journalism

State of the Godbeat 2010

This was not your typical New York Times headline: "For Catholics, a Door to Absolution is Reopened." The news report itself offered a flashback into an earlier age, back to the days before Vatican II or even to the tumultuous times of Martin Luther. On one level, this was simply a trend story about the Vatican trying to revive some old traditions. However, there were complicated details behind the blunt headline.

"In recent months," the Times reported, "dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago -- the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife -- and reminding them of the church's clout in mitigating the wages of sin."

For most Times readers, this was an isolated, mysterious story. But in cyberspace, this one report inspired waves of debate. Among the big questions: How could this door have been reopened, when it had never been closed? Were enough conservative Catholics quoted? Why didn't the Times cover a bigger story, the collapse in confession statistics?

Researchers later discovered that plenary indulgences remained a red-hot news topic for many days -- online.

"Religion is one of those topics that has a unique ability to gather in one place large groups of people who care passionately about it. That's the kind of thing that happens quite naturally online," said Jesse Holcomb, a research analyst with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The irony is that these online debates almost always start with a story from a big, traditional news source. Someone has to report the news before the bloggers can take over."

This is precisely the kind of issue that causes sweaty palms for folks -- like me -- who care about religion news. I've been reporting and doing research in this field for 30-plus years and, 22 years ago this week, I began writing this column for Scripps Howard. I also run a website called GetReligion.org, which is six years old.

At the moment, the state of religion coverage is somewhere between "evolving" and "on life support." Cutbacks in top 40 newsrooms -- organizations that once had the resources to support a variety of specialty reporters -- have sent many veteran scribes into early retirement. More than a dozen print newsrooms have reduced or eliminated their religion-news jobs in the past three years.

However, the amount of religion news remained surprisingly steady in 2009, at 0.8 percent, compared with 1.0 percent in 2008, according to a study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

As always, it was a good year to read about papal tours, especially when they cause controversy, and stories about religion and politics, especially about the beliefs, rhetoric and policies of President Barack Obama. As always, it was not a good year to read about how religious beliefs helped shape events in some of the world's most tense and bloody settings, such as Iraq and Iran. Holcomb noted that journalists even failed to probe the intense religious language and imagery in Obama's historic speech at Cairo University, which focused on improving relations with the Islamic world.

Meanwhile, additional Pew research into news and trends online found that 41 percent of Americans believe the news media should devote more attention to "religion and spirituality." Only news about science -- with a 44 percent score -- drew a higher response.

Who claims to want more "spiritual" news coverage? Women (44 percent) are more likely to say so than men (37 percent), which is significant since editors are worried about the rapidly declining number of female readers. Young adults, ages 18-29, are more interested in religion than readers over 50 -- 49 percent to 35 percent. African-Americans (57 percent) and Hispanics (43 percent) are more interested in religion coverage than whites (38 percent).

If readers want to find detailed coverage of religion issues, they are now more likely to find it online, said Holcomb.

"When it comes to breaking down the differences between various types of beliefs and rituals and practices and then trying to show how these things end up affecting people's daily lives, mainstream journalists are rarely able to get into all of that," he said. "But that is precisely the kind of thing that more people are writing about on websites and on blogs."

NEXT WEEK: The online buffet of religion news and opinion.

Hitchens, Hitchens and God, too

When Peter Hitchens was eight years old, and his older brother Christopher was 11, their father asked the two hotheaded young Brits to sign a peace treaty. "I can still picture this doomed pact in its red frame, briefly hanging on the wall," noted Peter Hitchens, in a recent essay published in The Daily Mail. "To my shame, I was the one who repudiated it, ripped it from its frame and angrily erased my signature, before recommencing hostilities. ... Our rivalry was to last 50 years, and religion was one of its later causes."

Under ordinary circumstances, a column in a London newspaper about a fractured relationship between two brothers would not warrant much attention among readers who care about matters of faith and doubt.

The Hitchens brothers, however, are not your usual brothers.

As an adult, Peter Hitchens regained his Christian faith, after years as an atheist and his new book is entitled, "The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith." The title of this column was more conciliatory: "How I found God and peace with my atheist brother."

Big brother Christopher, meanwhile, has become famous as an evangelist for atheism, a scribe who revels in stabbing sacred cows with his pen -- as in his book, "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice." Then there is his bestseller, "God is not Great: Religion Poisons Everything."

"There are," he argues, "four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking. ...

"God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization."

