Pope Francis

Beyond covering vigils and funerals: What’s the Catholic church’s position on guns?

Beyond covering vigils and funerals: What’s the Catholic church’s position on guns?

I have attended many vigils and funeral services in my years as a news reporter. I did so primarily as a general assignment reporter covering crime in New York City throughout the early 2000s.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I attended dozens of funerals for firefighters and other first-responders who perished during the collapse of the World Trade Center in the biggest terror attack on American soil.

There is a new terror threat that faces our nation. The rise of domestic terrorists with easy access to guns have made even a routine weekend trip to the mall something to fear. Those memories of covering vigils and funerals — many involving children and teens shot and killed in senseless gang violence — came flooding back to my mind this past weekend.

The back-to-back massacres — one at a Texas Walmart on Saturday and another in an Ohio nightclub the following day — cast a pall on our nation at a time when many families are enjoying time at the beach.

Again, the violence had to do with guns. As flowers and candles piled up at both scenes of the tragedy, the political response was all about finger-pointing and racism. It was yet another example of our country’s increased political (and news media) polarization. Mainstream media news coverage could be summed out this way: Democrats blamed President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, while Republicans pointed the finger at mental illness and violent video games.

The news coverage was predictable, boilerplate even. As usual, it lacked any real focus on religion, either in the many main news stories of the first few days or the sidebars that evolved. You would think the aftermath of two major tragedies wouldn’t lack talk of faith. Instead, the focus was politics — both regarding the motives of the shooters in each case and the need for gun control.

It’s a topic that comes up each time there is a mass shooting. And each time the coverage lacks any real consideration for what faith-based organizations are doing to try and stop future incidents. That is, have religious leaders offered more than prayers.

In this case, what the Catholic church has done to reduce gun violence has gone largely unreported or underreported the past few years.

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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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Associated Press digs into hush-hush network that protects priests -- on Catholic right only

Associated Press digs into hush-hush network that protects priests -- on Catholic right only

If there was an omnipresent reader who had somehow managed to follow my 30-plus years of work linked to the Catholic clergy sex crisis, I think that she or he would have spotted at least one overarching theme.

The big idea: This is a scandal that cannot be divided according to liberal and conservative prejudices. Anyone who tried to do that would have to avoid too many case studies, too many tragedies, too many people — on the left and right — hiding too many crimes. I have argued that wise, patient reporters will listen to liberal and conservative activists and then search for issues and ideas that they share in common.

Hold that thought, because I will end with that.

Every now and then, we see an important story produced by journalists (often in the mainstream press) who seem to think the scandal is all about the sins of conservatives or (often in some independent Catholic publication) all about the sins of liberals.

The Associated Press just produced a story of this kind, a report that raises important issues and was built on tons of journalism legwork to get solid sources. It’s a valid and important story. But it appears that these journalists only saw half of a larger tragedy. The headline: “Unmarked buildings, quiet legal help for accused priests.”

Yes, secrets were uncovered. But stop and think about that headline. Is the assumption that all Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse are, in fact, guilty? Is it possible to imagine that some Catholics might support efforts to research and clear the names of priests who they believe have been falsely accused and have valid reasons to do so? And are all these efforts on the right? Just asking.

Here is the AP overture:

DRYDEN, Mich. (AP) — The visiting priests arrived discreetly, day and night.

Stripped of their collars and cassocks, they went unnoticed in this tiny Midwestern town as they were escorted into a dingy warehouse across from an elementary school playground. Neighbors had no idea some of the dressed-down clergymen dining at local restaurants might have been accused sexual predators.

They had been brought to town by a small, nonprofit group called Opus Bono Sacerdotii. For nearly two decades, the group has operated out of a series of unmarked buildings in rural Michigan, providing money, shelter, transport, legal help and other support to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse across the country.

Again and again, Opus Bono has served as a rapid-response team for the accused.

That leads us to the big, sweeping thesis statement:

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The Vatican press office has turned over, again. There are new challenges ahead

The Vatican press office has turned over, again. There are new challenges ahead

The Vatican press office may be second only to the White House communications department when it comes to ranking the world’s busiest public relations operation.

Like President Donald Trump, Pope Francis and the Holy See are in some serious need of daily damage control. The resurfacing of the clergy sex abuse scandal — year after year for decades — and the allegations that led to the downfall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick have been the Vatican’s biggest PR headaches over the past year.

Responsible for handling the Holy See’s messaging on the clergy scandal and a host of other issues will be a retooled press office. Much of the turmoil that has surrounded the pope and the Catholic church over the past year called for an overhaul of the Holy See’s press operation.

The past two weeks has seen a flurry of announcements, including the naming of a new press office director and vice director (more on this position further down), two of the biggest jobs at the Vatican held by lay people.  

Pope Francis appointed Matteo Bruni as director of the Holy See Press Office earlier this month, replacing Alessandro Gisotti who’d been serving in the role on an interim basis following the abrupt resignations of Greg Burke, a former Fox News Channel reporter, and Paloma Garcia Ovejero, who had also worked as a journalist in her native Spain, at the end of last year. Gisotti was in charge throughout the Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano saga. Vigano has claimed that Francis covered up the misconduct of McCarrick, something the pontiff has repeatedly denied.

