Terry Mattingly

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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USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

I realize that I told the following Colorado war story last year.

But I’m going to share it again, because it perfectly describes one of the concerns that a journalist/reader raised in an email the other day about a USA Today story that ran with this sweeping headline: “Clergy in Tennessee take a stand against slate of anti-LGBT legislation.”

Focus on the word’s “Clergy in Tennessee.” The lede then describes this group as 100-plus “religious leaders.” Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

OK, the setting for this mid-1980s war story is a press conference called by the Colorado Council of Churches, announcing its latest progressive pronouncement on this or that social issue. Here’s that flashback:

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then — with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). …

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if — other than the Catholic archdiocese — any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

In other words, I asked (a) what percentage of the state’s clergy were actually involved in the religious bodies that had, allegedly, endorsed this political statement and (b) whether the churches involved were, statistically speaking, still the dominant pew-level powers in that rapidly changing state. Note: Colorado Springs was already beginning to emerge as a national headquarters for evangelicals.

I thought that I was asking a basic journalism question, in terms of assessing to potential impact of this CCC statement. I will, however, admit that I was questioning the accuracy of the group’s “diversity” claims.

This brings us to the current USA Today story here in Tennessee. Here is the lede:

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NBC News wins gold-medal prize for most over-the-top, biased report (so far) on United Methodists

NBC News wins gold-medal prize for most over-the-top, biased report (so far) on United Methodists

Four different GetReligion readers — two of them journalists — sent me notes about an NBC News feature that ran the other day about liberal reactions to that special General Conference that reaffirmed, and even strengthened, the United Methodist Church’s support for old-fashioned, traditional teachings on marriage, sex and the Bible.

One note simply said “wow,” over and over.

Two used the same word — “ridiculous.”

Another added, “Something seems to be missing.”

You get the idea. If you are looking for some kind of gold-standard when it comes to one-sided, biased news coverage of this event — this is the story for you. This is a shake-your-head classic when it comes to assuming that there is only one side in this argument that deserves serious attention and, yes, respect.

Let’s start with the report’s coverage of the conservative side of the story. Ready?

Well, actually, there isn’t anything to quote. Sorry about that.

The story does not include a single sentence of material drawn from African, Asian or American delegates or insiders who support the church’s teachings that sex outside of traditional marriage is sin. That’s a stance that would be affirmed by leaders of the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, the majority of the world’s Anglicans, almost all Baptists and, well, you get the idea.

Journalists do not, of course, have to agree with this approach to doctrine. However, there’s no way around the fact that this point of view is crucial, in this debate, and it would help if readers had a chance to understand why traditional religious believers defend this stance.In this case, it’s crucial to know that the growing regions of the global United Methodist Church back this doctrinal approach, while the liberal corners of the church — in the United States, primarily — are in numerical decline.

Try to find that fact anywhere in the NBC News report. The story opens with the voice of a gay pastor — the Rev. Mark Thompson — and everything else that follows affirms the same perspective. You can catch the tone in this passage:

Thompson is just one individual within an expansive, diverse group of LGBTQ United Methodist Church leaders who have made enormous personal sacrifices for their faith. He, and countless others, had previously hoped that a vote during a special session of the UMC’s general conference last month would change the course of the church’s relationship with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

The vote, however, not only strengthened the church’s ban on openly gay clergy and same-sex marriages, but also increased penalties for future violations. Thompson, and multitudes of United Methodists in attendance, were gutted.

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'End Times' thinking: Do biblical prophecies explain why so many evangelicals back Israel?

'End Times' thinking: Do biblical prophecies explain why so many evangelicals back Israel?

Hey journalists, can you say “Premillennial Dispensationalism”?

Believe it or not, the odds are very good that, in most elite newsrooms, some editor or reporter on the political desk knows — or thinks that he or she knows — the meaning of this theological term. Hint: It’s a modern interpretation of apocalyptic passages in the Old and New Testament, producing a kind of “how many Israeli fighter jets can fit on the head of a pin” view of the end of the world.

After all, there are all of those “Left Behind” novels all over the place. Then the books led to several movies that, in some corners of the evangelical subculture, are kind of like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” They’re so over the top that they have become high-grade camp.

The key is that there are some modern Protestants who can accurately be called “Premillennial Dispensationalists.”

Repeat after me — “some.”

As in, “not all.” As in, not even a majority of conservative evangelicals fit under this doctrinal umbrella. Why does this matter, in political terms? Here is David French of National Review to explain, in this weekend’s think piece. If fact, this is a think piece inside of a think piece. Hold that thought.

It never fails. Whenever a Republican president makes a controversial or contentious move to support Israel — such as moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, or yesterday’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — you’ll see various “explainers” and other stories that purport to inform progressives why the American Evangelical community is so devoted to the nation of Israel.

The explanation goes something like this — Evangelicals believe that the rebirth of Israel is hastening not just the second coming of Christ, but a particular kind of second coming, one that includes fire, fury, and war that will consume the Jewish people.

