Synod on the Family

New York Times pre-thumbsucker on Francis and family COULD be ... what?

New York Times pre-thumbsucker on Francis and family COULD be ... what?

So, journalists and news consumers, how do you feel about newspaper headlines published before major events that pivot on the word "could"?

As the clock ticks toward the family synods document by Pope Francis, journalists are rushing -- in what are often billed as news stories, as opposed to editorial commentary -- to tell readers all about the blockbuster doctrinal revelations that COULD be in the document.

Take this New York Times headline, for example: "How Pope Francis’ ‘Amoris Laetitia’ Could Affect Families and the Church."

In what could be an important moment for his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is scheduled to issue a major document on Friday regarding family issues. It is titled “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love.”
In the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, the pope could change church practice on thorny subjects like whether divorced Catholics who remarry without having obtained annulments can receive holy communion. He might address debates over same-sex relationships, cohabitation and polygamy, an issue in Africa. Or, he could sidestep such divisive topics and stick to broader philosophical statements.

For those who are paying close attention, that would be "could," "could, "might" and "could."

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Flashback 2015: Jewish news, an all-pope Top 10 list and trends on evangelical left

Flashback 2015: Jewish news, an all-pope Top 10 list and trends on evangelical left

OK, here is one final set of some Top 10 religion stories lists for the now distant 2015. If you have missed the previous installments, click here and then here to back up a post or two and catch up. There was also an end of the year "Crossroads" podcast.

One of the reasons that journalists dig into these kinds of lists, especially those prepared by leaders in specific religious flocks, is to learn about stories that may not have made headlines at mainstream news sites -- yet.

So here are three lists of this kind. Once again, please put any 2015 Top 10 lists that I missed in our comments pages.

We will start with A. James Rudin, a name familiar to all journalists who cover events and trends among Jews in North America and elsewhere. This Top 10 Jewish news events list was prepared for Religion News Service, but the link is to The Washington Post. You have Bernie Sanders, Nostra Aetate and a rabbi scandal or two. However, his top story is one that has been growing in importance for more than a decade, one sure to grow in importance with the rise of the Islamic State.

1. Anti-Semitic attacks escalate across Europe.
In January an Islamic terrorist killed four Jews inside a Paris kosher market, and in February a terrorist killed a synagogue guard in Copenhagen. The number of French Jews moving to Israel grew during the year.

Then there was this story, which our own Ira Rifkin flagged early on:

3. The BDS campaign gathers force.

In June, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ approved a resolution calling for the denomination to divest and boycott certain companies doing business with Israel.

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Post-Synod, what's the shape of Catholicism in the Pope Francis era?

Post-Synod, what's the shape of Catholicism in the Pope Francis era?

If readers can tear themselves away from Donald Trump and the ever-evolving Republican Party political drama, how about some old-fashioned Vatican politics?

Media chatter will continue long into the future about Rome’s October Synod of Bishops on the family. Many who closely follow such matters were probably awaiting the Synod response by George Weigel, official biographer of Pope John Paul II and probably the most influential U.S. lay voice from the staunch conservative party.

Weigel weighs in at 6,000 words in the January issue of the journal First Things. Newshounds should read this if only for his ridicule of the “mainstream media” and the blogosphere. He’s especially peeved with the Italians and reporters elsewhere who are influenced by them: “There is no fixed border between fact and fiction in Italian journalism, but only a membrane across which all sorts of material, some of it in the form of waste, flows.” Hmm. Sounds about right.

Turning to his church complaints, some involve over-centralization of power andinordinate secrecy at the Vatican. It’s fascinating to hear this sort of protest from a Catholic traditionalist. As for the substance of the Synod, like those benighted mainstreamers, Weigel portrays the event as a contest between revisionists on the divorce and gay issues, over against upholders of orthodoxy. In his interpretation, the latter side (that means his side) triumphed.

One topic to pursue for further comment is Weigel’s contention that Catholicism in northern Europe is largely in “a de facto state of schism” from the rest of the world church. True?

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Father Charamsa is back: Washington Post covers (kind of) gay debates about his photo op

Father Charamsa is back: Washington Post covers (kind of) gay debates about his photo op

Anyone who has covered Catholic news for the past couple of decades knows that, when fights begin among Catholics about doctrines linked to homosexuality, there are three essential groups of LGBT Catholics involved that reporters need to quote.

