Tag Archives: Vatican

Reporting on priestly celibacy in Germany … sort of

2 Mar

All Things Considered,” NPR’s evening news program, ran an interesting segment on Wednesday about how some Roman Catholics in Germany “pray” that the church will rethink its teaching about celibacy for priests. Here’s the start of the text story on NPR.org., which follows the audio closely:

In Germany, calls are going out for the Catholic Church to rethink some of its basic principles, including the rule of celibacy for priests.

Many say the German church is experiencing a period of crisis. It’s been rocked by sex and abuse scandals and no longer even has enough priests to serve its parishes. These days, even more traditional-minded Catholics in Germany have begun calling for far-reaching reform.

That’s fine for a general summary lead. The problem is that the rest of Kyle James’ story doesn’t dig much deeper than that. Aside from hearing the voices of four individuals, we get very little information about what is really going on over there.

There’s no indication of who are the “many” making these calls or who say the church is in crisis, or if there’s been some recent development in this controversy. The story mentions surveys and projections, but doesn’t offer specifics about the surveys, not even percentages.

As it turns out, more than 140 Catholic theologians in Germany, Austria and Switzerland issued a petition in early February, calling for changes in the church, including celibacy. But we didn’t learn that on NPR.

The  individuals who are quoted apparently represent various segments within the church: a former priest, now married with children and still in the church; a theologian; a Religion News Service correspondent who covers the Vatican; and a “well-known conservative Catholic politician.”

The four are unanimous about how clerical celibacy — among other “rules” — is an albatross around the church’s neck, sure to drag it down.

They may be right about that, but the story would be stronger if there were more evidence that these voices run the gamut of German Catholic opinion, which seems unlikely. No one in Germany, not even a bishop, was available to offer a different view? How about more detail on where these “calls” for change are coming from? How about a little background or explanation?

“Celibacy rules were originally introduced on practical grounds, and so I think that they can be changed for practical reasons as well,” claims the politician in the story, Hermann Kues.

Really? What’s that about? Is he correct? I thought there was actually some doctrine involved, but we’d never know from this story. A little historical background would have helped — not to mention hearing from a church leader or  theologian who could explain Roman Catholic teaching and the Vatican’s position. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not arguing for or against priestly celibacy right now. I’m just talking about how this story was covered.)

This was an anomaly. NPR usually airs stronger religion stories, especially when Barbara Bradley Hagerty is on the case. (She was busy on Wednesday, reporting on the Supreme Court free-speech decision, providing listeners with a closer-than-usual look at the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., which was at the enter of the court’s ruling.) But this story from Germany, sorry to say, was an example of how news media — even the Normally Pretty Reliable news media — can get the reporting not … quite … right.

By the way, this gives me a chance for a shout out* to Get Religion, a blog by journalists that looks at how mainstream news media** cover religion and how they can get it right … or not. You might want to check it out.

* Do people still say “shout out”?

** Are there really any “mainstream media” anymore, or is that just an old concept?

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Don’t be surprised: An Alabama governor, Irish bishops, and a certain Florida pastor

23 Jan

You remember Gomer Pyle, don't you? "Surprise, surprise, surprise!"

From this week’s news, file the following under “Don’t Be Surprised”:

1. The newly inaugurated governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, shouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself immediately in public-relations hot water after telling a church audience on Martin Luther King Day that only Christians were his brothers and sisters. The new governor, who’s a Southern Baptist, apologized to his constituents two days later. Theologically, he’s very much in line with mainstream evangelical theology — that is, that Christians have been uniquely adopted into God’s family through Jesus Christ. But any suggestion of being exclusive or of favoring one group of constituents over another is not politically savvy — or even that advisable at the duly elected leader of all the people of Alabama.

2. The Vatican shouldn’t be surprised (and most likely isn’t) that the disclosure of a confidential letter from a Vatican official in 1997 to Irish bishops re-opened wounds, sparked yet more controversy about clerical abuse and was mostly misunderstood if not altogether falsely reported. The letter, obtained by an Irish TV network and released to the Associated Press, warned the bishops of likely consequences if they followed through with their proposed policy of reporting all charges of child abuse to police. Victims groups and at least one American lawyer who is working to sue the Vatican on behalf of a victim, said the letter was a “smoking gun” that proved the Holy See was encouraging a cover-up.

The Vatican said the letter simply alerted Irish clerics that their proposed policies had implications under both civil and church law, but it never advised them not to report abuse. Reading the one-and-a-half page letter, it looks like the Vatican has a point. To judge by the coverage, especially when it first hit the headlines, some of the reporters on this story either didn’t understand “Vaticanspeak” and the workings of Roman Catholic Church machinery — or they didn’t want to. (To read about the problems with the reporting on this story, check out this post, which gives me a chance for a shout-out to friends at the Get Religion blog, a good place to find critique of how the mainstream media covers religion.)

3. Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who drew worldwide attention last fall when he pledged to burn copies of the Koran on Sept. 11, should not be surprised that the British government denied him entry into its country. He planned to speak at a February rally protesting the rise of Islam in the UK as well as visit his daughter who lives there. The British government said he was denied a visa because it “opposes extremism in all its forms” and  thinks his views would “foster hatred that might lead to inter-community violence in the UK.”.Jones, of course, protested the decision, calling it “sabotage of the basic human rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression” as well as proof of “the effectiveness of the threat of militant Islam in the UK.” About 2.7 percent of the UK’s 62.3 million people are Muslim (compared to 0.6 percent in the US), according to the CIA World Factbook. When I lived in England in the 1980s, we could already say, accurately, that there were more Muslims than Methodists in Britain.

