Catholic Church

Mainstream press still ignoring church vandalism in France -- even after Notre Dame fire

Mainstream press still ignoring church vandalism in France -- even after Notre Dame fire

It has been exactly a month since a fire destroyed the roof and spire of Notre Dame in Paris, leaving the Catholic world — and beyond — in shock over the destruction of such an important structure in Christendom and Western Civilization.

In the days and weeks that followed, we were treated to news coverage that was exceptional to the ordinary to the downright bizarre.

The insistence, for example, of The New York Times to cover the fire as if it had occurred in a museum rather than a house of worship was strange. That cable TV news made a big fuss over wealthy French companies donating to rebuild the cathedral was also a distraction. The op-ed pieces that followed were also strange. The winner in this category: Rolling Stone on how Notre Dame should be rebuilt.

All that aside, there continues to be little to no coverage when it comes to the rash of suspicious fires and vandalism that plagued French churches in the weeks before the Paris incident, which was quickly deemed unintentional by Parisian authorities. My post, which ran while the fire still burned at Notre Dame, asked a simple question: If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story? This post went viral.

The Notre Dame fire, alas, did little to shed any light — or inspire further news coverage — into the other destructive acts reported in Catholic churches across France. That many of these incidents took place during Lent made it even more of a story, a largely ignored one.

So what’s new? I am disappointed to report that very little has changed over the course of 30 days. The Notre Dame fire, although not deemed suspicious, was a perfect opportunity to jump on a story that had been largely overlooked.

Instead, one of the best pieces since the fire came from Nina Shea — director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. Shea expresses many of the same concerns I have had regarding this largely ignored trend by the U.S. press, particularly those with a global reach such as The New York Times and CNN.

Here’s what Shea noted in her May 2 post, which also ran in The National Catholic Register:

The flames that ravaged Paris’ Notre Dame riveted the world because it is a legendary, architectural masterpiece at the center of France’s capital and much of its political history. For those who track religious-freedom threats, the fire itself may be less of a surprise than that it apparently was started by accident.

Hundreds of other French churches are being quietly burned or damaged — in deliberate attacks.

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The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather, before it was an Academy-Award winning film, was a book. The crime novel, written by Mario Puzo, was released on March 10, 1969. The fictional account of Vito Corleone’s life is chronicled during a 10-year span starting in 1945.

The book’s 50th anniversary has been a great opportunity for newspapers, magazines and websites — especially the ones that cover the entertainment industry — to unleash nostalgia pieces looking back at the book and the three movies that later grew out of Puzo’s book and Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece films, the first of which was released in 1972.

Amid all the immorality, crime, violence and ultimately Michael Corleone’s final despair (for anyone who could sit through The Godfather III) isn’t just a series of mob movies. The Godfather book and movie trilogy is loaded with religious symbolism.

Anniversary journalism is a very big part of what reporters write and what Google search thrives on — so it’s important that The Godfather get the proper treatment. This is something another book/movie from that era, The Exorcist, also suffered the same lack of religion coverage.

Since Corleone (played by Marlon Brando and by Roberto De Nero in the sequel during the flashback scenes) is an immigrant from Sicily, the story’s symbolism is largely Roman Catholic. Like The Exorcist, The Godfather has suffered the same journalistic fate when it comes to lack of a religion angle. Even the book’s name, The Godfather, refers to a male godparent in the Christian tradition tied with baptism and original sin.

This is not to say the Catholic angle has been totally ignored. In 2013, The Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Atlanta diocese, ran an opinion piece by Dr. David King, an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University.

Though Coppola himself has struggled with his Catholicism, his imagination is so steeped in Catholic practice and atmosphere that he can never fully abandon the faith, any more than his greatest character Michael Corleone can. Coppola has often said that his favorite word is “hope,” and it is that sense of hope and belief in redemption that best defines “The Godfather” films as Catholic art.

King goes on to say that the films are “full of Catholic themes, including justice and mercy, fate vs. spirituality, the dialectic between family and country and community, the letter and the spirit of the law, and time and timelessness, they are also charged with a deep Catholic mise en scene, or atmosphere.”  

