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 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, 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?

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,, 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. 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 to -- 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."

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."

Politics dominate 2008 religion

After waves of headlines about faith and politics, President-elect Barack Obama was the clear choice as the top Religion Newsmaker of 2008. The odds were also good that the Religion Newswriters Association would pick the White House race as its top news story. But there was a problem. There were so many faith-based issues in play during this election year that America's religion-beat specialists had trouble deciding which of these hot stories was No. 1.

In the end, this was the winning item: "Controversial sermons delivered in recent years by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright surface, resulting in pressure on Barack Obama, who eventually withdraws his membership in his church, Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago. Meanwhile, John McCain rejects the endorsements of evangelists John Hagee, a critic of Catholicism, and Rod Parsley."

However, it's important to note that this RNA poll was held before two other stories broke, each demonstrating why it will be hard for the Obama administration to find middle ground in America's wars over religion and public life.

The first was the resignation of the National Association of Evangelicals official Richard Cizik, who drew fire when he endorsed civil unions for gays and lesbians and hinted that he was willing to compromise on gay marriage, as well. In an interview with National Public Radio, the veteran lobbyist said: "I'm shifting, I have to admit. I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining traditional marriage, I don't think."

In the end, it was impossible for the association's leaders to ignore those crucial words, "I don't think."

Then, soon after that controversy, Obama was criticized by leaders on the secular and religious left for selecting another high-profile evangelical to give the invocation at his inauguration.

The Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church had also made cautious statements suggesting a willingness to compromise on civil unions. However, Warren drew fierce attacks from gay-rights supporters due to his strong support for California's Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which defined marriage as the union of husband and wife.

The rest of the RNA top 10 looked like this:

(2) Led by Obama's example, Democrats reach out to religious voters. At a crucial stage of the campaign, Obama participates in a debate with John McCain moderated by Warren and held in his megachurch sanctuary. Conservative Christians are given a few moments in the Democratic National Convention spotlight.

(3) The selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as the GOP vice presidential nominee energizes evangelical activists, who are excited by her defense of unborn children -- both in her personal life and in public policies. Many religious conservatives reluctantly back McCain.

(4) The California Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage, but voters in November -- including a large majority of African-Americans -- approve a constitutional amendment enforcing a traditional definition of marriage. Gay marriage also fails at the polls in Arizona and Florida.

(5) Pope Benedict XVI makes his first U.S. visit, drawing massive crowds in Washington and New York. The pope also meets with a few Catholics who had been sexually abused by clergy and openly addresses their concerns from the pulpit.

(6) Backed by Anglican traditionalists in Africa, Asia and Latin America, conservatives alienated from the U.S. Episcopal Church appeal to the Anglican Communion to create a parallel jurisdiction -- the Anglican Church in North America. This open split follows decades of doctrinal fighting in the Episcopal Church, including the consecration of a noncelibate gay priest as a bishop five years ago.

(7) India is rocked by terrorist attacks, including a three-day siege in Mumbai that results in the deaths of almost 200, including an American rabbi and his wife at an Orthodox Jewish center. Authorities pursue links to radical Islamists in Pakistan. Meanwhile, fatal attacks on Christians in the eastern state of Orissa continue during 2008.

(8) The Chinese government makes strategic moves to suppress Buddhists seeking Tibetan independence in an attempt to stage peaceful Olympics games. Still, some demonstrations mar rites to pass the Olympic torch.

(9) Religious groups are hit by effects of a struggling economy and begin to face declines in offerings, forcing many to cut staff and expenses while the need for social services increases nationwide.

(10) Chaledean Archbishop Paulos Rahho is kidnapped and murdered in Mosul, Iraq. Meanwhile, Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups continue to trade attacks. Reports of stability increase toward the end the year, including the return of some persecuted Christians to their homes.

Who gets to 'reform' what?

Believe it or not, Terry Mattingly is on a working vacation and took the week off -- at least when it came time to write a Scripps Howard News Service column. Sue me. I have missed four in 20 years and, two of those times, I was just in or just out of the hospital.

So here is something to read, anyway. It is a recent post from my weblog

If you want to read the interactive version, with the links to the stories that I mention, then just go to this URL:


Who gets to 'reform' what?