Hitchens the younger understands that logic, in large part because he once walked the same road. As a teen, he burned his Bible outside his Cambridge school. To his disappointment, "Thunder did not mutter." He set out to rebel against everything that he had been taught was good and right and holy. This is what smart British boys of his generation were supposed to do.

Eventually, he stopped avoiding churches and great religious art -- leaving him open to unsettling messages from the past. While gazing at one 15th century painting of the Last Judgment, he found himself emotionally and intellectually moved.

"These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions," noted Hitchens. "On the contrary, their hair and the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and people I knew.

"I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head."

Then came the great oaths of his wedding rites, followed by the baptisms of his formerly atheistic wife and their daughter. A fellow journalist heard that Hitchens had returned to church and, with "a look of mingled pity and horror," bluntly asked, "How can you do that?"

The twist in this story is that while Peter Hitchens has returned to faith, and Christopher has grown more and more outspoken in his crusade against faith, the brothers have gradually regained their affection for one another. And while many have urged them to turn their personal debates about God and the nature of moral truth into an intellectual traveling circus, neither of the brothers wants to do that.

"I am 58. He is 60. We do not necessarily have time for another brothers' war. ... I have, however, the more modest hope that he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault," noted Peter Hitchens.

"I can only add that those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry."

How Evangelicals Talk 101

There she goes again. According to a top strategist in the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, Sarah Palin believed that the decision to pick her as the Arizona Republican's running mate was actually made by Almighty God.

Translated into the logic of an Associated Press report, this political theology sounded like this.

"In an interview with the CBS news magazine '60 Minutes,' Steve Schmidt described Palin as 'very calm -- nonplussed' after McCain met with her at his Arizona ranch just before putting her on the Republican ticket. ... Schmidt said he asked Palin about her serenity in the face of becoming 'one of the most famous people in the world.' He quoted her as saying, 'It's God's plan.' "

The Washington Post headline proclaimed, "McCain aide: Palin believed candidacy 'God's plan.' "

After this latest Palin firestorm it's time to ask: "Why can't journalists learn to understand how ordinary evangelicals talk?"

To make matters worse, readers have no chance to understand this private, second-hand quotation because it has been stripped of all context. There is no way to know if this snippet is the entire Palin quote or merely what Schmidt has chosen to share as part of the ongoing fighting between factions inside McCain's failed campaign.

The big question: Did Palin say her nomination was part of "God's plan for her life" or did she, as implied, dare to claim that it was part of "God's plan for America"? Most press reports have implied the latter, linking her faith-based confidence with speculation that she will run for president.

This has made her an easy target for her critics -- again.

"Palin isn't a minister or priest. She isn't a bishop. She is a celebrity," noted Andrew Sullivan, on his Atlantic Monthly website. "When she says 'it's God's will,' she is saying, it seems to me, either that her destiny is foretold as a modern day Esther ... or that it doesn't matter what decisions she makes in office because God is in charge. So she is either filled with delusions of grandeur and prone to say things that believing Christians keep private out of humility; or she thinks she's some kind of Messiah figure."

However, anyone with a working knowledge of evangelical lingo will understand that what Palin probably said was that this stunning door onto the national stage was, win or lose, part of "God's plan" for her life.

This is the approach that she consistently uses in her memoir, "Going Rogue," when discussing the twists and turns in her life -- from an unexpected chance to climb the political ladder in Alaska to the challenge of an unexpected pregnancy, leading to the birth of a child with special needs.

In other words, Palin believes in a God who is mysteriously working through the choices and events -- painful and joyful -- that have shaped her life. This is a perfectly ordinary belief among millions of evangelical Protestants and, truth be told, many other believers as well.

It may help to recall that, during the 2008 campaign, Charlie Gibson of ABC News struggled to understand another piece of evangelical-speak drawn from Palin remarks about the Iraq War.

The governor told a church audience: "Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending (soldiers) out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan."

However, in his interview with Palin, Gibson said: "You said recently, in your old church, 'Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.' Are we fighting a holy war?"

Palin responded: "You know, I don't know if that was my exact quote."

Gibson fired back: "Exact words."

Not exactly. Palin was reminding the worshipers to pray that God had a plan in Iraq and that decisions made by America's leaders would be consistent with that plan. She was not, as Gibson said, claiming that this was a certainty.

The bottom line: It may be time to circulate a basic "How Evangelicals Talk" phrase book that can be used in elite newsrooms, much like the one that journalists needed when Gov. Jimmy "born again" Carter first emerged on the national scene.

