Clemente Lisi

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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'Outrage' is in the eye of the reporter: Why journalists keep ignoring anti-Catholic comedy

'Outrage' is in the eye of the reporter: Why journalists keep ignoring anti-Catholic comedy

At a time when humor is struggling with political correctness and fallout from the #MeToo movement, there’s little material for late-night hosts and stand-up comedians to work with. Of course, there’s President Donald Trump. He’s fair game given his title, ability to dominate news cycles and for his tweets.  

The other people you’re also allowed to pick on (at least from the material you see on TV) are Christians across all denominations.

Vice President Mike Pence’s perceived wholesomeness, for example, is fair game on Saturday Night Live. If he’s an evangelical (he was born and raised a Roman Catholic), then he must be a prude or a square. For example, of the 80 jokes targeting Pence on the late-night talk shows in 2017 alone, USA Today reported that “most were about his alleged dull personality, prudishness and homophobia.” The article cited a database compiled by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University.

Yes, there are real academics who are actually studying this stuff.

The other group that’s fair game are Roman Catholics — period. Jokes aimed at the clergy are so common that there’s barely a ripple of outrage in the mainstream press about this subject. Jokes about others (should a stand-up comedian venture to mock gays or other religions such as Islam) would illicit waves of news coverage about how “Twitter exploded” over the issue.

Comedy can be tough. It’s supposed to be, at times, provocative. What is problematic is how pros in the mainstream press react, or fails to react, to these statements. Censoring comedians isn’t the solution, but it is important to note when the press is “outraged” and when it isn’t.

“Twitter exploded” is the key phrase here.

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Attention reporters: Joe Biden's history with Catholicism an important element to his politics

Attention reporters: Joe Biden's history with Catholicism an important element to his politics

The 2020 presidential race is in full swing. The political press and its insatiable appetite for all things Donald Trump has subsided in as much as it needs to dedicate column space and airtime to the Democrats looking to replace him.

At last count, 20 people are running in the Democratic primary. Those include long-time frontrunners like Bernie Sanders, according to various polls and based on money raised, as well as those you may never have heard of before now like John Hickenlooper.

Overall, religion and faith, as expected, has gotten little to no coverage thus far. Only Pete Buttigieg has seen crossover coverage and that’s only because he injected his Christian faith (as a shot against Vice President Mike Pence) into the conversation.

The religion of these candidates and history with the dogma of their respective faiths — what they believe, why they believe it and, in some cases, when they changed their minds — is an issue many Americans care about. Journalists in the New York and Washington, D.C. bubbles may not think so (or even be aware of it), but the rest of the country (from the Bible Belt to the Western Plains) cares.

One candidate whose faith does need examination is Joe Biden. The former vice president has been in the news a lot recently — even before he announced a 2020 bid — but the faith angle (and his history with Catholicism over the decades) has sadly been overlooked.

For starters, Biden was born and raised a Roman Catholic. Were he to win the presidency, Biden would only be the second Catholic — after John F. Kennedy — to occupy the Oval Office. That’s no longer a big a story as when JFK did it in 1960. Nonetheless, Biden’s brand of Catholicism (past and present) is worth lots of news stories and TV segments. One can't run a Biden is running in 2020 story without including his faith and how it has influenced his life and politics.

It's true that Biden winning wouldn't make the same headlines JFK did in 1960. Or can they? After all, Catholics have come a long way in this country — both in terms of political clout and in overall population — that a Biden win wouldn't do much in the way of cementing Catholicism in any way. After all, a majority of the Supreme Court now features Catholic judges. Issues like abortion (Biden was once a pro-life Democrat) and religious freedom are at the center of the culture war being waged primarily by conservative Catholics, with help from Evangelical Christians, Mormons and other Protestants.

Overall, the Biden coverage has been devoid of any faith.

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Friday Five: Religious holidays, Notre Dame fire, declining church ties, journalist grants, Chick-fil-A

Friday Five: Religious holidays, Notre Dame fire, declining church ties, journalist grants, Chick-fil-A

It's Good Friday.