Posted by tmatt

As any regular reader would know, we go out of our way to note the exceptionally good work that many religion reporters do on this very complex and difficult beat. A quick glance in the archives will also tell you that, more often than not, we are fans of the work of Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

This brings me to Townsend's latest piece on one of the most complex ongoing stories in American religion right now -- the battle for control of the historic St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in St. Louis. Normally you would add the word ?Catholic? to that title, but, you see, the status of that term is what the battle is all about.

The battle for control of this parish is unfolding on several levels and Townsend does a great job of explaining the background.

Basically, this is a showdown between St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke and the powers that be in this massive Polish parish. The archbishop tried to establish control by refusing to send another priest to the parish, thus denying the people the sacraments. But the parish, toward the end of 2005, found a priest who was willing to serve at their altar without permission and, thus, thumb his nose -- that's what Townsend writes -- at the Catholic hierarchy.

Now, that priest -- Father Marek Bozek -- is in the middle of a new round of controversy that has divided the parish itself. The bottom line: It turns out that a priest who is willing to monkey with Catholic doctrines about episcopal authority may, in the end, be willing to be more than flexible about other doctrines, too (which is bad news for many Polish Catholics, who tend to be rather traditional at heart). Here is the key section of Townsend's long and detailed report:

"... Bozek has reshaped the church into a community that would be unrecognizable to those 19th-century founders. His vision for a reformed Roman Catholic faith calls for supporting female ordination, allowing priests to get married and accepting gay relationships.

Bozek's stands have attracted hundreds of new St. Stanislaus parishioners who share the priest's reform-minded vision.

"But they have also divided the church, pitting newer members against traditional parishioners unhappy with how far the priest has gone in condemning the Roman Catholic church. There have also been questions about the priest's trappings. He has negotiated a 143 percent salary hike, moved into a $157,000 Washington Avenue loft and leased a 2008 BMW for $450 per month.

Some parishioners point to another sign that alarmed them: Bozek, while in Poland last year, bought a silver ring custom-made for a bishop there. When he returned, he showed the ring to his parish at a Sunday Mass and spoke about it from the pulpit. Because it's a bishop's ring and he is only a priest, Bozek says, he has not worn it.

But he won't say he never will, he does not rule out the possibility of becoming the leader of what he calls "an 'underground Roman Catholic' movement."

All kinds of people are involved in this story, literally from the Rev.Sun Myung Moon to the Womenpriests network that causes earthquakes in the GetReligion comments pages whenever its name is mentioned.

Like I said, this is a very complicated story. Read it all.

But here is my question. Let's back up to that crucial paragraph in which Townsend has to describe what Bozek is up to at the parish.

The story, you see, is about the priest's vision for a reformed Roman Catholic faith and his reform-minded vision.

You see, 'reform' is one of those loaded religion beat words. If you look that term up online you see a number of definitions, but you'll get the drift. To 'reform' something means to:

* make changes for improvement in order to remove abuse and injustices; 'reform a political system'

* bring, lead, or force to abandon a wrong or evil course of life, conduct, and adopt a right one; 'The Church reformed me'; 'reform your conduct' ...

* a change for the better as a result of correcting abuses; "justice was for sale before the reform of the law courts" ...

* improve by alteration or correction of errors or defects and put into a better condition; 'reform the health system in this country'

* a campaign aimed to correct abuses or malpractices.

I think you get the point. When traditional Catholics read that kind of language, this is what they see. They see a newspaper saying that the liberal priest is trying to reform the abuses and injustices of the Catholic Church. So there.

Why doesn't the story say that the archbishop is trying to reform the priest and the parish? Who is reforming what? In other words, who is guilty of corruption and abuses?

However, please note that Townsend has tried to attach the word 'reform' directly to the views of the priest. This is his vision of reform. It is what he considers reform.

My question is simple: Does this work? Is there a wording that would be fair to both the priest and to the archbishop? Is it any better to say that the parish is attracting Catholics who share Bozek's 'progressive' vision? That share his desire to 'innovate', when it comes to crucial doctrines in Catholic moral theology? Is there a better way to say this, one that is both accurate and fair to partisans on both sides?

Politics, opera and religion (20 years)

Most editors and reporters would panic, or call their lawyers, if news executives asked religious questions during job interviews.

Yet it's hard to probe the contents of a journalist's head without asking big questions. And it's hard to ask some of the ultimate questions -- questions about birth, life, suffering, pain and death -- without mentioning religion.