The Church is everywhere in “The Godfather” films: baptisms, funerals, confessions.

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Catholic beat memo: Fuzzy math and the quest to estimate the number of gay priests

Catholic beat memo: Fuzzy math and the quest to estimate the number of gay priests

There is an old newsroom saying that I have found often holds true: journalist + math = correction.

This comical equation exemplifies how often people working in newsrooms just get math wrong in their stories. From polls and surveys to trying to quantify something by way of statistics, most reporters and editors find themselves befuddled — even fooled — by numbers.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been, especially in recent years, a large number of data journalists who excel in using math in their storytelling. Overall, that remains a small number. At least, I have found that to be the case anecdotally given my circle of former colleagues who work as general assignment reporters and news editors at mainstream news outlets.

What does math have to do with the Catholic church? Well, a lot if you’re trying to quantify how many priests are gay.

These days, the story about how much homosexuality has permeated the church at all levels — from cardinals and archbishops down to parish priests — remains very much a topic of much news coverage. Just how many men in the Catholic clergy are gay? Depends who you ask and who you read. Here’s where the math can be very fuzzy, a cautionary tale to anyone covering the events of this week and the sex-abuse scandal going forward.

The scandal remains very much in the news. The defrocking of former Cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick and the upcoming Vatican’s sex-abuse summit means rehashing many past allegations, a slew of fresh ones and lots of fuzzy math. If the 2016 presidential election taught us anything, it is that polls and surveys are often not to be trusted.

Journalists keep trying to do the math. In April 2017, Slate put the number of gay U.S. priests somewhere from 15 to 50 percent, which the article points out is “much greater than the 3.8 percent of people who identify as LGBTQ in the general population.” The 15 percent the article cites comes from a 2002 poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times. The 50 percent figure comes from a figure from the same year, reported by USA Today, as coming from “some church experts estimate.”

The article doesn’t elaborate — a great example of how a number not given proper context or sourcing can be repeated without hesitation by journalists, thanks to searches with Google or LexisNexis.

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What do Valentine's Day, Jeff Bezos and Catholicism have in common? Time to read some 'explainers'

What do Valentine's Day, Jeff Bezos and Catholicism have in common? Time to read some 'explainers'

The primarily role of journalism is to inform. How that is done has dramatically changed over the past two decades. That time encompasses most of my adult life, where I worked as a reporter and later editor.

“Information overload” and “fake news” are both seen as major impediments to an educated population that can make sound decisions. Long gone are the days of my childhood when getting the morning paper and catching up on the day’s events by watching one of the evening network newscasts. We live in a frenetic 24-hour news cycle with a seemingly never-ending scroll of social media posts and constant chatter by “expert panels” on cable TV.

This takes me to my main point regarding journalism (specifically religion coverage) and how major news organizations can, and have, done a good job explaining faith. The journalistic form — commonly referred to in newsrooms as “the explainer” — has been one of the positives to come out of the digital age. It’s one that I increasingly have come to rely on when trying to make sense of a topic or ever-changing news developments that span days or even weeks.

Complex issues and topics have always been boiled down for ordinary readers to understand. After all, that’s what journalism is really all about. The same goes for understanding religion — and this is where journalism can be a wonderful tool to help people understands different belief systems, traditions, how they intersect with politics and how it impacts our culture and society. How journalists can create better explainers by using newspapers archives, social media, video — and yes, original reporting — is vital to the storytelling of the 21st century.

In explaining the Catholic church, for example, as it is repeatedly thrust into the media spotlight due to the clergy sex scandal, the abortion debate or any other topic means news websites have the vital responsibility of both informing and educating readers. Many of these readers are Roman Catholics, but most are not. Here’s where journalism is vital and a great way for reporters to delve into complex issues in addition to their news coverage of a given topic.

Take St. Valentine’s Day as an example.

