St. Pope John Paul II

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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Surprise! It's time for another one-sided look at the birth of a new church -- the Women Priests

Surprise! It's time for another one-sided look at the birth of a new church -- the Women Priests

It’s time for another GetReligion post about mainstream press coverage of the Women Priests (or “WomenPriests”) movement. So, all together now, let’s click off the key points that must be made.

(1) As Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway used to say, just because someone says that he or she plays shortstop for the New York Yankees does not mean that this person plays shortstop for the world’s most famous baseball team. Only the leaders of the Yankees get to make that call.

(2) The doctrine of “apostolic succession” involves more than one bishop laying hands on someone. Ordination in ancient Christian churches requires “right doctrine” as well as “right orders.” Also, it helps to know the name of the bishop or bishops performing the alleged ordination. Be on the alert for “Old Catholic” bishops, some of whom were ordained via mail order.

(3) Consecrating a Catholic bishop requires the participation of three Catholic bishops, and the “right orders” and “right doctrine” question is relevant, once again. A pastor ordained by an alleged bishop is an alleged priest.

(4) It may be accurate to compare the apostolic succession claims of Anglicans and Lutherans to those made by Women Priest leaders (although the historic Anglican and Lutheran claims are stronger). This is evidence of a larger truth — that the Women Priests movement is a new form of liberal Protestantism.

(5) It is not enough for journalists to offer an obligatory “Catholic press officials declined to comment” paragraph on this issue. Legions of scholars, lay activists and articulate priests are available to be interviewed.

(6) Sacramental Catholic rites — valid ones, at least — are rarely held in Unitarian Universalist sanctuaries.

Once again, let me make a key point: Would your GetReligionistas praise a mainstream news story on this movement that offered a fair-minded, accurate, 50-50 debate between articulate, informed voices on both sides? You bet. Once again: If readers find a story of this kind, please send us the URL.

That brings us to yet another PR report on the Women Priests, this time care of The Louisville Courier-Journal and the Gannett wire service. The headline: “Condemned by the Vatican, women priests demand place at Catholic altar.”

Kudos for the “Condemned by the Vatican” angle in the headline, which — sort of — addresses the New York Yankees shortstop issue. Another careful wording shows up in this summary passage at the top of the long, long, very long story, which opens with — you guessed it — a rite in a Unitarian church office:

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Death penalty doctrine: Francis builds on insights of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

Death penalty doctrine: Francis builds on insights of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

Have you ever noticed that the amount of news coverage granted to the writings of Pope Francis tends to rise or fall based on the degree to which his pronouncements mesh with the editorial pages of The New York Times?

Notice, please, that I said the "amount" of coverage, not the "quality." This pope has made important, and complex, statements on hot-button topics that led to the spilling of oceans of ink and pixels in coverage that missed the point of his words. His comments defending traditional Catholic teachings -- think gender, for example -- often draw little or no response.

Then again, who am I to judge?

The news, today, is that Rome has changed the Catholic Catechism on an important issue linked to the defense of life, from conception to natural death. We are, of course, talking about the death penalty (confession: which I have always opposed, with no exceptions).

So far, the coverage has been good -- since this is a change welcomed by the religious left. However, let me note some information that really needs to make it into the coverage, to show readers how this change came to pass. So, here is a question: Who said the following?

"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

That would be the late St. Pope John Paul II, of course, in a 1999 sermon. That wasn't the only time that he signaled that the death penalty didn't align with pro-life doctrines.

Did the words of John Paul II make it into the early coverage that you read?

I am pleased to note that the evolving Times story about this issue now includes the following. Yes, this language pushes a political button, but that button is real:

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Why are Catholic schools so good at hoops? New York Times cites several good reasons

Why are Catholic schools so good at hoops? New York Times cites several good reasons

If you've been online during the final stages of March Madness you have probably seen people chatting about this question: Why are Catholic schools so good at basketball?

The question will linger after Villanova's smashing 79-62 win over Michigan in last night's title game. This is the second national title for Villanova (with its ties to the Augustinian Order) in three years. And, of course, Notre Dame won the women's final four, on a shot that was called -- with some reason -- a near miracle.

Yes, it's easy to joke about the prayers of hoops-loving nuns and saints.

