Catholicism

A Catholic Colbert report

For Catholics raised during the head-spinning days after Vatican II, few things inspire flashbacks to the era of flowers and folk Masses quicker than the bouncy hymn "The King of Glory." But what was a goofy nerd doing on Comedy Central, belting out this folk song while doing a bizarre blend of Broadway shtick and liturgical dance?

"The King of glory comes, the nation rejoices! Open the gates before him, lift up your voices," sang Stephen Colbert a decade ago, in a video that is now a YouTube classic. "Who is the King of glory; how shall we call him? He is Emmanuel, the promised of ages."

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was this painfully ironic comedian mocking trendy Catholics or saluting them? Was he outing himself as a Christian? Was he praising Jesus or risking a lightning bolt?

Legions of 40-something Catholics have strong memories of the first time they saw this clip, said Diane Houdek, managing editor of AmericaCatholics.org. Something in Colbert's performance told them that this was not a random gag.

"Stephen walks this thin line," said Houdek, who runs "The Word: A Colbert Blog for Catholic It-Getters" in her spare time. "He isn't afraid to be critical when it comes to matters of faith, but when he does it's always clear that his critique is from the inside. ... He'll push things pretty far. He'll dance right up to that line, but he will not cross it. He will not compromise what he believes as a Catholic."

Colbert, of course, became the star of The Colbert Report, the fake news show in which he plays a right-wing egotist (think Bill O'Reilly of Fox News) named "Stephen Colbert." Religion plays a major role in the show and there are moments when he speaks sincerely in his own voice.

That's what happened last week when his alter ego came to Washington, D.C., at the invitation of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. His testimony mixed satire ("I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian") with serious information about the plight of farm workers.

Colbert lowered his mask when asked why this issue mattered to him, slipping in a reference to a Gospel of Matthew parable in which eternal judgment awaits those who deny compassion to the poor and defenseless.

Some of America's least powerful people, he said, are "migrant workers who come in and do our work, but don't have any rights as a result. And yet, we still ask them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. ... You know, 'Whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,' and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now."

It helps to know that Colbert was raised as the youngest of 11 children in a devout Irish-Catholic family in Charleston, S.C. Then his physician father and two brothers died in a plane crash and their joyful home plunged into grief. Colbert soon lost his faith.

Years later, a sidewalk volunteer in Chicago handed the young actor a Gideon Bible and something clicked. Today, he lives a private life with his wife and three children, but he never hides the fact that he teaches children's Sunday school.

As he told Rolling Stone last year: "From a doctrinal point of view or a dogmatic point of view or a strictly Catholic adherent point of view, I'm the first to say that I talk a good game, but I don't know how good I am about it in practice. I saw how my mother's faith was very valuable to her and valuable to my brothers and sisters, and I'm moved by the words of Christ, and I'll leave it at that."

But there is more to Colbert's faith, and his theology, than that, said Houdek. For starters, a Jesuit serves as the show's chaplain.

"There is evidence of his faith all through his work, if you know what to look for," she said. "This is what makes him so unique, in the extremely secular world in which he is working -- Comedy Central. Yet he keeps doing what he does night after night, because he never comes off as preachy."

Patricia Neal and her angels

After her destructive affairs with married men, after the death of her first child, after an accident left her infant son brain-damaged, after the near-fatal strokes that struck months after her 1964 Oscar win for "Hud," actress Patricia Neal faced yet another personal crisis that left her on the verge of collapse. While her marriage to British writer Roald Dahl, the author of children's classics such as "James and Giant Peach," had long been troubled, Neal was shattered when she learned he was having an affair with one of her friends. They divorced in1983.

In her 1988 memoir, "As I Am," Neal admitted: "Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison."

That quotation captured the tone of the tributes published after Neal passed away on Aug. 8 at the age of 84. Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in honor of the Tony Award winner and critics sang the praises of one of Hollywood's ultimate survivors, an actress who literally learned to walk and talk again before returning to the screen to earn another Oscar nomination.

But Neal's story contained angels as well as demons. This is obvious in the overlooked passages in "As I Am" that described her conversion to Catholicism and her visits to the cloister of Regina Laudis (Queen of Praise) Abbey in Bethlehem, Conn., where the sisters helped her confess her sorrows and rage.

Finally, the abbess suggested that Neal move into the abbey for a month.

"Lady Abbess," said Neal, "I don't want to join up, you understand?"

The abbess sighed and said, "Believe me, we don't want you to, either. I don't think we could take it for more than a month."

