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On Faith

A Reuters report filed March 31 says Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone, has blasted the media for highlighting the Vatican's views on sex while maintaining a "deafening silence" about charity work done by thousands of Catholic organisations around the world.

"We face an extremely grave problem. The church's messages are subject to a type of manipulation and falsification by some western media," Bertone said in an interview with Le Figaro Magazine published in Paris on Saturday.

"I see a fixation by some journalists on moral topics, such as abortion and homosexual unions, which are certainly important issues but absolutely do not constitute the thinking and work of the church," he said.

By coincidence, our J-school chair sent around her weekly update with a link to the Newsweek/Washington Post site, "On Faith," which is currently examining the media's treatment of religion.

Hosted by reporters Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham, the site features topics considered by quite a diverse panel (including Margaret O'Brien Steinfels) from Christian denominations and other faiths.

Among today's featured panelists are former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and a witch. Again by coincidence, I presume.

Whaddya think? Will the discussion help reporters do a better job with religious reporting? Or does it help elucidate why some news readers (like Cardinal Bertone) get annoyed with the press?

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I've heard this criticism before, but I'm not sure I blame the media. The hierarchy knows how to make its voice heard, and it seems to me that (these days) it has chosen to speak more loudly and unambiguously on questions of sex than on questions of social justice. Consider, for example, Cardinal Ratzinger's letter during the 2004 elections, at the height of the controversy over denial of communion. The hierarchy therefore gives plenty of cover for people to make arguments like the ones raised in my thread on the monetary costs of the Iraq war -- sexuality is a black or white issue (you're either with us or against us) while war and social justice are matters of judgment on which reasonable people can disagree while still remaining part of the club. They've chosen to frame it that way, not the media.

I think Fr. Tom Reese, in his comments at the linked site, gets it just right:"While in the past, news programs were seen as a revenue-losing public service, today they are just another profit center where the distinction between news and entertainment is blurred. If they dont make money, there are cut backs and changes in programming. Religion gets covered when the market demands it, as in the papal funeral and election. It also gets covered when there is a scandal. But while TV is great at covering Catholic liturgy and religious spectacles, it is terribly weak at covering ideas."

So the good cardinal says that abortion and homosexual unions do not constitute the thinking of the church. News to me :) and, no doubt, not a few others, too.And he criticizes the media for maintaining "deafening silence" about charitable work done by Catholic organizations around the world. Odd. I though Jesus admonished us to do our good works in secret so as to avoid bringing them to the attention of others. Maybe something to do with humility, perhaps.Me thinks Bertone needs to get real about the media and reflect on the Lord's wish that we not attract publicity about our good works!

Eduardo,Perhaps in the 2004 letter to the US Bishops then Cardinal Ratzinger can be forgiven for focusing on politicians, abortion and other moral issues and their impact on fitness to present oneself at communion because he was answering a question . . . well . . . from the US bishops about politicians, abortion and other moral issues and their impact on fitness to present oneself at communion. A dissertation on the Church's work with the poor in the developing world may have been interesting, but hardly responsive. Also, had the Vatican intended, as you say, to speak loudly and forcefully to the media, then maybe it would have, I don't know, published the letter at the time?Despite protestations to the contrary, the media are not interested in being fair about this. Sure, there is a lot of ignorance out there - I am reminded of Christiana Amanpour's, "He is about to perfom the transubstantiation." at the pope's funeral Mass - remined me of Woody Allen in Sleeper - "We are about to clone the nose!" - but that goes nowhere near explaining this. They don't like people like me, and "progressive" religious people - should wake up to the fact that they only tolerate people like you because you are "right" on the political issues that they care about.

Sean -- My reference to the Ratzinger letter was to its bifurcation of political issues between gay marriage and abortion, on the one hand, and issues of war, the death penalty, etc., on the other. And your own comments on this blog demonstrate exactly the same pattern. My point (not that it matters to you, but it might to others who are reading this thread) is just that the Church can hardly fixate 90% of its political attention and judgment on one or two issues and then complain when the media wants to identify the Church's agenda with those issues.

Any chance we might dispense with Bishop Spong's wisdom one of these days? Not only are there scads of priests, ministers, and lay people who can better represent liberal Christianity, but I am personally aware of a couple of agnostics that could do more intelligently describe a Christian view of the media.

