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 -- 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."

Rush Limbaugh, liberal heretic?

The joke was old, old, old and Rush Limbaugh knew that when -- tongue firmly planted in cheek -- he tweaked it for his flock at the Conservative Political Action Convention. So Larry King dies and goes to heaven, where the CNN star urgently asks St. Peter: "Is Rush Limbaugh here?" Not yet, says his host. Finally, their tour reaches heaven's largest room, where a flashing "Rush Limbaugh" sign hangs over a giant throne. King is confused.

"I thought you said he wasn't here," King asks, in Limbaugh's take on this joke. St. Peter replies, "He's not, he's not. This is God's room. He just thinks he's Rush Limbaugh."

The political question today is not whether Limbaugh thinks he's God, but how many religious conservatives still believe that the radio superstar is on the side of the angels. After all, a rich entertainer who for years has proclaimed he has "talent on loan from God," and that his beliefs are the "epitome of morality and virtue," can expect to hear murmurs in a few pews after his third divorce and waves of headlines about Viagra and mysterious bottles of painkillers.

"Of course, Rush does have his faithful listeners," said philosopher John Mark Reynolds, head of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, an evangelical campus near Los Angeles. "But the people at your local Baptist church are not the people that Rush hangs out with. When they go out to play, they don't do what Rush does when he goes out to play. ... Still, it seems that his base doesn't care. What else could he do to offend them that he hasn't already done?"

No one would dispute that Limbaugh is a powerful Republican voice, just as no one can dispute that Oprah Winfrey's strong voice helped President Barack Obama defeat a crowded field of experienced Democrats. But in recent weeks, the White House has campaigned to anoint Limbaugh as -- to quote chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel -- the "intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party."

Ever since, conservatives have been firing salvos at one another in bitter debates about Limbaugh's political sins and virtues.

As a Christian conservative, Reynolds is asking a different question: Are Limbaugh's beliefs truly "conservative," as this term would be defined historically or philosophically? In an online essay entitled "Rush Gave a Bad Speech," he underlined a frequently quoted passage in the CPAC address.

Conservatives, stressed Limbaugh, do not view the "average American ... with contempt. We don't think that person doesn't have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government.

"This is a core. I want the best country we can have. We want the most prosperous people. We want to be growing. ... We want this country to be so damn great and we just cringe to watch it -- basically capitalism -- be assaulted and our culture be reoriented to where the people that make it work are the enemy."

Reynolds noted that the speech was built on the "dubious notion that 'the people' are always good and that they will always do what's right, if the state will just get out of their way. This is completely different than the conservative belief that we must maintain checks and balances because we live in a sinful, fallen world and it's wrong to trust either the people or the state -- or the church, for that matter -- with total power."

Limbaugh's vision of unfettered human potential and his complete trust in corporate America is especially jarring, noted Reynolds, in light of the economic crisis unfolding on Wall Street and in communities nationwide.

The bottom line: Limbaugh seems to have little or no sense of sin, which is a vital component in classic conservatism.

"Why isn't it," asked Reynolds, proper "for conservatives to say that pillaging our laws and economic institutions is wrong and a sin and that the government has a valid role to play in seeking justice? We should be able to say that it's wrong to tell lies and it's wrong to defraud the government.

"But you don't hear Rush saying anything like that. Instead, you hear these Utopian views that are not truly conservative. In fact, they are the opposite of conservatism."

Religion '07: Huck's Christmas story

It was a simple commercial, with Mike Huckabee posed in front of a set of scandalously empty white bookshelves that, when framed just right beside a Christmas tree, formed a glowing cross behind the candidate.

And, lo, the former Southern Baptist pastor told the voters: "Are you about worn out by all the television commercials you've been seeing, mostly about politics? I don't blame you. At this time of year, sometimes it's nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is a celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends. I hope that you and your family will have a magnificent Christmas season. And on behalf of all of us, God bless and merry Christmas."

This caused a firestorm among the political elites that symbolized the year's biggest trend in religion news -- the revenge of the infamous "values voters" who, apparently, remain alive and well in church pews across the heartland.