(1) Gay Catholics who are openly calling for change in church teachings, saying (usually) that the Holy Spirit is now moving to correct 2,000 years of flawed Christian doctrines.

(2) Gay Catholics who -- often because they are in key academic or ecclesiastical posts -- are quietly working behind the scenes to change church doctrines slowly over time. It's kind of the "you do what you can do" approach. Critics would call it the "stay in your church closet" approach.

(3) Gay Catholics who support Catholic doctrines on marriage and sex, including teachings on same-sex acts, even though that is a painful reminder of the sinful, fallen nature of all of God's creation (or words to that effect). Many want the church to do a much better job of listening to the real, pastoral concerns of all kinds of Catholics who struggle with sexuality issues.

This brings us to the latest news, care of The Washington Post, about the life and times of the Rev. Krzysztof Charamsa -- otherwise known as the Polish priest (he has been ordered to cease acting as a priest, but not defrocked) with a boyfriend who came out in a photo op right before the 2015 Synod of Bishops on marriage and family issues. It added extra sizzle that he worked in the very powerful Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The headline on this new Post report promises a deep dive behind the scenes of the post-Charamsa dramas: "Not all gay Catholics are pleased about how Vatican priest came out of the closet." Did the Post deliver on that?

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Kenneth Woodward on l'affaire Douthat and who is qualified to write about religion news

Kenneth Woodward on l'affaire Douthat and who is qualified to write about religion news

I admit that I have been biting my tongue during the post-Synod 2015 firestorm about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and the large army of liberal Catholic academics who have expressed their displeasure that such a theological lightweight has been allowed to comment on the Catholic faith in the world's most influential op-ed space.

Surely readers will join me in being shocked, shocked that a Times columnist has published controversial commentary about the Catholic Church. Can I get an "Amen"?

I mean, this is the same editorial setting in which a columnist named Bill Keller -- a few months after 9/11 -- compared the Catholic leadership, in the era of Pope St. John Paul II, with al-Qaeda. Readers may, or may not, recall the outcry from Catholic progressives in the wake of these words from Keller's May 4, 2002, column entitled "Is the Pope Catholic?"

What reform might mean in the church is something I leave to Catholics who care more than I do. ... But the struggle within the church is interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. That is a struggle that has given rise to great migrations (including the one that created this country) and great wars (including one we are fighting this moment against a most virulent strain of intolerance).
The Catholic Church has not, over the centuries, been a stronghold of small-c catholic values, which my dictionary defines as "broad in sympathies, tastes, or understanding; liberal." This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition.

So what happened to Keller after that theological outburst? A year later he was named executive editor of the Times.

Back to Douthat and his theological commentary about Pope Francis and the 2015 Synod of Bishops. You see, there is a journalistic issue here that affects reporters covering hard news events and trends, as well as commentary writers who are free to write their own opinions.

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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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It's thumbsucker time, after the 'tea party' bishops crash the synod on the family

It's thumbsucker time, after the 'tea party' bishops crash the synod on the family

The 2015 Synod of Bishops is over and this weekend was, as required by the traditions of journalism, dedicated to the writing of thumbsuckers.

What was the synod on the family all about? What did it mean? And most importantly, from the everything-is-politics viewpoint of most journalists, which political party won, the "reformers" who back Pope Francis and his appeals for mercy or the tea-party-like radical conservatives who want people to follow all those old church rules? 

Tea party? More on that later.

Any journalist who has ever written a summary, reaction think piece after a major event like this knows that one of the crucial questions is: Who gets the first quote? Journalists may interview dozens of people, with a variety of perspectives, but a reporter has make a choice and give someone the first quote. This choice almost always points to the thesis of the piece.

For example, consider the opening of the New York Times reaction story that was built on the reactions of New York Catholics.

People streaming into Catholic churches across New York over the weekend were struggling to understand the meaning of a statement issued by an assembly of bishops in the Vatican on the place within the church of Catholics who divorce and remarry.

And the first quote:

Ann Moore, 71, of Pittsburgh, attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan on Sunday. She expressed disgust with the bishops, who had been summoned by Pope Francis for a three-week global assembly on family issues, for not letting divorced and remarried Catholics receive communion.
“It’s wrong,” said Ms. Moore, who was in town to celebrate her daughter’s 50th birthday. “If Jesus forgave everybody, why can’t these big shots?”