As she arrived, Neal stubbed out the "last cigarette I would ever smoke."

A priest gave her a blessing and, she recalled, "I felt his cross blaze into my forehead. ... I traded my street clothes for the black dress of the postulant and scrubbed off my makeup. I removed the rings from my fingers and covered my hair with a black scarf. I looked at the bare wooden walls of my cell. ... I did not live the exact life of a postulant, but I did my best."

Neal went to church on time, followed the abbey's prayer regime, baked bread, remained silent during meals and, with the help of a spiritual director, began writing the journal that evolved into "As I Am."

Behind closed doors, she unleashed her fury. At one point she screamed so many curses at her counselor that the sister finally cursed right back, urging Neal to be honest about her own faults and mistakes.

The actress finally voiced her secret pain. Monsignor Jim Lisante of Diocese of Rockville Centre (New York) later discussed with Neal the tragedies of her life and asked if there was any one event that she would change.

"She said, 'Forty years ago I became involved with the actor Gary Cooper, and by him I became pregnant. As he was a married man and I was young in Hollywood and not wanting to ruin my career, we chose to have the baby aborted,' " wrote Lisante, at the Creative Minority Report website. "She said, 'Father, alone in the night for over 40 years, I have cried for my child. And if there is one thing I wish I had the courage to do over in my life, I wish I had the courage to have that baby.' "

Several of the obituaries for Neal -- including the New York Times feature -- mentioned this episode in the context of her pain and regret. The Washington Post noted that late in life "she suffered periods of depression and suicidal thoughts before finding peace as a Catholic convert."

In the end, Neal decided that, "God was using my life far beyond any merit of my own making" allowing her to reach out to those who were suffering. "I learned that my damaged brain cannot reclaim what is dead. It has to create totally new pathways that allowed me to make choices I would never have made had I not suffered that stroke -- choices that an infallible voice assures me will be blessed."

One final lesson from the abbess, wrote Neal, stood out: "There is a way to love that remains after everything else is taken from us."

A Catholicism fit for journalists?

Editor's note: This past week, tmatt took a vacation to a site with no telephone or wifi. Imagine that. Such places still exist. Thus, there was no weekly column for Scripps Howard. However, here is a recent post from GetReligion.org that would be of interest to regular readers of this website. ***

Two weeks ago, the Sunday Boston Globe magazine ran an essay -- not a news story, I admit -- that I have been thinking about ever since. It was called "What I Believe" and it was written by Charles Pierce, a staff writer at the publication.

This long essay covers a lot of territory and it's possible to criticize it -- either positive criticism or negative criticism -- in several different ways. Most of all, it is a stunningly American look at the earthquakes that have rocked the Catholic Church in the decades after Vatican II and Woodstock.

The key is that Pierce believes that the Catholic hierarchy's claims to unique religious authority are gone. Period. Thus, consider these two important passages in the piece, as he explains that the Catholic Church in which he worships is his alone. He has a personal church and, he states clearly, he does not need a personal Savior:

In the church of my youth, with the priests reciting incomprehensible Latin, their backs to the people, walled off by an altar rail and two millenniums' worth of imperial design, the purple always came out at Advent and at Lent. It was the color of penance, we were told. And so it is, and penitence begins within, in one mind and one soul and in what the nuns used to call an informed conscience. That's where my Catholicism is now. It is a penitential faith. That's where you can look for it. It is possible, I have come to realize, that I've grown up to become an anti-Catholic Catholic.

And then the passage that is being quoted most often:

The Vatican can beg. It can plead. But it can no longer demand.

Which brings me to the most fundamental rule of my Catholicism -- nobody gets to tell me that I'm not a Catholic.

Those of my fellow Catholics who remain loyal to the institutional structure of the Church don't get to do so. People who talk glibly of "cafeteria Catholicism" don't get to do so. People who seek to coin Catholic doctrine into political advantage -- be they left or right -- don't get to do so. No priest gets to do so, and no bishop, either, and that especially means the bishop of Rome himself. No pope can tell me I'm not a Catholic.

Now, it is possible to see this article only through the lens of Catholic faith, practice and doctrine. If you want to see critiques of that kind, they are easy to find. You can start by clicking here and heading over to the conservative site CatholicCulture.org, where you can find this quick and easy linkage between Pierce's faith and, surprise, his employer:

... (For) decades the Globe has operated on the assumption that the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. At the opening of his article, Pierce cheerfully identifies himself as an "anti-Catholic Catholic." Thus he qualifies perfectly as the man who will tell Globe readers what they should believe. ...

