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Sexing up Pope Francis: Get Religion, March 26, 2013 March 27, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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My corner of Florida has been over run by college students on Spring break. While Daytona Beach, Miami and Fort Lauderdale have lost market share over the past 40-years to Texas, Mexico and points South, there are still enough kids in town this week to make the merchants smile and locals complain about “those kids” and their sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Sounds like a story pitch for a 60′s beach film — Frankie and Annette, Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue — maybe Ann-Margret and Elvis? The stories wrote themselves back then.  Sex continues to sell. Where would the tabloids or MTV be with out the Page 3 girls, the Kardashians and the denizens of the Jersey Shore?  And where would the New York Times be without homosexuality? While it is harder and harder to sell religion news stories to the trade — a “naughty vicar” story will always find a buyer.

But sex isn’t what it once was. Its omnipresence has robbed it of its marketing value, mystique (and romance). “Sexed-up” no longer refers solely to hormone drenched teens or blue movies, but in journalism it refers to improving a story to make it more palatable (more salable) to editors who in turn want to attract more readers with stronger stories.

The phrase settled into the media psyche during the second Gulf War. It is commonly believed that a 29 May 2003 report by BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan broadcast on Radio 4′s Today program originated the phrase. Gilligan reported that a senior British official told him a dossier prepared by the Blair government to support the war against Saddam Hussein had been “sexed up”. Specifically the government’s “September Dossier” had made the exaggerated claim that weapons of mass destruction could be deployed by the Iraqis within 45 minutes of Saddam Hussein’s order.

Improving the story by making it sexier than the facts allow did not begin in 2003. It is long been the bane of good journalism. Its prevalence was the theme of my chat last week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 21 March 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Is CNN pushing the “Dirty War” story?” posted at GetReligion and discussed the phenomena of shoddy reporting on Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s alleged collusion with the Argentine military junta’s crimes during the “dirty war”.  Todd asked whether I was saying that it was wrong to voice criticisms of the Pope or to ask questions about his past?

I responded that this was not the issue. The Pope and the Catholic Church should be questioned. However in this instance I argued that CNN was “pushing” the story. It had abandoned objectivity, balance, and a desire to seek out the truth for the transitory pleasures of a sexy story about potential papal perfidy.

I contrasted CNN’s work with the three main Parisian dailies: Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Liberation.  The French papers all reported the accusations of misconduct as well as the denials by the Vatican. However, they framed the stories to give Francis the benefit of the doubt. The allegations were unproven the French papers reported, but they also provided sufficient facts and context to allow readers to make up their own minds.

This is not as exciting an approach to CNN’s guilty until proven innocent but it is better journalism.

First printed in GetReligion.

English Anti-Catholicism & Ethiopian Lutheranism: Get Religion, February 25, 2013 February 25, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Church of Sweden, Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Get Religion, Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod.
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Anti-Catholic bias is alive and well in Britain — however the animus to the “Italian mission to the Irish” comes not from the Church of England. Nor does it stem from the 1701 Act of Settlement (barring Catholics from the Royal Family), Guy Fawkes Night, xenophobia or other collective memories of the Britain’s past. The anti-Catholic bias one sees in England today is that of the political and media elites — those members of the chattering classes who detest the church for what it believes (not what it is).

Now there is an equal opportunity disdain at work — the Church of England is held in low regard also by the elites. Yet despite the best efforts of the magic circle, the small group of liberal prelates who control the English church, to conform the institution to the demands of the right thinking members of the establishment — the chattering classes reject the Catholic moral worldview (and have no problem saying so).

This is the theme of my chat this week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 21 Feb 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Guardian wins week one of 2013 All-England pope-bashing contest” posted at GetReligion and discussed the phenomena of shoddy reporting on the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI. Todd asked whether I believed that this was a failure of journalism or if there was something more involved.

I argued that this was more than a failure of adhering to the reporter’s art, but represented a virulent anti-Catholic, anti-religious prejudice in the stories we discussed. How could one explain assertions made by the Guardian‘s man in Rome that Africans were unable to conform to the church’s requirements of priestly celibacy due to their being Africans? The Guardian (and the BBC) are the temples of the p.c. priests. How could such a  slur be allowed to make its way into print? Well if it is in a story that damns the Catholic Church it can.

The restraints of time and my inherent good breeding prevented me from giving full voice to my views. I would have liked to add that I was also concerned by the Guardian‘s decision to run so many pope stories — many not worth the bother reading due to the the ignorance of the authors — when other issues of equal merit in the world of religion were taken place over the past few weeks — the story about the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) being but one example.