With Bruni’s appointment, Gisotti has been given the role of vice editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication. He will serve under editorial director Andrea Tornielli, who’s been in the job since December, and Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication since July 2018.

Bruni, Gisotti, Tornielli and Ruffini are all Italians, experienced PR men loyal to the church.

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Thinking about married priests: Has this issue outgrown old 'left' vs. 'right' framework?

Thinking about married priests: Has this issue outgrown old 'left' vs. 'right' framework?

Long ago — in the mid-1980s — I covered an event in Denver that drew quite a few conservative Catholic leaders. There was lots of time to talk, in between sessions.

During one break, I asked a small circle of participants to tell me what they thought were the biggest challenges facing the Catholic church. This was about the time — more than 30 years ago — laypeople people began talking about the surge in reports about clergy sexual abuse of children and teens.

Someone said the biggest challenge — looking into the future with a long lens — was the declining number of men seeking the priesthood. At some point, he added, the church would need to start ordaining married men to the priesthood. Others murmured agreement.

I made a mental note. This was the first time I had ever heard Catholic conservatives — as opposed to spirit of Vatican II progressives or ex-priests — say that they thought the Church of Rome would need to return to the ancient pattern — with married priests as the norm, and bishops being drawn from among celibate monastics. Since then, I have heard similar remarks from some Catholics on the right.

That hot button term — “married priests” — is back in the news, with open talk in the Amazon region about the ordination older married men, drawn from their local communities, to the priesthood.

Could this happen? Let’s look at two think pieces by well-known Catholic priests, one on the left side of the church and one on the right. The conservative priest — a former Anglican pastor — is married, with a family.

First up is the omnipresent — in U.S. media circles — Jesuit journalist Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analysts at Religion News Service. He used to be the editor at America magazine. Here is a crucial chunk of a recent Reese commentary for RNS:

Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed. … Although Pope Francis places a very high value on celibacy, he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don’t have priests.

After all, which is more important, a celibate priesthood or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” not “have a celibate priesthood.”

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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 journalism question: Would new U.S. bishops hotline have nabbed 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick?

Big journalism question: Would new U.S. bishops hotline have nabbed 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick?

I have talked to quite a few Catholics in the past year — laypeople and journalists, mainly — and I have read quite a bit of commentary by Catholic clergy and other insiders.

There are two questions that I keep running into over and over. Both are relevant in light of the vote by U.S. Catholic bishops to create a third-party anonymous hotline that will handle accusations of misconduct by bishops, archbishops and cardinals. Here is a Crux summary of that:

The reporting system will be managed by an independent body that will receive complaints that will be reported to the metropolitan (or regional) archbishop who, in accordance with Pope Francis’s new ‘motu proprio’, Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”), is responsible for investigating claims against bishops.

Vos estis requires that local bishops’ conferences must establish a “public, stable and easily accessible” system for submitting abuse claims and also that the reports are sent to the metropolitans (or their senior suffragans if the report is against the metropolitan). In the United States, there are 32 territorial archdioceses (or metropolitans).

Here is the lede on the Washington Post story about that vote, which includes a blunt paraphrase of one possible implications of this decision, in terms of enforcement:

The U.S. Catholic bishops voted … to create the first national hotline for reporting sexual abuse committed by or mishandled by bishops. But they specified that the hotline send reports directly to other bishops, essentially demanding that the leaders of the scandal-plagued church police themselves instead of turning toward outside authorities.

Hold that thought.

This brings me back to the two questions that have haunted me over the past year. (1) Would abuse accusations against former cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick have reached the public without the existence of the Lay Review Board in the Archdiocese of New York? (2) Would the New York Times have published its bombshell stories about McCarrick — one of the most powerful U.S. Catholics ever, in terms of media clout — without the knowledge that this Lay Review Board existed and could report its findings?

The bottom line: Why is the involvement of laypeople such an important factor in the McCarrick story?

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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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'Why do you want Bishop Olson to be removed?' Yes, Texas newspaper's survey seems, um, one-sided

'Why do you want Bishop Olson to be removed?' Yes, Texas newspaper's survey seems, um, one-sided

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a somewhat lengthy story out today reporting that “Hundreds of parishioners from across the Diocese of Fort Worth have begun the process to ask Pope Francis to remove Bishop Michael Olson.”

The story quotes in quite a bit of detail a canon lawyer named Philip Gray, who is president of The St. Joseph Foundation. The Star-Telegram says he “is advising the groups, gathering evidence and writing the petition.”

Strangely enough, though, the piece doesn’t quote a single upset parishioner.

So it’s only a minor surprise that the paper has a form at the bottom of the report asking for feedback from readers:

Do you want the Vatican to investigate Bishop Michael Olson or the Fort Worth Diocese? We want to hear your story.

But the wording of one of the questions in particular doesn’t seem entirely, um, impartial.

Here it is:

Why do you want Bishop Olson to be removed?

Not do you want Bishop Olson to be removed? But why do you want Bishop Olson to be removed?

That won’t skew the submissions at all, will it?

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