The holy terror of religion news

Journalists at the Newhouse News Service bureau in Washington, D.C., learned to appreciate the sound of editor Deborah Howell cutting loose during a good argument. As news spread about her untimely death, former colleagues sought ways to describe her linguistic style using words that could be printed in family newspapers.

A Washington Post Tribute noted: "Some journalists swear like sailors; she swore like the fleet."

"She had a unique persona. She could be very intimidating. She knew how to browbeat people," said Mark O'Keefe, who worked for Howell on the Newhouse staff and as editor of Religion News Service. "It's easy to talk about her colorful language, but I also think it's important to understand why she used to get so upset. ...

"She was a fierce advocate for important stories that she really cared about and that was especially true when it came to covering religion."

Howell died on Jan. 2 during a trip to New Zealand with her husband, Peter. She was crossing a road to take a photograph and was hit by a car traveling on the left side of the roadway, the opposite of the custom in the United States. She was 68.

A symbolic figure for many journalists, Howell was a spitfire from Texas who pushed, argued and wrestled her way to the top of the executive ladder in an era when men ran the newsrooms that mattered. During her years at the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- finally reaching the top editor's chair -- she guided two projects that won Pulitzer Prizes, one on the plight of Midwestern farms and another on AIDS in the heartland.

While leading the Newhouse bureau in Washington, she played down business-as-usual political coverage and focused on culture, technology, sexuality, race and, yes, religion. In the mid-1990s, Howell urged Newhouse to purchase Religion News Service, the only mainstream wire service dedicating to covering religion news.

In the years that followed, "She protected us, advocated for us, cajoled us, yelled at us, pushed us, swore at us and loved us," noted Kevin Eckstrom, the current RNS editor, in an online tribute. "She, more than any other person, is responsible for us weathering the media meltdown that has devastated daily journalism."

A cartoon in that newsroom says it all. In it, Howell is depicted as an angel hovering over the U.S. Capitol, while a second Howell -- a devil with a pitchfork -- gazes up in disgust, saying, "Give me a @?X!*$# break." An adult convert to the Episcopal Church, the editor cherished her two nicknames bestowed by friends -- Mother Mary Deborah and the Dragon Lady.

After her retirement in 2005, Howell repeatedly articulated her views on religion news while serving as ombudsman, or readers' representative, at the Washington Post.

"Religion is a subject that many Post readers care deeply about, and they often don't think journalists care as deeply about it as they do," argued Howell, in one column. "Journalists are just like readers. Some are religious; some not. I don't think that matters as long as religion and spiritual issues are reported thoroughly and sensitively. ... I think that readers would not be so offended by an occasional story or reference they see as insensitive if they believed that The Post made religion coverage a priority."

Howell was just as blunt in her farewell column, which urged the newspaper's editors to, "Devote more coverage to religion. When you see how many reporters cover sports and politics, it seems natural to add more coverage of a subject dear to many readers' hearts."

It might even help to pursue more in-depth, accurate coverage of the lives and beliefs of conservatives. "I'd like those who have canceled their subscriptions to be readers again. Too many Post staff members think alike; more diversity of opinion should be welcomed," wrote Howell.

Year after year, stressed O'Keefe, Howell used her national network of contacts in newsrooms, and her credibility as journalism pioneer, to pound away on the importance of religion in the news.

"She was so passionate," he said. "What she believed was that journalists can't understand this country and what makes it tick -- as well as lots of events around the world -- without understanding religion. ... She was like an invisible guardian angel out there behind the scenes, fighting in her own unique way for serious religion coverage in the mainstream press."

Obama's year: Cairo top story?

President Barack Obama deserved the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, said the Norwegian Nobel Committee, because his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen ... cooperation between peoples" had created a "new climate in international politics." Even Obama's fiercest admirers admitted that his best work for peace occurred at lecture podiums, where the new president offered more of the soaring, idealistic words that helped him rise to power. Nobel judges, in particular, had to be thinking about his June 4 address at Cairo University, in which he promised an era of improved relations between America and the Muslim world.

It's crucial, he said, for Americans and Muslims to realize that their cultures "overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." Muslims and Americans must, for example, find ways to work together to defend religious liberty.

"People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind, heart and soul," he said. "This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive. ... The richness of religious diversity must be upheld -- whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. ...

"Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together."

