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How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis

How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis

The events of the past few days have truly been monumental for the Roman Catholic church.

You may not have noticed — unless you’ve bothered to read the ever-growing list of Catholic news websites on both the right and left. While liberals and conservatives within the church continue to wage a very public war over everything from the future of Christendom in the West to the ongoing clerical abuse crisis, two prominent voices have led the charge when it comes to these two issues.

Again, it was conservative Catholic media that proved to be the preferred mouthpiece for Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Both men — with help from right-leaning news organizations — have been very vocal about the problems plaguing the modern church in our ever-secular world.

It is fitting that these two men — one considered a potential future pope, the other already a pope — are the ones leading the charge as the church continues to become polarized. Under Francis’ papacy, the ideological split has become more pronounced. As the curia continues to polarize itself in public on issues like immigration and homosexuality, church leaders like Sarah and Benedict refuse to be silenced. Once again, it’s those Catholic media voices on the right that are helping to spread their message.

Case in point: this past week. At a time when Christians around the world continue on their Lenten journey, Sarah and Benedict are making a statement about the direction of Catholicism, the legacy of Vatican II and where the church is going. Sarah, who hails from the majority-Muslim nation of Guinea in Africa, contrasted Pope Francis’ statements in telling Christian nations they should open their borders to Islamic refugees.

The 73-year-old cardinal, in his new book” Evening Draws Near” and the “Day is Nearly Over,” argues that it’s wrong to “use the Word of God to promote migration.” Sarah laments the “collapse of the West” and what he calls “migratory processes” that threatens Europe’s Christian identity. As birthrates continue to drop across Europe, and workers from other continents are needed to take jobs, the culture of the continent is changing.

“If Europe disappears, and with it the priceless values of the Old Continent, Islam will invade the world and we will completely change culture, anthropology and moral vision,” he wrote.It’s worth noting that Sarah has been at odds with Pope Francis and his allies over an array of issues, including liturgical matters and translations of Latin texts.

The excerpt was largely ignored by mainstream news outlets.

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The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather, before it was an Academy-Award winning film, was a book. The crime novel, written by Mario Puzo, was released on March 10, 1969. The fictional account of Vito Corleone’s life is chronicled during a 10-year span starting in 1945.

The book’s 50th anniversary has been a great opportunity for newspapers, magazines and websites — especially the ones that cover the entertainment industry — to unleash nostalgia pieces looking back at the book and the three movies that later grew out of Puzo’s book and Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece films, the first of which was released in 1972.

Amid all the immorality, crime, violence and ultimately Michael Corleone’s final despair (for anyone who could sit through The Godfather III) isn’t just a series of mob movies. The Godfather book and movie trilogy is loaded with religious symbolism.

Anniversary journalism is a very big part of what reporters write and what Google search thrives on — so it’s important that The Godfather get the proper treatment. This is something another book/movie from that era, The Exorcist, also suffered the same lack of religion coverage.

Since Corleone (played by Marlon Brando and by Roberto De Nero in the sequel during the flashback scenes) is an immigrant from Sicily, the story’s symbolism is largely Roman Catholic. Like The Exorcist, The Godfather has suffered the same journalistic fate when it comes to lack of a religion angle. Even the book’s name, The Godfather, refers to a male godparent in the Christian tradition tied with baptism and original sin.

This is not to say the Catholic angle has been totally ignored. In 2013, The Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Atlanta diocese, ran an opinion piece by Dr. David King, an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University.

Though Coppola himself has struggled with his Catholicism, his imagination is so steeped in Catholic practice and atmosphere that he can never fully abandon the faith, any more than his greatest character Michael Corleone can. Coppola has often said that his favorite word is “hope,” and it is that sense of hope and belief in redemption that best defines “The Godfather” films as Catholic art.

King goes on to say that the films are “full of Catholic themes, including justice and mercy, fate vs. spirituality, the dialectic between family and country and community, the letter and the spirit of the law, and time and timelessness, they are also charged with a deep Catholic mise en scene, or atmosphere.”  

The Church is everywhere in “The Godfather” films: baptisms, funerals, confessions.

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Down memory lane: A brief history of Catholic leaks that made news

Down memory lane: A brief history of Catholic leaks that made news

This is another of those religion beat nostalgia Memos, inspired by a pretty sensational March 22 scoop  in America magazine from its Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell. He reported the precise number of votes for all 22 candidates on the first ballot when the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis in 2013.  

The cardinals’ first round usually scatters votes across assorted friends and favorite sons, but a telltale pattern appeared immediately. The Italian favorite, Angelo Scola, got only 30 votes, with the eventual winner, Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, close behind at 26 and Canadian Marc Ouellet at 22. In a major surprise, Boston’s Sean O’Malley was fourth with 10 votes, and New York’s Timothy Dolan got two. Clearly, the electors would forsake not just Italy but the Old World entirely and choose the Western Hemisphere’s first pontiff .

As so often occurs, the Washington Post immediately grabbed an important religion story that other media missed, with Michelle Boorstein adding a beat specialist’s knowing perspective (behind pay wall).

O’Connell likewise demonstrates the virtues of specialization. He has worked the Vatican beat for various Catholic periodicals since 1985, a task that requires long-term cultivation of prelates who spill secrets. (Or did his wife, a Vatican correspondent from the pope’s homeland, acquire this leak?)

Adding to the intrigue, in papal elections each cardinal must take a solemn oath before God to maintain strict secrecy on everything that occurred, under pain of excommunication.

Yet O’Connell’s oath-busting leak appeared in a magazine of Francis’s own religious order, the Jesuits.  The article was excerpted from “The Election of Pope Francis,” O’Connell’s fuller version to be published April 24 by  another Catholic entity, the Maryknoll order’s Orbis Books.

