Churches

Big story update: What's going on with plans to repair or even 'modernize' Notre Dame after fire?

Big story update: What's going on with plans to repair or even 'modernize' Notre Dame after fire?

PARIS — It has been two months since a fire at the start of Holy Week destroyed the roof of the famed Notre Dame Cathedral. The large gothic structure now sits, enveloped in scaffolding, as a part of the low-rise Parisian skyline. The 300-foot spire that once appeared to stretch out to heaven is missing. These are constant reminders of that April 15 blaze and the hard work that lies ahead.

Rebuilding the ornate cathedral will be a painstaking task. Estimated to cost in the billions, Notre Dame has also become a pawn in a broader political fight that has divided France and much of the continent.

In a country so politically polarized — the outcome of the recent European election was another reminder of this — the fate of Notre Dame very much rests in the hands of the country’s warring lawmakers.

There has been much speculation since the fire over what will happen to the 12th century structure. A symbol of European Catholicism and Western civilization since the Middle Ages, a tug-of-war has traditionalists and modernists divided over what is the best way to rebuild.

“I think that some of the proposals are quite interesting, in particular, the notion of creating a very large glass skylight. If that were done to be a modern version of stained glass, I think it could be absolutely beautiful,” said architect Brett Robillard. “Stained glass was something of the first ‘films’ with light moving through pictures. So I think there is real poetry there to see modern technology paid homage to something so embedded in the religious spectrum and fill the spaces with beautiful light.”

Should Notre Dame be restored it to its former Medieval glory or reflect a more modern aesthetic?

This is at the center of the fight and, thus, press coverage of the debates.

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Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches

Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches

Before we take a look at what appears to have been the key development at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention, let’s pause and discuss a few matters linked to how America’s largest non-Catholic flock does business.

One of the first things reporters learn (.pdf here), when they show up at national SBC gathering, is that the people attending are not “delegates” — they are “messengers” from local churches. Again, this is a sign of the degree to which Baptist identity is built on church authority residing in autonomous local congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention that exists when it is in session. It can vote to create a publishing house, or mission boards or an “executive committee” to do specific tasks in between conventions.

But SBC folks get testy when reporters assume that Southern Baptists are supposed to be organized like Presbyterians, Methodists or, heaven forbid, Episcopalians. What makes SBC meetings so wild is that all kinds of people in that big room can grab a floor microphone. With that in mind, let’s look at a crucial part of a New York Times story, focusing on efforts to handle sexual-abuse issues:

Thousands of pastors voted late Tuesday afternoon to address the problem in a concerted way for the first time, enacting two new measures they say are a first step to reform. Outside the arena where they were gathered, victims and their families protested what they considered an inadequate response.

The pastors voted to create a centralized committee that would evaluate allegations against churches accused of mishandling abuse. They also approved an amendment to their constitution that would allow such churches to be expelled from the convention if the allegations were substantiated.

“Protecting God’s children is the mission of the church,” the denomination’s president, J.D. Greear, said on Tuesday morning as he addressed the gathering. “We have to deal with this definitively and decisively.”

Wait a minute. SBC “pastors” voted to take these steps? Since when are all of the SBC “messengers” pastors?

The Times should correct that error immediately. It appears that the same mistake showed up in a 2018 Times story and I missed it at that time. As in:

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Vatican ‘wags the dog’ on McCarrick and the American press is powerless against it

Vatican ‘wags the dog’ on McCarrick and the American press is powerless against it

Journalism isn’t what it used to be.

You hear a lot of people in the business — most of them over 40 — say things like that either in a newsroom or afterwards at the nearest bar at the end of a very busy day. The internet and layoffs are the two biggest culprits. The internet radically altered newsgathering methods and distribution of information. That “disruption” — as some have called it — led to financial loses and smaller staffs. That and digital advertising that drives many news consumers crazy.

Smaller newsrooms and dwindling budgets means fewer journalists. More importantly, it means fewer of them can travel. The ability to actually be in the place where something is taking place — rather than thousands of miles away in an office — does make a major difference. It’s why The New York Times and Washington Post produce such quality work from foreign correspondents.

This leaves most U.S. newsrooms reliant on wire services, most notably The Associated Press and Reuters, for international coverage. This brings us to the Vatican, which is located across the Atlantic from most newsrooms and Pope Francis, like pontiffs before him, has a penchant for traveling, it means having to rely on these news organizations for what’s going on/being said so far away.

Pope Francis is a great example of an international leader whose handlers like to control the message. Not too different from the White House press office, where access can often be very limited. That makes the papal news conference, the one that takes place aboard the pope’s flight on the way to Rome at the end of very trip, very important. President Donald Trump and his press shop get plenty of heat, and deservingly so, for sparring with reporters. He isn’t alone. Sadly, the slow death of local journalism in many once-thriving market across the United States has made it easier for town boards, mayors and even governors to get away with more.