The Cairo speech -- which included quotes from the Koran, the Bible and the Talmud -- was the year's most important religion story, according to a poll of mainstream reporters who cover religion news. The role of Obama's liberal Christian faith in the White House race topped the 2008 Religion Newswriters Association poll.

Religious-liberty issues will continue to test the Obama team, as illustrated by the sobering numbers in a new "Global Restrictions on Religion" study released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. It found that citizens in a third of all nations -- representing 70 percent of the world's population -- are not able to practice their religion freely, due to government policies or hostile actions taken by individuals or groups.

Among the world's most populous nations, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan and India had the most intense restrictions on religion, especially limits on the rights of religious minorities.

The nations offering the greatest freedoms on religious practice were the United States, Brazil, Japan, Italy, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Here's the rest of the RNA top 10.

(2) Faith groups were at the center of debates over health-care reform, which was the hottest topic in Congress for most of the year. The U.S. Catholic bishops consistently opposed the use of tax dollars to fund abortions, thus clashing with other religious groups that supporting an expanded government role.

(3) The role of radical forms of Islam in terrorism hit the news once again, due to the disturbing history of statements and actions of Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the massacre of 13 people, including a pregnant woman, at Fort Hood.

(4) George Tiller, an outspoken specialist in performing late-term abortions, was shot while ushering at his Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in Wichita. The antigovernment radical charged with the murder, Scott Roeder, had in the past supported the views of writers who argue -- see ArmyofGod.com -- that violence against abortionists is morally justified.

(5) Mormons in California were attacked by some gay-rights supporters due to their lobbying efforts on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Anti-Mormon protests led to vandalism at some Mormon buildings.

(6) President Obama was granted an honorary degree in law from the University of Notre Dame, despite protests that this violated a U.S. bishops policy urging Catholic institutions not to honor those who openly oppose church teachings on the sanctity of human life.

(7) The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to ordain gay and lesbian pastors who live in faithful, committed, monogamous relationships, leading some congregations to start preparations to form a new denomination.

(8) The national recession forced budget cuts at a wide variety of faith-related groups -- houses of worship, publishing houses, relief agencies, colleges and seminaries.

(9) Leaders of the Episcopal Church voted to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury and many other leaders in the global Anglican Communion. The Diocese of Los Angeles then elected a lesbian as a new assistant bishop.

(10) President Obama's inauguration rites included a controversial invocation by the Rev. Rick Warren, a controversial benediction by the Rev. Joseph Lowery and, at a celebration beforehand, a prayer by New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first openly gay, noncelibate bishop.

Archbishop kicks Gray Lady

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times has long enjoyed flaunting her Catholic schoolgirl pedigree like a badge of honor. Still, the Pulitzer Prize winner took her game to another level in a recent column attacking Rome for its investigation of religious orders that shelter sisters who oppose many of the church's teachings.

Wait, is "investigation" the right word?

"The Vatican is now conducting two inquisitions into the 'quality of life' of American nuns, a dwindling group with an average age of about 70, hoping to herd them back into their old-fashioned habits and convents and curb any speck of modernity or independence," she wrote.

Dowd rolled on. Reference to the fact Pope Benedict XVI was once a "conscripted member of the Hitler Youth"? Check. Reference to his Serengeti sunglasses and trademark red loafers? Check. Strategic silence on the fact that many traditionalist orders are growing, while liberal orders are shrinking? Check.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan fired back at Dowd and her editors, going much further than the low-key criticism that mainstream religious leaders usually crank out when they are mad at the press. His "Foul Ball!" essay was as subtle as a whack with a baseball bat.

Anti-Catholicism is alive and well, he argued. Check out the New York Times.

"It is not hyperbole to call prejudice against the Catholic Church a national pastime," wrote Dolan. "Scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Sr. referred to it as 'the deepest bias in the history of the American people.' ... 'The anti-Semitism of the left,' is how Paul Viereck reads it, and Professor Philip Jenkins sub-titles his book on the topic 'the last acceptable prejudice.' "

A clash between the conservative archbishop and the Gray Lady was probably inevitable. After all, the newspaper is currently led by an editor who -- months after 9/11, when he was still a columnist -- accused Rome of fighting on the wrong side of a global struggle between the "forces of tolerance and absolutism."

Calling himself a "collapsed Catholic," well "beyond lapsed," Bill Keller said the liberal spirit of Vatican II died when it "ran smack-dab into the sexual revolution. Probably no institution run by a fraternity of aging celibates was going to reconcile easily with a movement that embraced the equality of women, abortion on demand and gay rights."

