Europe

Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

In my opinion, the world’s two most powerful and influential news outlets are the BBC and The New York Times.

Needless to say, both of these news organizations have offered coverage of Pope Francis and his latest visit to Africa. It’s interesting to note some consistent thin spots — doctrine-shaped holes, really — in the background coverage explaining why this trip matters so much, in terms of certain demographic realities in the modern Roman Catholic Church.

Consider this crucial passage in the BBC advance feature that ran with this headline: “Pope Francis in Africa: Is the continent the Catholic Church's great hope?” This three-nation trip to Africa will be:

… his fourth visit to the continent since he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013, compared to the two his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, made during his eight-year papacy. 

The importance of Africa to the Catholic Church can be summed up in a word — growth. 

Africa has the fastest growing Catholic population in the world, while Western Europe, once regarded as the heartland of Christianity, has become one of the world's most secular regions, according to the US-based Pew Research Center. And many of those who do identify themselves as Christian in Western Europe do not regularly attend church.

Here is a stunner of a statistic, care of the Center for Applied Research.

Start here. The number of Catholics in the world increased by 57% to 1.2 billion, between 1980 and 2012. However, growth in Europe was just 6%. Frankly, I am surprised to hear that Catholic numbers rose in Europe at all. I would be interesting to see a comparison of Western and Eastern European nations.

Meanwhile, the Catholic population rose 283% in Africa.

So why is that happening? Thinking like a religion writer, the first things that leap into my mind are (1) African Catholics are having more babies and (b) they are making more converts. Both of those factors have major doctrinal components in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. You could also note that the African church is raising up many more priests than the somewhat frozen European churches.

The BBC team, I think it’s safe to say, saw zero doctrinal component in the African church’s growth.

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Is a new centrist coalition possible? Don’t underestimate the Vatican’s power In Italian politics

Is a new centrist coalition possible? Don’t underestimate the Vatican’s power In Italian politics

he Tiber River cuts through Rome in the shape of a serpent, splitting the ancient city in half.

On one side is the Vatican, home to the Catholic Church with the large dome of St. Peter’s Basilica looming over the city’s skyline. Directly across from the Vatican is Palazzo Montecitorio, seat of the Italian parliament. It is a place many Italians despise because it houses bickering politicians.

These two forces, within miles of each other, yet far apart in so many other ways, could come into renewed conflict over the coming weeks.

Italy’s government was plunged into chaos this past Tuesday when the nationalist-populist coalition that had struck fear across the European establishment fell apart. It means that Italians could be going to the ballot box once again in late October. It’s also a sign of how powerful the Catholic Church remains, mostly behind the scenes, in helping to determine the country’s political outcomes.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing party known as The League, triggered the political tsunami after he abandoned the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in an effort to force a no-confidence vote and provoke new elections. Ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that he was resigning, which officially brought the coalition to its knees.

The developments of the past week have left a power vacuum that will be filled either in the upcoming elections or if the Five Star Movement creates a ruling coalition with the center-left Democratic Party and several other smaller political factions. Salvini, who had served as the country’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, is pushing for a vote.

Salvini’s 40% approval rating — considered high for a country known for its very fractured political system — could very well get him elected prime minister. At the same time, traditional conservatives, led by billionaire-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party, have seen support eroded as voters increasingly flock to the League.

That these political parties, largely rejected by the electorate last year, want to join forces and stop the anti-immigrant League should come as no surprise. Undoubtedly, the Catholic Church will be rooting for such an outcome, favoring a French-style centrist coalition.

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There will always be an England? BBC helter-skelter cathedral report misses a crucial fact

There will always be an England? BBC helter-skelter cathedral report misses a crucial fact

Let me state the obvious. This is one of those stories that people would worry about if it ran at a satire-news website like The Onion or, especially, The Babylon Bee.

It would fit either place since it combines British humor, pop culture and a 12th century cathedral.

But, no, this report is from the venerable BBC. And what a wild story it is, combining outlandish visuals with a solid hard-news angle that is perfect for religion-beat coverage. The only problem is that BBC totally omitted the serious-news content in this strange story. The headline states, “Norwich Cathedral: Bishop delivers sermon from helter-skelter.”

Helter skelter? No, we’re not talking about The Beatles song and there’s no link here, obviously, to the Manson Family. No, this is a story about a painfully hip bishop (#IMHO) and an oldline Protestant institution that is really, really anxious to pull a few people through its doors. Here is (hang on tight) the overture:

God would be "revelling" in the joy a "glorious" helter-skelter has brought to Norwich Cathedral, its bishop has told his congregation from its slide.