Covering the pope is on a global scale, but some of the same problems afflicting local journalism can also be found here. The papal news conference, it turns out, isn’t what it used to be. What is it like these days? Here’s one recent observation from John Allen, a veteran Vatican reporter, in a piece for Crux. He noted that the most-recent news conference on June 2 after the pope’s return from Romania, was an example of how these gatherings “have been considerably less spicy, often serving up little more than reiterations of things Francis already has said, or excuses to allow the pope to say things that he or his advisers want on the record for one reason or another.” Here’s what Allen’s piece is about:

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Friday Five: Abortion, Catholic and Baptist scandals, Emanuel AME, disaster deacon, The Bachelorette

Friday Five: Abortion, Catholic and Baptist scandals, Emanuel AME, disaster deacon, The Bachelorette

Anybody seen any abortion-related headlines lately?

I kid. I kid.

They keep coming fast and furious — some stories better than others.

Here’s three that have come across my screen just today. I haven’t had time to read them yet:

Southern Baptists descend on Alabama, epicenter of abortion debate, by Holly Meyer of The Tennessean

Biden reverses long-held position on abortion funding amid criticism, from CNN

Poll: Majority Want To Keep Abortion Legal, But They Also Want Restrictions, from NPR

At the only abortion clinic left in Missouri, doctors live and work in uncertainty, from the Los Angeles Times

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: It’s been a week of big exposés concerning major religious institutions.

We highlighted the Washington Post’s bombshell investigative report on the lavish spending of West Virginia’s former Catholic bishop.

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Friday Five: McCarrick news, Alex Trebek, comedian's faith, ECFA scrutiny, scary baseball

Friday Five: McCarrick news, Alex Trebek, comedian's faith, ECFA scrutiny, scary baseball

According to the New York Times, the nation’s long run of recent bad weather might wind down by the weekend.

Speaking on behalf of Oklahomans and residents of other states hit hard by tornadoes and flooding, I pray it’s so.

Now, let’s dive into the (hopefully sunny and calm) Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Perhaps you (like the New York Times so far) missed this big scoop concerning restrictions placed by the Vatican on former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick way back in 2008.

Not to worry: Our own Julia Duin can fill you in on a former aide to McCarrick spilling the beans to Crux and CBS.

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Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Gothic first-person accounts of growing up in a Christian subculture have become modern Americans’ equivalent of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. They serve as a vast collection of subjective narratives, often focused on the horrors of authority figures who encourage virginity, offer awkward alternatives to pop music (or welcome it uncritically), favor novels about the Apocalypse and otherwise fill the cavernous spaces of megachurches with conformists.

It’s difficult to read such accounts without wishing for more details. In “Ecstasy,” which appears in the May 27 edition of The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes this about her life in a Houston megachurch she calls the Repentagon. Here’s a sample:

“Three girls were electrocuted when a light blew out in the pool where they’d been swimming, and this tragedy was deemed the will of the Lord.”

Sensible journalism questions should be obvious: Who deemed it the will of the Lord? Was this declaration from the pulpit? Did it come from one of those boorish pew-dwellers who think it’s comforting to say the Lord must have needed a few new angels in heaven? Was it someone who speaks only of God’s sovereignty but never of living in a fallen world where random deaths are happenstance? Did this assertion represent even a plurality among members of the Repentagon, which Tolentino, for reasons she does not specify, never identifies as Second Baptist Church, one of the Bible Belt’s best known megachurches?

Tolentino’s account stands out because it is not solely a story of deprivation and unresolved anger. This paragraph leaps off the page:

I have been walking away from institutional religion for half my life now, fifteen years dismantling what the first fifteen built. But I’ve always been glad that I grew up the way that I did. The Repentagon trained me to feel at ease in odd, insular, extreme environments, and Christianity formed my deepest instincts. It gave me a leftist world view — a desire to follow leaders who feel themselves inseparable from the hungry, the imprisoned, and the sick. Years of auditing my own conduct in prayer gave me an obsession with everyday morality.

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Old Chicago church gets converted: It's a real estate story, but there are religion questions

Old Chicago church gets converted: It's a real estate story, but there are religion questions

News consumers who have been paying attention to religion trends may have noticed this one: There are lots of church buildings for sale these days.

This is especially true with old-line Protestant sanctuaries located in older neighborhoods — often on prime property deep inside zip codes that are evolving due to gentrification.

What to do? Well, lots of urban folks — singles, cohabitating couples, married-without-kids folks — are attracted to unique condos and apartments that don’t look like they are assembled using cookie-cutters and one or two sets of design plans.

