U.S. Catholic bishops

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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For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

Following committee approval last week, the House of Representatives will soon vote on the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5, text here),  which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Crucially, the proposal would explicitly ban use of the conscience guarantees in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton. Only two Democratic senators voted against that 1993 act, with names like Biden, Daschle, Feinstein, Kennedy, Kerry and Leahy in the yes column.  

That’s a news story — right there. Journalists should compare such bipartisan unanimity with today’s stark party divide in this First Amendment battle, as on so many other issues. 

The clause states that the religion law “shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”

Need a local angle for coverage? Reporters will want to analyze the impact that would have upon federal funding and other benefits for colleges, health facilities and charities that hold to traditional religious teaching. Anticipate years of lawsuits and political infighting. 

The House will pass the Equality Act because it is sponsored by all but one of the majority Democrats. But a narrow defeat looks probable in the Senate, where so far Maine’s Susan Collins is the only member in the Republican majority backing the bill. Adding political fuel, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule next year on parallel questions.  

All that will play out as reporters cover voters pondering whether to re-elect President Donald Trump and keep Republican control of the Senate, thus determining appointments of federal judges and whether the Equality Act becomes law. Among Democratic candidates, Joe Biden backed a similar equality bill in 2015, and the 2019 version is endorsed by the seven others atop polls (Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren). 

The Equality Act would cover a broad array of businesses and agencies that provide goods or services to the public, forbid sexual stereotyping and make bisexuals a protected class. It would require access to rest rooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and presumably women’s shelters, on the basis of self-identified gender rather than biological gender. 

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Vatican shocks U.S. bishops, while some journalists keep tight focus on child abuse -- alone

Vatican shocks U.S. bishops, while some journalists keep tight focus on child abuse -- alone

It seems like an easy question: What are the sex scandals in the Catholic church all about?

If you look at the coverage, week after week, it’s clear that many journalists covering the latest wave of news about the scandals are still wrestling with this issue.

Obviously, the scandals center on acts of sexual abuse and harassment by Catholic clergy. The question, apparently, is this: Who are the victims? Reporters have to answer that question in order to get to the next big question: What sacred and secular laws are being broken?

After decades of following this story, and talking to activists on the Catholic left and right, the basic facts are pretty clear.

The vast majority of the victims are young males between the ages of 11 and 18. Then there are significant numbers of prepubescent victims, male and female, being abused by criminals who can accurately be called “pedophiles.” Also, there are many adult men (many are seminarians) and women involved in sexual relationships with priests and bishops, some consenting and some not. The size of this last group is assumed to be large, but there are few facts available.

With this in mind, pay close attention to the lede of the latest New York Times update on the Vatican’s shocking move to stop U.S. Catholic bishops from taking actions to discipline bishops accused of various sins and crimes.

BALTIMORE — Facing a reignited crisis of credibility over child sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States came to a meeting in Baltimore on Monday prepared to show that they could hold themselves accountable.

But in a last-minute surprise, the Vatican instructed the bishops to delay voting on a package of corrective measures until next year, when Pope Francis plans to hold a summit in Rome on the sexual abuse crisis for bishops from around the world.

Many of the more than 350 American bishops gathered in Baltimore appeared stunned when they learned of the change of plans in the first few minutes of the meeting. They had come to Baltimore wanting to prove that they had heard their parishioners’ cries of despair and calls for change. Suddenly, the Vatican appeared to be standing in the way, dealing the bishops another public relations nightmare.

What is the crisis all about? The answer, throughout this article, is “child abuse,” and that’s that.

It’s interesting to note that the article does not include references to two crucial words in this latest wave of scandal ink — “McCarrick,” as in ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — and “seminaries” or “seminarians.”

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File this away for use in 2018: Adelle Banks at RNS digs into 'Blue Christmas' rites

File this away for use in 2018: Adelle Banks at RNS digs into 'Blue Christmas' rites

A couple of decades ago, one of the best sources for religion-beat stories about church life was a researcher named Lyle Schaller.

Schaller was -- yes, this sounds a bit odd -- a United Methodist expert on evangelism. He was the rare mainline Protestant leader who was actually interested in why some churches gained members, while others were losing them.

Back in the mid-1980s, I interviewed him about the difference between so-called "Easter Christians" -- people who only show up at Easter -- and "Christmas Christians." I bring this up because of an excellent Religion News Service feature by Adelle Banks that ran the other day about churches that hold "Blue Christmas" services in the days leading up to Dec. 25. Journalists need to file this story away for future reference.

Hold that thought. First, let's return to Schaller. This is from the tribute column I wrote when Schaller died in 2015:

The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said. ...  Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?
"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."

Christmas, he stressed, was a chance for actually evangelism and healing. It has become one of the most painful times of year for many people in an America full of broken and hurting families.

The lengthy Banks feature focuses on that angle, as well as people facing Christmas after the death of a loved one. Here is the overture:

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From 'Building Bridges' to 'Building a Bridge' -- About the roots of wars over Father James Martin

From 'Building Bridges' to 'Building a Bridge' -- About the roots of wars over Father James Martin

It would be hard to name a media figure in American Catholicism who is more popular than Father James Martin, in part because he is witty, candid and concise. He understands how journalists work, pays attention to deadlines and is relentlessly cooperative.

