Clemente Lisi

Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

In this politically polarized world, there are issues that can drive a large wedge between people — including several that, one way or another, are tied to religion.

Immigration and abortion are two of the biggest in the Donald Trump era, issues that dominated the Supreme Court’s recently-completed term and the Democratic presidential primaries that are just underway. Then again, immigration and abortion are the issues that dominate news on the web and cable TV.

Religious freedom, an old-school liberal issue now largely taken up by conservatives, is often lost in mainstream news coverage. Lost in this coverage is an issue of such importance to Roman Catholics, that it may very well be the biggest fallout to come from years of clerical sex abuse when it comes to how it affects the law.

The California State Senate, controlled by Democrats, recently passed a bill (the first of its kind in the United States) that would compel a priest — violating centuries of Catholic law and tradition — to disclose to civil authorities any information learned in the confessional if it involves the sexual abuse of a minor committed by another priest or lay worker. The bill was supposed to head to the State Assembly later this summer, where Democrats hold a majority.

On Tuesday, on the eve of a scheduled hearing, State Sen. Jerry Hill withdrew the bill after realizing he didn’t have the votes to get it passed out of committee. Opponents may have rejoiced, but this issue is far from over. It certainly will gather steam again in future legislative sessions. That means reporters need to be better equipped to cover such an issue in a balanced and fair way.

If this bill doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider what it would have mandated: the government would have been allowed to control a religious sacrament by legally punishing a priest for not breaking the seal of confession. Passage of such a law would be a major violation of religious freedom for both the priest and the person in the confessional. It would also have a chilling effect for those seeking to go to confession, but fearing possible legal troubles.

Mainstream news coverage of this bill has been largely muted over the past few months. This bill hasn’t, for example, been made a bigger issue by national media outlets such as The New York Times. Compare that to the coverage on immigration and abortion.

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Concerning the familiar journalistic need to seek out history (and a Catholic angle to July 4th)

Concerning the familiar journalistic need to seek out history (and a Catholic angle to July 4th)

A trip to Washington, D.C., especially around the time of Independence Day, is always a good way to get the history juices flowing. It’s also a good way to get story ideas if you’re an editor or reporter looking for a new angle to this annual holiday.

Walking around the nation’s capitol is also a reminder of how much religious faith and this nation’s founding are connected, in terms of personalities and big themes. God is everywhere in this country’s past and the monuments that populate this wonderful city are a reminder of it.

One statue that many often ignore or neglect to focus on is that of Charles Carroll located in the National Statuary Hall collection. Not only is his life an excuse to cover July 4th through a new lens, but also gives readers the chance to learn about our country’s religious origins.

Who was Carroll? It’s a question not too many people have asked, in recent decades. It is one that editors and reporters should be flocking to cover. If anything, it would allow for news coverage to get away from the standard tropes that include fireworks, grilling recipes and mattress sales. Carroll was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence and its longest-living signer. That alone would be reason enough to focus some of the coverage on this man, especially in Maryland media — in the state where he lived and died.

Crux did a wonderful feature in 2016 on Carroll, complete with tons of history and interviews with experts who studied Carroll’s life. This is how the piece opens:

On July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — one of the most amazing coincidences in U.S. history unfolded. On that day, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s author, and John Adams, perhaps its greatest advocate, died within hours of each other.

David McCullough’s masterful biography John Adams tells the poignant story of how the two patriots he called “the pen” and “the voice” of the Declaration, who had helped forge liberty in their new nation later became bitter political rivals but in their old age corresponded as friends.

But their rivalry even extended to their dying moments, as McCullough noted that Adams on his deathbed in Massachusetts whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Yet earlier that afternoon, Jefferson had died in Virginia.

And then there was one.

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Pilgrimage: Normandy and Lourdes defy the stereotypes of France's ardent secularism

Pilgrimage: Normandy and Lourdes defy the stereotypes of France's ardent secularism

For such a secular country, there are certainly lots of religious symbols to be found in France and religious institutions and activities continue to make news.

The country and many of its citizens do pride themselves on the principle of laicite — French for secularism — but is there really an absence of religion in public life?

Not really. It’s true that Notre Dame, one of the biggest symbols of European Christianity for centuries, has been cordoned off for the past two months after a tragic fire, deemed accidental, destroyed the roof. The cathedral, which will undergo a major renovation, is off limits to tourists. Nonetheless, the towering house of worship remains a symbol of Paris and part of this beautiful city’s skyline. The city’s other churches worth a visit include the Church of Saint Sulpice and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, known as Sacre-Coeur.

Outside Paris, God’s visibility is even more pronounced. Two very different sites — Lourdes, one of the holiest in the world for Roman Catholics, and the U.S. cemetery at Normandy — have the ability to bring visitors closer to God in very different ways. There are reminders everywhere of the country’s religious past and how that symbolism continues to play a part in the lives of millions, both visitors and residents, who visit them. As a result, it’s not so unusual for tour operators to include packages to visit both sites.

