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Put not your trust in Huffington Post headlines: Get Religion, June 18, 2013 June 18, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Ordinariate, Archbishop of Canterbury, ARCIC, Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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I know a maiden fair to see,
Take care!
She can both false and friendly be,
Beware! Beware!
Trust her not,
She is fooling thee!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s advice about women — especially blondes …

And she has hair of a golden hue,
Take care!
And what she says, it is not true,
Beware! Beware!
Trust her not,
She is fooling thee!

… is also good advice in reading headlines. As your GetReligionistas have stressed many times, seldom does a reporter get to write his own title. Yet when a sub-editor makes a mess of a headline the blame is laid at the reporter’s feet when the claim made in the title is not substantiated in the text. There have been times when stories I have written appear under a title that implies the opposite of what I reported.

Sometime back I was commissioned to write an article on a lecture given by the literary critic and philosopher René Girard at Oxford. I gave the story my all and … when I opened the paper after it came off the truck from the printer I found my article nicely displayed on page 5 with a beautiful photo of Girard scoring a goal in a World Cup match.

Too bad René Girard the philosopher and René Girard the soccer player are two different people. Perhaps my readers thought I was being droll, commenting on the élan vital of Girard’s latest book on mimesis by reference to the 1982 France v Poland match. Or they thought I was an idiot.

These meditations on my less than glorious moments in journalism are prompted by a Reuters article on the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s visit to Rome to meet with Pope Francis. The Huffington Post headlined the story: “Pope And Archbishop Of Canterbury Meet, Note Differences On Women Ordination, Gay Rights”.

While I was not in Rome for the press conference at the Venerable English College where Archbishop Welby and Vincent Nichols the Archbishop of Westminster spoke at the end of their day at the Vatican, this headline indicated I missed a major event. Until now Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby held near identical views on gay rights, same-sex marriage, and civil liberties of persons with same-sex attractions. Oh to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting! What had they said to each other?

I dove into the Reuters story looking for details. But there was nothing there. I could quibble here and there with some of the language and editorial asides made by the author:

It was the boldest step by the Vatican to welcome back Anglicans since King Henry VIII broke with Rome and set himself up at the head of the new Church of England in 1534.

An Anglican would say Henry made himself Supreme Governor not head — the head of the church is Christ (there is a difference) and there was nothing “new” in a Church of England in 1534 — “new” implying a discontinuity between the pre and post 1534 church. A frightful papistical canard. Or:

In January this year, the Church of England lifted a ban on gay male clergy who live with their partners from becoming bishops on condition they pledge to stay celibate, deepening a rift in the Anglican community over homosexuality.

A celibate person is an unmarried person. A chaste person is someone who refrains from illicit sexual behavior. I assume Reuters meant to say chaste, meaning conforming to the church’s teaching that “in view of the teaching of scripture, [the Anglican Communion] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage”. The working assumption is that clergy in civil partnerships are celibate, because they are unmarried, and chaste as they are to abstain from sexual relations outside of (traditional) marriage.

And it is the Anglican Communion, not community. Community implies an ashram in the woods somewhere, or a collection of sensibly dressed nuns in their cloister. (True there are such Anglican communities — religious with pearls and twin sets) but this is not what Reuters is likely to have in mind — but perhaps this is the “women” link to the headline?

Or:

The Church, struggling to remain relevant in modern Britain despite falling numbers of believers, published a plan in May to approve the ordination of women bishops by 2015, after the reform narrowly failed to pass last November.

It was the bishops — not the church — who published the plan. It still must be approved by the General Synod, which if the plan goes forward as currently written will likely be turned aside once more.

Anything about gays in the Reuters story? Nothing at all.

I looked about the web and found The Chicago Tribune had run the same item, but with a different title: “Pope Francis and new Anglican leader meet, note differences.” Rather a where’s Waldo headline — written for a bored seven year old. One is in purple, one in white. One has his wife with him (in the background) one has cardinals, etc.