Eduardo - Again he was answering a specific question with a specific answer, and the letter was not even public. His "bifurcation," as you call it, was a statement regarding the teaching of Catholic Church, and is consistent with centuires of Catholic Tradition. There was nothing novel about what he said. You may want the teaching of the Church regarding abortion and war to be the same, but they aren't and never have been. The Church doesn't focus its "political' attention on these issues. Look at the Pope's recent exhortation - almost 100,000 words and the press wrote about one paragraph that dealt with this issue. Who, exactly, is fixated?

Sean,I think what we're facing here is over twenty years of JPII --and his reception in the US, and the conjunction of the rise in secular conservativism with the rise of JPII Catholics. Those who were --and who proclaimed themselves often and loudly -- friends of John Paull II were also friends of the Republican Party. The "culture of life v. culture of death language" -- which was used in Evangelium Vitae entered the public square and general usage by non-Catholics. So, it seemed as if JPII was speaking about the life and marriage issues even when he wasn't--because the loudest voices in the public square were borrowing his name and his phraseology.I think every country is different in this regard. Now, I do think things are different with Benedict. I think he has minimized the use of the "culture war" language ot focus on caritas. I also think the emphasis has shifted because he's not a moral theologian, he's a dogmatic theologian. So his own interests are likely to be different from JPII, who did specialize in moral theology.But it's going to take a while for public perception to catch up. Benedict did work for JPII, people are slowly losing the sense that he is simply a continuation of the prior papacy. Cathy

While it is important to set the record straight, I believe that churches are too conscious of public relations and not that concerned about straightening out their own problems. John Garvey in the current Commonweal, while pointing out that we should take a wider view of the church than just the hierarchy, we should not let the bishops off the hook so easily. He further writes:"One of my teachers, the late historian and theologian John Meyendorff, pointed out that Jesus denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, the representatives of organized religion at the time, can-and should-be understood as a criticism of a similarly complacent and self-satisfied Christianity. "I have said the same often. Even progressive Christians are really lukewarm on reform. They tend to criticize rather than bolster such an important movement like Voice of the Faithful. Liberals are too often their own worst enemy. At any rate, when did Sally Quinn, the prima donna of Washington parties, qualify to right on faith matters? Sounds like "Act III", as she calls it, is another form of entertainment. Maybe she will find religion in Act IV.

Gene asks: Any chance we might dispense with Bishop Spong's wisdom one of these days?Jean replies: I had hoped people might discuss the make-up of the "On Faith" panel more. I think there are any number of people on it we might dispense with. I wonder to what extent the site will open useful discussions about religion and media coverage of it.And to what extent it is simply trying to offer the most provocative people.

Several points:-"centuries of Catholic tradition." Equals 2. Is that a lot and has a lot of change and development happened in that time? And, guven the history of the world, is that a lot of time in general?-The news continues to emphasize (what it thinks) sells. More of Rosie vs. the Donald, Anna Nicole, and yes, Donahue and Chocolate Jesus.If the media is content to dumb down the American mind, would not one suspect that . in general, its treatment of religion tends to be shallow?When something goes wrong in a religious institutiuon, an easy line of defense is to blame the media (see Bill M. above and John Garvey.)The movement away from organized religions (of all types) to individualistic spirituality is probably due to some degree to the encouragemen tof simplistic approaches in the media. But also, the loss of community, and within Churches, not only hypocrisy of leaders but their intransigence in adoptiong to the real needs of folks (cf. parish closings in Catholicism, for example) merely hasten departures.

Sorry, Not eqauls 2 , but equals 20.

Just as a point of interest:What do people see as examples of reporters "dumbing down" religion?Is the chocolate Jesus story totally devoid of news value? Or do you object to the angle(s) by which it was covered?Interesting point about the move from church to individual spirituality, Bob!One of the things that discourages me as a church-goer is the lack of community--or the lack of things I feel I have in common with my fellow parishioners. However, that's as much my problem as theirs, and in isolating myself from other parishioners, as I often do, I probably miss out.

Religion dumb down?Here we go again - big news on MSNBC. A 24 year old art student at a Chicago Art schol made a paper mache sculpture of a figure in "Jesus like robes"(whatever that means), with a blue halo and the face of Barack Obama.Whoopee-doo.As to community, the question of how the Church models community and begins introduction to deeper spirituality therein by showing unconditional lovew is a major issue.