Nobody can tell Charles Pierce that he's not a Catholic. Nor can anyone tell him what the Catholic Church teaches. The Church teaches what Pierce wants it to teach. And he believes it all.

Or you can read a blunt post on this topic by Rod Dreher, who, it must be noted, made the difficult and painful choice to leave the Catholic Church in a crisis of conscience. If one does not believe all the claims of the Catholic Church, Dreher would say, one should have the integrity not take its vows and not to receive its Sacraments.

One should, in other words, make a serious, informed decision and then hit the exit door. Thus, Dreher writes:

Hey Charles -- you're not a Catholic! Man up and admit it. You are a Catholic by birth and cultural identification, but you have ceased to believe as Catholicism teaches. Why do you lack the courage to be what you are: a non-Catholic Christian? ... A Catholicism in which you have no obligation at all to believe what the Church authoritatively teaches, or to act as it prescribes, is not Catholicism at all. At all. It's one thing to say that you struggle to accept this teaching of the church intellectually, or have trouble living that teaching out. Everyone does, even the saints. But it's entirely another thing to say you don't have to try, and that that's okay, because you are your own pope. If you don't believe this stuff, but like to come by the church for the music, or the camaraderie, okay, fine -- that's between you and your priest, and God. But to reject the Church's authority entirely, as Pierce does, but to still call yourself a Catholic in good standing, is either hypocrisy, or insanity -- the insanity of the solipsist.

In other words, Pierce is a congregationalist in a one-man congregation, which is a very American thing to be.

There are plenty of Baptists like that and, obviously, scores of Unitarians. This was the stance of a devout Episcopalian I once interviewed -- head of the vestry at the church right behind the U.S. Supreme Court -- who was also an atheist. He took his confirmation vows with his intellectual fingers crossed and, Sunday after Sunday, said the creed while redefining the words inside his head. People do things like that and, in his parish, that was what being an Episcopalian was all about.

But the Globe essay would not have stuck in my head like a bad disco tune (and I would not be writing this post) if I didn't think there was a religion-news angle to this, something linked to what GetReligion is all about.

You see, elsewhere in his essay, Piece writes about some of the details of the current crisis in Catholic sanctuaries in this land and elsewhere and then he says:

Church attendance in the United States is down.

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, released in April 2009, found that one in 10 US adults has left the Catholic Church after having been raised Catholic -- with Catholicism having had the largest net loss in members of all the major religious groups in the United States. About half of those who departed and now identify themselves as "unaffiliated" left the church because of its views on abortion, homosexuality, and birth control. (In 2009, the American Religious Identification Survey by Hartford's Trinity College found that, between 1990 and 2008, the percentage of people in Massachusetts who identified themselves as Catholic dropped to 39 percent from 54 percent.) The sexual-abuse scandal, then, erupted within a church that already was struggling with serious demographic pressures.

The implication is that if the Catholic Church would only modernize on these kinds of social issues, these people would not leave and, thus, the church would enter a new era growth and prosperity. New, progressive Christians and young people would flock into the pews.

Right. Right. I hear the voices of the traditional Catholics out there who have a quick response to that argument: "Yeah, just like the Episcopal Church is growing (surf in this file) and all of the other liberal Protestant churches."

Many traditional Catholics are just as sure that their pews would be full, once again, if only the Pierces of this world would pack up and leave. They note the vitality and growth of a few conservative Catholic orders and the number of men seeking the priesthood in zip codes served by more traditional seminaries and bishops.

But, you see, that's only half the story, too. Neither side of that debate seems to want to talk about all of the facts. There are ghosts and skeletons in Catholic closets on the left and the right. This era of sweeping changes -- think birthrates, the rise of the Sunbelt, suburbanization, immigration and a host of other factual changes -- is more complex than that.

At the same time, however, I worry that many journalists think that Pierce's view is accurate in terms of history, that many journalists truly believe that Catholics -- to name one example -- truly do not need to go to confession and struggle to live out the teachings of their faith in order to remain practicing Catholics in the sacramental meaning of that word. In other words, the Catholic Church gets to define the borders of the Catholic Church (ditto for the Unitarians, Baptists, Episcopalians and others).

Thus, it would help if the Globe ran another piece by another Catholic in the newsroom -- the same placement, the same length -- entitled, "What My Church Teaches and Why I Believe It."

Surely there are Catholics in that newsroom who would welcome the chance to write that essay?