However, there is an interesting story here, one linked to culture, theology and economics. Kudos to The New York Times for producing a serious feature-length piece that dug into the substance of this topic. The #DUH headline: "Why Catholic Colleges Excel at Basketball." Here is a crucial transition passage:

Excelling in big-time college basketball sits easily at mission-oriented institutions. Sports are not only these universities’ front porch, but also the faith’s emissary.
Villanova’s president, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, hosts an opening Mass for athletes every year, where he reminds them they are ambassadors for the university’s mission. “To have our charism move on,” he said, using a dogma-tinged Greek word for spirit, “the banner needs to be carried.”

Whoa. "Dogma-tinged"? I think it's enough to say that this is a theological term. Also, that definition is a bit off. The word "charism" has a much more specific meaning, one that would have done a better job of supporting this story's thesis. Dictionary.com says:

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Yes, Vatican 'Lettergate' story is complicated: Kudos to AP for getting the crucial details

Yes, Vatican 'Lettergate' story is complicated: Kudos to AP for getting the crucial details

Back when I was breaking into Godbeat work (soon after the cooling of the earth's crust), one of the first pros that I met was the late George Cornell of the Associated Press. I interviewed him for my graduate project ("The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets") at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and then we stayed in touch.

How hard was it to be the AP's religion guy in that era? Basically, he told me, his job was to cover all the religion news on planet earth, other than the Vatican (which was its own beat).

How would you like that task? Of course, our own Richard Ostling knows all about that, since he worked for the Associated Press after his era at Time magazine. However, he had some timely assistance from pros like Bobby Ross, Jr.

The bottom line: AP religion-beat specialists have a tough row to hoe. It's one thing to do good work. It's something else to do good work on complex stories when you're facing a global news storm almost every day, while working with wire-schedule realities in terms of time and space.

With that in mind, I would like to point readers toward Nicole Winfield's hard-news report on the "Lettergate" scandal at the Vatican, a very important story with multiple layers of politics, intrigue and theology. I kept waiting for a hole and, in the end, the only thing I had second thoughts about was what pieces of the puzzle went where. Here is the overture:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Stung by accusations of spreading “fake news,” the Vatican ... released the complete letter by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis after coming under blistering criticism for selectively citing it in a press release and digitally manipulating a photograph of it.
The previously hidden part of the letter provides the full explanation why Benedict refused to write a commentary on a new Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis’ theological and philosophical background that was released to mark his fifth anniversary as pope.
In addition to saying he didn’t have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project had launched “virulent,” ″anti-papist” attacks against his teaching and that of St. John Paul II. He said he was “surprised” the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume “The Theology of Pope Francis.”
“I’m certain you can understand why I’m declining,” Benedict wrote.

Whoa. So which angle of this story should get the most attention?

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As year six begins, Pope Francis’s devotion to Mary shows a traditionalist streak

As year six begins, Pope Francis’s devotion to Mary shows a traditionalist streak

Liberal Catholics have often rejoiced, and Catholic conservatives have sometimes grumbled, over Pope Francis, who was elected on March 13, five years ago.

A Pew Research survey (.pdf here) released in time for the anniversary shows 84 percent of U.S. Catholics over-all have a favorable opinion of Francis -- but 55 percent of Catholic Republicans find him “too liberal” (up from 23 percent in 2015). Yes, it would have been nice to see some survey questions framed in doctrinal terms, rather than this political reference point.

 A new decree on the Virgin Mary reminds reporters going forward that the pontiff does have a traditionalist streak worth remembering, as surely as there’s a perennially interesting feature theme in how Catholicism honors the mother of Jesus Christ and the resulting ecumenical conflict.

Upon endorsement from Francis, the new decree was issued March 3 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. (Why such convoluted titles at the Vatican?). It states that all church calendars and liturgies will now honor Mary as the “Mother of the Church” the day after Pentecost Sunday, also citing her “divine motherhood” and “intimate union in the work of the Redeemer.”

This is an annual “memorial,” the lowest level of recognition in worship. But higher “solemnities” with obligatory Mass attendance are already on the universal calendar, hailing Mary under the dogmas of her bodily Assumption into heaven (August 15) and her Immaculate Conception free from original sin (December 8). Those provide yearly feature pegs.

Writers who want to develop this aspect of the pope’s personal piety should read a 2015 rundown in the doctrinally conservative National Catholic Register. For instance, twelve hours after the cardinals elected Francis, he quietly visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major to venerate the icon of Mary as the Protectress of the Romans.