This quote, for me, raised an interesting question that had been nagging me throughout the coverage of the synod.

Whatever one thinks of the Catholic Church's teachings on divorce, and how these doctrines are fleshed out at the level of pews and altars, I was struck by the fact that journalists -- at least the mainstream reporters I was reading -- were not quoting a rather authoritative source in their reports. To understand the high stakes of the battles in Rome, one really needed to hear from this particular voice of authority.

That source? That would be Jesus, as in the Gospel of Matthew:

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Washington Post offers another 'omniscient anonymous voice' clinic in synod report

Washington Post offers another 'omniscient anonymous voice' clinic in synod report

One of the most frustrating things in journalism these days (your GetReligionistas write about this all the time) is the blurring line between news and commentary.

It's not simply a matter of snarky material on Twitter by reporters about topics, institutions and people that they are also covering in hard-news stories. That's a problem, but not the biggest problem, from my point of view.

Meanwhile, I'll be honest. If I was a reporter right now, instead of a columnist and an opinion blogger, I do not know how I would handle Twitter.

No, I'm talking about the material that is actually being produced by newspapers, wire services and major news websites. Some use clear labels for "analysis" work and others do not. There are reporters who do straight news and also analysis and, at times, there are no graphics or labels to clearly tell you which is which and what is what.

Some standing online features with titles are news and some are not. There are "reported" blogs and blogs that are totally opinion. The logos often look the same to me. There are online-only features that look like news, but they are not, and people who only see certain newspapers in digital forms have no way to know which is which.

I don't think this digital swamp will be cleared up anytime soon. Still, I want to confess my frustration. This leads me to another example of a related trend, the writing style that your GetReligionistas call "omniscient anonymous voice." Here is how I described this journalistic trend in an earlier post:

Normally, hard-news journalism is written in third-person voice in past tense, with a heavy emphasis on the use of clear attributions for quoted materials, so that readers know who is speaking. That crucial "comma, space, said, space, name, period" formula is at the heart of traditional, American Model of the Press journalism.
The bottom line: It's a key element in retaining the trust of readers. Traditional journalists are, as a rule, going to tell the reader the sources for the information they are reading.

So what are we dealing with when journalists publish copy with paragraph after paragraph of material with little or no clear attribution? You know that this material has sources; but you also know these sources, for some reason, are not being cited. What does this look like?

Consider this recent story in The Washington Post.

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Crux of the synod: Are many doctrines of the Catholic faith too tough for modern Catholics?

Crux of the synod: Are many doctrines of the Catholic faith too tough for modern Catholics?

Another day, another must-mention John L. Allen, Jr., Crux think piece about the 2015 synod in Rome.

Which reminds me that, since I've been on the road for several days, I never got around to discussing his essay on how the format of these meetings, with the crucial content being shaped behind all-but closed doors, is pushing reporters into territory that makes it hard to do basic reporting. As Allen put it:

The dirty little secret is that we’re not really covering the synod at all. For the most part, we’re covering people telling us about the synod, which is an entirely different enterprise.
To actually cover the synod would mean being inside the hall during the discussions, being able to develop our own impressions of what’s being said, to gauge the reaction, to watch body language and intonation and atmosphere, and to get an overall sense of emerging themes for ourselves.
That’s how one would cover a session of Congress, for instance, or a UN summit, or any other important gathering, but that’s decidedly not how things work at a Synod of Bishops.

At the synod you have the public documents, but little direct information about how the documents came into being. At that point, reporters have to interview people who claim to know the inside stuff, but cannot talk openly. At which point readers should hear warning sirens, since sources who work like that have agendas about 99.9 percent of the time.

As a rule, your GetReligionistas try to dig into hard-news products, although we do point readers toward "think pieces" that point readers toward essays that directly focus on issues linked to mainstream religion-news coverage. Allen writes a ton of those.

So this brings me to his analysis about the winds that are swirling around the "letter-gate" controversy (coverage here), in which a circle of bishops -- precise size uncertain -- signed some version of a letter to Pope Francis in which they criticized the way this synod on family issues is being run, or directed, or steered, or undermined, or all of the above. 

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