It is worth noting that this notion of secularism, as it pertains to French government policies, was the result of a law passed in 1905 calling for this strict separation of church and state. While true that religious symbols have been removed from French public life (a possible reason why so many Muslims have found integration so difficult), Lourdes and Normandy may be the two places where this very human law seems to not apply.

First stop on this countrywide pilgrimage is Lourdes. A six-hour train ride (fares range from $134 to $193 roundtrip) from Paris gets you to Lourdes, a southern trip through the French countryside until finally pulling into the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains. While many take trains into Lourdes to embark on their pilgrimage, many from across Europe (particularly those from neighboring Italy and Spain) board coach buses to get there.

Lourdes became a major pilgrimage site after a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to see the Blessed Virgin Mary on Feb. 11, 1858 through a vision. Soubirous would see Mary another 17 times near a grotto over the course of five months. Unaware she was having a vision, Mary told the girl: “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  

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How to keep 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick in the news? Educate readers and keep Vigano talking

How to keep 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick in the news? Educate readers and keep Vigano talking

Not long after I broke into the journalism business over 20 years ago did my mother ask me a very interesting question: “Where do you get all that news that ends up in the newspaper?”

It was a question any news consumer should ask. I gave a simple — although in hindsight — a somewhat unhelpful answer.

“It’s complicated,” I replied.

I went on to explain how reporters use interviews, documents, press releases and news conferences to put together the news.

It really isn’t that complicated. Journalists have made it a practice for years to make their jobs sound like (me included) as if they were doing brain surgery. As one editor would always tell me when things got hard at work: “We’re not saving lives here.”

Maybe not, but being a reporter is a massive responsibility. Never has the process of journalism — and what it is that reporters and editors actually do — come under the microscope as it has the past few years. I suppose that’s a result of Donald Trump getting elected president and the allegation that fake news helped him get elected.

Whether it did or not, that’s not the point. What is the point is that citizens — the people we reporters call “readers” — have become more aware of the process. At least they want transparency from news organizations when it comes to how and why we report on stories.

This takes me to my point. As we near the one-year anniversary of the revelations that exposed the past misdeeds of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the story doesn’t look like it is subsiding anytime soon. In a recent post, I highlighted the importance of the papal news conference and how American media outlets were potentially being manipulated by the Vatican press office. Also, tmatt offered this post on a related topic: “Big journalism question: Would new U.S. bishops hotline have nabbed 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick?”

Like with everything in life (and journalism), it’s complicated.

Longtime Vatican observer John Allen wrote a column for Crux on how those papal news conferences that take place among the seats of aboard the plane taking Pope Francis back to Rome aren’t what they used to be. The piece ruffled some feathers among the Vatican press corps, even triggering a rebuttal piece from Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter. This is how he opened that column:

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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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Populist surge continues in Europe: Was Pope Francis a big loser in these complex results?

Populist surge continues in Europe: Was Pope Francis a big loser in these complex results?

After elections gave right-wing populists sweeping victories in the Catholic nations of Italy, Poland and France in the European elections, it seemed clear that the biggest loser wasn’t the political left or moderate political parties.

The side that suffered the biggest defeat was Pope Francis.

In Italy, The League party snagged 33 percent of the vote, a remarkable achievement given the country’s fragmented political system. The pro-European Democratic Party could only muster 22 percent of the vote, while the left-wing populist Five Star Movement finished third at 18 percent. The League victory highlighted the divisions within Roman Catholicism. Party leader Matteo Salvini — known for his nationalistic and anti-immigration rhetoric — didn’t shy away from his faith. On the contrary, he used church symbols to win seats.

It isn’t the first time in European history that the Catholic church, and the papacy, has been viewed with disdain. Over the past few years, the political populism that has enveloped Europe has sought to blame much of its social and economic misfortune on elites. While many of these elites traditionally hail from the political left, the doctrinal left — and with it the current Vatican hierarchy headed by Pope Francis — has also become a target in recent elections.

The election results capped off a bad week for the pontiff. While having to deal with populism undercutting Catholic social teaching, Pope Francis denied he knew about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s history of sexual misconduct with seminarians in an interview with Mexican TV network Televisa. The scandal has plagued the papacy since last summer.

The European election, contested every five years, firmly places populism among the continent’s most powerful political forces. Never shy about brandishing a rosary or invoking God’s help, Salvini has provided Italians with an alternative to the pro-migrant stance and the church’s traditional social teachings put forth by the pope.

“I thank the man up there — with no exploitations,” Salvini told reporters, while kissing a rosary he was clutching in his hand, as results came in on May 26.

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News coverage of abortion should go beyond quoting Catholics and Catholics alone

News coverage of abortion should go beyond quoting Catholics and Catholics alone

It looks as if 2019 will be the year where abortion takes center stage as one of the key politics issues in the ongoing feud between liberals and conservatives. Sometimes lost in all the political debates — and the news coverage — is that these issues revolve around religious beliefs.

The media’s coverage of this contentious issue can be summed up this way: secular society largely views this as a “reproductive rights issue,” while religious people see it as “murdering a baby.” Can there be some middle ground? Not likely. It explains why Supreme Court nominations have gotten messier and fueled the culture war.