The archbishop offered his "Foul Ball!" commentary to the Times editors, who declined to publish it. Dolan then posted the essay on his own website, while also offering it to FoxNews.com -- which promptly ran it.

Dolan was, of course, livid about Dowd's broadside, calling it an "intemperate," "scurrilous ... diatribe that rightly never would have passed muster with the editors had it so criticized an Islamic, Jewish or African-American religious issue."

The archbishop also accused the newspaper of various sins of omission and commission, asking the editors if they were printing stronger attacks on the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church than on other groups -- religious and secular -- that have struggled with sexual abuse. The Times, he claimed, was guilty of "selective outrage."

For example, he noted a recent report on child sexual abuse in Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish community that, after addressing the facts, "did not demand what it has called for incessantly when addressing the same kind of abuse by a tiny minority of priests: release of names of abusers, rollback of statute of limitations, external investigations, release of all records and total transparency."

Dolan also accused the Times, and other media, of downplaying public reports in 2004 and 2007 that documented the problem of sexual abuse of minors by educators in U.S. public schools. It seems, he said, that major newspapers "only seem to have priests in their crosshairs."

This prickly dialogue is sure to continue. After all, the 59-year-old Dolan was installed as New York's 13th Catholic archbishop last April -- so he isn't going anywhere. And while America's most powerful newspaper faces a stunning array of financial challenges, the New York Times is still the New York Times.

Stay tuned.

"The Catholic Church is not above criticism," stressed Dolan. "We Catholics do a fair amount of it ourselves. We welcome and expect it. All we ask is that such critique be fair, rational and accurate, what we would expect for anybody. The suspicion and bias against the Church is a national pastime that should be 'rained out' for good."

A rabbi, a preacher and a journalist

Mitch Albom has seen plenty of extremely large men, which isn't surprising after a quarter century as one of America's top sports writers. But he wasn't ready for the giant who met him outside the Pilgrim Church's dilapidated Gothic sanctuary near downtown Detroit. The Rev. Henry Covington was as tall as a basketball player, but weighed 400 pounds or more.

"His body seemed to unroll in layers, a broad slab of a chest cascading into a huge belly that hung like a pillow over the belt of his pants. His arms spread the sleeves of his oversized white T-shirt. His forehead was sweating, and he breathed heavily, as if he had just climbed stairs," wrote Albom, in "Have a Little Faith," a slim book that represents his return to non-fiction 12 years after his inspirational bestseller "Tuesdays With Morrie."

Albom's first impression was crystal clear: "If this is a man of God ... I'm the man in the moon."

Covington certainly stood in stark contrast to the other clergyman whose image was fixed in the writer's mind at the time -- the late Albert Lewis, the articulate leader of the Jewish congregation in which Albom grew up, in Cherry Hill, N.J.

The elderly rabbi had shocked Albom by asking him to deliver his eulogy, when that became necessary. This led to eight years of talks between "the Reb" and the skeptical journalist, who had walked away from his Jewish faith after college. This process resembled those philosophical Tuesday dialogues between Albom and a favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz, in the years before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease.

But Albom wasn't looking for another book during his weekday visit to Pilgrim's Church. He had -- while working to boost Detroit charities -- dropped by to learn more about the tiny Pentecostal flock's work with the homeless.

Albom expected to meet people there scarred by life on the street or behind bars, but didn't expect to find one in the pulpit.

In "Have a Little Faith," Albom describes a dramatic sermon in which Covington explored the twisted road that led to redemption: "Amazing grace. ... I coulda been dead. ... Shoulda been dead! … Woulda been dead! … His grace … saved a wretch. And I was a wretch. You know what a wretch is? I was a crackhead, an alcoholic, I was a heroin addict, a liar, a thief. I was all those things. But then came Jesus."

At first, "I wasn't sure that I trusted him," said Albom, in a quick telephone interview. "I thought, 'Isn't there supposed to be some minimal 'goodness' quotient in all of this? How can you have done all of that and now call yourself a man of God?' "

As Albom met members of Covington's church and heard their stories, bonds of trust developed, followed by friendship. Then some of the lessons he learned there began to overlap and interact with what he was learning in his pre-eulogy talks with Rabbi Lewis. There was an emphasis on respecting others, doing good works and helping needy and struggling seekers.