Surely the Globe newsroom is diverse enough for that to happen? Or was Pierce actually speaking for his newspaper, as well as for himself?

'Lost' in the eternal lite

When describing the mysterious concept called purgatory, the Catechism of the Catholic Church starts with the basics. "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven," the text states. "The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification. ... The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire."

Alas, any distressed "Lost" viewers who rushed to the Vatican website after the show's finale found no insights about the smoke monster, the Dharma Initiative, that mysterious "4 8 15 16 23 42" sequence or why the fate of the world depended on a pool of light on one very strange island.

At least one member of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has owned up to being tuned into the "Lost" phenomenon from the beginning. At the end, all Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark could do was understate the obvious.

"I've enjoyed the series, considering it to be akin to science fiction," he noted, reacting to the raging debates about the religious symbols and language that dominated the final moments. "While the Catholic Church does believe in Purgatory, I'm not sure that the series presents an accurate understanding of our beliefs."

Before the finale, the scribes who had been running "Lost" -- Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse -- said their creation would end by focusing on how the Oceanic Flight 815 survivors answered ultimate questions about the wounds, conflicts and sins in their pasts. The key word, they agreed, was "redemption." All of that pain and suffering had a purpose.

The final episode blended together lots of vague theology, philosophy, pop psychology, religious symbols and references to popular books and movies. Think of it as "Our Town" meets "The Sixth Sense," with dashes of "Ghost," "Field of Dreams," "It's a Wonderful Life" and, at the last minute, a comforting nod to "All Dogs Go to Heaven."

After years of flashing back and forth in time, the final year's action centered on events in two parallel time sequences -- the climactic battle to determine the island's fate and a purgatorial "sideways" timeline in which the characters gained insights into their troubled lives, before and after the fateful crash.

At the end, the castaways gathered in a church sanctuary for one last group hug before entering eternity -- an ocean of bright light outside the exit doors. The big chat explaining these final events -- reuniting the show's Christ figure, Jack Shephard, with his father, Christian Shephard -- was lit by a stained-glass window containing symbols of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

But was the show, as some had theorized all along, actually built on the concept of purgatory? Hadn't Lindelof told the New York Times in 2006: "People who believe that they're in purgatory or that they're subjects of an experiment are going to start reassessing those theories. ..." The creator of "Lost," J.J. Abrams, had denied the purgatory theory, too.

The finale's spirituality shocked many critics, including one or two who were so upset that they retroactively (flash backward) dismissed "Lost" as a whole. But veteran Washington Post writer Hank Stuever, drawing on his Catholic school past, said it's time to admit the obvious.

In the final five minutes, "I realized that the purgatory camp had been right all along, that Occam’s razor (the simplest solution is usually the correct one) had worked," he argued. "Oceanic 815 crashed. Some of its souls awoke in a realm that is neither heaven nor hell. It's limbo. ... Jack Shephard and his fellow travelers were brought there to resolve a number of problems between heaven and hell."

But some Catholic viewers struggled to reconcile their church's teachings with the limitations of a product created in Hollywood, a place that has its own definitions of terms such as "sin," "repentance," "redemption" and "savior."

Now, the creators of "Lost" have offered a glimpse of purgatory -- lite.

"From a theological point of view -- well, you can't have 'purgatory' per se without God, without Christ," said Amy Welborn, a popular online Catholic commentator. "But given a vague, non-specific Christ-less spirituality, I really don't see an argument that the sideways realities in the final episode, at least, weren't meant to be purgatory."

State of the online Godbeat 2010

For journalists who care about life on the Godbeat, the list of the dead and the missing in action has turned into a grim litany. Some religion-beat jobs have been killed, while others have been downsized, out-sourced, frozen or chopped up and given to reluctant general-assignment reporters.

Gentle readers, please rise for a moment of silence.

The Orlando Sentinel. The Dallas Morning News. Time. The Chicago Sun-Times. The Rocky Mountain News. U.S. News & World Report. The list goes on, especially if you include smaller newsrooms that have always struggled to support Godbeat jobs.

At least 16 major news outlets abandoned or reduced commitment to religion news as a specialty beat in recent years, according to the Religion Newswriters Association. Two of those empty desks -- at the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe -- were recently filled.

"In the 1990s and early 2000s, the largest papers often had multiple religion reporters. That has disappeared, for sure. That is where the biggest cut for religion has occurred," said RNA director Debra Mason, who teaches at the University of Missouri.