I looked on the Reuters web page to see if the Huffington Post had shortened the article for space reasons, but found they had lengthened the title instead. The suggested title read: Pope Francis and new Anglican leader meet, note differences.” The gays and women bits came from the Huffington Post’s scribes — not Reuters.

Checking further I found I had not missed a major ecumenical story by staying home as La Stampa and the Guardian reported these comments by Archbishop Welby at the press briefing. La Stampa wrote:

Questioned whether he and Pope Francis had discussed the question of marriage and the debate over gay marriage, Archbishop Welby said “we are absolutely at one on the issues” by which he meant on the question of marriage (understood in the traditional Christian sense as between a man and a woman). He revealed that the Pope told him that he had read the speech he given recently to the House of Lords in which he opposed the British Government’s bill to introduce marriage between persons of the same sex.

Archbishop Welby added that he and Pope Francis are “equally at one in the condemnation of homophobic behavior” and “our sense that the essential dignity of the human being is where you start, and that is one of the absolute root foundations of all behavior, and the moment you start treating people as a category rather than as human beings with this essential dignity you have begun to lose the plot”.

What is the moral of the story?

Read the article, not just the headline. Though I will admit the Huffington Post editor who wrote this headline succeeded in his job, which is getting me to read the article. That is a different task than the reporter’s job of fairly presenting the news. Beware! You’ve been warned.

First printed in Get Religion.

Invincible ignorance on the Anglican Ordinariate: Get Religion, March 22, 2013 March 22, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Ordinariate, Get Religion, Roman Catholic Church.
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In this age of citizen journalism, blogger news, free content and PR driven stories there still remains a place for professional religion writers — reporters who know the topic they are covering and understand the rules of the journalistic craft.

This story from the Huffington Post highlights the journalistic shortcomings of the new media. Entitled: “Catholic Church, Facing U.S. Priest Shortage, Now Using Anglican Converts To Serve Parishes” begins with a false assumption that distorts the story, while missing the real news taking place.

The article begins:

Facing a priest shortage, the Catholic Church in the United States has started turning to former Anglican leaders to fill empty parishes.

The number of Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. has dropped by about 20,000 since 1975, while the number of Catholics has increased by 17 million, CBS reports.

The shortage was stretching thin the abilities of Catholic priests, and the Catholic Church was “supersizing” as it tried to accommodate more Catholics at a dwindling number of parishes, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project.

Allowing converted Anglican priests to join the church was seen as a way to solve this shortage problem.

If the first and fourth sentences of this story are true, this is a major scoop for the Huffington Post as the assertion the Anglican Ordinariate is a scheme to replenish the ranks of the clergy has been hotly denied by the Vatican. The reasons given by Pope Benedict for creating the Ordinariate, to create a home for former Anglicans within the Roman Catholic Church while preserving liturgical patrimony, have never included clergy recruitment. If this were the true reason, it would paint Pope Benedict as being disingenuous — what the British press would call being “not entirely straightforward”—e.g., a flaming liar.

And the evidence of this presented by the Huffington Post– the killer quote that blows this tory wide open — there is none.  The Huffington Post makes an assumption and treats it as fact. The remainder of the article collects an assortment of quotes and statements from other newspapers but offers nothing else.

Coincidentally, the Ordinariate has been in the news following comments published in the church press and the Telegraph reporting that Pope Francis is not a friend of the Ordinariate. In the Church of England Newspaper and on Anglican Ink I reported the Anglican Bishop of Argentina, Gregory Venables said Cardinal Bergoglio “called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the Ordinariate was quite unnecessary and that the church needs us as Anglicans.”

The report from Bishop Venables sparked some controversy in the British press and speculation Francis might adopt a different tone than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. A spokesman for the English Ordinariate denied any change was in the offing telling the Telegraph the comments were Bishop Venables’ not the Pope’s. Whether it meant to or not the Huffington Post story paints Pope Benedict as an opportunist and a bit of a fraud. The years of dialogue and the theological work that led to the reunion of some Anglicans with the Catholic Church is reduced to a form of clergy sheep-stealing. The article does not get religion doesn’t even seem to want to try to understand religion.