But will the Republican Party win this "pew gap" contest again? That was the question that dominated the Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the top 10 religion news stories in 2007. There were plenty of new signs that the so-called religious right exists, but that it isn't a monolith after all.

Here's how America's religion-beat specialists described the year's top story: "Evangelical voters ponder whether they will be able to support the eventual Republican candidate, as they did in 2004, because of questions about the leaders' faith and-or platform. Many say they would be reluctant to vote for Mormon Mitt Romney."

Then, in the number-two slot, was the flip side of that political coin: "Leading Democratic presidential candidates make conscious efforts to woo faith-based voters after admitting failure to do so in 2004."

The rise of Huckabee was the strongest sign that the "values voters" are still out there, but that they are not meshing well with the Republican Party establishment. The latest Southern Baptist from Hope, Ark., has been preaching a blend of conservative morality and populist economics that made him sound like an old-fashioned Bible Belt Democrat from the days before Roe v. Wade.

"The Huckabee surge represents a break with what has been standard operating procedure within the GOP for more than a generation," argued columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., of the Washington Post, an outspoken Catholic who remains a Democrat. "The former Arkansas governor has exposed a fault line within the Republican coalition. The old religious right is dying because it subordinated the views of its followers to short-term political calculations. The white evangelical electorate is tired of taking orders from politicians who care more about protecting the wealthy than ending abortion, more about deregulation than family values."

Here is the rest of the RNA top 10 list:

(3) The Anglican wars continued, as an Episcopal Church promise to exercise restraint on homosexual issues failed to bring peace in the global Anglican Communion. Doctrinal debates about marriage and sex continued to cause tensions in other flocks as well, both Christian and Jewish.

(4) Debates about global warming increased in importance, with many oldline Protestant leaders giving the topic a high priority. Meanwhile, some evangelical leaders argued about its importance in comparison with other social and moral issues.

(5) Religious leaders on both sides of the aisle questioned what to do about illegal immigration, with some clergy daring to shelter undocumented immigrants.

(6) Thousands of Buddhist monks led a pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, which was then crushed by the government.

(7) Conservative Episcopalians kept leaving the U.S. church in order to align with traditionalist Anglican bishops in Africa and elsewhere in the global South, initiating yet another round of legal disputes about church endowment funds and property.

(8) In another round of 5-4 votes, the U.S. Supreme Court took conservative stands on three cases with religious implications: upholding a ban on partial-birth abortions, allowing public schools to establish some limits on free speech and rejecting a challenge to the government's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

(9) Transitions continued at the top of major Evangelical Protestant institutions, as symbolized by the deaths of Jerry Falwell, Rex Humbard, Ruth Bell Graham, D. James Kennedy and Tammy Faye Messner, the ex-wife of Jim Bakker.

(10) Roman Catholic leaders in the United States wrestled with the high cost of settling legal cases linked to decades of clergy sexual abuse of children and teen-agers. The price tag reached $2.1 billion, with a record $660 million settlement in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

When journalists crash rites

The sanctuary was dark, except for candles near the altar, and it was quiet, other than the priest's prayers and hushed responses from the pews.

It was time for another execution in a North Carolina prison and, on this night more than two decades ago, I was kneeling with others opposed to the death penalty -- not covering the rite as a Charlotte Observer reporter.

What I failed to realize was that other journalists would crash our vigil.

The television crew entered just before midnight. The cameraman clanked down the center aisle and, before reaching the altar, turned to shoot from behind the pulpit. His shoulder-mounted lights almost blinded people in the front rows.

Please consider this scene through the eyes of the angry, frustrated worshippers.

Would church members, if asked in advance, have approved what happened during our service? No way. But would we have been willing to discuss finding a way for reporters to cover the vigil without wrecking it? Of course we would.

Here's the key question: Was there a way to cover the news in this liturgy without convincing the participants that these journalists just didn't care? Could the broadcasters have sat silently, making recordings of the prayers to mix with images of the candles, sanctuary and worshipers that were filmed later?

It's important for journalists to ask these questions. However, I think it's crucial that clergy and laypeople think about these issues, too.