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Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Way back in the 1980s, as the sex wars in the Episcopal Church really began to heat up, I heard a conservative priest tell a joke that gently mocked many of his Anglo-Catholic colleagues on the doctrinal right.

The whole point of the joke is that it is really hard to cut the ties that bind, when people have invested decades of their lives in religious institutions and traditions. And then there are the all-too human, practical details that come into play. In the end, it may be easier to edit the Apostles Creed and modernize the prayer book than it is to split the clergy pension play or divide a denomination’s trust funds.

Which brings us back to that joke that I have shared once or twice in the past. I have left the time-element in the first line intact. Like I said, it’s an old joke.

The year is 2012 … and two Anglo-Catholic priests in the back of National Cathedral are watching the Episcopal presiding bishop and her incense-bearing lover process down the aisle behind a statue of the Buddha, while the faithful sing a hymn to Mother Earth.

"You know," one traditionalist whispers, "ONE more thing and I'm out the door."

Right now, in the multi-decade United Methodist Church civil war, things may be close to reaching that point for LGBTQ clergy and their supporters on the denomination’s doctrinal left. What will it take for these believers — who are sincerely convinced that 2,000 years of Christian doctrines on marriage and sex should be changed — to decide that enough is enough?

That’s the key question that I asked during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. (Click here to tune that in, or head over the iTunes.) What would this old “ONE more thing” joke look like today, if you turned it around — doctrinally speaking — and looked at it from the point of view of United Methodists on the left?

Maybe you would have two United Methodist pastors from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver — long a safe haven for the left — standing at the back of a global General Conference that is being held in a United Methodist stronghold in Africa. They are watching an African bishop walk down the aisle with his wife with his hands in the air singing an evangelical praise song. The service ends with the Rev. Franklin Graham giving an altar call.

One more thing and I’m out the door?

Then what? That was the other half of the equation in this podcast. Follow me through a few “ifs” here.

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What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

What's wrong in Baltimore? You can't tell that story without listening to pastors and their people

If you lived in or near Baltimore during the spring and early summer of 2015 then you were affected, one way or another, by the waves of urban violence that shook the city.

This tragedy was impossible to ignore. It was more than images on the evening news. You could stand in your yard and see the smoke over the neighborhoods east and west of downtown. One night, the fires were so large that I could see the reddish-gold glow in the sky — fires that included a community center and senior-housing unit that was being built by Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

What happened to Baltimore in those months, and the stunning violence that has gripped the city ever since, is a massive, complex story. It’s a police story. It’s a story about drugs, young men on the loose and shattered families. It’s an education story. It’s a political story. It’s a tragic story about government officials trying to find someone to blame.

But if you followed the local news during those months (and some of the national television coverage) you also knew that what happened in Baltimore was a religion story.

This is no surprise, since black churches — old and new, past and present — have always played a major role in urban life when people try to cope with danger and tragedy. No one worked harder than Baltimore pastors when it came time to respond to the violence and the bitter realities that provided fuel for the fires.

That’s why I was disappointed when I read a massive story on this subject that ran the other day, co-produced by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine. Here’s the dramatic double-decker headline:

The Tragedy of Baltimore

Since Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, violent crime has spiked to levels unseen for a quarter century. How order collapsed in an American city.

Let me be clear. This is a must-read story for anyone who cares about urban life and issues facing the poor. I am also not arguing that it was wrong for the story to devote so much ink to police and government issues.

I am simply saying that this story needed to include some content from pastors and other church leaders — if one of the goals was to show how Baltimore people responded to the riots, or uprisings, of 2015. The story needed the voices of religious believers, if the goal was to listen to Baltimore.

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Accused Christchurch shooter: Young man defined by life on the computer and Medieval 'myths'

Accused Christchurch shooter: Young man defined by life on the computer and Medieval 'myths'

It’s the kind of news story that has turned into a cliche, in the age of mass shootings. Yes, we are talking about Brenton Harrison Tarrant and the massacres in New Zealand.

In the days after the hellish images on the Internet and then television, people close to the accused shooter — it’s almost always a young man — are interviewed and express shock. They usually talk about a boy who grew up to be a somewhat quiet, loner figure in their lives. Yes, the family had its challenges, but everything seemed kind of normal.

The question, of course, is what “normal” means, these days. In particular, is it safe to say that a key part of the new-male “normal” is best defined in terms of private activities online — hour after hour, day after day — behind a closed door? If that is the case, then no one really knows anything about these gunners until authorities piece together the contents of their secret digital lives.

This would be a good time to remind GetReligion readers of that set of lifestyle questions I asked future ministers to ponder back in the early 1990s, when I was teaching at Denver Seminary. Seeking a kind of sociological definition of “discipleship,” I urged them to ask three questions about the lives of the people in their pews and the people they hoped to reach in the community. The questions: How do they spend their time? How do they spend their money? How do they make their decisions?

