Web/tech

Reality keeps raising the April Fools' bar for all those online Catholic satirists

Day after day, Kevin Knight scans news and commentary pages looking for items that will interest Catholics and others who visit his New Advent website.

With its plain white background, stark graphics and columns of headlines, the site looks something like the powerful, secular Drudge Report. But New Advent focuses on church life and doctrine, not celebrity scandals and political horse races.

Knight does appreciate the occasional zinger. Still, he has learned to be extra careful when April 1 approaches. After all, the Chair of St. Peter is occupied by a pope whose off-the-cuff remarks often puzzle the faithful. Oh, and Donald Trump is president of the United States.

"Yes, it has gotten harder to tell satire and hoaxes from the real thing," noted Knight. "It's getting more necessary to be explicit when linking to some stories -- especially when they deal with Pope Francis. … In the past two years, I've deliberately avoided linking to April Fools' stories for this very reason."

All savvy news consumers need to do to see what Knight is taking about is open an online search program and enter various religious terms and then the phrase "not the Onion," referring to The Onion, a secular satire site.

Take this headline, for example: "Muslim Schoolgirl Sent Home Because Her Skirt Was Too Long." That story is real.

Or how about this? "Pope Francis to make Martin Luther a Saint on October 31." That jest ran on April 1 on the "Liturgy: Service and Gratitude" site.

Consider this headline: "Jesuits to Admit Women to the Society."

A married priest parses latest sound bite -- about married priests -- from Pope Francis

A married priest parses latest sound bite -- about married priests -- from Pope Francis

Every now and then, a typical Catholic asks Father Dwight Longenecker for his take on whether Rome will ever ordain more married men as priests. 

This is logical, since Longenecker is a former Anglican priest who is married and has four children. He was raised as a fundamentalist Protestant, graduating from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., and now leads Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in that same city.

These conversations begin with the layperson cheering for married priests. Then Longenecker mentions the "elephant in the room" -- the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae defending church doctrines forbidding artificial contraception. Surely bishops would strive to ordain men who, with their wives, would defend these teachings. Right?

"They might have a dozen kids," says Longenecker. "Who's going to pay for them?"

The typical Catholic assumes the bishop will do that. Actually, parishes are responsible for their priest's pay, even when his children go to Catholic schools and off to college. That might require parishioners to put more than $5 in offering plates.

The typical Catholic then says: "I don't think having married priests is such a good idea."

Longenecker is ready for more chats -- in person and at his "Standing on my Head" website -- after recent Pope Francis remarks to the German newsweekly Die Zeit.

Asked about the global shortage of priests, Francis expressed a willingness to consider ordaining "viri probati" (tested men), such as married men already ordained as deacons. While "voluntary celibacy is not a solution," he added: "We need to consider if viri probati could be a possibility. … We would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities."

This latest Pope Francis sound bite was not surprising, since Vatican officials have often discussed ordaining more married men, said Longenecker, author of 15 books on Catholic faith and apologetics.

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

The children kept asking a logical question in Sunday school, one linked to those "Whose birthday is it?" appeals voiced by "Put Christ back in Christmas" activists.

Leaders of Ecclesia Church in Houston were trying to find ways to encourage members to observe the four solemn weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming"), which precede the Christmas season, which begins on Dec. 25 and then lasts for 12 days.

"The children pushed this thing to another level," said the Rev. Chris Seay, pastor of this nondenominational flock in the trendy Montrose neighborhood near downtown. The church, which draws around 3,000 each weekend, was created by a coalition of Baptists, Presbyterians and others.

The question the children asked, he said, was this: " 'If Christmas is Jesus' birthday, then he should get the best gifts. Right?' … Once you ask that, it has to affect what we do as a church and what we do as families. If you start thinking that way, it changes just about everything we do at Christmas."

That shift led to efforts -- part of a national "Advent Conspiracy" campaign -- to raise money to provide safe water for suffering people around the world. The basic equation: If Americans spent $450 billion a year on Christmas, then why can't believers funnel some of this gift-giving into efforts to save others?

