Washington Post: Catholics should follow Germany's gospel when seeking future growth

Washington Post: Catholics should follow Germany's gospel when seeking future growth

When it comes to Catholic demographics — think birth rate, membership and new clergy — researchers know where to look if they want to find the good news and the bad news.

It you are seeking new life and growth, all roads lead to Africa — where the Catholic population has grown by nearly 250% since 1980.

Anyone seeking bad news can examine trends in Europe.

Take Germany, for example. The Catholic church lost 216,078 members in 2018, according to the German Bishops’ Conference. Researchers at the University of Freiburg predict that Catholic membership totals will fall another 50% by 2060. How is the priesthood doing? Things were already pretty bad in 2005, with 122 diocesan priests ordained in Germany. That number fell to 58 in 2015.

So here is a question for journalists: If you were writing about the rising influence of German Catholic bishops in the bitter global debates about the future of Catholic doctrine, worship and tradition, how much material would your story need to include about the health of the German church? Would you assume that the Catholic world needs to be more like Germany, if the goal is growth and “reform”? Would it be wise — when discussing efforts to modernize the faith — to quote Catholic leaders from Africa (and Asia)?

This leads us to a fascinating report from the international desk of The Washington Post, with this headline: “German bishops want to modernize the church. Are they getting too far ahead of Pope Francis?

That headline says it all. The German bishops are the good guys, but it appears that they may be moving too fast and, thus, are hurting the “reform” efforts of the ultimate good guy. The story notes that the German bishops are plunging forward on four topics — church authority, the “priestly way of life,” the role of women in the church and various sexual morality issues.

The overture is a masterpiece of semi-editorial writing:

ESSEN, Germany — Among those who believe the Catholic Church must liberalize to save itself from perpetual decline, some of the staunchest advocates are church leaders here in Germany.

Some German bishops have spoken in favor of abandoning the celibacy requirement for priests and vaulting women into leadership roles that are now off-limits. Some have urged updating the Vatican’s stern stance on sexual morality, saying the church can’t afford to be out of touch or alienating.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Framing Pope Benedict XVI: What, pray tell, is the opposite of a Catholic 'reformer'?

Framing Pope Benedict XVI: What, pray tell, is the opposite of a Catholic 'reformer'?

At the moment, Catholic leaders and news consumers are in a kind of holding pattern during the crisis linked to the life and career of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Everyone is waiting to see if Rome's current strategy -- silence at the Vatican and the slammed doors (metaphorically speaking) in most Catholic offices -- is going to work. Will it inspire journalists to dig deeper or will pros in elite newsrooms retreat, since many may not want to hurt progressive Catholics (who are on the right side of history, after all)? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the coverage has slowed down a little, with most stories focusing on the kinds of background details that frustrate editors yet keep the chess match alive.

Take, for example, the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: "Pope Benedict, in retired seclusion, looms in the opposition to Pope Francis."

The old news is that there are currently two popes and this could -- repeat COULD -- change games of Vatican chess. More old news: The retired pope has, once again, remained silent. The potential news there? What does Benedict's silence mean, in light of the public testimony offered by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano? Inquiring minds want to know, and all that.

The answer to that question is certainly above my pay grade and, besides, this Post piece does a decent job exploring some of the theories linked to Benedict. No, what struck me about this feature is that it is a perfect example of what your GetReligionistas call the "frame game." Early on, big issues that loom in the background are framed in such a way that the whole editorial product leans to one side. Pay close attention to this crucial section:

Although many people hoped to hear from Benedict amid new allegations that a coverup of sexual misconduct reached the highest levels of the church, he has established that an ex-pope should maintain a vow of silence about church matters — even during crises and even though he is particularly well positioned to affirm or knock down the accusations.

Some Vatican watchers and insiders say the mere fact of Benedict’s 2013 abdication has made the modern papacy more vulnerable, emboldening voices of dissent. They say it’s hard to imagine a letter like the one released last week by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, provoking Pope Francis with a call to resign, without Benedict having created the possibility that modern popes might give up their seats before death.

Wait for it.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Vigano vs. mainstream press? Trying to find bright line between 'news' and 'commentary'

Vigano vs. mainstream press? Trying to find bright line between 'news' and 'commentary'

It's an old question, one that your GetReligionistas have had to ask many times over the past 15 years.

Read the following material and ask this question: Is this hard-news writing or editorial commentary? The context -- #DUH -- is that blunt letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. He is the former Vatican ambassador to the United States from 2011-2016 who has accused Pope Francis of taking part in earlier efforts to protect and rehabilitate the fallen Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. 

The headline proclaims: "The Sex-Abuse Scandal Has Come for Pope Francis."

... (T)he pope’s defenders have characterized the letter as a smear against Francis, in part because of Viganò’s past clashes with the pope. The letter reflects the simmering discontent of conservative clergy in Rome, who dislike Francis’s inclination towards reform.

This piece was published by The Atlantic and, thus, it should be read as news analysis. Nevertheless, it helps to pause and consider the meaning of the word "reform," as opposed to "change." If you turn to a typical online dictionary you will find something like this:

reform ... noun

1. the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc.

Thus, Francis is -- on issues such as divorce and many matters of moral theology -- viewed as someone who is working to right what is wrong, to attack those who are corrupt. The use of this term presupposes that Francis is the hero, doctrinally speaking, and his opponents are the corrupt opponents of what is right, good and holy. You get the picture.

Now, what about this language from the Washington Post? News or analysis?

DUBLIN -- Pope Francis has long faced criticism from traditionalists -- a group that includes academics as well as cardinals -- who say the church is too willingly following the whims of the anything-goes modern age. 

Much of the dissent has remained within the Vatican walls, as Francis’s opponents worked to stonewall reforms. 

Is this news or analysis, in the context of a daily newspaper?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Pope Francis exits U.S. stage: Time for thumbsuckers explaining what it all meant

Pope Francis exits U.S. stage: Time for thumbsuckers explaining what it all meant

The pope has come. The pope has gone. Now it is time for mainstream journalists to tell us what it all meant, to show readers the big picture and to reveal larger truths about what Pope Francis said and, maybe, even about what he should have said.

There's more to this process than news, of course.

About a decade ago, New York Times editor Bill Keller -- yes, the man who soon after his retirement offered the "Kellerism" doctrines -- told an audience of young journalists that his newspaper had changed its credo. He told them: "We long ago moved from 'All the News That's Fit to Print,' to 'All the News You Need to Know, and What It Means.' "

The theologians at the great Gray Lady got started even before the pope was gone, offering a "thumbsucker" analysis piece on Sunday A1 (even thought it was not labeled "analysis") that said the "pastoral" tone used by Pope Francis was a loss for conservatives, who wanted him to defend doctrine. The Times team did note that the pope offered no comments that supported the doctrinal left, either. Thus, the bottom line: Compassion is the opposite of doctrinal orthodoxy. Click here for my earlier post on that.

The thumb-sucking process continued in American papers yesterday. The Times weighed in, once again, with a piece stressing that the pope showed a "deft touch" when handling issues in American politics (since we all know that politics are what ultimately matter):

... Mostly Francis demonstrated a nuanced political dexterity, effectively sidestepping the familiar framework of American debate while charting his own broader path. He advocated “life” but emphasized opposition to the death penalty, not abortion. He made strong stands for religious freedom -- a major issue for American bishops -- but refocused the concept on interfaith tolerance and harmony.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

On Pope Francis: What matters most is, 'Who am I to judge?'

Pope Francis has been warned. The powers that be at Time magazine have named him the Person of the Year, but they are watching him carefully to make sure he measures up to their expectations.

Please respect our Commenting Policy