The bottom line is that this is a cut-and-paste job topped off with an unsubstantiated assertion (that happens to be untrue). And if you are going to do a cut and paste job at least try to be up to speed on the story. It may well be a consequence of the 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus is that former Anglican clergy re-ordained as Catholic clergy may help alleviate the shortage of priests in the US and UK – but a consequence is not a cause.

First published in GetReligion.

Jesus, the Mahdi and Hugo Chavez: Get Religion, March 11, 2013 March 12, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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A note of condolence written by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, upon the death of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has been the occasion of some of some mirth in the press. The Washington Post and the Huffington Post have made arch references to President Ahmadinejad’s statement that Hugo Chavez will be resurrected at the end of time. The Washington Post observed:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left Tehran today to attend Hugo Chavez’s funeral. But that’s not all — in his condolences for the former Venezuelan president, Ahmadinejad said he has “no doubt Chavez will return to Earth together with Jesus and the perfect” Imam Mahdi, the most revered figure of Shiite Muslims, according to AP. Ahmadinejad also said the three men will together “establish peace, justice and kindness” in the world, and that he is “suspicious” about the cause of Chavez’s cancer.

The Huffington Post began its story by stating:

Hugo Chavez had a friend in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who apparently held the Venezuelan leader in such high regard that he believes he will “return on resurrection day” with Jesus Christ and will “establish peace, justice, and kindness” on earth. After Chavez’s death on Tuesday afternoon, Ahmadinejad released a statement on Wednesday to announce a day of public mourning, according to Iran’s Raja News, Ahmadinejad’s official news agency. In his message, Ahmadinejad voiced skepticism over Chavez’s “suspicious” illness and proclaimed that the 58-year-old will resurrect with Jesus one day.

The tone of these stories suggests the Iranian president is a loon. Is that fair? I don’t know if President Ahmadinejad is a loon, but the statement on his website cited by these reports is not sufficient cause for making such a claim. Let’s look at the text and see what it actually says. The translation provided by the Mehr news agency states in part:

Chavez is alive, as long as justice, love and freedom are living. He is alive, as long as piety, brightness, and humanity are living. He is alive, as long as nations are alive and struggle for consolidating independence, justice and kindness. I have no doubt that he will come back, and along with Christ the Savior, the heir to all saintly and perfect men, and will bring peace, justice and perfection for all.

The language is flowery but not inconsistent with Muslim teachings on the end of time. Like Christians, Muslims believe that at the end of time Jesus will return, the dead shall be raised and the wicked and the righteous shall be judged, and will merit a place in Heaven or Hell. How this happens and the role played by Jesus are very different in the eschatology of Islam and Christianity — that is to say they are completely incompatible. Nor are Muslims in agreement on all aspects of eschatology, the final things.

Sunnis and Shiites have a different view on the role of the Mahdi, who will arrive before the return of Jesus.  The Shiites view this person as someone who will establish order in the world and convert people to Islam before the return of Jesus.  The timeline of  particular events of the end are not completely spelled out in the Koran. However among the articles of faith in Islam is a belief in the day of judgment, when the dead shall be raised and all will be judged according to their deeds. What President Ahmadinejad said was that he believed Hugo Chavez would be judged as being righteous upon his resurrection. For a Muslim the fact of Chavez’ resurrection — as is mine or yours — is not in doubt.

The Guardian reports that some clerics have taken exception to President Ahmadinejad’s comments but these objections are about the mixing of religion and politics — and his presumption to speak for God. Who is President Ahmadinejad to claim that Chavez will be accounted righteous?

While it is good fun to beat up President Ahmadinejad, a reporter must take care not to look like an idiot or a religious bigot when doing so. In this case both Posts failed to get the story because they don’t get religion. The could have saved themselves great embarrassment by asking an expert.

First printed in GetReligion.