Ecclesia, an urban flock that includes poor and rich, is trying to raise about $1 million. That would be 30 percent of its annual budget, noted Seay, a total that will require major changes for many church members. The bottom line: "Advent Conspiracy" pastors are asking people to find ways to use the four weeks of Advent to prepare for Christmas as a holy day, rather than queuing up for America's blitz of holiday shopping, partying and decorating -- starting around Halloween.

This also means paying attention to ancient traditions that have shaped the church calendar, if not the shopping mall calendar.

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

No doubt about it, most mainstream pollsters thought the vote totals that rolled in during Election Night 2016 were intriguing, then stunning and, as dawn approached, almost unimaginable.

How did the chattering-class insiders miss what was clearly widespread heartland support for New York billionaire Donald Trump?

But there was one surprise left in the details of the early exit polls. In a race packed with soap-opera conflict and fiery rhetoric about personal ethics, morality and even faith, the experts looked at the role that religion played in 2016 and discovered -- to their shock -- that it was a rather normal modern election year.

"Actually, that's astonishing news," said Gregory A. Smith, who helps coordinate religion polling at the Pew Research Center. "If you consider all of the tumultuous events during this election year and how much tension there has been and all of the other stuff that's been up in the air, it's amazing that things were so steady" in terms of religion and voting, with "only a few numbers up or down a bit.

"Religious groups that have consistently supported the Republicans gave every indication they would back Donald Trump and that's how things turned out. The religious groups that traditionally back Democrats did so, but the turnout was down a bit. The religious groups that are usually divided were divided."

The so-called "God gap" (also known as the "pew gap") held steady, with religious believers who claimed weekly worship attendance backing Trump over Hillary Clinton, 56 percent to 40 percent. Voters who said they never attend religious services backed Clinton by a 31-point margin, 62 percent to 31 percent.

Why it can be so hard for modern pastors to keep answering their cellphones

Why it can be so hard for modern pastors to keep answering their cellphones

Once upon a time, the average-sized American religious congregation had two telephones that really mattered.

There was the office telephone, answered by a secretary or receptionist during business hours. It was the job of this gatekeeper -- who over time became an expert on life in the flock -- to tell the shepherd which calls were urgent and which could wait.

The other telephone was at the pastor's home. Many people knew that number, but they also knew it was not business as usual to dial it.

"People knew they never should call the pastor's home number unless it was a real emergency," said the Rev. Karl Vaters, of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, Calif. "There was a boundary there and people tried to help protect the pastor's time at home. That boundary was there to help protect his family and his ministry."

These days, both of those telephones, for all practical purposes, have been replaced by cellphones for the pastors and members of small congregations -- usually defined as those with under 200 people attending the main worship service. For most clergy, the cellphones in their pockets are always there, always vibrating to remind them of cares and concerns that rarely, if ever, go away.

It was the one-two punch of cellphones and email that first pulled clergy into the social-media age, followed by digital newsletters, Facebook pages and constantly changing congregational websites. Even in small churches, the work of the "church secretary" has evolved, from answering the office telephone and preparing an ink-on-paper newsletter to serving as an all-purpose online networker.

"The old boundaries are vanishing and, for pastors in some parts of the country, they're almost completely gone," said Vaters, reached by telephone.

The gentle, evangelical insider religious satire of The Babylon Bee

The gentle, evangelical insider religious satire of The Babylon Bee

Anyone who visits a typical American megachurch worship service will get a quick education on the mechanics of contemporary praise music.

First, the band rocks into action, while swaying worshipers raise their hands high, singing lyrics displayed on giant screens. There may be lasers and smoke. A guitarist or keyboard player guides everyone through worship songs -- loud then soft, softer then louder -- linked by dramatic key changes and musical "bridges." Eventually, there's a sermon or worship video.

What if something goes wrong? This Babylon Bee headline was an online classic: "Worship Leader Caught In Infinite Loop Between Bridge And Chorus."

