Sex

As Pope Benedict XVI re-enters the fray, experts take broad look at U.S. Catholicism

As Pope Benedict XVI re-enters the fray, experts take broad look at U.S. Catholicism

Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden emergence from the cloister may well prove to be the religion story of the year.

The media speculated on how things would work six years ago when Benedict broke precedent to abdicate instead of serving as pope till death, to be  succeeded by Pope Francis. Benedict largely maintained silence, lest Catholics think they had two popes. That period ended with a flash last week when conservative Catholic outlets released Benedict’s remarkable 6,000-word  analysis of the Catholic Church’s unrelenting scandals over priests’ sexual abuse of underage victims.

Benedict, who said he cleared the publication with Pope Francis, evidently felt he must plunge into the debate because he thinks the reigning pontiff’s February summit meeting on the sexual-abuse crisis was a flop and the church has not solved this severe and enervating crisis (nor did it when Benedict himself was in charge). Media on both the Catholic right and left said Benedict and his allies are setting up a  clash with his more liberal successor on the causes and cures of the scandal. 

Benedict sees alienation from God as the heart of the matter, with relaxed attitudes toward sin and sex from secular culture that infiltrated the priesthood from secular culture, while “homosexual cliques … significantly changed the climate” in seminaries.

Meanwhile, Francis and his allies stress the need for internal structural reforms in the church. (For what it’s worth, The Guy suspects both pontiffs are correct on the Catholic emergency.)    

What should reporters be doing in the wake of Francis’s summit,  Benedict’s breakout, and ongoing news?

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Some blunt Leon Podles comments on Benedict XVI's statement on sex-abuse crisis

Some blunt Leon Podles comments on Benedict XVI's statement on sex-abuse crisis

It isn’t everyday that you get to point readers toward a think piece written by a pope, even if we are talking about a retired pope, in this case.

It also helps that retired Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the hottest of hot-button topics in Catholic life — the ongoing scandal of Catholic priests sexually abusing children, with the vast majority of the victims being teen-aged males. That has created all kinds of hot topics to debate or to attempt to avoid debating.

Reactions to the letter have been predictable, to say the least, renewing discussions of the church of Pope Francis and the church of Pope Benedict XVI. The same has been true in the press, with this New York Times story being so predictable that, at times, it verges on self-parody. This Washington Post story hows evidence that reporters tried to gather cheers and boos that were linked to the crucial passages in the retired pope’s text. Here’s the Post overture:

ROME — Breaking years of silence on major church affairs, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written a lengthy letter devoted to clerical sex abuse in which he attributes the crisis to a breakdown of church and societal moral teaching and says he felt compelled to assist “in this difficult hour.”

The 6,000-word letter, written for a small German Catholic publication and published in translation by other outlets Thursday, laments the secularization of the West, decries the 1960s sexual revolution and describes seminaries that became filled during that period with “homosexual cliques.”

It helps, of course, to read the actual text of “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse.” Click here for an English translation, care of Catholic News Agency.

The key is that Benedict — returning to a theme voiced throughout his long public life — warns believers that they are living in an age in which the basics of Christian faith are under attack (even in seminaries). Thus, Christians in a smaller, embattled, church must be prepared to get back to the basics of doctrine and sacraments. Just going to Mass will not be enough. Note this passage:

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Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

A long, long time ago — the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion column” — I wrote a tribute to the trailblazing work of sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. How long ago was that? Well, today is the 31st anniversary of my first syndicated column hitting the wires.

Hunter is best known as the author of “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” This book, more than any other, has influenced my work as a religion-beat columnist.

The words “culture wars” are used all the time by people who clearly have never read Hunter’s book. His thesis is that the old doctrinal, horizontal, denomination divisions in American life have been replaced by a vertical fault line that is much more basic, cutting into almost all religious pews and pulpits.

Hang in there with me. I am working my way to the rapid emergence of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a White House candidate, in part because of his ability to unite Democrats on the religious and non-religious left. I wrote about that the other day (“Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg“) and “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I returned to that topic in this week’s podcast. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes and sign up.)

But back to Hunter and the religious schism in modern America’s foundation:

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

So, what was the big quote from Buttigieg that sent a Barack-Obama-style thrill up the legs of legions of journalists and inspired waves of news coverage?