What has been lacking, from a media coverage standpoint, has been broader context. This is especially true of covering those who are adamantly opposed to abortion. Evangelicals and Catholics are on one side, sharing the burden of having to defend why they believe abortion should be outlawed. On the other are educated and enlightened people (women mostly) who attend rallies and hold up placards. These are the primary mainstream media narratives fed to us each day.

This is where we are as a society. Where any issue is boiled down into a five-minute screaming match that passes for a news segment on a 24-hour cable channel to an internet meme safely shared on social media with those in your Facebook bubble. Journalism is meant to go beyond that. Which takes me to the main point here: news stories that rely on stereotypes don’t further the discussion, but only help divide us. In an age where the internet has turned many journalists into activists, it’s time to look at some data and shatter some myths.

Covering abortion in a different way since Roe v. Wade made it legal in 1973 can be a challenge. The events of the past few months — where New York state made abortion legal up until the due date to Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana’s recent new laws that place major restrictions on it — once again makes this a very big story. Heck, even President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence differ on the issue.

What about how religious people view the issue? What does it tell us about where we are as a society? How can it better inform readers and break away from the “us versus them” approach so common these days? Editors and reporters take note: Roman Catholics aren’t the only ones who largely oppose abortion.

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Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Italians will go to the ballot box on May 26 to elect members of the country’s delegation to the European Parliament.

The vote — part of elections held across the European Union — will be another litmus test regarding Italy’s two populist political parties and whether they can withstand challenges from the left. What this latest electoral test will also do is reveal Italy’s love-hate relationship with the Catholic church.

The country’s Democratic Party, which holds a majority of seats, is likely to go down in defeat like it did in last year’s national elections. That’s where two populist parties, the League, which is on the right, and the Five-Star Movement, on the left, joined forces since neither had gained a majority in parliament.

The result? Matteo Salvini, who leads the League party, could take his anti-immigration stances to Brussels if opinion polls prove correct. His hardline stance on the issue has put him at odds with the Catholic church in Italy as well as with Pope Francis, who has repeatedly spoken in favor of refugees seeking asylum in Western Europe.

Like the Brexit fiasco, this clash has also divided Italians, where a majority remain Roman Catholic. However, a Pew Research study found that only 27 percent of Italian adults consider themselves “highly religious,” putting them in 13th place among Europeans. Nevertheless, Pew also found that Italy remains in first place in Western Europe when it comes to Christians who attend services regularly at 40 percent. That’s higher than Ireland (at 34%) and the United Kingdom (at just 18 percent).

Salvini, like President Donald Trump in the United States, has made closing the borders a priority since becoming Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Secretary. Last summer, Salvini ordered that ships containing migrants not dock at Italian ports. As a result, they were diverted to Spain, angering the European Union and the Catholic church. 

The European elections have also allowed Salvini to take his message outside of Italy’s boot-shaped borders in an attempt to create a pan-populist movement that puts it on a collision course with the continent’s Christian roots and the message emanating from the Holy See these days.

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Mainstream press still ignoring church vandalism in France -- even after Notre Dame fire

Mainstream press still ignoring church vandalism in France -- even after Notre Dame fire

It has been exactly a month since a fire destroyed the roof and spire of Notre Dame in Paris, leaving the Catholic world — and beyond — in shock over the destruction of such an important structure in Christendom and Western Civilization.

In the days and weeks that followed, we were treated to news coverage that was exceptional to the ordinary to the downright bizarre.

The insistence, for example, of The New York Times to cover the fire as if it had occurred in a museum rather than a house of worship was strange. That cable TV news made a big fuss over wealthy French companies donating to rebuild the cathedral was also a distraction. The op-ed pieces that followed were also strange. The winner in this category: Rolling Stone on how Notre Dame should be rebuilt.

All that aside, there continues to be little to no coverage when it comes to the rash of suspicious fires and vandalism that plagued French churches in the weeks before the Paris incident, which was quickly deemed unintentional by Parisian authorities. My post, which ran while the fire still burned at Notre Dame, asked a simple question: If churches keep getting vandalized in France, should American news outlets cover the story? This post went viral.

The Notre Dame fire, alas, did little to shed any light — or inspire further news coverage — into the other destructive acts reported in Catholic churches across France. That many of these incidents took place during Lent made it even more of a story, a largely ignored one.

So what’s new? I am disappointed to report that very little has changed over the course of 30 days. The Notre Dame fire, although not deemed suspicious, was a perfect opportunity to jump on a story that had been largely overlooked.

Instead, one of the best pieces since the fire came from Nina Shea — director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. Shea expresses many of the same concerns I have had regarding this largely ignored trend by the U.S. press, particularly those with a global reach such as The New York Times and CNN.

Here’s what Shea noted in her May 2 post, which also ran in The National Catholic Register:

The flames that ravaged Paris’ Notre Dame riveted the world because it is a legendary, architectural masterpiece at the center of France’s capital and much of its political history. For those who track religious-freedom threats, the fire itself may be less of a surprise than that it apparently was started by accident.

Hundreds of other French churches are being quietly burned or damaged — in deliberate attacks.

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