obituaries

The Catholic matriarch of Creole cooking: Yes, the real Princess Tiana was a Catholic believer

The Catholic matriarch of Creole cooking: Yes, the real Princess Tiana was a Catholic believer

What made Creole chef Leah Chase so unique?

There’s at least two ways to look at that question. You can ask, “What made her famous at the national level?” Fame is important, especially a person’s life and work is connected to A-list personalities in politics, entertainment and culture.

However, in this case I would say that that it was more important to ask, “What was the ‘X’ factor that made her a matriarch in New Orleans culture?” When you focus on that question, the word “Catholic” has to be in the mix somewhere — a core ingredient in the strong gumbo that was her life.

Thus, I was stunned that the NOLA.com tribute to Chase hinted at her faith early on, but then proceeded to ignore the role that Catholicism played in the factual details of her life. Look for the word “Catholic” in this piece: “Leah Chase, New Orleans’ matriarch of Creole cuisine, dead at 96.” You won’t find it, even though the overture opened the door:

Leah Chase, New Orleans’ matriarch of Creole cuisine, who fed civil rights leaders, musicians and presidents in a career spanning seven decades, died Saturday (June 1) surrounded by family. She was 96.

Mrs. Chase, who possessed a beatific smile and a perpetually calm demeanor, presided over the kitchen at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant until well into her 10th decade, turning out specialties such as lima beans and shrimp over rice, shrimp Clemenceau and fried chicken that was judged the best in the city in a poll by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Every Holy Thursday, hundreds showed up to enjoy gallons of her gumbo z’herbes, a dark, thick concoction that contains the last meat to be eaten before Good Friday.

What, pray tell, is the importance of community life and faith linked to Holy Thursday and Good Friday?

Maybe editors in New Orleans simply assumed that Catholicism is a given in that remarkable city, something that does not need to be explained or, well, even mentioned. (Watch the NOLA.com video at the top of this post.)

In this case, if readers want to learn some facts about the role that Catholic faith played in this Creole queen’s life, they will need — wait for it — to dig into the magesterial obit produced by The New York Times: “Leah Chase, Creole Chef Who Fed Presidents and Freedom Riders, Dies at 96.”

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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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Sign of the times? Major Southern Baptist figure dies and gets zero mainstream news coverage

Sign of the times? Major Southern Baptist figure dies and gets zero mainstream news coverage

At one time, the Rev. Jimmy Allen was a major figure in Southern Baptist circles.

In 2004, when I did a package on the 25th anniversary of that denomination’s conservative takeover — or “take back,” depending on one’s perspective — I interviewed Allen.

In fact, my main story on that anniversary opened with Allen:

HOUSTON — Back in 1979, the Rev. Jimmy Allen thought the highlight of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting would be a giant rally at the Astrodome featuring the Rev. Billy Graham.

Instead, Allen and other moderate leaders in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination were caught by surprise as conservatives who had attacked the denomination’s seminaries as “hotbeds of liberalism” flocked to the meeting.

There, they succeeded in electing a denominational president, the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Tennessee, who shared their view of biblical inerrancy – meaning that the Bible is without error in any way, including historical details.

Some thought the vote was just a momentary change in direction, but Rogers’ election turned out be a watershed moment for the denomination. 

Last week, Allen died at age 91 — and the world of Baptist media took notice.

The mainstream press? Not so much. More on that in a moment.

This was the lede from Bob Allen of Baptist News Global:

Jimmy R. Allen, the last moderate president of the Southern Baptist Convention and executive director emeritus of the New Baptist Covenant, died early Jan. 8 at Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, Georgia.

His pastor, Tony Lankford of First Baptist Church of St. Simons Island, said the 91-year-old had been in failing health. …

Named in 1999 one of the most influential Baptists of the 20th century, Allen served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978 and 1979, the two years before conservatives took over control of the nation’s largest Protestant body in a move they called the “conservative resurgence.”

In 1990 he presided over the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta, forerunner to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In 2008 he agreed to become program chair and coordinator for the New Baptist Covenant, a pan-Baptist gathering promoting racial unity spearheaded by former President Jimmy Carter.

In 1995 Allen wrote the book Burden of a Secret, a personal account of his family’s battle with AIDS.

David Roach of the SBC’s official Baptist Press wrote this:

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Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

At least once a month, I pop open a search engine and go fishing on the World Wide Web, looking for a quotation or some other reference that I remember from the distant past. Just because you remember something -- as an aging religion-beat scribe -- doesn't mean that you are going to be able to find a reference online (or in the boxes of notes and clippings that line a wall in your basement).

So let me share what I remember about a First Things article I read just before the birth of the Internet. It focused on the differences, in terms of faith and personal style, between President Bill Clinton and the recently ousted President George H.W. Bush.

The basic idea was that Clinton, as a Bible Belt Baptist, was much more comfortable talking about his faith than the more reserved Bush, a Yankee Episcopalian. At one point there was a footnote to a press-conference transcript from the Bush campaign.