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Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

For nearly three decades, I have taught journalism and mass media in colleges and institutions (even a seminary) linked to conservative forms of Protestantism.

As you would expect, I have heard lots of complaining about the state of journalism in America, especially mainstream media coverage of religion. That’s a topic, of course, that I have been studying since 1981, when I began work on my University of Illinois graduate project (click here to see “Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets,” the short version that ran in The Quill).

To cut to the chase: I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard a conservative of some stripe say that “journalists hate religion,” or words to that effect.

That is, of course, an inaccurate and simplistic statement. In my experience, many — perhaps most — journalists have no problem with forms of religion that support modernized forms of morality. Long ago, Harvard Law grad and former New York Daily News legal affairs reporter William Proctor put it this way, when I interviewed him about his book “The Gospel According to The New York Times”:

… Critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty."

"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

This brings me to this week’s blitz of coverage of the all-but-announced White House bid of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The USA Today headline that really started things rolling stated, “Buttigieg to Pence: If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator.” That USA Today piece, focusing on religious issues, followed a Washington Post reference to the gay politico’s open discussions of his faith.

Let me stress that this is a totally valid story and a quite important one, in part because Buttigieg is working hard to develop a more mainstream form of religious liberalism.

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W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness

W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness

I have long lived under the callow impression that nothing makes sex less sexy than church conventions gathering for protracted debates about sex.

An April 4 essay for The Atlantic by W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone proves me wrong: one thing that makes sex even less sexy than a church convention’s debate about sex is a line chart showing how often people of a given age bracket have made the two-backed beast from 1990 to 2018. 

Professor Wilcox has done important research about family life and its interaction with faith, and this essay does not diminish my respect for him.

Nevertheless, when the essay follows Kate Julian’s “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” (to which Wilcox and Stone link), it leaves the impression that editors at The Atlantic have an odd fixation with this topic. Can a full-time gig as American coitus editor be in some young writer’s future?

To their credit, Wilcox and Stone acknowledge that academic writing about sex is not aflame with passion: “In the antiseptic language of two economists who study happiness, ‘sexual activity enters strongly positively in happiness equations.’”

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Religion ghosts? New York Times says America's biggest economic issue is demographic decline

Religion ghosts? New York Times says America's biggest economic issue is demographic decline

Things were looking good for the Episcopal Church in 1966, when its membership hit 3.6 million — an all-time high. Then the numbers began to decline, year after year and decade after decade. At the moment, there are 1.6 million or so Episcopalians.

Why is this happening? Episcopal Church leaders have been asked that question many times, because it’s a valid and important question.

No one has ever given a more concise — bold, even — answer than the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, when she said down for a “State of the Church” chat with the New York Times Magazine soon after her 2006 election as national presiding bishop. Here is the crucial exchange:

How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children? 

No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

In other words, her critics said, Episcopalians are too smart to have lots of babies (unlike Catholics and Latter-day Saints) and, besides, most members of this flock have theological reasons not to procreate.

What we have here is a classic example of the formula that I keep writing about here at GetReligion, which I state this way, offering a third factor to a familiar equation: Doctrine equals demographics equals destiny.

That brings me to this new headline at the Times:

America’s Biggest Economic Challenge May Be Demographic Decline

Slower growth in the working-age population is a problem in much of the country. Could targeted immigration policy help solve it?

Here is the rather sobering overture:

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Texas papers deliver more hard-hitting, must-read reporting on Southern Baptists' 'Abuse of Faith'

Texas papers deliver more hard-hitting, must-read reporting on Southern Baptists' 'Abuse of Faith'

Back in February, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News published the results of a six-month investigation into sex abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The “Abuse of Faith” series, which can be read online, was mammoth in size and devastating in its findings. Here at GetReligion, I characterized the project as “exceptionally important, powerhouse journalism.”

Immediately, the stories sent tremors through the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and prompted SBC President J.D. Greear to propose reforms. However, our own tmatt noted that the SBC’s legal structure would affect the fight against abuse.

Fast-forward almost two months, and it’s obvious that the papers that invested so much reporting muscle and newsprint ink into the investigation remain on the case.