"We suffer in the meantime, and one possible casualty is all our experienced, better writers. I do worry that the next generation of religion writers don't have any mentors or internships, etc., to gain experience."

Mason stressed that the religion beat is not being singled out. Sweeping changes in the industry, coupled with hard economic times, have been especially destructive in big-city newspapers that once had the resources to fund a variety of specialty beats -- from the arts to fashion, from science to religion. Also, high profits in the 1980s and into the '90s had inflated some newsroom staffs.

At the same time, Mason said she sees another trend. New forms of religion news and opinion can be found in a variety of settings online, including sites such as Politics Daily, The Huffington Post, Creedible.com, Read the Spirit, Immanent Frame, Religion Dispatches and the powerful Catholic weblog, Whispers in the Loggia. CNN leaders recently announced the creation of several specialty news sites, including a religion weblog. Beliefnet.com continues to evolve.

Dedicated readers have never had greater access to the work of journalists and public-relations professionals employed by major denominations and religious groups of all kind -- from Baptist Press to the Episcopal News Service and everyone in between. Alternative news sources have sprung up in cyberspace, such as the Stand Firm network for Anglican conservatives, The Wild Hunt for modern pagans, Orthodox Christians for Accountability and flocks of Baptist blogs -- from BaptistLife.com to SBCvoices.com -- representing establishment and independent writers.

The harsh reality today, according to Rocco Palmo, the man behind Whispers in the Loggia, is that all too often readers who care about religion face tough choices. Will they place their trust in traditional news reports that are, these days, often written by journalists who have little training to prepare them for the rigors of the religion beat or the opinion-based work of experienced insiders and scholars who may have ideological axes to grind?

"There are fabulous religion reporters who are still out there grinding away in the mainstream media, but they are an endangered species for sure," said Palmo. "I still think that basic, hard-news reporting is the gold standard and we need more of it. ... But most of what you see when you go online is commentary and criticism. You don't see that much original reporting being done. ...

"If anything, people like me are just trying to step in and fill the void."

Someone will have to do that because, year after year, religion keeps playing a vital role in shaping many of the world's biggest stories, from the streets of Iran to voting booths in America, from scandals shaking Catholic sanctuaries to mysteries unfolding in genetics research laboratories.

It's impossible to tell these complex stories accurately without grasping the role that faith plays in the lives of millions and millions of people around the world.

"Religion stories are the most exquisite stories to tell," stressed Mason. "I believe that we'll figure out how to effectively and efficiently tell stories about faith and values once this media transition is sorted out. The question is not whether or not we'll have religion news, but whether or not there will be anyone left who knows how to cover it."

Quest for the common Easter

Motorists across America saw a strange sight this past Sunday morning if they stopped at a traffic signal near an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary and then, shortly thereafter, passed a Catholic parish. What they saw was worshippers singing hymns and waving palm fronds as they marched in Palm Sunday processions at these churches. Similar sights will be common during Holy Week rites this week and then on Easter Sunday.

There is nothing unusual about various churches celebrating these holy days in their own ways. What is rare is for the churches of the East and West to be celebrating Easter ("Pascha" in the East) on the same day. This will happen again next year, as well as in 2014 and 2017.

This remains one of the most painful symbols of division in global Christianity. While Easter is the most important day on the Christian calendar, millions of Christians celebrate this feast on different days because they have -- for centuries -- used different calendars. The Orthodox follow the ancient Julian calendar when observing Pascha, while others use the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582, during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII.

"It was a calendar issue then and it's a calendar issue now," said Antonios Kireopoulos, an Orthodox theologian who is a leader in interfaith relations work at the National Council of Churches of Christ. "This is about calendars, but it's much more than that."

This clash between liturgical calendars in the East and West, he said, also affects how churches pursue their missions. "We are talking about the central event of our faith, yet we remain so divided about it. ... That has to raise questions for those outside the faith. If the resurrection is so important, why can't we find a way to celebrate this together?"

Seizing the temporary unity represented by the shared Easter dates this year and next, Kireopoulos and National Council of Churches General Secretary Michael Kinnamon recently renewed an earlier call that challenged leaders on both sides to pursue a permanent solution to this clash of the calendars.

Their letter restates three recommendations from the 1997 Aleppo Conference, which was hosted by the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch. That gathering called for Christians worldwide to:

* Honor the first ecumenical council of Nicea by celebrating Easter on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, which would maintain the biblical ties between the Jewish Passover, Holy Week and Easter.

* Agree to calculate astronomical data by using the best available scientific methods, which was a principle established in Nicea to settle an early controversy about the date of Easter.

