Father Thomas Reese

Are arguments about allowing more married Catholic priests strictly left vs. right fights?

Are arguments about allowing more married Catholic priests strictly left vs. right fights?

Here is a mild complaint that I never expected to make about an elite newsroom’s coverage of a hot-button Catholic issue. The Washington Post just produced a story about married Catholic priests — “A bid to allow married priests in the Amazon ignites debate about celibacy“ — and didn’t quote Father Thomas Reese. In this case, I really think they should have quoted him.

Imagine that.

Who is Reese? He is a Jesuit who has, for several decades, been an omnipresent news source and quotable progressive Catholic insider for religion-news reporters. He writes for Religion News Service and used to write for National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of America until a 2005 clash with the Vatican on doctrinal matters. Need I say more?

So why did I miss the familiar voice of Reese in this Post report on celibacy and the ongoing shortage of Catholic priests? Here is a key chunk of this story:

One new proposal to ease the shortage would allow older, married men in the region to be ordained as priests. South American bishops have advocated for the idea, and Pope Francis has indicated some willingness to narrowly open the door to married men in this specific case. But the proposal has set off a debate about whether Francis is trying to bolster the ranks of the priesthood or upend its deep-rooted traditions.

A vocal band of conservatives says permitting married priests in the Amazon could alter — and undermine — the priesthood globally, weakening the church requirement of celibacy. …

The Amazon would not be the first exception. Married Anglican ministers, in some cases, have been welcomed into the Catholic priesthood after conversions. And Eastern Catholic churches, even those in communion with Rome, allow for married men in the priesthood.

There’s more that could be said, right there, about church history.

The key is that this new door into the priesthood could be used elsewhere. And this worries You Know Who.

… Conservatives note that the rationale for installing married clerics in the Amazon exists, too, across Europe, North America and other parts of the world, where seminaries are closing and dioceses are sharing priests.

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Friday Five: Twitter mobs, Covington Catholic controversy, ABC journalist's faith

Friday Five: Twitter mobs, Covington Catholic controversy, ABC journalist's faith

In the age of outrage, it’s hard to escape social media mobs.

People screaming from behind smartphones and keyboards feed a seemingly endless loop of headlines like this one: “Twitter rips Savannah Guthrie for 'appalling' interview with Nicholas Sandmann on 'Today.'“

Certainly, Guthrie’s interview of the Covington Catholic High School teen at the center of this past weekend’s viral videos is fair game for criticism and debate. But isn’t there a more productive way to do that than succumbing to a clickbaity “Twitter rips” approach?

What would happen if newspapers such as USA Today stopped biting or at least insisted on doing actual interviews and quoting smart sources with strong, nuanced opinions? That used to be called journalism, right?

Speaking of a better way, over at Poynter, Tom Jones makes a fair, sensible case for why “Guthrie did her best and did well.” He notes:

When you’re getting criticized from both sides, there’s a decent chance you did a good job.


Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The villains were clear — or seemed to be — in the original stories Saturday (examples here, here and here). But by Sunday, a much more complicated pictured emerged. And days later, we’re still talking about this.

There’s still time to catch up on all the excellent analysis and commentary on this subject here at GetReligion:

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Religion-beat veteran draws blood while dissecting Penn grand-jury report on clerical abuse

Religion-beat veteran draws blood while dissecting Penn grand-jury report on clerical abuse

Last weekend was complicated for me, in large part because I needed to get from East Tennessee to New York City for the first half of my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College. Throw in some interesting weather and Sunday was a long day.

So what’s the point? Well, the weekend think piece that I was planning was never posted. In this case, that really matters because this Commonweal piece was an important one, featuring a byline — a New York Times scribe from my era on the religion-beat — that offered instant credibility. And the journalism hook was strong, strong, strong — leading to a Religion News Service column from Father Thomas Reese about the massive Commonweal essay.

So let’s start with the RNS summary:

“Grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust” is how former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels describes last August’s Pennsylvania grand jury report in its sweeping accusation that Catholic bishops refused to protect children from sexual abuse.

The report from a grand jury impaneled by the Pennsylvania attorney general to investigate child sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses has revived the furor over the abuse scandal, causing the resignation of the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and inspiring similar investigations in other states.

Steinfels argues that it is an oversimplification to assert, as does the report, that “all” victims “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect abusers and their institutions above all.”

Writing in the Catholic journal Commonweal, Steinfels acknowledges the horror of clerical abuse and the terrible damage done to children, but he complains that no distinctions have been made in the grand jury report from diocese to diocese, or from one bishop’s tenure to another. All are tarred with the same brush.

Here’s a crucial theme: Steinfels noted that the report — which created a tsunami of ink in American media — failed to note the small number of abuse cases that were reported as having taken place AFTER the 2002 Dallas Charter, by clergy who are still in active ministries. The Dallas document radically changed how Catholic officials have dealt with abuse claims — at least those against priests.