No, this is not a joke on my part. While I do not downplay the importance of the pope’s resignation announcement, the sheer volume of nonsense being published and the absence of news about the EECMY speaks to the media’s inability to evaluate religious events.

The EECMY story, in a nutshell, is that one of the largest members of the Lutheran World Federation — the 6.1 million member EECMY — has broken fellowship with the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The cause for this break is the normalization of homosexuality by the ELCA and the Church of Sweden. This story was all over the religion press in the US and Europe: Christianity Today, First Things, Dagen, and I covered this story for The Church of England Newspaper. I have seen only one secular news story on this item — a local Wisconsin news story in the La Crosse Tribune that ran comments from a Lutheran bishop lamenting the split.

Perhaps the Anglican wars have sucked all the air out of these sorts of stories. The splits in the Anglican world between the Episcopal Church in America and many of the Africans churches over the issue of homosexuality — the same issue that has divided the Ethiopians and the Swedes and the ELCA — has received lengthy and on-going coverage in the press. This may well be another example of the phenomena noted by TMatt here in the pages of GetReligion — the disproportionate coverage given to the Episcopal Church and the Church of England in the American press compared to other, larger faith groups.

There is so much in this story for a newspaper to develop, not least is how the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod has stepped into the shoes once filled by the ELCA as far as Lutherans in the developing world are concerned. I am not saying the Ethiopian split should have pushed the pope off the front page, but some coverage of the seismic change underway in global Christianity might be nice.

First printed in GetReligion.

Guardian wins week one of the 2013 All-England Pope-Bashing Contest: Get Religion, February 19, 2013 February 19, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Roman Catholic Church.
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The year’s at the spring, And day’s at the morn; Morning’s at seven; The hill-side’s dew-pearled; The lark’s on the wing; The snail’s on the thorn; God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!

Robert Browning, Pippa Passes (1841)

It’s a wonderful life. My heart has been singing songs of joy every morning as I take up my newspapers and survey the latest news on the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI. For a critic of religion reporting these are the good times — no slogging through continental newspapers to find a story to review for this blog. I am spoiled for choice just by reading the British press. Some of the stories have been so silly and wrong-headed as to be bizarre.

But there have been quite a few good stories from the religion reporters at the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, BBC and Independent in addition to the speciality church press (Catholic and Anglican) on this issue — but outside the specialist reporters the quality falls off sharply in the secular press. There is also an undercurrent of hostility towards the Catholic Church that few media outlets bother to hide — or appear to recognize.

A typical example came in BBC Radio 4?s Any Questions program. Members of the audience are asked to submit written questions on topical issues for discussion by a panel of speakers that ostensibly will provide a balance of views. The producers of the show pick the panel and the questions — and on Friday’s broadcast 23:45 minutes into the show (after questions on the food standards in the wake of the horse meat in hamburgers scandal) the question was put to the panel: “Is now the time for a  black, woman pope?”

The first speaker, Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser for Greenpeace sidestepped the question, but said she did believe it was the duty of the next pope to “reconcile” the church with “the values most people hold” in Britain. Liberal Democrat MP Nick Harvey MP said to a roar of applause from the audience the Catholic Church “should be dragged into the 21st century,” and that it should update its teachings to “connect” with the values of the modern world. He and Labour MP Margaret Hodge urged the church to permit women clergy and and bring its moral ethic in conformance with those of the British establishment.

Mrs. Hodge — who was head of the Islington  Council when that London Borough was responsible for the oversight of local care homes where investigators uncovered evidence of sexual abuse (Hodge refused to investigate the charges at the time as it would have cost too much) raised the issue of child sexual abuse. She argued the Catholic Church had been lax in addressing the sexual abuse scandal and observed that child sexual abuse and pedophilia were “rampant in the Catholic Church”. Only Environment Minister John Hayes declined to attack the church noting that he was not black, not a woman and not Catholic so he felt disqualified in offering an opinion on the propriety of a black woman pope.

Let me say that Any Questions is a serious, highly respected news program. The discussions of the other topics were measured — and somewhat dry. It was when the topic turned to the Catholic Church common sense flew out the door.

However, it was the Guardian that took the prize for week one in the All-England pope-bashing contest. The news article entitled “A black pope could result in mixed message over priestly celibacy” informs British readers that Africans are cretinous sex-maniacs whose Catholicism is skin deep and that the priesthood is a haven for gay men seeking meaning for their pitiful lives. This strange piece begins with an unfavorable comparison between Benedict and John Paul to John XXIII.