The fairground ride had been in the nave of the cathedral for 11 days. It was intended to give people a different view of the building, although some accused the cathedral of "making a mistake".

The Bishop of Lynn, the Rt Revd Jonathan Meyrick, delivered his sermon from halfway up the ride.

"God is a tourist attraction," he told his congregation during the cathedral's final service with the helter-skelter as a backdrop. "God wants to be attractive to us. ... for us to enjoy ourselves, each other and the world around us and this glorious helter-skelter is about just that."

The bishop had climbed to the top of the helter-skelter before edging halfway down the slide, where he stopped to deliver his sermon. He then received a loud cheer as he whooshed to the bottom.

On one level, this strategy worked, since cathedral officials noted that about 20,000 people paid a visit between August 7-18 and about 10,000 newcomers chose to slide down the helter-skelter.

The online version of this news story also did include a tiny note, and a quick hyperlink, to a traditional Anglican response to this rather unique approach to evangelism.

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Here's an unusual story: Moderate French Muslims vs. the radical Islamists

Here's an unusual story: Moderate French Muslims vs. the radical Islamists

France is the canary in the mine when it comes to immigration, which is why I was interested in a piece by RealClearInvestigations on how conflicted French Muslims themselves are over some worrying trends.

France is under severe internal stress. Not long ago, GetReligion’s Clemente Lisi wrote about a report on the more than 1,000 vandalisms and thefts in 2018 at Catholic churches around France. That subject was covered by RealClearInvestigations too.

Is the Islamization of France connected to the church attacks?

Sometimes yes; oftentimes no. Let’s also say that concerns about radical Islam no longer just belong to the far political right. The concerned are now other Muslims.

PARIS — They call themselves Les Resilientes, the Resisters, and they meet every week in a couple of modest rooms in the immigrant neighborhood of Saint-Denis, on the northern outskirts of Paris. Their main purpose is to provide a refuge for women who have been victims of violence, but they are fighting another battle as well.

Though most of the Resilientes are Muslims of North African heritage, they are resisting other Muslims -- the growing influence and strength of a conservative, fundamentalist Islam in their neighborhood.

“What worries me is that it's developing; it's not retreating,” the group’s founder and president, Rachida Hamdan, told me during a visit in June to the Resilientes center, located on a charmless avenue lined with public housing estates. “More and more, for example, you see little girls wearing the veil, which I oppose because I see it as a symbol of female submission. But it's also an act of open defiance against the Republic,” she said, referring to French laws that limit wearing certain religious identifiers in public. “You see it in front of the schools, mothers telling other mothers that their children should be veiled. I've been told by 17-year-old boys that I'm not a true Muslim because I'm not veiled. Who is telling them to say things like that?”

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The New York Times team assumes Polish Catholics are justifying anti-gay violence

The New York Times team assumes Polish Catholics are justifying anti-gay violence

Let’s start with the obvious: Poland is not the United States of America.

Whenever people try to tell me that America is a “Christian nation,” I argue that America is not a Christian nation — it is essentially a Protestant nation. It’s impossible to pin one religion label on the founders, whose perspectives ranged all over the place. (yes, including the views of Deists and the Thomas Jefferson enlightened Neo-Unitarian crowd).

No one perspective would rule. But the free exercise of religious beliefs and convictions would be protected — at the level of the First Amendment.

That said, the most religious corner of the American Bible Belt has nothing in its cultural DNA that resembles the history of Polish Catholicism, especially in the 20th century. Believers there know what a tyranny of iron looks like. They have fears and concerns that Americans cannot understand.

Obviously, this history includes hellish, horrible wrongs committed in the name of religion — like Polish individuals who cooperated with Nazis to crush Polish Jews (while others, like the future Pope St. John Paul II worked to protect Jews). The Catholic DNA in Polish life has also led to almost transcendent moments of constructive, positive action in public life. Think Solidarity.

So what is happening in Poland right now, with the clashes between Catholicism and the cultural armies of the European Union, “woke” multinational corporations and American popular culture?

It appears that editors at The New York Times are absolutely sure they know what is happening, as demonstrated in a recent story with this headline: “Anti-Gay Brutality in a Polish Town Blamed on Poisonous Propaganda.” Here is the overture:

BIALYSTOK, Poland — The marchers at the first gay pride parade here in the conservative Polish city of Bialystok expected that they would be met with resistance.

But last week when Katarzyna Sztop-Rutkowska saw the angry mob of thousands that awaited the marchers, who numbered only a few hundred, she was shocked.