As I recall, Bush was asked what he thought about during the hours in which he floated in shark-infested Pacific Ocean waters after his fighter plane was shot down during World War II.

The transcript indicated that Bush said that he thought about Barbara, this family and God -- then there was a strategic pause before he added -- and "the separation of church and state."

Now there's a man who is a mainline Protestant's mainline Protestant.

I thought about article (if anyone can find it online, I'd love a URL) this morning while reading lots of news and commentary about the death of the 92-year-old Barbara Bush, the Bush family's beloved "Silver Fox" who had become a quirky, candid grandmother figure for millions of Americans. Good luck trying to find insights into the family's faith -- which can be sensed in between the lines, but that's as far as journalists were willing to go.

My main question: Were Barbara and George H.W. Bush the last old-school mainline Protestants -- in terms of low-key style and quiet faith -- to occupy the White House?

I mean, George W. Bush was a United Methodist, but he adopted a more outspoken, evangelical style after the religious rebirth that helped him defeat alcohol.

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Stephen Hawking explored the universe: Were the mysteries of his heart newsworthy?

Stephen Hawking explored the universe: Were the mysteries of his heart newsworthy?

So here is the question of the day: Does it matter that famed physicist Stephen Hawking was -- as best one can tell from his complex and even impish way of expressing himself -- an atheist who still had moments when he could hint at doubts?

Does it matter that the mind that probed the far corners of the universe couldn't handle the mysteries of the human heart and that this pained him? After all, in an empty, random universe, there are no moral laws to explain the physics of love and attachment.

If you pay close attention to the major obituaries, it's also clear that Hawking's giant reputation and celebrity was the black hole that sucked some thoughtful coverage into nothingness.

On one level, I thought that some of the best material on Hawking's faith questions was found in a compact, logical sequence in The New York Times. As always, things begin with the book that made him a global phenomenon:

In “A Brief History of Time,” Dr. Hawking concluded that “if we do discover a complete theory” of the universe, “it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.” He added, “Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist.”
“If we find the answer to that,” he continued, “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would know the mind of God.”

But Hawking kept writing and, as always, his opinions grew more provocative.

Nothing raised as much furor, however, as his increasingly scathing remarks about religion. ...
In “A Brief History of Time,” he had referred to the “mind of God,” but in “The Grand Design,” a 2011 book he wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, he was more bleak about religion. “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper,” he wrote, referring to the British term for a firecracker fuse, “and set the universe going.”
He went further in an interview that year in The Guardian, saying: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

So what is missing from that version of Hawking? What did the Times skip over in its main obituary?

The answer can be found over at The Washington Post, where the main obituary wrestled -- briefly -- with a faith angle in the other part of Hawking's life that produced headlines.

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John Mahoney was 'moral core' on 'Frasier;' maybe his Catholic faith was relevant in obits?

John Mahoney was 'moral core' on 'Frasier;' maybe his Catholic faith was relevant in obits?

If you ever watched the classic comedy series "Frasier," it was clear that actor John Mahoney and his Martin Crane character played a crucial role in its broad appeal.

Basically, he was a battered recliner in a world of pretentious fashion, a can of beer at a wine-and-cheese party, a lifer cop surrounded by chatty urban psychiatrists. In other words, he was the down-home voice of ordinary America. He was an every-Dad.

A tribute to Mahoney at The New York Times -- not the newspaper of record's actual obituary, following his death on Sunday -- put it this way:

As Martin Crane, the lovably grumpy, blue-collar father to the snobby Frasier and Niles, he hit many notes during the series’ run from 1993 to 2004 -- sometimes all in the same episode. He played sarcastic, cutting his sons’ pretensions down to size. He did reserved, as a counterpoint to their voluble self-analysis. He even delivered warmth, when reminding Frasier and Niles of the importance of unfussy stuff like family and beer.
As Joe Keenan, a “Frasier” executive producer and writer, put it, Mr. Mahoney’s character was the “moral center” of the show.

This moral-core theme continued in the Times obit.

While Frasier and Niles Crane, both psychiatrists, worried about wine vintages, cappuccino bars and opening nights, Marty, a retired police officer, cherished his dog, his duct-tape-accented recliner chair and the solid values of his generation. Once, when his younger son declared a certain restaurant’s cuisine “to die for,” Marty corrected him. “Niles, your country and your family are to die for,” he said. “Food is to eat.”

Now, in light of all that, does it matter that Mahoney was on the record -- in an interview with a prominent journalist, no less -- saying that his Catholic faith was at the center of his life and work?

Apparently not, at least not in The New York Times and at The Los Angeles Times.

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Covering Cardinal Law's death: Is it possible for reporters to be even-handed?

Covering Cardinal Law's death: Is it possible for reporters to be even-handed?

When it comes to obituaries of famous conservative religious figures, the question often is how far one should stick the knife in. This blog saw examples of sheer spite on the part of several media when Phyllis Schlafly died. Ditto for Tim LaHay.