The Commonweal piece is massive and it’s hard to know what sections to highlight. Journalists (assignment editors included, hopefully) are just going to have to dig in and read it all.

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The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

Journalists might tear themselves away from U.S. evangelicals’ moral entanglements with Donald Trump and Roy Moore to consider how church leaders should handle rotten regimes overseas as grist for a reflective essay.

Pope Francis’s visit to Buddhist Myanmar put this on the news docket. Beforehand, Father Thomas Reese said Francis risked “either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” so “someone should have talked him out of making this trip.”

That is, Francis might harm Myanmar’s tiny, persecuted Christian flock if he denounced the military’s campaign of rape, mass murder, arson and forced exile against Rohingya Muslims. Yet sidestepping of atrocities had already besmirched the moral stature of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The pope decided not to publicly utter the word “Rohingya” in  Myanmar,  offering only generalized human rights pleas. Only later, meeting Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, did he cite their name: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

On the flight back to Rome, Francis told reporters that naming the victims in Myanmar “would have been a door slammed in my face.” Instead, he figured keeping silent  facilitated behind-scenes “dialogue, and in this way the message arrived.” So, did he defend the Rohingya when meeting the military? “I dared say everything I wanted to say.”

Despite criticism of the papal performance from human rights activists, Reese says Francis balanced his roles of “diplomat” and “prophet” to protect Christians while lobbying in private, and it’s unlikely public attacks “would have had any effect on the military.”

That recalls perennial complaints that Pope Pius XII should have more forthrightly denounced Nazi extermination of Jews.

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Some news skills never die: An obituary writer describes life on the death beat

Some news skills never die: An obituary writer describes life on the death beat

Obituary writing is an all-important corner of the news game. We are talking “first draft of history” and all that.

A key practitioner, Bruce Weber of The New York Times, is leaving the beat following eight years and 1,000 salutes to the dear departed. With considerable charm, he recently described his odd life in news and ink.

His subjects were “famous, infamous, or as obscure as the rest of us except for one instance of memorable distinction,” the latter including a stupid airline hijacker,  some guy who shot a ballplayer, a pederast, a con artist, or an embezzler, all thrown next to honored humanitarians, statesmen, and scientists seeking to cure AIDS or cancer.  (Unfortunately, these days such “mainstream media” routinely ignore the deaths of many worthy religious leaders.)

With unanticipated deaths, pieces must be knocked out in an hour or two. But at the Times and elsewhere, important obits are planned in advance. “You can’t write the comprehensive life story of a president or a pope or a movie star in an hour or even a day,” he explains. Indeed. Five months out of college, the Religion Guy compiled a two-page obit for Delaware’s Wilmington Morning News hours after JFK died, thanks mostly to canned AP and UPI copy and our "morgue" files.  

Most periodicals will (or should) have well-prepared sendoffs for religion’s big three -- The Rev. Billy Graham, now 97 and the prime U.S. clergyman of his era; the Dalai Lama, 81, and Pope Francis, 79. With such overarching personalities the temptation is to bigfoot the task, handing it to a veteran generalist instead of the staff religion specialist.

The bottom line: The result can emphasize the politics and downplay the religion.

But the religion-news professional is a better bet due to perspective and sources.

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Thumbsucker code: Does 'dialogue with a priest' equal Catholics going to Confession?

Thumbsucker code: Does 'dialogue with a priest' equal Catholics going to Confession?

Veteran readers of GetReligion may have noticed two trends linked to this site's commentary on news coverage of a specific issue in modern Catholicism. The issue is Confession, also known as the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

News trend No. 1 is that I am convinced that the radical decline in the number of Catholics, at least in North America and the modern West, going to Confession is one of the most important, and least covered, stories on the Godbeat today. Basically, it seems that millions and millions of Catholics have lost a sense that "sin" is a word that applies to them. Thus, they see no connection between the sacrament of Confession and taking Holy Communion in the Mass. That's a huge change in the practice of the Catholic faith.

News trend No. 2 is that Pope Francis constantly talks about sin and he is constantly talking about Confession and making symbolic gestures that point to the centrality of this sacrament. The mainstream press likes to talk about his emphasis on mercy, without discussing the fact that this mercy is offered in response to repentance. Do you see this in news coverage?

To see what I am talking about, please take a look at the New York Times piece -- yes, it's another post Synod of Bishops thumbsucker -- that ran under the headline, "Catholic Paper on Family Is Hailed by All Sides, Raising Fears of Disputes." This is an interesting thumbsucker since it is a thumbsucker that appears to have been based almost totally on quotes from other thumbsuckers. It's almost a Zen kind of thing.

The key passage focuses on the most intensely debated section of the post synod report, which focuses on divorce and Holy Communion. Read this long passage carefully.

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Media treatment of Mikey Weinstein under scrutiny

Earlier today I mentioned some questions I have about this crazy “court-martial” story that blew up this week. The post is headlined “I share, you evangelize, they proselytize,” in reference to GetReligion reader Will Linden’s saying about how the same action can be described in different ways.

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