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Catholic beat memo: Don't ignore facts about church tradition when reporting on priest shortage

Catholic beat memo: Don't ignore facts about church tradition when reporting on priest shortage

When I worked as an editor, I always encouraged journalists covering a particular city, town or neighborhood to get a hold of church bulletins. Why? They are packed with information and, frequently, with hooks for local stories.

The weekly bulletin that awaits me every Sunday when I enter church is one of the ways my family and I connect with the parish. It’s the place where the pastor writes a short message, offers up a schedule of events and there may even be ads from local shops.

The bulletin that greeted me on the first Sunday of this month did not feature good news. Rather, it hit close to home with information about some of the many challenges the current Roman Catholic church faces.

The clergy abuse scandals stretching back to 2002 in the Boston diocese through the present in Texas has crippled the church’s moral credibility in the eyes of many Catholics and society as a whole. Add to that a shortage of vocations that has plagued the church for decades and you have a lethal combination. With such adversity, how can the church properly serve the lives of everyday people? 

My parish priests, writing in the Feb. 3 bulletin, revealed that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio — head of the Brooklyn diocese (which covers two of New York City’s five boroughs) — informed them recently that a decision had been made to make my church a “one priest parish” later this year. It means fewer services on Sunday and more work for the sole priest now responsible for the people living in the surrounding zip codes. 

“However, it is a sign of the reality we face with the declining number of priests,” the letter said.

What is happening in my parish is an example of the struggles thousands of churches across the country now grapple with. The church sex-abuse scandal, coupled with dwindling vocations, have made priests a scarce commodity.

What’s the answer to this problem? The mainstream media’s response has been to try and get Pope Francis to talk about — and even endorse — the notion of married priests, with no regard for the Catholic church’s Roman rite traditions.

Nonetheless, when it comes to married priests, this pope has argued against lifting the celibacy requirement. One wouldn’t necessarily know that from the headlines of the past few weeks.

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Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

If we have learned anything from the clergy sex-abuse scandals that plagued the Catholic church last year — and continue to do so in the form of new revelations — was how important the religious press (especially the voices on the more conservative end of the spectrum) have tried to point out the failings of Pope Francis.

Not to be outdone, the prevailing Catholic press on the doctrinal left continues to exert a lot of influence in church politics. In other words, publications on the left are still required reading not just for Catholics, but anyone who writes about the church for mainstream news outlets.

Take the National Catholic Reporter.

Founded in 1964 (just five years after the Second Vatican Council dramatically changed the church), its aim was to bring the professional standards of secular news reporting to the press that covers Catholic news and issues. That’s all commendable — until one looks at the consistently progressive positions the bi-weekly newspaper (and its website) has espoused at a time when the church is increasingly split between liberals and conservatives.

But here is the twist. In the wake of the crises, people of faith have to deal with why they continue to identify as Catholic and what that means to them. For the first time in modern history, the pontiff’s progressive nature matches what the NCR has championed for years.

If the Catholic voices on the conservative spectrum are getting greater attention at this time, it is also worth noting that several journalistic pillars of the religious left continue to set the agenda for millions of Catholics. That includes clergy and priests as well as the laity and, by extension, politicians.

NCR has won journalistic accolades from the Catholic Press Association (of which I am a proud member) and remains one of the most important voices out there. It isn’t afraid to take on church doctrine and traditional beliefs, becoming a lightening rod for those on the right. For example, the bi-weekly newspaper’s position, in a 2014 editorial, said climate change is the most-important pro-life issue facing society. The paper is anti-Donald Trump and not shy about pointing the finger at St. Pope John Paul II’s inaction when faced with past clergy sex-abuse allegations.

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For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

Elections matter. That’s the mantra you hear from both Republicans and Democrats — usually from the side that won said election — every time a piece of legislation being pushed finds legislative obstacles and serious opposition.

The recent midterm elections saw a split decision (Dems took the House, while the GOP held the Senate), leaving the nation polarized as ever heading into the what is expected to be a political slog heading into the 2020 presidential race. With the Catholic vote split down the middle again following these recent elections, it’s worth noting that Catholics, as well as the church itself, will be tested starting in January with the start of a new legislative session from Congress down to the state level.

