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."