William Burleigh carefully explored some of this territory when he was running news teams, both large and small. His half-century career with the E.W. Scripps Company began in 1951 when he was in high school in Evansville, Ill., and he retired several years ago after serving as president and chief executive officer.

"I always thought that it was interesting to talk to reporters and editors about their education," said Burleigh, who remains chairman of the Scripps Howard board. "How many people in our newsrooms have actually studied history and art and philosophy and even some theology? ...

"I have to admit -- quite frankly -- I always showed a partiality toward people with that kind of educational background. I didn't do that because I am a big religious guy. I did it because I wanted to know if we were dealing with well-rounded people who could relate to the big questions in life."

Burleigh won some battles. For example, a few editors decided to let a religion-beat specialist try writing a column for the Scripps Howard News Service and I've been at it ever since. This week marks the "On Religion" column's 20th anniversary and I owe Burleigh, and other editors who backed religion coverage, a debt of gratitude.

However, it's crucial to know that Burleigh -- a traditional Catholic -- didn't push this issue because he wanted editors to hire more journalists who liked sitting in pews. No, he didn't want to see newspapers keep missing events and trends that affect millions of people and billions of dollars.

Some journalists, he said, don't think that religion matters. Thus, many editors get sweaty palms when it comes time to dedicate time, ink and money to the subject. Few seek out trained, experienced religion-beat reporters.

"The prevailing ethos among most of our editors is that the public square is the province of the secular and not a place for ... religious messages to be seen or heard," said Burleigh, in an interview for my chapter in "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion." Oxford University Press will publish this book, produced by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life, late this fall.

"As a result," Burleigh said, "lots of editors automatically think religion is out of place in a public newspaper. That's what we are up against."

The key is that this is a journalism problem. Any effort to improve coverage will fail if journalists are, as commentator Bill Moyers likes to put it, "tone deaf" to the music of religion in public life.

That's a great image. I tell editors that religion news is something like a cross between politics and opera. The laws and structures that govern religious life can be just as complicated and technical as those that control our government and there are hundreds of religious groups and movements in most news markets, not one or two.

Yet there is more to religion than laws, facts, creeds and hierarchies. Every now and then, a reporter will be sent to cover a picky, boring, tense meeting and, suddenly, someone will start to preach or pray. The words can be folksy or Byzantine, inspiring or bizarre. But, suddenly, people are crying, hugging, shouting or walking out.

Reporters look on, dumbfounded. What happened? What did they miss?

Truth is, they were covering a political meeting and then someone, in effect, began singing one of that group's sacred songs. The reporters could hear the words, but they couldn't hear the music.

Burleigh could hear the music and he wanted to link that to news. He argued that editors should insist on quality religion-news coverage for one simple reason -- a desire to cover stories crucial to the lives of their readers.

"It's how we answer the big questions about birth and death and the meaning of life that provide the foundation for our culture," he said. "Those questions define our culture and tell us who we are. How do we get those big questions into our newspapers? How do we cover those stories?"

Going in religion-news circles

Journalists may not know the precise meaning of the word "theodicy," but, year after year, they know a good "theodicy" story when they see one. The American Heritage Dictionary defines this term as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil." Wikipedia calls it a "branch of theology ... that attempts to reconcile

the existence of evil in the world with the assumption of a benevolent God."

There were three "theodicy" events in 2005, so the Religion Newswriters Association combined them into one item in its top-10 story list. What linked Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Asia tsunami and another earthquake in Pakistan? Each time, journalists asked the timeless question: What role did God play in these disasters?

Last year, it was the schoolhouse massacre of five Amish girls in Bart Township, Pa. The stunning words of forgiveness offered by the families of the victims added yet another layer of drama to the story.

"Every year there is going to be some great tragedy or disaster and that causes people to ask, 'Where was God?' These events may not seem like religion stories, but they almost always turn into religion stories because of the way people respond to them," said Richard N. Ostling, who retired last year after three decades on the religion beat, first with Time and then with the Associated Press.

"This tells us something important -- that it's hard to draw clean lines between what is religion news and what is not. ... Religious faith is part of how people think and how they live. This affects all kinds of things."

This is true in Iran and in Israel. It's true on Sunday mornings in American suburbs and during riots in the suburbs of France. It's true on the border between India and Pakistan and numerous other fault lines around the world.