Jean, I would make a distinction between things in common and lack of community. Even if I have nothing to do with the person next to me, if he warmly extends the peace greeting, it is huge. If he (or I) extend this further it is better.Just this much is often lacking and the pastors are the blame, also. Too many of them hardly know how to get this far.

As a journalist in New York City, I've often found that the quickest route to understanding any issue concerning the poor was to consult Catholic Charities, which is well connected to the grassroots. At the same time, I've always been puzzled why the church does not do more to publicize the good work it does with the poor. Blaming the news media is no solution. The church needs to examine its public relations priorities.

Every week I get a "social justice" ministry update through my church social justice committee that highlights current issues and priorities, and suggests actions and volunteer opportunities that are available. I don't get any sense that this is particularly well supported by the archdiocese, it's just the efforts of parishes connected to legislative arm of USCC and Catholic Charities and parishioners' own on the ground knowledge. The hierarchy changes the subjec to "charitable work" much the same way fraternities do anytime someone maligns them for their hazing, alcohol parties and cliquishness. I know it's not a fair analogy, but I honestly don't see how you could read a year's worth of press releases from any major Catholic source of information and get mad that the general press doesn't talk more about stuff that the Catholic sources themselves don't talk about. And for all that, the NYT, for instance, spends months every year, every week, talking about the social service agencies it supports through the Times' neediest cases fundraising drive and CC is often mentioned in extremely positive terms.

Barbara,You are right. It is not a fair analogy. It is not even accurate. Below are the titles to all of the USCCB press releases for March - they're talking about a lot of things - people just don't listen, or they have already decided what they think the Church is talking about. Pro-Life Official Hails Reintroduction of Genuine Cloning Ban (07-052) March 29, 2007 Doctrine Committee Offers Public Correction of Theologians Pamphlets on Contraception, Abortion, and Same-Sex Marriage (07-051)March 22, 2007 National Catholic Leaders Call on Congress to Strengthen Child Health Insurance Program (07-050) March 21, 2007 Bishops Call For an End to Cuba Travel Ban; Sanctions Reflect a Failed Policy (07-049) March 20, 2007 Easter Television Special Highlights Rite of Initiation (07-048) March 21, 2007 Care for Poor in Federal Budget, Catholic Bishops Urge Congress (07-047) March 19, 2007 Down the Road April 2007 (07-046) March 19, 2007 Holy Fathers Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Available From USCCB Publishing (07-045) March 16, 2007 Information Released to Broadcasters on Satellite Transmissions of Holy Fathers Good Friday and Easter Sunday Ceremonies (07-044) March 15, 2007 Developments in Anglican-Catholic Relations, Trends Within the Anglican Communion, and Upcoming Statements Highlight ARC-USA Meeting (07-043) March 14, 2007 Bishops Head Welcomes Popes Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation (07-042) March 13, 2007 Bishop Gregory Aymond to Address Clergy Child Sex Abuse Scandal at Georgetown Lecture (07-041) March 12, 2007 U.S. Bishops Call For Changes in Policies That Deny Innocent Refugees, Terror Victims Asylum in United States (07-040) March 08, 2007 Pro-Life Official Welcomes Briefing on Cloning Agendas Risks to Women (07-039)March 08, 2007 Bishop Grahmanns Resignation Accepted, Pope Appoints Bishop Kevin Farrell to Dallas; Lafayette, LA, Priest Named Lake Charles Bishop (07-038)March 06, 2007 Annual Catholic Relief Services Collection Funds Social Ministry in U.S. and Around the World (07-037) March 05, 2007

Sean, only one out of 15 address "social justice" items connected to the direct provision of services by Catholics, and that is a rather generic release. Three relate to federal policies that affect the poor and refugees. And three relate to abortion, cloning or contraception. The others are miscellaneous -- 1 relevant to the sexual abuse scandal, and the rest "Catholic stuff" mostly of limited interest, at least to the national press. So that's 1 out of 15 referring to the direct provision of charitable services, and not in a particularly newsworthy way.

A brief update:A Lemoyne College poll shows that Catholics pay more attention to national news than Church news. Less than half said they paid much attention to what the Pope is reported yo have done or said and less than a quarter to what the national conference of catholic bishops says.