* Use the meridian line for Jerusalem as the reference point for all calculations, once again honoring the biblical narratives about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The problem, of course, is that making a change of this magnitude would require a broad spectrum of Christian leaders -- including the pope and numerous Orthodox patriarchs -- to agree on something that stirs deep emotions among the faithful. Orthodox leaders continue to wrestle with splits linked to a 1923 decision to celebrate Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar.

The final Aleppo document recognized that it would be especially hard for Eastern believers to change their traditions.

"In some countries in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, where the Christian churches have lived with the challenge of other religions or materialistic ideologies, loyalty to the 'old calendar' has been a symbol of the churches' desire to maintain their integrity and their freedom from the hostile forces of this world," it said. "Clearly in such situations implementation of any change in the calculation of Easter/Pascha will have to proceed carefully and with great pastoral sensitivity."

Orthodox leaders know that the Easter gap will keep getting wider -- with Pascha creeping into the summer in about a century.

But change is hard. As old joke says, "How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer: "Change? What is this 'change'?"

"This is not a matter of one side finally giving in and the other winning," stressed Kireopoulos. "This is a matter of finding a way to proclaim -- together -- what we all believe about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. ... What we hope is that, once again, we can follow the principles of Nicea and find a way to move forward."

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."

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."

Painful options for postmodern nuns

It may take time, but it's hard for a Catholic educator to publicly praise the work of nuns who have bravely leapt "beyond Jesus" without drawing some flack -- especially in the Internet age. During this era of crisis and decline, some Catholic religious orders have chosen to enter a time of "sojourning" that involves "moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus," Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink told a 2007 national gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

"Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian," added Brink, a former journalist who is a biblical studies professor at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union. For these women, the "Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative. ... They still hold up and reverence the values of the Gospel, but they also recognize that these same values are not solely the property of Christianity. Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Judaism, Islam and others hold similar tenets for right behavior within the community, right relationship with the earth and right relationship with the Divine."

It took time, but ripples from her address have grown into waves of debate about the health of many religious orders, especially in light of reports that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is supervising a "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The question is whether many sisters have rejected doctrines stated in Vatican documents focusing on the male priesthood, homosexuality and the Catholic Church's role in the salvation of souls. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- played a crucial role in the development of these documents.

Catholic conservatives are convinced that Brink crossed an important line.

"If you're going to be Post-Christian, then be Post-Christian. I don't say that with snark. It's just reality," argued Catholic blogger Amy Welborn of Beliefnet. "If you've moved on -- move on. Step out from the protective mantle of identity that gives you cachet, that of 'Catholic nun.' "

However, it's important to note that this "Post-Christian," "sojourning" strategy was only the third of four strategies critiqued by Brink in the online text of her presentation, entitled "A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century (.pdf)." Her goal was to urge leaders of Catholic religious orders to make clear, if painful choices in an age in which "indecision" is the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sister Laurie began with this assumption: "Old concepts of how to live the Life are no longer valid."

The first option, she said, is "death with dignity and grace," as opposed to becoming a "zombie congregation" that staggers on with no purpose. This option must be taken seriously since the average age of the 67,000 sisters and nuns in the United States is 69. Many retreat ministries are closing and large "mother houses" are struggling with finances, while some congregations no longer invite or accept new candidates.

Meanwhile, Brink noted with sadness, some orders have chosen to turn back the clock -- thus winning the favor of Rome. "They are putting on the habit, or continuing to wear the habit with zest. ... Some would critique that they are the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed. But they are flourishing. Young adults are finding in these communities a living image of their romantic view of Religious Life. They are entering. And they are staying," she said.

Finally, some women are fighting on, hoping to achieve reconciliation someday with a changed, egalitarian church hierarchy. Thus, the current conflicts in American Catholicism cannot be hidden, she said.

"Theologians are denied academic freedom. Religious and laywomen feel scrutinized simply because of their biology. Gays and lesbians desire to participate as fully human, fully sexual Catholics within their parishes," said Brink. Many Catholics also oppose the "ecclesial deafness that refuses to hear the call of the Spirit summoning not only celibate males, but married men and women to serve" as priests.

These religious orders will strive to recruit new sisters and train them to continue the struggle against the "men who control the power in but not the Spirit of the Church," she said. If reconciliation occurs, it will take place in a reformed church.

Right now, she stressed, the Catholic hierarchy is "right to feel alarmed. What is at stake is the very heart of the Church itself."