Piling on Pat Robertson: Get Religion, February 13, 2013 February 14, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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Having apparently exhausted discussion of one octogenarian, The Huffington Post appears to have turned its attention to a second aged religious leader this week and published a hit piece on Pat Robertson. “Pat Robertson Claims Islam Is ‘Demonic’ And ‘Not A Religion’ But An Economic System” is a lazy, badly written story. What it reports is not news, and the tone it uses to report this non-news story is unprofessional.

Let me say at the outset that I am not seeking to examine the claims put forward by Pat Robertson in a recent episode of his television show, The 700 Club, rather I am concerned with quality of the reporting in this article. It begins:

Controversial conservative Christian Pat Robertson doubled down Tuesday on claims that Islam is not a religion. According to Right Wing Watch, Robertson, an elder statesman of the evangelical movement, made the inflammatory claim during an episode of his TV program, “The 700 Club.”

I too love alliteration. But this love is not shared by all. The repetition of consonants as an artifice of newspaper writing goes in and out of fashion. While the New York Daily News would have to fold up shop if it could not use alliteration in its headlines, Fowler’s The King’s English discourages it as a “novice’s toy” — yet The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage has no strictures against its use. In modern writing, alliteration is judged on how well it works in setting a mood, tone or in creating resonance or echoes of other works. William Safire’s Political Dictionary cites good, “evil empire,” and bad, “nattering nabobs of negativism”, examples of its usage.

Is a “controversial conservative Christian”  who “doubles down” Reaganesque? Or is The Huffington Post channeling Spiro Agnew? While not quite in the same circle of writer’s hell as “vicars of vacillation” or “pusillanimous pussyfooters”, the tone it creates is a bit too much. Rather than having fun with language the author is giving voice to her contempt for the subject of the article. An editor also should have stricken out “controversial”. Where his word’s controversial or is he controversial? Also this silly syntactical start sadly slips in substantiating its statements of fact.

What Pat Robertson said is not new. According to the article, he stated:

“Every time you look up — these are angry people, it’s almost like it’s demonic that is driving them to kill and to maim and to destroy and to blow themselves up,” Robertson said of Islam. “It’s a religion of chaos.” He went on to say, “I hardly think to call it a religion, it’s more of — well, it’s an economic and political system with a religious veneer.”

The story notes Mr. Robertson shared his opinion that Islam was not a religion in a 2009 comment in a discussion of the Fort Hood shooting. A Google search reveals the most recent comments to be in line with what he has been saying for a number of years. Media Matters reported him having said in 2007.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have to recognize that Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant on domination of the world. And it is meant to subjugate all people under Islamic law. In the Quran, it says it very clearly. There are two spheres. One is the Dar al-Harb, which is the realm of war. The other is Dar al-Islam, which is that part that’s under submission to Islam. There is no middle ground. You’re either at war or you’re under submission. Now, that’s the way they think.

Why then are the comments made this week newsworthy? His words in 2007 were even stronger yet no conflagration ensued. How many times can you make “inflammatory” comments before they no longer become “inflammatory” — do they become combustible, explosive, or after the passage of time — and when no fire ensues — do they simply become rude?

The tone of offended outrage adopted by the article, that Pat Robertson has said a terrible thing, is not explored. The Huffington Post believes these sentiments are outrageous, but it does not say why. A long time ago I studied Arabic and Farsi as an undergraduate and took a number of courses in Islam. I have not kept up my studies and have lost my facilities in these languages, but I do recall the academic debates over Islam — whether it was a religion in the sense that Christianity or Judaism understood itself to be a religion, or whether it was a religio-political movement that did not bear a one to one comparison with the other Abrahamic faiths. I offer no answer to these questions. But given the unlimited space available to a Huffington Post author for an article, to denounce him without substantiation is sloppy reporting.

And please note, Pat Robertson is not an “elder statesman of the evangelical movement. ” He is a Pentecostal Christian. There is a difference. TMatt has discussed this point at GetReligion before. In a story about voodoo that included a reference to Pat Robertson, he wrote:

Also, Pat Robertson — last time I checked — was a Pentecostal leader, not an evangelical, which is important distinction to make when one is dealing with Haiti and its growing Protestant churches.

