George Weigel

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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Is Cardinal Pell a perpetrator or victim? Aussie media keep wavering between the two

Is Cardinal Pell a perpetrator or victim? Aussie media keep wavering between the two

Ever since Australia’s Cardinal George Pell was convicted of child abuse, the journalism folks Down Under have been split on if he’s actually guilty or whether he’s the target of a vicious anti-Catholic campaign.

Reaction to his conviction and jailing (the sentencing isn’t until March 13), has rippled across the Pacific, prompting Ethics and Public Policy scholar George Weigel (writing at First Things) to call the Pell affair “our Dreyfus case.”

(Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jew and a military man who was wrongly pilloried and imprisoned in 1894 on charges of selling secrets to the Germans. He was declared innocent in 1906, but the matter was considered as barbaric anti-Semitism on the part of the French. The conflict tore at the heart of French society.)

I’ll get back to Weigel in a moment but first I want to quote from a piece BBC recently ran on all this.

Cardinal George Pell is awaiting sentencing for sexually abusing two boys in 1996. The verdict, which he is appealing against, has stunned and divided Australia in the past week.

It has sparked strong reactions from the cardinal's most prominent supporters, some of whom have cast doubt on his conviction in a wider attack on Australia's legal system.

The largely conservative backlash features some of Australia's most prominent media figures, a university vice-chancellor and a leading Jesuit academic, among others.

Former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott also continue to maintain their public support for the ex-Vatican treasurer.

The reporter then reports on her visit to St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Sydney where the parishioners predictably claimed that Pell is innocent. The reporter then interviews another journalist who has an obvious vested interest in Pell (notice the book title) being guilty.

Such stances have caused profound hurt to survivors, says ABC journalist Louise Milligan, author of the book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell.

"I've been contacted by many, many Australian Catholics who are devastated by the way the Church is handling this issue," Milligan told the BBC.

"They are also greatly upset that political leaders continue to side with a convicted paedophile — and that is what Pell is, a convicted paedophile — over his vulnerable victim and the grieving family of his other victim." (One victim died of a drug overdose in 2014.)

The article then swings back to Pell’s defense.

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Vatican-China agreement: As misguided as Rome's attempt to work with Nazi Germany?

Vatican-China agreement: As misguided as Rome's attempt to work with Nazi Germany?

Hear about last weekend’s provisional agreement between the Vatican and Beijing to end their decades-long dispute over the appointment of Catholic bishops in China?

China is, of course, arguably one of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to suppressing religious freedom — including for persecution of its estimated six-million strong, underground Catholic church.

You're excused if you haven’t seen coverage of this story, since the American media can barely keep up with the ongoing political explosions emanating from Washington these days. That means a great many international stories, while covered, often receive less overall attention than their long-term importance warrants.

This Vatican-Beijing development — ostensibly designed to unite the much persecuted, Vatican-loyal, underground Chinese Catholic church with the government recognized, and controlled, official Chinese Catholic church — falls into this category.

Given China’s current redoubling of its efforts to allow few, if any, ideologically rivals, religious or otherwise, it seems like an odd time to enter into any such agreement with Beijing.

Which to my mind means this agreement is, for the Vatican, pretty tenuous — as is every agreement held hostage to Beijing’s generally oppressive political power plays.

How will this agreement survive should Vatican officials decide to criticize one or another Chinese human rights violation? Or does China believe that by agreeing to the deal its gained a measure of Roman Catholic Church silence on such matter -- meaning this agreement is just another Chinese attempt to control religious expression?

Today it's China’s Uighur Muslims. It’s not so far fetched to image Beijing lowering the boom on its Catholic population tomorrow should the Roman hierarchy offend China’s politically paranoid sensibilities.

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Plan for this must-cover Godbeat item in 2018: The 50th anniversary of 'Humanae Vitae'

Plan for this must-cover Godbeat item in 2018: The 50th anniversary of 'Humanae Vitae'

Rightly or wrongly, most papal encyclicals land in newsrooms with a thud.

But there were no yawns in 1968 when Pope Paul VI issued his birth-control edict “Humanae Vitae,” which provoked a global uproar inside and outside his church.