Religion is a factor when people go to worship or when they decline to do so. For many, faith plays a role when they vote and when they volunteer to help others. Sadly, religion often plays a pivotal role when people go to war.

Thus, noted Ostling, events on this beat often seem to go in circles, with certain themes and conflicts appearing year after year, world without end -- amen.

This is frustrating for editors, who struggle to understand why religious believers "keep getting so upset about what seem to be the same old stories," he said.

For example, mainline Protestants have been fighting for decades over hot-button issues linked to ancient doctrines about marriage, gender and sex. More often than not, this leads to headlines about another round of changes in the U.S. Episcopal Church. One of the major stories of 2006 was the election of the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori -- an articulate feminist from the tiny Diocese of Nevada -- as the denomination's first female presiding bishop.

"This was an important story," noted Ostling. "But was there anything all that surprising about it? Not really." Meanwhile, the bigger story -- a chain reaction among parishes leaving the denomination -- is "probably harder to cover because it is spread all over the country," he said.

The fall of the Rev. Ted Haggard as president of the National Association of Evangelicals was a big story in 2006, but the typical news year always includes at least one sexy scandal of this kind.

The list goes on. Every election year will include a wave of reports about the degree to which religious issues did or did not drive Republicans, and increasingly Democrats, to the polls.

There are annual stories that pit science against religion and Hollywood against people in pews. Can journalists separate politics and faith in the Middle East? Are clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq about religious faith, political power or some combination of the two? What will the pope say that upsets people this year? Which church-state case split the U.S. Supreme Court this time around?

"The problem is that it's hard to know if any one event in this stream of events is the definitive one, the truly landmark event," said Ostling. "At some point, things change and they stay changed."

But journalists have to be patient, he said, because "people are looking for answers to the big questions and they don't change what they believe overnight."

Calling more Christian writers

It was hard for businessman Jim Russell to pick up his local newspaper without thinking about one simple church statistic.

According to the Yellow Pages, there were 400 churches in and around Lansing, Mich. That meant there were 400-plus ministers and many thousands of lay people who either read the newspaper or decided not to. Surely, he thought, these readers must have some kind of reaction to what they saw in the news.

Yet Russell kept looking -- usually without success -- for letters to the editor offering sharp, winsome Christian commentary on news events. Sometimes weeks would pass without the appearance of such a letter, or a similar point of view in the guest editorial columns.

After a few years of this ritual, Russell decided that enough was enough.

"The problem does not exist in the editorial policies of the newspaper, which has a fair, open and reasonable position toward local participation in all of its departments," wrote Russell, in one 1995 essay. "No, the problem exists in the lack of Christian understanding of biblical vision, mission and strategy required to disciple our nation."

Thinking like an entrepreneur, Russell projected his local analysis out to the national level and reached a logical conclusion. He decided that it would be good if more Christians learned how to write, rather than spending so much of their time complaining about the news media.

So Russell opened his checkbook and, in his own quiet way, tried to do something positive. Starting in the early 1990s, he began looking for writers with a knack for expressing their faith in mainstream publications and he kept at it until his death on Aug. 31 at the age of 80.

Russell started the annual Amy Awards -- with a top prize of $10,000 -- to honor writers who published newspaper commentaries that quoted scripture while wrestling with issues in public life. He started a national "Church Writing Group" network to encourage writers to learn from each other's successes and failures. I met him because of his dedication to helping college students explore their talents, through scholarships and donations to Christian campuses that emphasized mainstream media writing.

As a businessman, Russell was known as the founder of Russell Business Forms, which grew into the Lansing-based RBF Inc. In 1976, Jim and Phyllis Russell started the Amy Foundation to support efforts to spread the Christian faith and help the poor. They named it after their fifth and youngest child, who was born with Down syndrome. A spokesperson for the foundation ( said the family would take some time before making decisions about the future of the Amy Awards and the writing projects.

"When you stop and think about it, he had no credentials of any kind when it came to working with the mainstream media," said William R. Mattox, Jr., an Amy Award winner who is a member of USA Today's op-ed page board of contributors. "He just came up with this idea and, when it seemed like it was doing some good, he stuck with it. He never quit."