The writer rediscovered his own Jewish roots, but he also had to confront the blunt, powerful claims of Covington's preaching. The rabbi's approach was broad, universal and embraced all faiths. The preacher's faith reached out to others, but remained rooted in the claims of Christianity. He didn't force the needy to convert, but he witnessed to them and prayed for their conversion.

This led Albom back to some of the big questions that emerged from the dialogues with his rabbi: "How can different religions coexist? If one faith believes on thing, and another believes something else, how can they both be correct? And does one religion have the right -- or even the obligation -- to try to convert the other?"

At the end of the book, Albom concludes: "God sings, we hum along, and there are many melodies, but it's all one song." At the same time, he chooses to worship in his familiar Jewish congregation, as well as at Pilgrim's Church.

"What can I say? I like Henry's sermons and I like the people and I like the spirit in that church. It is what it is," said Albom.

"I've decided that I'm not wise enough to tell you that one faith is better than another. God will have to sort it all out. That's in God's hands."

Define 'devout,' please

The recent obituaries celebrating the career of nationally syndicated horoscope columnist Linda C. Black included a number of colorful details about her life. She was a Libra and lived on a peacock farm on California's Central Coast. The Chicago Tribune also reported that Black was "a devout Catholic and a devoted follower of astrology, which holds that the position of the stars and planets has a direct effect on human affairs and personalities."

This is interesting since the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that: "All forms of divination are to be rejected. ... Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers."

Then there was the tragic case of Lucille Hamilton, who paid $621 to have her, or his, "spiritual grime" removed by a voodoo high priest. However, something went wrong and Hamilton -- a 21-year-old male living as a female -- died on the second day of the "Lave Tet" voodoo baptism rites.

The Philadelphia Daily News noted that, "Hamilton was a devout Catholic, with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe tattooed on her foot."

Yes, you read that correctly. You see, of all the labels used by journalists to describe believers -- from "apostate" to "zealot" -- surely "devout" has become one of the most meaningless. While this is true in a variety of world religions, for some reason things get especially interesting when "devout" appears in front of "Catholic."

The bottom line: What's the difference between a "practicing" Catholic and a "devout" Catholic? Do journalists simply know one when they see one?

Wall Street Journal editors recently raised questions about this "devout" issue in an online "Style & Substance" newsletter. This editorial note warned that it's important for journalists covering criminal cases to consider whether a person's faith background -- devout or lapsed -- is even relevant. For example, religious references may add vital information in reports about frauds committed by a Catholic individual against a number of Catholic organizations.

Meanwhile, the editors asked, "Hasn’t devout Catholic become a cliche, rather like oil-rich Kuwait? It would seem that only Catholics and Muslims qualify as devout, since devout Catholic has appeared in our pages four times in the past year and devout Muslim twice. Zero for devout Jews and Protestants."

There is no question that the term "devout" is used far too often and in a sloppy manner, said Richard Ostling, a religion-beat veteran best known for his work with Time and the Associated Press. This fact could be a comment on how little exposure many mainstream journalists have to religious life and practice.

"Perhaps, to someone with only secularist experiences and friends, any level of religious interest of any type might seem 'devout,' " he said. But, in the end, "reporters can only observe outward behavior, not the inner soul. ... There's usually a connection between observance and personal faith, so generally it makes sense to assess personal belief by externals."

Many of these common labels used to describe believers -- terms such as "serious," "practicing," "committed" and, yes, "devout" -- are completely subjective, agreed Debra Mason, director of the Religion Newswriters Association, which is based at the University of Missouri. Different people define these words in different ways. With the "devout" label, there is even the implication that these believers may be fanatics.

When in doubt, reporters should simply drop the vague labels and use plain information, she said, echoing advice offered by Ostling and others.

"Since journalists do not have a direct line into the soul to discern a person's faith, it is far better to use precise descriptions of a person's religious practice and observance," said Mason. For example, a reporter could note that, "Joe Smith attended Mass every day" or that "Jane Smith attended worship every week, even when ill."

The goal is to use clear facts instead of foggy labels, an approach that Mason admitted may require journalists to add a line or two of context or background information. Non-Catholics, for example, may not understand the importance of a Catholic choosing to attend Mass every day.

However, she stressed, this extra work is "a small price to pay for more accurate and precise reporting."