When Pope Benedict addressed the clergy of Rome on Thursday, he chose to talk to them about the Second Vatican Council, perhaps the central event of his life. He is among the last people alive to have taken part in that momentous gathering and it is a privilege of the long-lived to rewrite history. The then Joseph Ratzinger played a leading role in the revolutionary changes brought about by what Catholics call Vatican Two, but then did a theological U-turn after witnessing with horror the more secular upheaval of 1968. He and his predecessor, John Paul II, have step-by-step reoriented the Catholic church to the point that it is nowadays an institution which might dismay the pope who convoked the Council, John XXIII, and reassure his austere predecessor Pius XII.

Get that — Benedict has sought to reverse the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. And the evidence for this assertion? Well there is none, but we do get another outlandish assertion.

The change of direction has created a smaller, but more homogenous, church. Millions of the laity in Europe may have drifted away in despair at the gap between their lives and the Catholicism preached by the Vatican; priestly vocations in Europe may have fallen off a cliff, but those who remain – worshipers and clerics alike – are proud to belong to a conservative institution at odds with the times.

The article states the decline in church attendance and the fall of priestly vocations in Europe is not a phenomena of liberalism and secularism but the ultramontane (reactionary) policies of the last two popes. Evidence for this extraordinary assertion? Again, there is none. But at this stage we do move into the meat of the story.

So the election to the papacy of a conservative African or Asian prelate would, in principle, be welcome to large sections of the church in Europe and the United States. Even for the dwindling minority of liberals, it would be a reminder to the world that, overall, Catholicism is growing, and at a faster rate than the global population. But traditionally-minded Catholics might see one major change resulting from an African pope; the tradition of priestly celibacy.

Because of that tradition, combined with the contemporary intolerance of the laity towards unmarried relationships between priests and their “housekeepers”, it would appear that the number of gay men in the Catholic priesthood has increased.

How’s that for a plot twist — bet you didn’t see that one coming. Because the church no longer lets priests fool around with their housekeepers the clergy are now gayer. In support of this assertion we have a comment by the chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (a minister of the Metropolitan Community Church) that the Catholic priesthood is a haven for those who cannot answer the question “Why aren’t you married yet?”

It is unlikely an African or Asian cardinal would be elected pope because they would crack down on the gay subculture of the European Catholic Church, the article states, and because they would be more likely to end priestly celibacy. The article observes:

 … time and again, bishops on visits to Rome have stressed that, in many African cultures, a man without a woman beyond a certain age incites suspicion and lacks authority.  That puts a Catholic priest at a notable disadvantage to the local imam in many of the areas where Christianity is competing with Islam for ascendancy. And since that is one of the most important challenges facing the church, a black pope could put an end to priestly celibacy.

Remember this article did not appear in the Comment is Free section of the Guardian or as an editorial or op-ed piece. It was printed in the news section — and did not even have the cover of being called “news analysis”. Where does one begin? There are several statements offered as fact that need substantiation — the cause of the decline of the Catholic Church in Europe, the priesthood as a refuge for gay men, the disinclination of Africans to honor clerical celibacy, and cultural pressures from Africa that identify unmarried men as being “suspicious” characters. These are opinions, not facts and this is certainly not news. The lack of professionalism in this story is compounded by an extraordinary cluelessness — the Guardian‘s Rome correspondent does not seem to get out very much.

My favorite Guardian article of the week though was published on 15 Feb in the World News section. It stated the pope had resigned because he had lost his faith.

When the resignation of the Pope was announced earlier in the week, the news seemed bizarre, almost unbelievable. I find, as I get my head around the idea, that the whole thing just becomes more bizarre, not less. If you strongly believe in God, I suppose you can tell yourself that He moves in mysterious ways, as per. But if you don’t, then this all seems rather like the moment when the curtain moves back to reveal the Wizard of Oz as a wee man pulling levers. Exposing the Papacy as a job, not a sacrosanct heavenly ambassadorship, is a quite risky thing to do, precisely because it’s so human, so humdrum, so non-spiritual. The only logical conclusion is that Joseph Ratzinger no longer believes that he is God’s representative on earth. Awkward. The Pope has surely lost his faith.

While I was surprised by the news of the pope’s resignation, I did not find it bizarre. The suggestion that he was stepping down because he no longer believed — that is bizarre.

I must say these stories made me laugh. While the first few roused my professional ire, the great number of silly stories (these three are but a skim of the surface) soon brightened my day. There is a Monty Pythonesque sense of the absurd in these stories.  They are so terrible that they cease to upset me and leave me smiling. What say you GetReligion readers? Am I so jaded that I am unable to be offended anymore?

First printed in GetReligion.

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