Early coverage of the death of Cardinal Law on Tuesday shows a lot of knife activity on the part of the Boston Globe and New York Times and gentler judgment in some other quarters.

We’ll start with how the Globe covered it:

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday, according to an official with the Catholic Church. He was 86.
Boston’s eighth bishop and fourth archbishop, Cardinal Law was the highest-ranking official in the history of the US church to leave office in public disgrace. Although he had not broken any laws in the Commonwealth — clergy were not required to report child sex abuse until 2002 — his actions led to a sense of betrayal among many Boston Catholics that the church is still dealing with today…
In 2004, after Cardinal Law’s resignation, Pope John Paul II appointed him archpriest of the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major, and he moved to Rome. The controversial appointment was a reminder of the regard in which the Vatican held Cardinal Law.

It’s a well-rounded obit, but it seems to be a pastiche of previous articles on the cardinal, who got massive coverage from the Globe.

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The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary

The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary

This is how I will remember him: Articulate, witty, with a probing intellect, He was a strong First Amendment liberal, a lover of music, magazines and books. And there was the pipe, of course. He'd look over the top of his glasses, puffing on the pipe, while he was thinking.

I'm talking about Theodore Peterson, of course, the legendary journalism professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign whose class on modern magazines was a rite of passage for thousands of young writers and editors.

Take Hugh Hefner, for example.

If you took Peterson's class (as I did in graduate school), you learned quite a bit about the back-story on Hefner and the class-project dream that years later turned into a magazine celebrating sex and grown-up toys, linking consumerism with moral libertarianism.

Peterson had a theory about modern magazines, which was that -- while providing niche content for readers and advertisers -- they needed to make some kind of statement about the personality and beliefs of the founder. They needed to sell a worldview. Hefner was the perfect example and the key was the Playboy-in-chief's desire to shed his past and escape.

Escape what? That is where morality and religion -- the old Methodism -- is an essential part of the Hefner story and, thus, any obituary that attempts to sum up his life. I'm not joking: Editors may want to consider allowing religion-beat reporters to take part in the coverage of Hef and his legacy. After all, the Sexual Revolution was a new take on a very ancient religion.

As you would expect, the Hefner obituaries are packed with colorful symbolic details. There's speculation on the number of women he bedded. What about the implications of his emotional immaturity, when linked to a 152 IQ? Do the math and you end up with the 2,500-plus volumes of his personal scrapbook, which probably featured images from the $40,000 video-camera system above his 7-foot round bed.

News consumers can expect, in the follow-up coverage, lots of debate about Hefner as feminist or anti-feminist. Was he a figure of liberation, oppression or addiction? Was his fierce support of abortion rights rather self-serving? Someone should ask fake-bunny Gloria Steinem, or perhaps Holly Madison, author of "Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny."

In most of the obituaries, there is some kind of reference to Hefner's parents and their religious convictions. The Associated Press feature, as one would expect, had less room with which to work, but did manage this telling passage:

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Two final battles for author of 'The Exorcist;' Washington Post buries a key local angle

Two final battles for author of 'The Exorcist;' Washington Post buries a key local angle

Anyone who interviewed William Peter Blatty in the final years of his life knew that there were two major issues that were constantly on his mind.

Both subjects were linked to his Catholic faith and, from his point of view, the reality of evil in the world. Both were linked to his education at Georgetown University.

The first challenge was making sure people really knew what was going on at the end of "The Exorcist," the Hollywood blockbuster that loomed over everything he did in his career as a novelist and screenwriter. This meant tweaking both the movie and the novel, to add a bit of clarity to what was happening between God, a demon and a courageous priest.

The second subject involved Blatty's appeal to the Vatican seeking actions to pull Georgetown into line with the 1990 "apostolic constitution" on the core values of Catholic education issued by St. Pope John Paul II, entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)." If that failed, Blatty wanted his alma mater stripped of its "Catholic" status.

Blatty could understand why the media was still obsessed with "The Exorcist." He couldn't understand why journalists -- especially in Washington, D.C. -- were not digging into the issues behind his intellectual and spiritual wrestling match with Georgetown.

Now Blatty is gone and, as you would expect, "The Exorcist" dominated the mainstream media features about his life and work. But what did The Washington Post do with the other major Blatty story, right there in its own Beltway backyard? This question takes us -- literally -- the the final lines of the Blatty obituary:

In recent years, Mr. Blatty had a public dispute with Georgetown University, charging that it had abandoned its Catholic heritage. He organized a petition that he sent to the Vatican.
But Mr. Blatty remained inescapably linked with the book and movie that brought him the fame he sought for so long.
“I can’t regret ‘The Exorcist,’ ” he said in 2013. “I always believe that there is a divine hand everywhere.”

That's all there was to it, apparently. Don't you love the word "but" at the start of transition from the brief mention of the Georgetown dispute, back into Exorcist material?

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