Also, out of all of the critics of voodoo in the Christian world, how does Robertson rise, once again, to the top of the list? Why is an American from TV land the authority on this complex and emotional subject, as opposed to Haitian Pentecostals or Catholics who are actually involved in these debates in Haiti and in Haitian communities in North America?

Cynics will say that the answer is simply: Robertson is a straw man, beloved by lazy journalists.

This is another lazy Pat Robertson story that is not worthy of the name news.

First published in GetReligion.

Michelle Obama as Political Art: Get Religion, August 31, 2012 August 31, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics, Press criticism.
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Is this Spanish news magazine cover of Michelle Obama art or porn? Is it racist and sexist? Or is it a political fantasy of the noble savage, an incisive commentary on the centrality of Mrs. Obama’s sexuality in the presidential election campaign? Is it Granada I see or only Asbury Park in this profile of the First Lady?

The cover ignited a firestorm of controversy and prompted accusations of racism in the “black blogosphere”, the Huffington Post reported. But behind the fun over the racy cover lay an article that exemplified a secular worldview — a philosophical construct about the meaning and purpose of life that sees the acquisition of power as the chief aim of life and where God is absent (or far off on the margins.)

But before I become too airy fairy let’s start with the fun. On 9 Aug 2012 Fuera de Serie, a weekly magazine insert of the Madrid business daily Expansión published a profile of Michelle Obama. The article “Michelle se como a Obama” was illustrated by a cover painting of the First Lady draped in an American flag and posed in the style of a famous 19th century painting — Portrait d’une Négresse on exhibition at the Louvre by French artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1800).

On 29 August the magazine published the full text of the story and some background to the cover in an online piece entitled “La polémica desnudez de Michelle Obama”.

The initial controversy was missed by the American press, but animated African-American publications and blogs.  The Huffington Post put the story into play within the mainstream press, shortly followed by Le Monde and other American and European publications. But their coverage focused on the cover, not the content of the article.

The Huffington Post was not pleased. It quoted one blogger as saying:

“By choosing to use such a jarring image to tell the story of how America’s first lady “seduced the people of the United States” and “stole the heart of Barack Obama,” as Fuera de Serie describes her,” writes Brande Victorian of Madame Noire, “it’s clear the magazine agrees with that mentality and wants to spread the message loud and clear: todavía estamos esclavos. We are still slaves.”

It cited other black interest publications who voiced similar objections, and likened the furore to the 2008  New Yorker cover that portrayed Michelle and Barack Obama as afro-centric terrorists.

Some European observers saw this negative reaction as an example of America’s lubricious Puritanism — a sentiment best summarized by Pascal Bruckner in last year’s Dominique Strauss-Kuhn affair.

It’s not enough though to describe [America] as puritanical because what governs [America] is a twisted puritanism which, after the sexual revolution, talks the language of free love and coexists with a flourishing porn industry.

Le Monde was less censorious than the Huffington Post and suggested the cover might not be so bad. It said the Portrait d’une Négresse was a celebration of the abolition of slavery and a symbol of liberation, of modernity, of freedom.  It also gave the artist, Karine Percheron Daniels, space to deny charges of racism.

In my eyes, the image I created is of a beautiful woman with a beautiful message. For the first time in history the First Lady of the United States is a black woman who proudly displays her femininity (nudity), her roots (the slave) and her power (first lady of the United States embraced by the American flag). … I’m not racist. I’m trying with my art to show the beauty not the dirt.

So what is going on here? And where is the GetReligion ghost in all of this? Let’s go inside the story and see.

Like the cover painting, “Michelle se como a Obama” and “La polémica desnudez de Michelle Obama” are artistic interpretations of the meaning of Michelle Obama. Facts are present, but the meaning of these facts are a construct of the author who frames the article from the very beginning as a hagiography. Michelle Obama is a secular left-liberal saint, whose:

popularity ratings exceed those of her husband, President Barack Obama. Experts even suggest that she will be the key to the reelection of Democrat in November elections. But how the first lady has managed to [steal the hearts] of the American people?