Russell knew what he was after. An early set of guidelines sent to the church-based writing circles stressed that their writers should strive to reach people who retained some interest in religious faith, but were rarely seen in pews. It wasn't enough to preach to the choir, because 60 to 80 percent of all newspaper subscribers say they read letters to the editor.

"The writing language should be contemporary secular English, not fluent evangelical or fellowship Christianese," said the brochure. A few lines later, Russell advised, "The writing will never be strident of harsh, making simple points with sledge hammers, embarrassing the body of Christ."

Russell sincerely believed that most newspaper editors are interested in reaching as wide an audience as possible. Thus, editors have a powerful incentive to allow fair, constructive debates in their editorial pages about moral issues. The question was whether religious believers had the skills to compete in the marketplace.

"Jim Russell was not the kind of man who played the heavy and came on strong," said Mattox. "He really believed that it made more sense to take a gentle approach and then stick to it. That's what he was all about, as a businessman and as a believer."

Free Bibles, free speech

As a rule, newspaper readers do not protest when the Sunday edition includes free soap, toothpaste, shampoo, detergent, AOL software or a razor.

Then again, these products do not include pronouncements on sin, sex, money, marriage, heaven, hell and a host of spiritual issues -- including the belief that salvation comes through faith in a messiah named Jesus.

So International Bible Society leaders were not surprised that some people were upset by their decision to distribute 91,000 New Testaments in a pre-Christmas edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette. They were surprised when the project made national headlines, inspiring debate about free speech, religious tolerance and the role of newspapers in the marketplace of ideas.

"Whenever we try to put the word of God into people's hands there are going to be negative reactions. We have to accept that as a given," said Bob Jackson, head of this national project. "You're going to hear from atheists and agnostics. You're going to hear from people in other faiths and Christians who disagree with what you're doing. ... We know that this stirs up emotions that you just don't see when you are giving away packets of oatmeal."

Right now, the Colorado Springs-based Bible society is evaluating the results of this New Testament project, which was funded by 125 nearby churches, businesses and evangelical ministries, such as Focus on the Family and Youth for Christ. Jackson said it cost $125,000 to print and distribute the 200-page volume, with its cover photo of Pikes Peak and testimonies by local believers.

Some Jewish and Muslim readers protested, arguing that the "Our City" title implied that Colorado Springs was an all-Christian community. Other critics said it was wrong for a mainstream newspaper -- which was paid its standard fee for such an insert -- to distribute material that was unapologetically evangelistic.

After all, the back cover said: "The heart and soul of the Bible is its account of God's intention to bring all things back to Himself. That includes this great place. And that includes you. This New Testament is being given to you to help you find your place in this drama of restoration."

The New York Times reported that the Gazette received 195 positive reactions and 69 negative, with five readers canceling their subscriptions.

While declining to discuss the future, Jackson said he has received calls from supporters for possible efforts to distribute customized New Testaments in the mainstream newspapers in at least 20 U.S. cities. He would not confirm or deny press reports about Denver, Nashville, Seattle and Santa Rosa, Calif.

Meanwhile, the International Bible Society has been involved in another tussle in the mass-media marketplace -- Rolling Stone's refusal to advertise its new youth-oriented Today's New International Version of the Bible. While Modern Bride, The Onion, MTV and some other outlets cooperated, Rolling Stone cited an unwritten policy against religious messages in ads.

While avoiding obvious God-talk, the Zondervan ad did carry this blunt slogan: "Timeless truth; Today's language."

Rolling Stone balked and then, this week, quietly relented.

The bottom line, said Jackson, is that it's hard for religious organizations to take their messages into the public square without stepping on some toes.

The Bible society freely admits that its goal is to get New Testaments into the hands of people who are not already Christian believers. The goal is to reach "seekers" or even active opponents of the faith, said Jackson. Some may decide to read some of it, simply to "see what all of the fuss is about." Others may throw it in a drawer and then, weeks or months later, pull it out in the midst of some personal trial.

This is the hard truth. From the "Our City" team's evangelical perspective, the people who need to be reached are almost certainly the same people who are most likely to be offended.

"We really believe that we are trying to share the powerful word of God. We believe it can change lives," he said. "So we believe that we're doing what God has commanded us to do. We can't stop trying, because we sincerely believe that lives will be changed -- even among those who oppose us. You just can't reach the searchers without offending people."