“The most aggressive were the football hooligans, but they were joined by normal people — people with families, people with small children, elderly people,” she said.

They blocked her way, first hurling invective, then bricks and stones and fireworks, she said. From the balconies, people threw eggs and rotten vegetables. Even before the march started, there were violent confrontations, and by the time the tear gas cleared and the crowd dispersed, dozens were injured and Poland was left reeling.

First things first. It’s obvious that horrible violence took place, while different groups inside Poland may argue about the details. Second, it’s easy to find “poisonous propaganda” in Poland on LGBTQ issues.

But here is the big question raised in this story: Can readers trust the college of cultural cardinals at the Times to draw an accurate line separating violent opposition to European-style gay rights and the actions of Catholics — Pope Francis, even — who fear that some LGBTQ “reforms” are a form of aggressive Western colonialism in new garb?

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Church vandalism cases in France starting to get the journalism attention they deserve

Church vandalism cases in France starting to get the journalism attention they deserve

Spending two weeks in France earlier this summer was a wonderful experience. While I was there to cover the Women’s World Cup, I did get an opportunity to travel extensively throughout Paris and the northern part of the country.

During my travels, I walked into a lot of churches. France is one of the few countries I have ever visited where churches were always open. There was something comforting seeing churches with their doors swung wide, inviting anyone to walk right in.

The other thing I noticed was how empty these houses of worship were. It’s not surprising given that church attendance in France is among the lowest in the world.

I’m used to New York City, where churches are often locked when Mass isn’t going on. The reasons are plentiful. Theft, vandalism and other factors often goes into why this has become a practice. You’d think they would have heeded the warning in France, where the vandalism of Catholic churches has become an all-too-common occurrence the past two years.

This trend has largely been ignored in the mainstream press (we discussed this extensively at GetReligion at the time of the Notre Dame blaze and again in the aftermath). It should be noted, once again, that the fire at Notre Dame was an accident and not part of the spate of attacks.  

This takes us to a great piece of journalism by Real Clear Investigations, the same people who run Real Clear Politics (full disclosure: I have written for Real Clear Sports in the past). A recent piece posted to the site takes a deep dive into the trend, quantifying it with anecdotes, lots of data and interviews with people in the know. The reporting sheds a spotlight on the string of attacks and what it has done to France. It may be one of the best reported pieces on what’s been going on there by any news organization to date.

What Richard Bernstein has been able to do here is the kind of reporting that we no longer see. A former foreign correspondent at The New York Times, Bernstein worked as the paper’s Paris bureau chief from 1984 to 1987. His knowledge of the country, the history and factors that may have influenced the events of the past year shows through his reporting. These two paragraphs early on, for example, illustrate the magnitude of the problem — with help from data collected by various French authorities:

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This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

Back in my Denver dedace, I turned into a solid Denver Broncos fan.

That’s normal, of course, in Colorado. Following the Broncos was like, well, a RELIGION or something.

That’s precisely what I argued in a memo to the editor in 1988, when I argued that I should be part of the Rocky Mountain News team that was sent to cover the Broncos at the Super Bowl. I made a kind of sociological argument that, if Bronco fans were not practicing a religion of some kind, then the Denver area didn’t have a religion.

I didn’t win that argument. Then, during the media-fest preceding the game, this happened (as covered by the New York Times):

Most of the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins will join Saturday in a prayer meeting that is believed to be the first to bring together National Football League players from opposing teams on the eve of any game - much less a Super Bowl.

The meeting has created a sensitive situation. Front-office executives of both clubs are reportedly against the joint meeting, which they feel could diminish the competitive fervor the teams should take into such an important game.

John Beake, the Broncos' normally expansive general manager, was abrupt when asked about it this morning. 'Can't Say Anything'

''I can't say anything about it,'' he said, and told the caller to speak to the club's news media relations director, Jim Saccomano.

Yes, the editor asked me (still back in Denver) to dive in an help with coverage of this controversy.

In a way, this subject — broadly defined — is what host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week’s Crossroads podcast. (Click here to tune that in.) What is a “religion”? Who gets to decide what is a ”real” religion and what is a “fake” religion?

The news hook for this discussion was Gannett Tennessee Network coverage of a new state law that would ban wedding ceremonies being conducted by people who have been ordained through online sites that hand out ordination certificates after a few clicks of a mouse. Here’s the GetReligion post on that.

Needless to say, the lawyers linked to the Universal Life Church Monastery website are not to crazy about that and they are saying that this law violates their First Amendment-protected freedom to practice their religious convictions.

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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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