That brings us to the following real-estate headline at The Chicago Tribune: “Logan Square church gets new life as 9 luxury apartments.” Let me stress that I realize that this is a real-estate story. One should not expect that news desk to provide a lot of depth, when it comes to the religious implications of some of the information in a news report of this kind.

But let’s see if you can spot the detail that I think would have been worth a follow-up question or two — a click of a computer mouse, at least, or even a telephone call. Things start in a rather predictable manner, with a bad pun:

Living in one new Logan Square apartment building is a heavenly experience. The former church was converted into nine distinctive residences, incorporating many of the original architectural features.

The historic Episcopal Church of the Advent was built in 1926 by renowned architect Elmer C. Jensen, who designed and engineered more than two dozen of the city’s early skyscrapers. The church closed in 2016 due to dwindling membership.

That brings us to the colorful details that caught my attention. Read this carefully and think, well, sort of like a liturgist, or a religion-beat professional:

In preparation for its second life, the building interior was mostly gutted, and the space was subdivided. Stained glass art windows, ornate chandeliers, decorative millwork, and stone arches and columns are among the retained features. In one apartment, a stone altar acts as the base for a kitchen island. In another, wainscoting was installed to complement the existing millwork. The church exterior was preserved in entirety.

“Any of the elements that were left here, the developer was able to repurpose and reuse,” said Mark Durakovic, principal at Kass Management Services, which is managing and leasing the building.

Wait a minute!

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Los Angeles Times updates Scouting abuse: Religion angles? What religion angles?

Los Angeles Times updates Scouting abuse: Religion angles? What religion angles?

Journalists who have covered decades worth of stories linked to the sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic clergy know that there are church leaders and laity who believe all or most discussions of this topic are fueled by some form of anti-Catholicism.

Yes, these in-denial Catholics are out there. Editors will hear from them.

But, in my experience, most Catholics who complain about news coverage of this hellish subject do not attempt to deny the size or the severe nature of this crisis and, especially, they want more digging into topics linked to the sinful and illegal cover-ups of these crimes.

So what angers these Catholics?

Truth is, they want to know why so much of the news coverage seems to assume that this is a CATHOLIC problem — period. They want to know why there isn’t more ink spilled (and legislation passed) that addresses these scandals in a wider context that includes at least three other groups — public schools, other religious bodies and the organization previously known as the Boy Scouts of America.

This brings us to a giant Los Angeles Times update on documents linked to the Scouts and years fog and confusion surrounding adults abusing Scouts. As this story makes clear, the Times has played a large role in dragging lots of this information out into the open. It’s strong stuff.

When I saw this story (behind the usual firewall), I wondered: Is this story going to offer some kind of perspective on how the Scouting scandal, and even public-school cases, compare with the Catholic scandal. Also, will it get into the religious implications of the Scouting scandals, in terms of how religious groups — hosts for many, many Scouting operations — have responded?

The answer to that: No.

We will come back to that. First, here is the overture:

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Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Numbers make news. Think of how many articles will report breathlessly on U.S. political polls between now and Nov. 3, 2020. And numbers created “the biggest American religion story of the past decade,” says analyst Mark Silk, referring to the increase in “nones” who tell pollsters they have no particular  religious identity.

This is news: A new Gallup report says a severe religious recession began to build right around 2000.

What explains this turn-of-the-century turn? Journalists with Gallup numbers in hand should run this puzzle past the experts in search of explanations. 

Gallup combines data from 1998–2000, compared with 2016–2018. A topline finding is that Americans reporting membership in a house of worship hit an all-time low of 50 percent by last year, which compares with a consistent 68 percent or more from 1937, when the question was first asked, and all the way through the 1990s. The era since 2000 mingles that loss with declining worship attendance and the  “nones” boom.   

Since your audiences are already transfixed by the 2020 campaign, consider this detail from Gallup’s internals. Comparing 1998-2000 with 2016-2018, church membership reported by Republicans slipped from 77 percent to 69 percent, but among Democrats plummeted from 71 percent to 48 percent, a remarkable 23 percent drop. (Independents went from 59 percent to 45 percent.) How come?

Journalists will find further statistics to ponder in the latest General Social Survey report from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. In this account, the “nones” have reached 23 percent. At the same time, however, 34 percent of American adults report “strong” religious affiliation, and similar percentages have held constant across the years since 1973. 

Writing for the interfaith journal First Things, Mark Movsesian of the St. John’s University Center for Law and Religion (who belongs on your source list) joins those who say the U.S. is experiencing “a decline in religious affiliation among people whose identification was weak to begin with.” As with politics, he proposes, “the middle seems to be dropping out in favor of the extremes on either end.”

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