Retrospectives will be a must item on reporters’ calendars around July 25, the 50th anniversary of this landmark. News angles include a monthly series at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University to rethink the doctrine, which started in October and runs through May 24. The listing (in Italian) is here (.pdf).

Paul declared that Catholicism, “by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” The Pope believed this fusion of the “unitive” and “procreative” aspects in marital acts is mandated by “natural law” as defined by predecessor Popes Pius XI (1930 encyclical “Casti Connubii”), and Pius XII (1951 “Address to Midwives”). Paul concluded the recent development of  “The Pill” changed nothing.

Though the pope said priests were bound to support this teaching, many joined lay Catholics and Protestants in opposing the church’s “each and every” requirement. Pope John Paul II later supported predecessor Paul, and recently so did Pope Francis, though with a twist

Key themes for reporters to assess:

First: Many analysts argue that the wide-ranging dissent on the birth-control pronouncement has weakened the church’s over-all moral authority.

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Son of 'Da Vinci Code'? 'Symbols' in Vatican-linked political blast cry out for translation

Son of 'Da Vinci Code'? 'Symbols' in Vatican-linked political blast cry out for translation

Actor Tom Hanks brought to life (on screen) the fictional Harvard University "symbologist" Robert Langdon, the hero of Dan Brown's fanciful novels "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons."

If there actually were a "symbologist" floating around, it might be useful to page them -- or Tom Hanks -- to help interpret a Vatican-linked bit of commentary about, of all things, American politics, the late Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and President Donald Trump's chief White House strategist Steve Bannon.

Put all THAT in your word processor, Dan Brown! Can't you almost see the trailer for that movie, releasing perhaps in time for Campaign 2020? 

Instead, we are, fortunately. in the capable hands of Rachel Zoll, religion writer for the Associated Press, and Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher. Each approaches the subject in a professional manner. Dreher, of course, has his opinions, which we'll get to in a moment.

Let's start with the AP, via Maine's Portland Press Herald. Take a gander at this longish excerpt, published under the headline "Pope confidant sees unholy U.S. alliance," to see what's causing all the fuss:

A close confidant of Pope Francis, writing Thursday in a Vatican-approved magazine, condemned the way some American evangelicals and their Roman Catholic supporters mix religion and politics, saying their worldview promotes division and hatred.
The Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the influential Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, said a shared desire for political influence between “evangelical fundamentalists” and some Catholics has inspired an “ecumenism of conflict” that demonizes opponents and promotes a “theocratic type of state.” ...

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So is 'evangelical Catholic' a religious term or a political term? The honest answer: yes

So is 'evangelical Catholic' a religious term or a political term? The honest answer: yes

After all the the press attention dedicated to Donald Trump's wooing of evangelicals, it's time to get down to what really matters in American politics -- the never-ending battle over Catholics who regularly or semi-regularly visit church pews.

Yes, it helps Democrats if evangelical Protestants are not terribly excited about the GOP nominee and, thus, are more likely to vote with clenched teeth or even to stay home. This time around, Trump has strong supporters among the Religious Right old guard, but he also has strong, strong critics among solid, conservative Christian leaders (as opposed to the small, but press-friendly, world of progressive evangelicals).

But the big game is among Catholic voters. While lapsed and cultural Catholics are solidly in the Democratic Party camp, along with those in the elite "progressive Catholic" camp, the real question is what happens among millions of ordinary Sunday-morning Catholics and the much smaller number of traditional Catholics who are even more dedicated, in terms of participation in daily Mass, Confession and the church's full sacramental life. This is where the true "swing voters" are found. Does Trump have a prayer with those voters? We will see.

What does this have to do with the "evangelical Catholic" tag that has been claimed by Gov. Mike Pence, who got the VP nod from Trump? Hang on, because that connection came up during this week's "Crossroads" podcast conversation with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.

The term "evangelical Catholic" is highly controversial, for obvious reasons. In the media, this tends to be a negative term, applied either to people who were raised Catholic (see Pence) and are now evangelicals, or to Catholics who stress the church's ancient, orthodox teachings on moral and social issues on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and sex outside of marriage. Thus, these "evangelical Catholics" tend to be more popular with modern evangelicals than with the elite Catholics who often gather with journalists for cocktail parties on or near the Georgetown University campus.