The article answers this question by contrasting Saint Michelle with the Wicked Witch of the West: Sarah Palin. While “attractive” and “quintessentially America” the former Alaska governor was also “vulgar, predictable, uneducated and arrogant.”

Mrs. Obama in contrast is “sleek, friendly, outgoing, direct, sometimes irreverent, and mother of two daughters.”  A woman whom nine out of ten voters believe “shares their values and understands their problems,” Fuera de Serie said. The article continues along these lines before moving to the heart of the story — the “why” of Michelle Obama.

Michelle is the daughter of Fraser Robinson, a worker who earned her living scrubbing floors in a water treatment plant in the city of Chicago, at the rate of $ 479 per month.

And it was this solidarity with the workers that drove the young Michelle to go on to Princeton and Harvard Law School and with Barack champion the cause of the poor and oppressed and right the “injustices” of the Bush Administration.

From the humble streets of their city [Chicago] emerged a community spirit, the spark that drove her husband to pursue his presidential dream …  even though politics was “a waste of time” that would detract from [Barack Obama's] responsibilities as a father and husband.

And like any good story from the Lives of the Saints, the article recounts tales of the miraculous and promises of divine intervention through the invocation of the saint’s name. For you see Michelle Obama is a better campaigner than her husband, one expert voice told Fuera de Serie, and her “passion and drive have triggered fantasies” that if her husband loses to Mitt Romney in the Fall, Michelle can carry forward the banner of change.

Let me step back a moment and say I am not denigrating or advocating the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama, nor am I slighting the First Lady. My target is this dreadful news profile of Mrs. Obama that is so over the top, so ludicrous, so one-sided that it is more likely to lead to ridicule than to admiration of its subject.

And absent from this entire story is any sense of what lay behind the family values and ethics of the parents that reared the young Michelle Robinson on Chicago’s South Side. Belief in God? Belief in history? We have snippets and slogans that hint at solidarity with the masses, but nothing else. The Michelle Obama in this article is identical to the artists portrait on the cover — a stylized fantasy that represents a cause, but is not representative of a person.

So GetReligion readers, tell me, is this racist, sexist, or vulgar? Is it beautiful, ennobling, a celebration of hope and change for a better world? Or am I taking a shovel to a souffle — seeing shadows and specters where none exist? What say you?

First printed in GetReligion.

Double effect and the birth control debate: Get Religion, March 15, 2012 March 15, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Health/HIV-AIDS, Politics, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental … . Thomas Aquinas, (Summa Theologica, Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 64)

The best way to start the day is with a little Aquinas! The misty realms of memory and a youth misspent in theological education brought this jingle to mind when I read an article in the Huffington Post that took a swipe at one of my colleagues at GetReligion. The article by Reuters correspondent Nicole Neuroulias entitled “I was a Virgin on Birth Control” (catchy, no?) asserts that Mollie Ziegler Hemingway’s (MZH) report entitled “No such thing as free contraception” fails the test of good journalism.

Is this a fair summary of the issues or a fair comment? Not really. Ms. Neroulias bases her argument on a faulty premise, while the story as a whole has not been thought through. Yet, the HuffPo story raises a valid point that the press has not done justice to the ethical as well as scientific issues at play in the controversy surrounding the government’s bid to require all employers and institutions to provide contraceptive coverage in their health insurance packages. Ms. Neroulias writes that:

as a religion reporter weary of oversimplified culture wars, and personally, as someone who took birth control pills long before becoming sexually active, I feel disappointed by most of the reporting so far.

She recounts the furore surrounding the debate — Rush Limbaugh, Sandra Fluke, congressional hearings, Catholic bishops — and then presents her thesis. Ms. Neroulias writes:

Yet, as [Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke]tried to explain in her opening statement, both frames miss the big picture: Women take the pill to address myriad health issues, from ovarian cancer, menstrual problems, hormone imbalances and fertility treatments to cystic acne, et al.