Wafer madness

Editor's note: Tmatt did not write a column for Scripps Howard this week, due to last-minute travel to Atlanta for the funeral of my wife Debra's mother, Jeanne Bridges Kuhn. The following is a post written for GetReligion.org, which will interest many of my regular readers. To read the interactive version of this post, click here. * * * *

There is no question what the Roman Catholic Church calls the holy bread that is consecrated during the Mass. It is called the “host.” Anyone who knows anything about Catholic liturgy knows this.

Now, how do you describe or define the host? Those seeking to be reverent tend to call it “consecrated bread.”

The problem, of course, is that the special bread used in Western Rite services is not simply unleavened bread. As the old saying goes, there are two acts of faith involved in meditating on the host during a Mass. The first is to believe that it is the Body of Christ. The second is to believe that it is, in fact, bread.

Thus, many people refer to the host in a variety of ways. Some people insist on calling the host a “wafer,” a term that angers many Catholics. However, there are Catholics who use this term. Still, most simply call it by its traditional name — a host.

It is true that, if you look up definitions online, there is an ecclesiastical definition for “wafer” that applies. Thus, you end up with these two clashing definitions:

1. A small thin crisp cake, biscuit, or candy.

2. Ecclesiastical -- A small thin disk of unleavened bread used in the Eucharist.

So, is this unique bread the consecrated “host” or some kind of supposedly holy cookie? That seems to be the question.

I raise this because of the interesting and very detailed story that ran in the Boston Globe the other day about rites of “perpetual adoration,” a tradition that is explained well right at the top by religion-beat specialist Michael Paulson. However, many will stumble, or even scream, right at the lede:

The adorers sit in silence before the wafer.

Some settle cross-legged on the floor by the altar. Others kneel in a favorite pew. They read, or say the rosary; they pray, or think, or just allow the mind to wander. Hour after hour, day after day, they take part in an unusual Catholic ritual that appears to be making a modest comeback — a quest for silence in a noisy life, a desire to be part of a team, a hunger to feel closer to God.

The ritual, called perpetual adoration, is, at one level, strikingly simple: around-the-clock, people take turns sitting in a chapel in the presence of a consecrated wafer. But at another level, the ritual reflects an embrace of the teaching of Catholicism that many find hardest to understand: the belief that, during Mass, bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.

The lede seems to settle the issue. It’s a wafer. The Catholic church may say that it is the Body of Christ, or even consecrated bread, but it’s a wafer. For many readers, this rite is an act of faith. Others will consider it a mild form of madness.

I think it’s likely that they Globe newsroom stylebook even settles this language question (I’d love to know the actual answer, in fact). The story uses the term “wafer” eight times — including in a direct quote — and the term “host” only once. I found it interesting that the term “host” is left undefined. If the term is so common that it does not need to be defined, then why not use “host,” oh, eight times and the term “wafer” once? Just asking.

I also wondered if this statement is true:

Later this week, in a Back Bay shrine, the Archdiocese of Boston will celebrate the return of perpetual adoration to Boston for the first time in decades. Volunteers at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine are signing up 336 people — two for every hour of the week except during Mass — who will agree that, starting Saturday and continuing indefinitely, they will spend an hour a week in the presence of the consecrated wafer, a practice they understand as spending an hour a week with God.

That’s interesting. I had no idea that perpetual adoration was this rare, since I have heard about the practice in a number of contexts through the years. Are there no monasteries in Boston? Did this particular archdiocese ban or discourage the practice for some reason? I’m curious.

Please understand that I am not attacking the Globe report (and certainly not Paulson) on the “wafer” vs. “host” issue.

Still, I have no doubt that many Catholics were not offended by the drumbeat references to their adoration of a “wafer.” However, I am sure that some were offended and there is a good chance that some traditional Catholics still read the Globe.

My question is more basic: What was gained by using the blunt “wafer” reference in the lede? Is the word “host” so strange in a heavily Catholic region? Why not open by saying that they are kneeling before the “consecrated bread” that they believe is the Body of Christ? A reference to the belief of the worshippers would be accurate, even for skeptics. Correct?

Behind this question is another: Should journalists cover the beliefs of others with some sense of respect for the language that they would use? What is accomplished by using language that is sure to offend many of the “stakeholders” — that’s a journalistic term used by Poynter.org and in some other academic settings — who will care the most about the accuracy and sensitivity of this fine story?

There is no question that the Catholic church calls this a “host.” And there is no question that the Boston Globe calls this bread a “wafer.” I am asking this question: Why does the “wafer” language need to win in this debate? Is there a way to be both neutral and to show respect?