Memories of that Charlotte night in flashed through my mind recently as I read media protocols written by leaders of some historic, conservative Episcopal parishes in Northern Virginia that are trying to leave the Episcopal Church because of longstanding disputes over church doctrine and sexual morality.

Days before a key round of voting, parish leaders stated: "Please note that leaders of The Falls Church ? will prohibit any journalist who is not a regular worshiper from filming, researching or seeking to interview clergy or congregants about their votes on church property or inside a church facility. Journalists seeking to interview clergy or congregants off church property are asked to respect their individual wishes about dealings with the media."

Wait, what did the word "researching" mean?

This worried me as a reporter who has, for several decades, tried to cover the complicated global fights among Anglicans. To be blunt, I worried that these church leaders would end up barring veteran religion reporters -- professionals whose faces they recognized -- from entering these services, while admitting less-experienced, and therefore anonymous, journalists.

The good news is that these churches soon changed the ground rules after listening to the concerns of journalists. Media-savvy parish members made it clear they were not hiding and that they knew journalists needed some form of access.

There are lessons to be learned from these events.

One of the most crucial elements of journalism is the ability to hear words and then quote them accurately. This requires access. There are times when the sermons, prayers and scriptures included in worship services are vital elements of regional, national and global news stories.

Leaders of churches, temples and mosques must ask: How can reporters hear, record and report these words if they are not allowed polite access? How can they ?get? the religion in these stories if they are prevented from reporting the content of public events? Talking to people in the parking lot will not get you this theological content, other than through second-hand reports.

At the same time, there is no need for rude journalists to invade services and disturb the faithful. There is no need to badger worshipers who don't want to talk.

But if journalists -- including religion-beat professionals -- want to listen, it's in the long-range interests of honest, candid religious leaders to let them listen. Then journalists can leave the sanctuaries and talk to people who freely agree to talk.

It doesn't make sense to lock reporters out of newsworthy services. Sometimes, we have to be there because we have work to do. And part of that work involves finding a way to capture the words and images of the stories we need to tell. At the same time, it's wrong for journalists to wreck the very rites that we are trying to cover.

Perhaps it's time for leaders on both sides of this tense divide to show each other some respect.

The New York Times tweaks its credo

NEW YORK -- The New York Times has for generations printed its credo on Page 1 to inspire the faithful: "All the News That's Fit to Print."

But times changed and the high church of journalism was challenged by radio and television news, which was followed by a tsunami of news, rumors, opinions and criticism on 24-7 cable news networks and the Internet. The result has been a subtle change in doctrine at the Times, although the Gray Lady's motto has stayed the same.

Around-the-clock competition has "caused us to shift our emphasis from information as a commodity and play to different strengths -- emphasizing less the breaking facts than the news behind the news, writing more analytically," said executive editor Bill Keller, speaking at last week's National College Media Convention.

"We long ago moved from 'All the News That's Fit to Print,' to 'All the News You Need to Know, and What It Means.' "

Keller's address blended confessions about the newspaper industry's sins with a litany of praise for journalistic virtues. Journalists at the Times, he insisted, still practice what they preach, remaining "agnostic as to where a story may lead" and maintaining standards of accuracy and fairness that prevent the "opinions of our writers and editors from leaching into our news pages."

However, he also said he believes that "information is not what people crave. What they crave, and need, is judgment -- someone they can trust to vouch for the information, dig behind it, and make sense of it."

The question is whether critics, especially those in religious sanctuaries, will trust Keller's team to provide an unbiased take on the news and then, as a finale, pass judgment on "what it means," said former New York Daily News reporter William Proctor, author of "The Gospel According to the New York Times."

"This intentional change in the motto -- even if it won't be printed by the newspaper -- suggests to me that editorializing is being placed on an equal footing with straight news," he said. The new motto seems "to be saying, 'We're recognizing that opinion has a larger role than the editorial or op-ed pages. In fact, opinion now has a place in the news itself.' "

Meanwhile, critics may remember Keller -- who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in the Soviet Union -- as the Times columnist who once called himself a "collapsed Catholic" and lashed out at Pope John Paul II and the Vatican for rejecting female priests, gay rights, legalized abortion and the sexual revolution in general.