And Passover begins tonight at sundown.

Enter Greg Garrison, longtime religion writer for the Birmingham News, with informative overviews of both religious holidays.

In one piece, Garrison asks, "If Jesus suffered and died, why is it called Good Friday?"

His other helpful primer explores this question: "What is Passover?"

Be sure to check out both articles.

Now let's dive into the (Good) Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: New today, GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly has our latest post on this week’s major news.

The compelling title on tmatt’s must-read post:

Priest rushes under the flames inside Notre Dame Cathedral to save a ... STATUE of Jesus?

Over at the New York Post, former GetReligion contributor Mark Hemingway makes this case in regard to Notre Dame news coverage:

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Notre Dame in flames: What was lost? What was saved? What was 'news'? What issues remain?

Notre Dame in flames: What was lost? What was saved? What was 'news'? What issues remain?

As it turns out, Paris firefighters — apparently drawing on centuries of tradition — know quite a bit about how to save a medieval cathedral, or how to save as much of one of these unique structures as can be saved. They know more about this subject than the president of the United States does, apparently.

It will take weeks to unpack all of the stunning details of the story that unfolded before the eyes of the world yesterday in the heart of Paris. Officials are saying that it is too early to begin an in-depth investigation of what happened, but also that they are sure the fire was not an act of vandalism or worse. That’s an interesting pair of statements, right there.

Watching several hours of television coverage, it became pretty apparent that it really mattered whether newsrooms had people involved in the coverage who knew anything about Catholicism and its sacraments. It was, to be blunt, the difference between news about a fire in a symbolic building, like a museum, that is important in French culture and coverage of the near total destruction of a Catholic holy place, a cathedral, at the start of Holy Week.

Case in point: Is an ancient relic — a crown of thorns venerated for centuries as part of the one worn by Jesus — really an “artwork” that was rescued from the flames? How about a container holding what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ? Is that “artwork”? Are people praying the Rosary and singing “Ave Maria” really “in shock,” and that is that?

I could go on. But to get a sense of what happened in much of the journalism yesterday, compare these two overtures from two very important American newspapers. Guess which material was written by a team that included a religion-beat professional.

The headline on case study No. 1: “The fire at Notre Dame, a Catholic icon, was made even more heartbreaking by the timing.” The overture:

PARIS — A symbol of Paris, a triumph of Gothic architecture and one of the most visited monuments in the world, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is a beloved icon for millions across the globe. But for many in this largely Catholic country, especially for the most faithful, the medieval masterpiece is a sacred space that serves as the spiritual, as well as the cultural, heart of France.

So as it burned Monday — during Holy Week, which precedes Easter — Parisians gathered on the other side of the Seine, embers blowing onto their heads, praying and crying as they sought fellowship in their shared disbelief. As night fell, people clutched flickering candles, still praying as ochre plumes of smoke billowed in a dimming sky. The sound of hymns filled the air.

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If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?

If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story?

Is it a news story if a church is set on fire or vandalized in some other way? What about if it’s part of a string of incidents? What if it happens five times? How about 10 times?

What if there are flames pouring out of one of the world’s most iconic cathedrals and it’s Monday of Holy Week?

We will come back to the flames over Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in a moment.

The answers to the earlier questions are yes, yes, yes, yes and, of course, yes! As someone who worked as a news reporter (and later a editor) at two major metropolitan dailies (at the New York Post and New York Daily News) and a major news network website (ABC News), I can tell you that any suspicion of arson at a house of worship, for example, is a major story.

It must somehow no longer be the case in the new and frenetic world of the internet-driven, 24-hour news cycle. That’s because a major international story — one involving at least 10 acts of vandalism at Catholic churches in France — went largely unreported (underreported, really) for weeks. The vandalism included everything from Satanic symbols scrawled on walls to shattered statues.

That’s right, a rash of fires and other acts of desecration inside Catholic churches — during Lent, even — in a country with a recent history of terrorism somehow didn’t warrant any kind of attention from American news organizations. Even major news organizations, such as The Washington Post, were late to covering it and only did after running a Religion News Service story.