Indeed, elections matter. Here are three storylines editors and journalists at mainstream news outlets should look out for that will impact the church in the coming year:

Clergy sex abuse: As the scandals — that mostly took place in past — continue to trickle out in the form of grand jury reports and other investigations, look for lawmakers to try and remedy the situation for victims through legislation on the state level.

With very blue New York State voting to put Democrats in control of both the state Assembly and Senate (the GOP had maintained a slight majority), look for lawmakers to pass (and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Catholic, to sign) the Child Victims Act. The Empire State isn’t alone. Other legislatures in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey and New Mexico are considering similar measures.

The New York legislation would allow victims of abuse suffered under the age of 18 to seek justice years later as adults. Removing the statute of limitations on cases involving private institutions, like the Boy Scouts and Jewish yeshivas, is at the heart of the battle.

New York law currently prevents victims from proceeding with criminal cases once they turn 23. As we know, many victims don't come forward until years later. The church has opposed past attempts at the legislation — along with the GOP — after successful lobbying efforts by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The ability to sue the church, even many years later, could bankrupt parishes, while public schools would be immune to such penalties. Another source of contention in the legislation is the one-year “look back” window that would allow victims to bring decades-old cases to civil court.

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Castro's death: For a follow-up, Associated Press story misses big religious angles

Castro's death: For a follow-up, Associated Press story misses big religious angles

The banging pots and honking horns have faded on Miami's Calle Ocho, where Cuban-Americans noisily celebrated the death of Fidel Castro. Thus, it's time for some reflection on what it means for peace and freedom -- including freedom of religion.

So the Associated Press shows the right instinct in its Sunday story out of Miami on the aftermath of El Comandante's death. Yet it largely leaves ghostly trails in what could have offered some spiritual insights on the story.

We get early warnings of a scattershot story:

MIAMI (AP) -- Celebration turned to somber reflection and church services Sunday as Cuban-Americans in Miami largely stayed off the streets following a raucous daylong party in which thousands marked the death of Fidel Castro.
One Cuban exile car dealer, however, sought to turn the revolutionary socialist's death into a quintessential capitalist deal by offering $15,000 discounts on some models.
And on the airwaves, top aides to President-elect Donald Trump promised a hard look at the recent thaw in U.S. relations with Cuba.

Cuba, as you may or may not know, is on the watch list of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. USCIRF's 2016 report tells of increased surveillance, harassment, closure and destruction of churches there -- on a level with the likes of Russia, Malaysia, Turkey and Afghanistan.

But here is AP's version of the religious facet in this story:

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Death penalty foes are 'abolitionists,' says the Los Angeles Times -- but does the name fit?

Death penalty foes are 'abolitionists,' says the Los Angeles Times -- but does the name fit?

Are death penalty foes modern abolitionists? Some mainstream media are reaching for that innocence by association, seeking the reflected glory of the 19th century anti-slavery movement. In so doing, however, they ignore its religious nature.

Those media include the Los Angeles Times, which uses that word three times -- once in the headline -- in its follow-up on two ballot items that fought for Californians' attention along with whom they wanted for president.

Capital punishment was the focus of two ballot items in California this week. Proposition 62 would have repealed the death penalty; voters defeated it by 53.9 percent. Proposition 66 would "expedite" the penalty, with measures like referring such cases to lower courts instead of the state Supreme Court. That one was narrowly approved, by 50.9 percent.

The issue resounds beyond the borders of the nation's most populous state, as the Los Angeles Times explains:

California had been one of the most significant states to watch regarding its decision on the death penalty, legal experts said. With nearly 750 inmates awaiting execution, almost double the number in Florida, the state has the second-highest death row population in the country.
The ballot race results showed a large divide over capital punishment in keeping with national trends and followed voter decisions in favor of the death penalty in Oklahoma, which became the first to approve state constitutional protections for it, and in Nebraska, where voters overturned bipartisan legislation repealing it.

For crossfire, we hear from District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County, in favor of the death penalty. Following her is former star Mike Farrell of the M*A*S*H TV series, opposing capital punishment.  

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