This is the angle I’ve been waiting in vain for religious and mainstream journalists to acknowledge and investigate. As a teenager, I had debilitating menstrual cycles, but the perceived stigma of going on the pill deterred me from getting the help I needed. I finally started taking it in college, as a virgin with no foreseeable pregnancy panic, buoyed by all other the young women around me who were taking it for a variety of reasons. …

Since then, my mother and sister have also taken the pill on medical grounds, as have dozens of our relatives and friends. …

So how about some coverage of where these outraged clergy and institutions stand on using contraception in all these medical cases? And even if they technically allow it, does that translate to allowing their health insurance policies to include it? Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, a conservative commentator who has slammed media “misrepresentation” of the HHS mandate at GetReligion, shrugged me off with “presumably” when I brought up this angle. Needless to say, “presumably” isn’t good enough in journalism, especially when the story concerns fundamental questions about freedom and morality.

And logically, even when clergy approve of contraceptives for unrelated medical reasons, how would they have their institutions apply these directives? Should women who work at Catholic hospitals and schools get a doctor’s note for their bosses before requesting insurance reimbursement for the birth control pill? Would ovarian cysts and infertility make the cut, but acne and bad cramps be more along the lines of God’s will? And what if religious authorities and their hospitals disagree on these theories in practice, as they have in cases of abortion to save a woman’s life?

These questions are founded upon a flawed assumption and propose a straw man argument — an Aunt Sally — based upon the premise that taking a birth control pill for medical reasons other than contraception is immoral in the eyes of “outraged clergy.”

The 1968 encyclical Humanea Vitae which governs Catholic teaching on birth control contains a chapter which discusses this point. Paragraph 15, entitled “Lawful Therapeutic Means” states:

On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.

The encyclical cites two speeches by Pius XII for its authority on this point. It puts into words the long standing moral teaching expressed by Thomas Aquinas, among others, as the principle of double effect.

This moral teaching can be seen in the case of a woman who has a hysterectomy due to cancer. The principle intent is to excise the cancer. The secondary end, infertility, does not forbid the surgery as the intent is the cure of disease not birth control. A second example would be surgery to remove a fallopian tube because of an ectopic pregnancy. While an abortion is a medical procedure whose primary end is a dead child – and is thus considered illicit — the death of the pre-natal child in a surgery to correct an ectopic pregnancy is an unavoidable side effect. The surgery is licit even though one of its ends is death.

Closer to home, and working in a Sandra Fluke angle, you can see the practical effect at work in the Georgetown University Student Handbook. The student health department is allowed to dispense the pill for non contraceptive medical ends.

Q. Are pre-existing conditions covered?

A. Pre-existing conditions are covered if the condition or treatment is not specifically excluded or limited per the Exclusions and Limitations in Description of Benefits Booklet.

(Note: Although birth control is not covered, medications used for birth control that are required to treat other medical conditions are covered. Your provider may submit requests for such coverage in the form of a “Prescription Override” by faxing the details of the diagnosis and treatment to …)

Ms. Neroulias is quite right in saying the press has let down its readers by not developing this angle — focusing the debate on those who shout the loudest, not upon the critical issues. This is a big country, and I am sure one can find “outraged clergy” somewhere who would make the argument that the use of birth control pills for acne treatment is a sin — or we should let women die of ovarian cancer because a total hysterectomy causes a women to become infertile and is thus EVIL. Such people doubtless exist, but their voices do not represent the mainstream.

A little research by reporters would reveal that this issue was recently addressed in the press coverage of a Lancet article that urged nuns to take birth control pills as a prophylactic against the medical effects of nulliparity. In December I posted a story to GetReligion noting how ABC had addressed these issues, killing the canard that nuns were forbidden to take birth control pills for non-contraceptive medical reasons.

Did MZH (the reporter not the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture & Food) make a journalistic error in not engaging with Ms. Neroulias questions? Not to my mind. GetReligion reports on the reporting — not on the topics being reported. If I were in MZH’s position I would not have engaged either for the aforesaid reason and because the assumptions being put forward about the ethics were wrongheaded and had no bearing on the arguments at play.