This brings us to Monday’s fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where a massive blaze engulfed the 12th century gothic house of worship. It’s too early to tell if this incident is part of the earlier wave of vandalism, but it certainly comes at a strange time. For now, officials say the blaze remains under investigation. The cathedral has been undergoing some renovation work and the fire may — repeat MAY — have started in one of those areas.

It would be crazy to assume there is a connection between all of these fires and acts of vandalism. It would be just as crazy for journalists not to investigate the possibility that there are connections.

There will be more to come on the Notre Dame story in the hours and days that follow and comes at the start of Holy Week, the most solemn time on the Christian calendar.

But back to my questions about the earlier string of fires and the lack of coverage.

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Friday Five: Pope emeritus news, Beto O'Rourke's holy dirt, Israel's election, religious press awards

Friday Five: Pope emeritus news, Beto O'Rourke's holy dirt, Israel's election, religious press awards

If you’ve read GetReligion for any length of time, you know we advocate fair, balanced journalism that strives to show respect for believers on both sides of hot-button debates.

Occasionally, we feel like nobody respects the American model of the press anymore.

So I was pleased this week to read an interview with a college newspaper editor-to-be who stressed the importance of seeking comments from his university’s administrators. He said:

We’re not working for them; we’re working for the student body. We have to be brave and report on what’s happening, even if they don’t cooperate. But we should always give the chance to give their side of the story.

I was particularly pleased to read that interview because it was with my son Keaton, who will serve next school year as editor in chief of Oklahoma Christian University’s Talon. Before taking on that gig, he’ll intern this summer with The Oklahoman, the major daily here in Oklahoma City. But that’s enough dad bragging for one day!

Let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: GetReligion contributor Clemente Lisi delves into “How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis.”

Lisi’s timely post is, of course, tied to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI breaking “six years of relative silence with the release of an outspoken letter on the clergy sex abuse scandal,” as NPR characterizes it.

It took awhile for the mainstream press coverage of this document to arrive, so GetReligion will keep paying attention to that. Meanwhile, see additional coverage from the National Catholic Reporter, BBC News and the Washington Post.

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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: Ongoing questions linger on who knew what and when regarding McCarrick

Catholic beat memo: Ongoing questions linger on who knew what and when regarding McCarrick

In a world where technology has forced the news cycle to speed up, the constantly-changing developments that have engulfed the Catholic church since last summer have required readers (and those on the religion beat) to wade through large amounts of information filtering through social media feeds.

Lost in all the news barrage sometimes are pieces that make you sit up and ponder the ramifications of all these sordid revelations regarding the clerical sex abuse crisis. More importantly, what are the ramifications are for the church’s hierarchy.

The big story remains who knew what and when. Who’s implicated in potentially covering up the misdeeds of now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick over the years? The implication here is that the cover-up — if that’s the word you want to use — goes beyond Pope Francis, but back in time years to when Saint Pope John Paul II was the head of the Roman Catholic church.

Last August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released an 11-page letter describing a series of events in which the Vatican — and specifically Francis — had been made aware of McCarrick’s immoral behavior years ago. Vigano claimed Pope Benedict XVI had placed restrictions on McCarrick, including not allowing him to say Mass in public. Vigano alleged that Francis reversed those sanctions. In the letter, Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the United States, said Francis “knew from at least June 23, 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator who attacked young men. He knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.”

Over the past seven months, the allegations have yielded few answers. McCarrick was recently defrocked — the church’s version of the death penalty — but little else has been made public about the timeline. A news analysis piece by veteran Vatican journalist John Allen, writing in Crux, makes some wonderful points. His piece, under the headline “Vigano may have made it harder to get to the truth on McCarrick,” has a series of wonderful strands worth the time to read. It also gives a roadmap for reporters on the beat and editors to look at and track down.

Here’s a breakdown of the piece, chopping off the various strands worthy of a deeper investigation. Right from the start, Allen gives us this thesis:

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