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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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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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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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Vatican archives coverage was missed chance to dig into John Paul II's Jewish outreach

Vatican archives coverage was missed chance to dig into John Paul II's Jewish outreach

The announcement by Pope Francis that the Vatican had decided to open up the its archives on World War II-era Pope Pius XII — long criticized by many for staying largely silent during the Holocaust and the horrors committed by the Nazis — flooded the internet.

Got news? Words like “secret” and “files” are catnip for editors looking to fill news budgets at the start of the week.

That’s why the so-called “Friday news dump” has become such a thing in recent years, especially among politicians attempting to bury bad news at the start of the weekend when people pay less attention. In the case of Pope Francis, there’s no hiding an announcement that could forever alter Catholic-Jewish relations going forward.

Lost in all the intrigue of these Holocaust-era archives was the chance by mainstream news outlets to give some broader context for what all this means regarding Catholic-Jewish relations and the complicated history between these two faith traditions. There are several factors as to why the news coverage didn’t feature more depth. The lack of religion beat writers (an issue discussed on this website at great length over the years) and the frenetic pace of the internet to write a story (and quickly move on to another) are two of the biggest hurdles of this story and so many others.

A general sweep of the coverage shows that news organizations barely took on the issue — or even bothered to give a deeper explanation — of past Christian persecution of Jews and the efforts made since the Second Vatican Council, and later by Saint Pope John Paul II, to bring healing to this relationship.

The news coverage surrounding the announcement that the archives would be released in 2020 — eight years earlier than expected — was largely collected from an article published in Italian by Vatican News, the official news website of the Holy See. In it, Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “The church is not afraid of history. On the contrary, she loves it and would like to love it more and better, just as she loves God.”

What would have triggered a “sidebar story” or a “timeline” in the days of newspapers, is largely lost in the digital age. Both would have certainly included the name and work of John Paul II.

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Overlooked during Vatican summit blitz: New York Times looks at sexual abuse -- in Italy

Overlooked during Vatican summit blitz: New York Times looks at sexual abuse -- in Italy

What a wild week it has been on the religion-news beat, with the Vatican sexual-abuse summit blitzi rolling over into the long-awaited United Methodist special conference on marriage, sexuality, church tradition and the Bible.

Please allow me to pause and grab something out of my GetReligion “guilt file” — as in an important story from the Vatican coverage that I didn’t have time to address at the time.

Early on in the Vatican summit, I wrote a GetReligion piece with this headline: “'Abuse of minors' — Rare chance to hear New York Times sing harmony with Vatican establishment.” I found it interesting to see the world’s most powerful newspaper sticking really close to the Catholic establishment’s media-message line that the conference was about the clergy sexual abuse of children and that’s that. What about seminarians? What about the abuse of teen-aged males? What about the nuns? I thought it was strange.

I stand by that post. However, that doesn’t mean that the Times didn’t offer other coverage that turned against the Vatican tide.

So let’s flash back to this important headline: “The Vatican Is Talking About Clerical Abuse, but Italy Isn’t. Here’s Why.” Things get interesting at the very beginning, in the anecdotal lede:

SAVONA, Italy — On camping trips, Francesco Zanardi and other boys from his local parish always dreaded being called to sleep in their priest’s tent.

“We all knew what would happen to the boy in the tent,” said Mr. Zanardi, who said he was first abused by his priest at age 11.

Speaking in Savona, a port city in northwestern Italy that gave the church two popes, Mr. Zanardi, 48, said the victimization went on for years, traumatizing him and leading to a substance abuse problem. It also led him to help found Rete L’Abuso, the first support group for clerical abuse survivors in Italy — a country that, in an added indignity, often doesn’t seem to care.

That indifference is largely due, experts say, to how tightly intertwined the Roman Catholic Church is with Italian culture and history. Even today, though the Vatican and its popes don’t wield the power they used to, parish churches and priests often play a central role in the life of a community.

Note these words — “first abused by his priest at age 11” and the “victimization went on for years.”

In other words, what we have here is a classic case of grooming a post-pubescent male as he enters the teen years.

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Economist package offers an upbeat slant on Islam in modern Europe and America

Economist package offers an upbeat slant on Islam in modern Europe and America

The shrinkage of U.S. newsmagazines, which at their best combined readable style with deep reporting and research, is as lamentable as the decline or death of so many dailies.

This makes Britain’s 176-year-old The Economist pretty much essential reading, especially for international affairs and (yes) economics. A yearly subscription runs – gasp -- $190, compared with the currently discounted $30 for U.S. competitor Time (where The Guy toiled for three decades).

Roughly once a month, The Economist  reaches beyond the current news to insert a hefty “Special Report” package of articles on some broader topic. The Feb. 16 edition offered a package about Islam in Europe plus  a bit about North America, 11 pages and seven articles in all, plus an editorial up front. Since the  material is behind a pay wall, here are some of the reports and contentions religion writers will want to keep in mind.

The “Here to Stay” headline announced the over-all theme, that Muslims are no longer temporary workers but a permanent sector of society. Though foreign-dominated Islam in Europe still expands, native-born Muslims will soon outnumber immigrants.

The weekly proposed that while second-generation Muslims often felt alienated, with some open to extremism, the third generation is becoming more moderate. We’re told this third generation is gradually “building a Western Islam” no longer beholden to the old countries and Mideast paymasters, and embracing a variety of forms ranging from ultra-traditionalist to revisionist. Important if this pans out

Muslims in America long considered themselves “a cut above” those in Europe, more middle-class or professional, more integrated in society, and having a more harmonious relationship with their chosen nation. But polling indicates reaction against jihadi attacks, and Trump-era nationalism, are changing that.

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