternative Catholic press: Cupich and Wuerl teamed up on what?

When I was breaking into the mainstream religion-news biz — soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust — the words “church press” basically meant one thing.

It meant working for the news office in a denomination’s headquarters or, perhaps, in the outreach office of a religious non-profit. In other words, it was one step from the world of public relations.

As the old saying goes: It’s hard to cover a war when a general is signing your paycheck.

However, the Internet has — year after year — been blurring many of these lines. The denominational press is still out there, but so are lots of non-profit publications that offer an often dizzying mix of commentary and factual news.

This is especially true for reporters covering Catholic news. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted the other day, referring to developments on scandals surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick:

The growth of conservative Catholic outlets, for example, and their ability to break stories against “Uncle Ted” has coincided with the internal struggle contrasting what traditionalists see as inadequate news coverage from the mainstream media regarding Pope Francis’ leadership. Filling that void are conservative journalists and bloggers on a mission to expose what they see as the Vatican’s progressive hierarchy.

In 2002, an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by clergy never before reported to civil authorities (click here for links). These days, accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church are being exposed by smaller news organizations. No longer are mainstream outlets setting the pace here.

Yes, he stressed developments on the pro-Catechism side of Catholic life. Why? Well, there has always been a lively market for Catholic news and commentary coming from the doctrinal, cultural and, yes, political left. The assumption was that official Catholic news offices would be defending the doctrinal fort.

This is no longer a safe assumption. Take a look, for example, at that “trusted” list of Catholic news outlets (at the top of this post), produced the other day by Father Thomas Rosica, head of the Salt & Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada. Notice any patterns in this list? Any obvious holes?

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Pope in DC: Ssssshhhh! Francis also slipped away to visit the Little Sisters of the Poor

Pope in DC: Ssssshhhh! Francis also slipped away to visit the Little Sisters of the Poor

Whenever the pope -- any pope, at any point in time -- comes to town, the visit generates thousands of words of content from speeches, homilies, remarks by dignitaries and in reactions from Catholics and others on the street. It's a classic case of the big journalism question: OK. What's the news here? What goes at the top of the main story?

Throw in the superstar status Pope Francis currently enjoys with the mainstream press and this question becomes even more important.

In an early report on the pope's packed day in D.C., The Washington Post took a safe and responsible tact -- casting a broad net over a host of issues.

But what if, at the end of the day, Francis added a new and unexpected event to his calendar, one linked to issues that have dominated U.S. headlines this past year both at the U.S. Supreme Court and in Congress? Would that event be worthy of prime coverage? Hold. That. Thought.

First, here is how the Post opened an early version of its summary story:

A fast-moving Pope Francis plunged into his first U.S. visit with gusto Wednesday, embracing the adulation of jubilant crowds as he crisscrossed Washington and confronted enduring controversies that included global warming, immigration and the clergy abuse scandal.
The popular pontiff, who has captured the imagination of religious and secular Americans with his humble style, began to establish an in-the-flesh identity as a committed champion of the poor, the dispossessed and the planet. But he also positioned himself as a loyal adherent of church teachings and hierarchies that are much less popular than he is, pushing back, Vatican watchers said, on efforts to enlist him on either side of the culture wars.
The pope thrilled a White House gathering by introducing himself as the son of immigrants and aligning himself with President Obama’s climate-change efforts. But he also echoed the call for religious liberty that conservatives claim as resistance to same-sex marriage and other fast-changing social mores.

Lots of content, touching on many topics. However, at the end of the day Francis himself added a highly symbolic grace note -- slipping away to meet with members of the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order dedicated to helping the poor and elderly.

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