The Chronicle (and I’m assuming the Express-News) published important follow-up reports over the weekend. Since I subscribe to the Houston paper, I know that one piece ran at the top of Saturday’s front page and the other at the top of Sunday’s front page.

The Saturday story concerned a Houston church dropping out of the local Baptist association and the national SBC as a result of the Texas papers reporting on its pastor’s sex abuse history.

The lede:

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Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

This may sound simplistic, but here goes. With most news events that involve elections, or votes to settle disputes inside an organization, there will be a winning side and a losing side.

Life is more complex than that, of course, and the “winners” of a single vote may not be the winners over the long haul. But let’s say that the winners keep winning the big votes for a decade or two.

At that point, journalists need to do one of two things. First, journalists can produce a story that, as Job 1, focuses on what the winners plan to do (since they won) and then, as Job 2, covers how the losing side plans to respond. The alternative is to write a major story about the winning group and then, to offer needed balance, to write a second story about how this outcome will affect the losing side.

With that in mind, please consider the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: “U.S. Methodist leaders lay plans to resist vote against same-sex marriage.” That is one way to state the issue — looking at this from the losing side of the equation.

It would be just as accurate to say that this was a vote — the latest of many — defending the United Methodist Church’s stance in favor of ancient (thinking church history) doctrines on marriage and sex. You could also say that the key votes focused on whether UMC clergy can be required to honor their ordination vows to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline. However, that would be the point of view held by the winners, after that special global UMC general convention held recently in St. Louis.

So the Post team doing? The headline states the editorial approach: This is a feature story built on the reactions on the losing side in St. Louis, the plans of the left-of-center establishment that has long controlled UMC life in the United States. That’s it. That’s what readers get. Thus, the overture:

When the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy last month, Methodist pastors and churchgoers across America were devastated. A majority of American delegates had voted against the plan, though they were outvoted by more conservative delegates from Africa and other continents.

In the weeks since, several small but powerful cadres of pastors and bishops have begun plotting paths to overturn or undermine the decision.

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Gray Lady skips some icky details in obit for Cardinal Danneels, a key Pope Francis supporter

Gray Lady skips some icky details in obit for Cardinal Danneels, a key Pope Francis supporter

What would it take to force The New York Times to criticize the career of a liberal Catholic who backed the modernization of Catholic teachings on many topics close to the hearts of the Gray Lady’s editors?

To answer that question, take a look at the recent Times obituary for the highly influential Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium.

Readers can start, of course, with the headline: “Godfried Danneels, Liberal Cardinal Tainted by Sex Scandal, Dies at 85.” That pretty much sums up the obituary as a whole. This cardinal was a liberal, but he was also a liberal with a connection to The Scandal. That’s bad.

The key to this obituary — no surprise — is what it does not include, especially the voices of Catholics who criticized his efforts to liberalize church doctrines on sexuality. For example, they criticized church sex-education materials about children, sex and pedophilia. Hold that thought. Here is the Times overture:

ROME — Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, a liberal supporter of Pope Francis and a former Vatican adviser whose long pastoral career was damaged in a sex-abuse scandal after his retirement, died on March 14 at his home in Mechelen, north of Brussels. He was 85. …

Cardinal Danneels, who spoke several languages, was considered a progressive in Roman Catholic leadership, supporting a greater role for women in the church and a less rigid policy against contraception. He believed that H.I.V.-positive people should be able to use condoms rather than risk transmitting the virus.

Years before Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by retiring in 2013, Cardinal Danneels had raised the possibility of popes retiring in advanced age or when their health deteriorated. He was a target of conservative critics in his 29 years as president of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference. They complained that he had not done enough to thwart growing secularization in Belgium, whose government has approved same-sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, euthanasia and experiments on human embryos.

Then there is the scandal, itself. The Times — to its credit — puts some damning details right at the top of this report.

Cardinal Danneels’s reputation was badly hurt shortly after he retired in 2010, when Belgian newspapers released recordings of a secretly taped conversation in which he was heard urging a victim of serial sexual abuse by a bishop to say nothing about it for a year, until the bishop — the victim’s own uncle — could retire. The bishop was Roger Vangheluwe, who was 73 at the time.

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