As it turns out, these are good questions for reporters to ask when seeking the contents of the hearts, minds and souls of newsmakers. (That second question could be stated like this: Follow the money.)

With that in mind, consider two passages in a short — but very interesting — Washington Post sidebar that ran with this headline: “In Brenton Harrison Tarrant’s Australian hometown, his relatives remember violent video games, trouble with women.” Like I said, we’re talking about the new “normal.” Here is the overture:

GRAFTON, Australia — On the road into this small city, a sign is evidence of a community in shock: “He does not represent us,” it says, referring to the alleged killer few here will even name.

But nowhere was the shock more evident than among the relatives of 28-year-old Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who has been accused of a hate-fueled massacre that left 50 people dead in two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Friday.

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New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

New York Times weighs in, offering one side of bitter disputes inside United Methodist Church

If you’ve been following United Methodist Twitter, you know that this bitterly divided denomination has been in a behind-the-scenes uproar about a New York Times gotcha story that ran the other day. The headline: “Improper Voting Discovered at Methodist Vote on Gay Clergy.”

This is the rare case in which news consumers can find more information, and even a hint of balanced coverage, by reading official press releases from United Methodist News. Take this story, for example: “Denials, charges fly in GC2019 voting credentials review.” In this story — from the denominational press — there are actual interviews with people on the conservative side of this battle.

But back to the world’s most powerful newspaper.

Here’s a crucial question, a question that the Times story did ask and, to some degree, did answer: Did voting issues affect the crucial outcomes in the recent general conference in St. Louis? We are talking about the votes that defeated the One Church Plan favored by the United Methodist Church’s American establishment and the vote that passed some elements of the Traditionalist Plan favored by a coalition of American evangelicals and delegates from the Global South.

The Times piece played down, and avoided specifics, on another crucial issue: The fact that 30 overseas delegates were not able to attend, and thus were unable to vote, because of issues obtaining U.S. visas. In other words, the Global South coalition was stronger than it appeared in the final votes. The issue with visas also points to another issue in the Times report: Squabbles (and, potentially, translation issues) over the status of “reserve” delegates at the conference. Thus, the overture for the story:

It was a momentous vote for the United Methodist Church, as the future of the country’s second-largest Protestant church hung in the balance. In a former football stadium in St. Louis last month, church officials and lay leaders from around the world voted to strengthen their ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, a decision that could now split the church.

But at least four ballots were cast by individuals who were not authorized to vote, according to interviews and a review of the church’s records. The individuals were from African delegations whose votes were critical to restricting the church’s rules on homosexuality.

The final 54-vote margin against gay clergy and same-sex marriage exceeds the number of unauthorized votes discovered so far. But the voting irregularities raised questions about the process behind the divisive decision, which devastated progressive members. Some have discussed leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.

The bottom line, of course, is whether American church officials can find a way to challenge the validity of the St. Louis votes and fight on, continuing decades of work to change the denomination’s teachings on sexuality, marriage and the ordination of clergy.

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News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

There were a lot of different subjects swirling around during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, so I don’t know exactly where to start. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes.)

On one level, host Todd Wilken and I talked about church buildings and sacred architecture. You know, the whole idea that church architecture is theology expressed in (List A) stone, timber, brick, stucco, copper, iron and glass.

Ah, but is the theology different if the materials being used are (List B) sheetrock, galvanized steel, plastic, concrete, rubber and plywood?

What if you built a Byzantine, Orthodox sanctuary out of the materials in List B and accepted the American construction-industry norms that a building will last about 40-50 years? Contrast that with a church built with List A materials, using many techniques that have been around for centuries and are meant to produce churches that last 1,000 years or more.

These two churches would look very similar. The provocative issue raised by church designer and art historian Andrew Gould — of New World Byzantine Studios, in Charleston, S.C. — is whether one of these two churches displays a “sacred ethos” that will resonate with the teachings of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, while the other may be both modern and more temporary.

Here’s another question along those same lines: Why did farmers, merchants and peasants in places like Greece, Russia, Serbia and Romania for many centuries insist on building churches that would last for generation after generation of believers? Also, why are the faithful in many modern, prosperous American communities tempted to build churches that may start to fall apart after a few decades?

Here’s the end of my “On Religion” column about Gould and his work, based on a lecture he gave at my own Orthodox home parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — which is poised to build a much-needed new sanctuary.

“If you build something that looks like a Byzantine church, but it isn’t really built like a Byzantine church, then it isn’t going to look and sound and function like a Byzantine church — generation after generation,” said Gould.

“The goal in most architecture today is to create the appearance of something, not the reality. ... When you build one of these churches, you want the real thing. You want reality. You want a church that’s going to last.”

Now, is this a very newsworthy subject?

Maybe not. But some of these issues can be spotted looming over big headlines some big stories in places like New York City.

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