Are there any other threads running through these stories? Maybe, to paraphrase the most famous line from Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate … well.

A new road leading to Rome, via Canterbury

8 Nov

welcome matAccording to the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed intensely on the night before his crucifixion that his followers, present and future, would “be one.”

After 2,000 years, it’s obvious why he needed to pray like that. Unity is difficult, a stubborn fact reaffirmed last month when Pope Benedict XVI cleared a new path for Anglicans to enter the Roman Catholic Church.

The relationship between Rome and Canterbury has always been complex, to put it mildly.

The Anglican tradition was born 475 years ago when, in a messy mix of personal desire, European politics and theological disputes during the Protestant Reformation, King Henry VIII challenged the pope’s authority in England and, with the first Supremacy Act, the government in effect declared churchly independence. The monarch was deemed “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England,” with the archbishop of Canterbury its primary leader.

CanterburyCathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

That rough beginning has evolved into the global Anglican Communion, which today claims 77 million members, making it the world’s third largest church body, after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Most Anglicans in the U.S. are in the Episcopal Church.

The dispute over papal authority turned out to be only the beginning. Inevitably, Catholics and Anglicans grew apart theologically as well as structurally. Among other issues, today they differ over women in ministry, over married clergy, and, depending on which part of the globe you’re in, over gay priests and bishops. (North American and British Anglicans tend to be more liberal about such things than their spiritual siblings in the southern hemisphere.)

Even so, many Anglicans and Catholics have long yearned for reconciliation, recognizing their churches’ special if strained relationship. Church leaders have constantly talked about cooperation for almost a half century, working together when theological differences weren’t at issue. There’s even been speculation about eventual reunification. Leaders in both churches regularly express a desire for unity.

But last month’s directive from the pope indicates how far apart the two churches remain.  Benedict will establish “personal ordinariates,” bodies similar to dioceses, to oversee the pastoral care of those who want to be received into the Catholic Church and bring elements of their Anglican identity with them. (The arrangement isn’t unique, even if the situation is. The Catholic Church already includes various groups with different rites, such as the Melkite and Maronite churches, living under similar structures.)

Vatican_City_St_Peters_Basilica_morning

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The Vatican

insists it still seeks unity, according to church leaders. Rather, the pope was responding to “many requests” submitted by individual Anglicans and Anglican groups, including “20 to 30 bishops,” asking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.

East Tennessee has not yet felt any impact. Neither the Roman Catholic Knoxville Diocese nor the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee knows of any Episcopalians seeking to join Catholic churches since the Vatican’s announcement.

“No one from the Episcopal Church has come at the parish level,” said Anietie Akata, head pastor at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Johnson City. “A few members have read what the Vatican issued, and there’s been only positive acceptance expressed to me.”

Hal Hutchison, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, doesn’t know of any members in that parish heading toward Rome. He doesn’t foresee a large migration at all.

“I don’t anticipate it being a significant number in any provinces of the Anglican community,” he said. “Part of the reason they like being Anglican is they don’t have a pope. Those who are unhappy with the Episcopal Church have sought to align themselves in other ways.”

The move may have other effects, however. While high-ranking Catholic and Anglican officials talk about their desire for unity, their words may sound like whistling in the dark.

Cardinal William J. Levada, who directs the Vatican’s chief body for overseeing theological consistency, has noted that with “recent changes” within many Anglican provinces – probably a reference to the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the U.S. and other controversies about sexuality – the prospect of full unity “seemed to recede.” So instead of holding out hope for full reconciliation, the Vatican opened a road to Rome for Anglicans who no longer feel at home with Canterbury. 

St. Mary’s parish continues to pray for the unity of the church, according to Pastor Akata, “which has always been the ambition and goal for the church.”

He’s right about that. Jesus himself prayed for such unity, probably knowing how difficult it would be.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 7 Nov 2009.

What’s next? Give up blogging for Lent?

4 Mar

In case you missed, the Vatican has urged Roman Catholics to give up high-tech for Lent. Call it a digital fast.

So if most Catholics follow this lead, and the Roman Catholic is the largest single denomination in the world and in the U.S., what would be the cultural and economic impact? And we can only speculate what kind of church-state tensions may surface among elected officials who happen to be Roman Catholic. If they follow the Vatican’s lead, their constituents may be out of touch in today’s environment.

But seriously, folks, there’s a serious point being made here. As the Associated Press story reports:

The Church is trying to balance an increasing appreciation of modern communication with a wariness of new media.

In January, the Vatican launched its own YouTube channel, with Pope Benedict XVI welcoming viewers to this ”great family that knows no borders.”

Benedict praised social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace for forging friendships and understanding, but cautioned that online networking could isolate people from real social interaction.

The pope has also warned about what he has called the tendency of entertainment media to trivialize sex and promote violence.

It’s comforting to know the Vatican takes seriously the relationships and implications that rise with the varieties of digital media. If a 40-day fast from high-tech gadgets can jumpstart that conversation among believers, then so be it.

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