In this fake "news report," a weeping member of the worship band adds: "It's scary, honestly. … This is our third worship leader who's been sucked into a PCBV (Perpetual Chorus-Bridge Vortex) in the past year."

After the 14th chorus-to-bridge transition, deacons called 911 and the victim was rushed to an emergency room. "Physicians are subjecting him," readers learn, "to a barrage of classic hymns in hopes that he will recover."

This is an inside-baseball brand of satire that allows Babylon Bee creator Adam Ford to gently explore the yins and yangs of evangelical Christianity.

"While we satirize our own camp quite a bit, we don't limit ourselves to evangelicalism. We write about culture, politics, other religions, current events, etc., regularly," said Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. He shares more of his personal story in his own Adam4d.com web-comics site.

Most Babylon Bee newcomers, however, are almost certainly be drawn there by social-media references to the site's popular items dissecting modern evangelical life.

It's tricky: Donald Trump tries, once again, to nail down a personal Christian testimony

It was a tricky question when Jesus asked his disciples: "Whom say ye that I am?"

This was still a tricky question when conservative columnist Cal Thomas posed a version of it to Donald Trump, while interviewing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

"You have confessed that you are a Christian," said Thomas.

Trump responded: "And I have also won much evangelical support."

"Yes, I know that," said Thomas. "You have said you never felt the need to ask for God's forgiveness, and yet repentance for one's sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?"

Trump responded: "I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won't have to be asking for much forgiveness. As you know, I am Presbyterian and Protestant. … We have tremendous support from the clergy. I think I will be doing very well during the election with evangelicals and with Christians. … I'm going to treat my religion, which is Christian, with great respect and care."

Thomas repeated the question: "Who do you say Jesus is?"

Trump tried again: "Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind."

Year 28 -- The crux of religion-news coverage in a digital marketplace

No one is surprised when The Wall Street Journal covers Wall Street, Disney releases a princess movie or Apple creates another wonder framed in aluminum.

Some professionals just do what they do. Thus, anyone who follows religion news knew that The Boston Globe's Crux website, which debuted 18 months ago, was going to be bookmarked by legions of Catholic-news junkies. Reporter John L. Allen, Jr., was going to do that thing that he does.

Alas, as so often happens, an online journalism project that drew millions of computer-mouse clicks failed to generate the stream of advertising revenue Globe executives needed to keep the cyber-doors open. This has led to a partnership -- raising many Catholic eyebrows -- between Allen and the Knights of Columbus, producing a "Crux 2.0," which opened on April 1.

This kind of union is becoming increasingly common. The goal is to marry a commitment to real journalism with financial support from a cooperative nonprofit group.

For this to work, the "people on the other side of the deal have to believe in what you are doing and see the wisdom of becoming part of your brand," said Allen, reached by telephone in Rome. "Your partners also have to be smart enough to realize that a key part of your brand is that you are seen -- by your readers -- as being truly independent."

The Crux project is crucial to anyone who cares about the future of journalism and, especially, quality reporting on specialty news topics like religion. That certainly includes me, after decades of work in this field. That includes, as of this week, 28 years writing this syndicated "On Religion" column.

Those who follow Catholic news know that Crux is not Allen's first journalism rodeo.

United Methodist vows, the Sexual Revolution and the fragile doctrinal ties that bind

United Methodist vows, the Sexual Revolution and the fragile doctrinal ties that bind

When the United Methodist Church ordains ministers, the rite includes the kind of vow that religious groups have long used to underline the ties that bind.

In this case, the candidate for ordination is asked to accept the church's "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?"

The candidate replies: "I will, with the help of God."

These vows may create problems for some clergy -- as noted in a remarkably blunt letter published recently by the independent Methodist Federation for Social Action. The context was the U.S. Supreme Court debate about a Health and Human Services mandate that requires most religious institutions to offer employees health insurance covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives.

Currently, actual churches and denominations are exempt. And there's the rub, for the letter's anonymous author.

"I chose to go on birth control because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergywoman in The United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination," she wrote.