The struggle within Catholicism, he wrote, is "part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. ... This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition."

However, as executive editor, Keller produced a 2005 manifesto urging his staff to improve religion coverage, avoid the misuse of loaded labels such as "religious fundamentalists" and hire qualified journalists who offer a diversity of "religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class."

Journalists at the Times, he said, must strive to escape "our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. ... This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in."

This candor is refreshing, said Jay Rosen, who leads New York University's journalism program and has written a provocative essay entitled "Journalism is Itself a Religion." The problem is that many journalists want to escape old-fashioned straight news, but they don't know what to call their new product. It's hard to distinguish between news "analysis" and "opinion" writing that reflects the beliefs of the writer.

So a reporter walks into a church (rimshot)

It's a law. Whenever the Vatican issues a papal encyclical, journalists have to figure out what the pope was trying to say.

To do this, we contact scholars, politicos and clergy for background information and edgy quotes. Thus, a reporter recently called Father Richard John Neuhaus of the journal First Things to discuss Pope Benedict XVI's "Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)."

During this interview, Neuhaus referred to the pope as the "bishop of Rome." The reporter then said, "That raises an interesting point. Is it unusual that this pope is also the bishop of Rome?"

(Cue sound: One comedy-club rimshot.)

Writing in his online journal, Neuhaus noted that the journalist later said, with "manifest sincerity, 'My job is not only to get the story right but to explain what it means.' Ah yes, he is just the fellow to explain what this pontificate and the encyclical really mean. It is poignant."

Wait, there's more. Another time, an "eager young thing" from the same national newspaper called to discuss a political scandal. Sadly, Neuhaus said, corruption has "been around ever since that unfortunate afternoon in the garden.?

There was a long pause and she asked: "What garden was that?"

Neuhaus isn't alone in noticing that reporters often veer into a mental ditch when covering religion. In a scathing Books & Culture essay entitled "Religiously Ignorant Journalists," sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina said he is tired of calls from journalists who don't know that Episcopalians are not "Episcopals" or who confuse evangelicals with "evangelists" or even, God forbid, "evangelicalists."

Why, he asked, do newsroom managers allow this?

"I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks and ask to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the 'Democrizer' or 'Republication' parties, or about the most recent "Supremicist Court" ruling," said Smith. "So why do so few journalists covering religion know religion?"

Anyone who talks to people in pulpits and pews knows that many -- especially in conservative sanctuaries -- believe they know the answer. They believe that most journalists are biased against religious people.

Neuhaus, however, is convinced that the problem is even more basic than that. Journalists work hard, he said, but they are "not always the sharpest knives in the drawer." Most are the products of journalism schools that, according to Neuhaus, are intellectually second rate or worse.

While he knows of "notable exceptions" of bias and malicious intent, the priest said he has "been led to embrace something like an Occam's razor with respect to journalistic distortions: Do not multiply explanations when ignorance will suffice."

These are fighting words for journalists. As a professor, I must confess that many if not most of my student journalists in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have come from the honor rolls. I have also had the pleasure of knowing more than my share of brilliant women and men who are professional religion reporters.

Yes, if would help if more editors hired trained, experienced professionals to cover the religion beat. And it would help if Neuhaus and other clergy who belittle the craft of journalism urged their own colleges to emphasize journalism education, thus adding to the intellectual diversity in newsrooms. Religious leaders could praise and support postgraduate seminars such as those offered by the Pew Forum and the Poynter Institute that help journalists learn more about religion and improve their reporting skills.

But mistakes will be made.

Just this week, Newsweek served up an instant classic in the journalistic genre of "laugh to keep from crying" miscues about religion.

The story concerned the success of the debate team at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. At the moment, the team is ranked No. 1 in the nation (Harvard University is No. 14) and Falwell tried to explain that the debaters were, in their own way, involved in a kind of ministry to the culture.

Alas, the reporter mangled a crucial metaphor.

Thus, the story now ends with this correction: "In the original version of this report, NEWSWEEK misquoted Falwell as referring to 'assault ministry.' In fact, Falwell was referring to 'a salt ministry' -- a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says, 'Ye are the salt of the earth.' We regret the error."