Am I too quick to defend, too quick to judge? Does the press understand the nuances of Catholic moral teachings or the Theology of the Body? What say you GetReligion readers?

First published at GetReligion.

Have a merry pagan Christmas: Get Religion, December 19, 2011 December 19, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Popular Culture, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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The Daily Mail loves its crazy American stories — articles that show the quirky (I’m being polite) or bizarre (a little more true to life) aspects of American culture — or the lack there of.  Today’s installment is entitled: “Families shockedto find ‘hate mail’ claiming their Christmas lights honour ‘Pagan Sun-God.”

Yes, the guy who delights in shouting “you kids get off my lawn” has been stuffing mailboxes in Hudsonville, Mich. with flyers denouncing those who have decorated their homes with Christmas lights.

A group homeowners on one street with Christmas decorations have received an anonymous note saying the lights honour the ‘Pagan Sun-God.’

The residents in Hudsonville, Michigan, were baffled by the notes which were attached to their mailboxes on Wednesday night.

The note said the lights have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, according to ABC News affiliate WZZM.

The letters begin on a warm note by saying ‘Hi neighbour, you have a nice display of lights.’

But it swiftly become serious by talking of how the ‘pagan tradition’ of putting up lights began.

The article quotes an offended homeowner, who found the note ridiculous. (Question. Would the Scrooge of Hudsonville have written Hi neighbour? Adding in the “u”. Just asking.) The Daily Mail’s stage American displays outrage, independence, Christian piety — and a hint of ignorance.

Miss Hoekman added: ‘It’s a sin to judge other people and to tell people that if they have Christmas lights they are Pagans.

‘We’re not Pagans, we go to church regularly, my kids go to the Christian school.

A “Miss” whose kids go to the Christian school? That would be news. It is a silly story of course. But it does reflect a meme often found in Christmas related stories that December 25 is a Christianized pagan holiday.

Here’s how a Dec 15 piece in the Huffington Post puts it:

Because early Christians didn’t have a specific date in scripture, they chose one with metaphorical significance that also coincided with two preexisting Roman celebrations. December 25th was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar — the shortest day of the year. Sunlight grows stronger and longer each day following the solstice. Picking a day that represented the transition from dark to light would have been an appropriate symbol for those who saw in Jesus the birth of a man who would lead them to salvation. The Bible abounds in symbolic language of Jesus represented as light, a metaphor found for the divine in every other major religion as well.

The choice of December 25th also worked for the early Christians because it corresponded with two Roman celebrations centered on the winter solstice. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration that originated two centuries before Christ, began on December 17th and ended on the 23rd. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn and was marked by feasts, merriment, the hanging of evergreen cuttings, the lighting of candles, and gift giving. … Many Romans in the fourth century also celebrated the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus, on December 25th, marking the occasion with a festival. As Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the Christian tradition of Christmas naturally absorbed elements of these popular pagan celebrations.

This bit of conventional wisdom does not stand up to scrutiny. It will disappoint the crank of Hudsonville no doubt, but he (and the Huffington Post) have it backwards. As Prof. William Tighe wrote in Touchstone magazine a few years ago:

… the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date [Dec 25] in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians.

In other words, it was the pagan Emporer Aurelian who sought to paganize the Dec 25 holiday of the Christians, not the Christians who sought to Christianize the Roman pagan holiday. For those who are interested in this topic I urge you to read Prof. Tighe’s popular treatment of the subject — or the scholarly study The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas Talley.

I do not doubt that some will dispute Prof. Tighe’s conclusions on this point and reject his scholarship. However, from the perspective of journalism an unthinking acceptance of the conventional wisdom — and not checking sources — is a mistake.

Photos: the holiday home is courtesy of Shutterstock and the disc of Sol Invictus is from the British Museum courtesy of Wikipedia.

First printed in GetReligion.

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