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Same as it ever was: Is Donald Trump beating the pope and winning GOP 'Catholic' voters?

Same as it ever was: Is Donald Trump beating the pope and winning GOP 'Catholic' voters?

The GOP establishment panic continues, with the political powers that be desperately working to kick their #NeverTrump campaign into a higher gear.

What remains interesting to me (click here for previous post), is the degree to which the stop-Donald Trump movement appears, in mainstream media coverage, to be totally secular -- as in this new Washington Post feature -- while the TV chatter on primary nights almost always involves talk about crucial groups of voters who are defined, in part, by religion.

Yes, I am talking about the old, old "Trump is winning the 'evangelical' vote" story that has been popular since the start of the White House campaign.

But there is more to this emerging religion-angle story than that. The other day, a prominent pack of 40 Catholic conservatives opened fire on Citizen Trump in a letter published by National Review. The Religion News Service story on this development reported:

Robert P. George, of Princeton University and George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, headed the charge, and the appeal was also signed by opinion leaders from academia and religious media.
The letter denounces Trump for “vulgarity, oafishness, shocking ignorance, and -- we do not hesitate to use the word -- demagoguery.” Worse, they wrote, he’s the opposite of what Catholics should seek in a leader.

Later in this piece there was some crucial information that would appear to link this "Catholic voter" issue with the gaping hole in much of the mainstream press of the "evangelical voters." Only this time around, Trump numbers are even larger.

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Post-Synod, what's the shape of Catholicism in the Pope Francis era?

Post-Synod, what's the shape of Catholicism in the Pope Francis era?

If readers can tear themselves away from Donald Trump and the ever-evolving Republican Party political drama, how about some old-fashioned Vatican politics?

Media chatter will continue long into the future about Rome’s October Synod of Bishops on the family. Many who closely follow such matters were probably awaiting the Synod response by George Weigel, official biographer of Pope John Paul II and probably the most influential U.S. lay voice from the staunch conservative party.

Weigel weighs in at 6,000 words in the January issue of the journal First Things. Newshounds should read this if only for his ridicule of the “mainstream media” and the blogosphere. He’s especially peeved with the Italians and reporters elsewhere who are influenced by them: “There is no fixed border between fact and fiction in Italian journalism, but only a membrane across which all sorts of material, some of it in the form of waste, flows.” Hmm. Sounds about right.

Turning to his church complaints, some involve over-centralization of power andinordinate secrecy at the Vatican. It’s fascinating to hear this sort of protest from a Catholic traditionalist. As for the substance of the Synod, like those benighted mainstreamers, Weigel portrays the event as a contest between revisionists on the divorce and gay issues, over against upholders of orthodoxy. In his interpretation, the latter side (that means his side) triumphed.

One topic to pursue for further comment is Weigel’s contention that Catholicism in northern Europe is largely in “a de facto state of schism” from the rest of the world church. True?

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Your weekend think piece(s): Listening in as conservative Catholics cheer for Pope Francis

Your weekend think piece(s): Listening in as conservative Catholics cheer for Pope Francis

Yes, this is an op-ed piece by George Weigel who is a Catholic conservative. But every now and then, it really helps to read advocacy pieces by thinkers on the right and the left, especially when they bring up interesting facts that cut against then grain of normal coverage in the mainstream press.

In this case, Weigel is noting what many doctrinally conservative Catholics have noted, as of late, which is that the contents of remarks made by Pope Francis the media superstar are often more complex when viewed in context. This is the latest piece noting that, yes, this pope is in fact Catholic. Here is how this piece was framed in the morning memo from Religion News Service:

... Catholic theologian George Weigel says the Francis Effect is overdrawn. The pope is pretty conventional on a bunch of Catholic issues. That may be true, but he did just buy 400 Roman homeless sleeping bags as part of his birthday celebration. So maybe another way to look at it is that he’s a doer, not just a talker.

Uh, what is unconventional -- in terms of basic Christian doctrine -- about a shepherd providing aid for the poor?

Meanwhile, back to Weigel's "Francis filtered" piece. The metaphor here is that once journalists decided that Francis was learning to the left on doctrine, that narrative spread like bamboo. Here's a key chunk of his pro-Francis piece:

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