Martin has his points to make and he makes them, both with his words and with strategic silence. If conservative Catholics want to have a constructive debate with Martin, they need to take all of this into consideration. Attack this particular priest and lots of mainstream journalists will feel like you are attacking them.

This brings us to the mini-media storm surrounding the decision by leaders of Theological College -- the National Seminary at the Catholic University of America -- to rescind a speaking invitation to Martin. While he was planning to speak about themes in his book "Jesus: A Pilgrimage," this controversy centers on Martin's most recent book, "Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity."

When you are reading news coverage of this debate there are several key points to consider.

(1) This action was taken by seminary leaders, not by the Catholic University of America. Still, CUA is the only pontifical university in the United States and has a special relationship with the U.S. Catholic bishops. As its mission statement notes, CUA was "founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country with the approval of the Holy See."

(2) Mainstream Catholic leaders have criticized Martin's book (most notably Cardinal Robert Sarah, leader of the Vatican’s liturgy office), as well as conservative groups such as the Church Militant. Were Martin's mainstream critics quoted?

(3) Martin has warmly embraced New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ advocacy group that for decades has attacked Catholic teachings on sexuality. This is crucial because the Vatican condemned New Ways in 1999 -- specifically the work of Sister Jeannine Gramick and the late Father Robert Nugent -- with its investigation focusing on their book "Building Bridges." In 2010, the president of the U.S. bishops stressed that "New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church. ..."

This controversy -- for seminary leaders -- was almost certainly linked to New Ways and the book "Building Bridges," as well as to Martin and his book "Building a Bridge." Last year, New Ways honored Martin with its annual "Bridge Building Award." Did that link make it into news coverage?

So what ended up in the Associated Press report on this controversy, the story seen in most American newspapers and in others around the world?

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Yes, the religious left exists: Can you think of a logical person (Oprah) to serve as its leader?

Yes, the religious left exists: Can you think of a logical person (Oprah) to serve as its leader?

If you asked a crowd of journalists to name two or three people who are the "faces" of the Religious Right, it's pretty easy to think of the names that would top the list.

The problem, of course, is that many of these people are either dead -- think the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly -- or they have faded from the scene, other than the occasional headline-inducing sound bite (here's looking at you, the Rev. Pat Robertson).

This knee-jerk tendency to favor the old Religious Right guard was crucial during the 2016 campaign. Why? Many elite political-beat reporters -- religion-beat pros did much better -- failed to notice that, while Donald Trump won his share of endorsements among older religious conservatives (or, well, their children), most of the rising stars on the moral right wanted little or nothing to do with him, in terms of public support.

You see, there is a problem with simplistic American political labels, when you try to stick them on religious believers. They rarely fit. While traditional religious believers tend to agree on many doctrinal issues that have political implications (think abortion, gender, the meaning of marriage), they often disagree when it comes to political solutions to problems linked to poverty, race, foreign policy, military spending, immigration, the economy, etc.

You can see this most clearly when talking about ancient forms of Christianity. Are the U.S. Catholic bishops at home with the political left or with the right? That would be the right, on sexual morality, but the left on many other issues, from immigration to health care. Is Pope Francis liberal or conservative when you are talking about hot-button issues in American life? Where is he on gender and right-to-life issues, in contrast with economics and immigration?

"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about all of this, and much more, when recording this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Our news hook, however, was not on the cultural right. Instead, we were talking about my post critiquing a Reuters report about the religious left. The original Reuters report is here.

As always, it's hard to pin accurate political labels on biblical beliefs. There are political liberals who are pro-life. There are political conservatives who are strongly pro-abortion-rights. There are conservatives who totally oppose Donald Trump's perspectives on immigration and refugees. I could go on and on.

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Parade of 2016 yearenders: Crux takes several looks at surprising year in Catholic news

Parade of 2016 yearenders: Crux takes several looks at surprising year in Catholic news

So how much Catholic news was there in 2016.

Apparently quite a bit, and we are not just talking about angry Catholic voters in depressed corners of the Rust Belt, as in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Thus, the journalists in the team at Crux didn't produce one list of Catholic stories, when preparing to mark the end of 2016. They went with four lists, I think. Maybe there are more.

It won't surprise you that the ever quotable Pope Francis got one list all by himself. Of course, there's quite a bit of info linked to Amoris Laetitia and the reaction to it. 

Then there's a list of developments at the global level. This includes updates on clergy sexual abuse and the persecution of Catholics in various locations. However, the section that I think will interest most readers is the take on the role of faith in the Brexit debates, battles over the treatment of refugees and the struggle to define what is and isn't "European," in terms of thinking about the future.

Finally, there is an essay with this headline: "Looking back at 2016, the Year of Surprises: Church in the U.S." Yes, the elections get some digital ink. However, the really interesting material is related to the elections on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Here is a long chunk of that:

... The election of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles as president and vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops just ten days after Trump captured the White House was also noteworthy.

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