Barbara,My objection to your chracterization is that the media will report what they want to report - it doesn't even matter what the Church does or says in most cases. If it is about sex abuse, or abortion or same-sex marriage, it will get reported, if not well, we just have to hope they might.In June 1982 Mother Teresa gave a now famous speech as part of the commencement activities at Harvard - you can read it here - http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/teresa82.html - the next day, the NY Times gave it all of a sentence and spilled most of its ink on student and faculty concerns over the "Nuclear Peril." They report what fits their agenda at the time.

Sean, it's an interesting issue generally: what is newsworthy? The world isn't made up only of Catholics so it has never bothered me that the news doesn't necessarily track Catholic news, and if Catholics don't particularly use general news sources to follow Catholic news, I am at a loss as to why anyone else would. To a very large extent, the newsworthiness of things that are peculiarly Catholic is just that -- the things that set the Church apart from or that particularly affect non-Catholics. The Church's stance on contraception and abortion and stem cell research is newsworthy at least in part because the Church wants to impose some or all of it on non-Catholics. Sex abuse is ALWAYS news -- just ask anybody who has EVER been accused of it. The provision of charitable services, in contrast, is sometimes but not often newsworthy, and then generally as a "human interest" story. For instance, my local paper, also a national paper, had a big story on a local Catholic church's efforts to raise funds for some of its disabled parishioners. The family involved was well connected, and so on. I just don't see that this is "discriminatory" towards Catholics. Imagine how Muslims might respond if asked about how Islam is reported in the news. And the same would be true of Episcopalians or Baptists. The controversies are newsworthy. The day to day goodness, not so much.

Regarding the Mother Theresa speech in particular, the fact that it is "now" famous doesn't mean that it was newsworthy as an event -- perhaps if the speech had been provided in advance to news organizations it might have been more widely reported. So much of what is current news is subject to the vicissitudes of chance and opportunity. I can't for the life of me recall many commencement speeches that are reported on page one of a daily newspaper.

My last thought on this:while some blame may devolve on the media, we should cast out the beam from our own eye.Effective communication = credible information, credibly presented by credible folk (it helps if the last have both a sense of humor and a less than exaggerated view of their own import.)Given recent events, I fear that even reasonable reports of matters Catholic tend to be brushed off by man y as "same old, same old."

There are three parts to this problem:1. Some bishops do issue statements or make remarks about these issues way too much.2. The media only wants to cover statements by bishops on these subjects. Consider the last homily your bishop gave or his latest pastoral letter. Was it reported in the media? Now, if he had mentioned any of the issues the media cares about (abortion or anything having to do with sex) wouldnt they have covered this prominently?3. The Vatican, in their desire to be cover all bases in every document, inadvertently (?) feed the monster. Consider the 130 pages of Sacramentum Caritatis, that mentioned a couple of the hot-button issues in passing with a few sentences. Should we be surprised that the media only reported those lines? One would think the Vatican would have learned by now. If you want to issue a document about the Eucharist, keep to the point trimming the length would not be such a bad thing, by the way. So maybe the media wont cover what to them is not news (the Eucharist), but if you feel the need to insert a couple of lines on priestly celibacy into a document on the Eucharist, you shouldnt be surprised when thats all the media picks up on. Youve just fed the beast.Long, rambling documents that seek to insert every possible issue that could possibly be considered remotely applicable, like a statement on celibacy in a document on the Eucharist, only ask for trouble, and the resulting length virtually guarantees that few people will actually read the entire document. So while the media is partly to blame, so are the authors.

Perhaps it would be useful to distinguish between natiional secular coverage of the Church and local/state coverage.Would you say that local coverage of Catholic issues/activities is better or worse at the local level?

Here in Northern New Mexico, the local major paper coverage is immensely better than national, though national topics are far better covered elsewhere (e.g.NYT).For example, on the front page of the New Mexican was a picture and story of the joint Palm Sunday procession by the 3 major Churches (Catholic, Episcopal and Presbyterian) to our Cathedral. The article noted that til the last few years, though these Churches were within walking distance of each other, there was no contact. With Fr. Jerome now pastor, all that and more has changed.(I must admit t some prejudice here, but I think he's the finest priest I've seen since we moved west. He tries to include everyone and to stand up for all of the Church's teachings - a neat trick. Beyond that, he strives to bridge the Anglo-Latino divide in santa Fe, which is sometime quite hard, given the divide is often seen across economic lines also.) It may be again that part of good local coverage also depends on good local folk.