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Concerning truth and lies, fake news and 'snake news,' Pope Francis and St. John Paul II and more

Concerning truth and lies, fake news and 'snake news,' Pope Francis and St. John Paul II and more

A long, long time ago -- as in 2004, GetReligion's first year -- I wrote a piece linked to one of the most interesting articles I have ever read about journalism and, in a unique way, religion. I am referring to the PressThink essay "Journalism Is Itself a Religion," by Jay Rosen of the journalism faculty at New York University.

I would like to urge GetReligion readers (I have done this many times) to read this Rosen piece. I do so again for reasons linked to this week's "Crossroads" discussion (click here to tune that in) about the much discussed document from Pope Francis about fake news, "snake news," journalism and the twisted state of public discourse in our world today.

The pope, you see, traces "fake news" back to the Garden of Eden, stressing that it's impossible to communicate when the process is built on lies. This document was the subject of my column this week for the Universal syndicate and a previous post here at GetReligion.

The minute you start talking about lies, that means you're discussing the conviction that it's possible to say that some statements are true and others are false. Your are discussing the belief that there is such a thing as absolute truth and that flawed, imperfect human beings (journalists, for example) can, to the best of their abilities, seek and articulate truth, as opposed to lies.

Yes, this makes me think of one of the greatest works of St. Pope John Paul II -- Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). But that is a topic for another day.

Now, here is passage in Rosen's piece that I wrote about back in the early days of this blog. This is long, but there really isn't any way around the details:

Here and there in the discussion of religion “in” the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: “It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy,” wrote David Samuels.
This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:

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USA Today Network explains 'What it takes to become a saint' (for Catholics only)

USA Today Network explains 'What it takes to become a saint' (for Catholics only)

Dear editors at USA Today:

I thought that I would drop you a note, after reading a recent feature on your USA Today Network wire that ran with this headline: "What it takes to become a saint."

That's interesting, I thought. That's a pretty complex subject, especially if you take into account the different meanings of the word "saint" among Christians around the world, including Protestants. And then there is the unique use of this term among believers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

At the very least, I assumed that this "news you can use" style feature would mention that, while the canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church receives the most press attention, the churches in the world's second-largest Christian flock -- Eastern Orthodoxy -- have always recognized men and women as saints and continue to name new saints in modern times. Also, high-church Anglicans pay quite a bit of attention to the saints, through the ages.

The Catholic process is very specific and organized, while the Orthodox process is more grassroots and organic. There is much to learn through the study of the modern saints in both of these Communions. This is a complex topic and one worthy of coverage.

Then I read your feature, which originated in The Detroit Free Press. It opens like this:

What does it take to become a saint?
Anyone can make it to sainthood, but the road isn’t easy. The journey involves an exhaustive process that can take decades or even centuries.  
The Catholic Church has thousands of saints, from the Apostles to St. Teresa of Calcutta, often known as Mother Teresa.
Here are the steps needed to become a saint, according to Catholic officials. ...

What is the journalism problem here?

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'Thoughts and prayers': Yet another fight over whether religious faith is 'real' or not

'Thoughts and prayers': Yet another fight over whether religious faith is 'real' or not

Why are so many people mad about the "thoughts and prayers" angle of the tragedy at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas?

That was the question that host Todd Wilken asked at the start of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

The short answer is that many Americans think that "prayers" are not real, if the goal is solving a problem in the real world, while gun-control legislation is "real," since it is linked to government and politics. As I wrote in my national "On Religion" column earlier this week, after interviewing Tim Stewart, a professional editor-writer who who created the "Dictionary of Christianese" website;

It's obvious, explained Stewart, that many Americans believe that this kind of prayer talk after disasters or tragedies is meaningless, a kind of emotional fog that helps public leaders avoid action on tough issues.
It only makes matters worse when these criticisms of "thoughts and prayers" language turn into nasty attacks. After all, millions of believers sincerely think that prayer is the first step to any faithful effort to help others through charity, ministry, political activism or any other strategy in public life.

In other words, this controversy is -- stop and think about it -- another way of looking at the decades of debate among editors and reporters about how and why religion news should or should not be covered in the first place. The bottom line: Politics is "real" and "public," while religious faith is "private" and "spiritual."

I'm not sure why, but I found myself thinking , earlier this week, about a famous event in the life of the man who would become St. Pope John Paul II. It was during his work as an archbishop of Poland, wrestling with the powers that be in the Communist party.

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