Locating Islam on the Map of the West

Sometimes Crux, though, registered a provocative take on Christianity in the West. In a piece on the Vatican’s diplomacy with Iran, Crux observed that Roman Catholicism is to the Christian world what Shia is to Islam:

Iranian writer Vali Nasr, author of the 2006 book “The Shia Revival,” argues that the divide between Sunni and Shia bears comparison to that between Protestants and Catholics, with Shia being the branch closer to Catholicism.

Among those points of contact are:

A strong emphasis on clerical authority

An approach to the Quran accenting both scripture and tradition

A deep mystical streak

Devotion to a holy family (in the case of Shiites, the blood relatives of Mohammad) and to saints (the Twelve Imams)

A theology of sacrifice and atonement through the death of Hussain, grandson of Mohammad and the first imam of Shia Islam

Belief in free will (as opposed to the Sunni doctrine of pre-destination)

Holy days, pilgrimages, and healing shrines

Intercessory prayer

Strongly emotional forms of popular devotion, especially the festival of Ashoura commemorating Hussain’s death

If only ISIS could find its inner Pope Francis:

Pope Francis apologized for Catholic mistreatment of other Christian traditions Monday, and called on Catholics to forgive followers of those traditions for any offenses of “today and in the past,” as a step toward deeper unity.

“As Bishop of Rome and Shepherd of the Catholic Church, I plead for mercy and forgiveness for non-evangelical behaviors by Catholics against Christians of other churches,” Francis said, referring to conduct not in keeping with the Gospel of Christ.

“We cannot undo what was done in the past, but we don’t want to allow the weight of past sins to pollute our relationships,” he said. “The mercy of God will renew our relations.”

Apologetics Catches Up with Journalism

The Boston Globe, perhaps to make up for its coverage of the Boston Archdiocese’s sex scandal, started Crux, a web-based publication devoted to reporting on all thing Roman Catholic. Now comes word that the Globe has pulled the plug on Crux.

Eighteen months is not a long time for any new venture to get firmly established. But the scariest part of the paper’s abandonment of Crux is that the vertical actually did get established, at least with readers. Allen said the section rallied roughly 1 million monthly readers, and those numbers “easily doubled” during big news events related to the pope, such as his recent trip to Mexico. Within the religion-journalism world, Crux quickly became a must-read, and Allen’s reporting is widely respected as some of the best-sourced in the business. The Globe could not have run a cleaner experiment in terms of testing market viability—as McGrory himself emphasized, the journalism was extremely high quality, but the dollars just weren’t there.

“It clearly is worrying for people who do this for a living to see a mainstream news organization like The Globe who launched a big project like this and then 18 months later backed out,” Allen said. Religion journalism is a notoriously tough sell for publishers, and the fact that the Globe would emphasize the editorial quality and importance of Crux while still choosing to shutter it suggests a fear of investing in topical coverage that isn’t directly appealing to advertisers. A spokesperson for the Globe maintained that the paper will continue its same level of coverage of the Church—this without Allen and the laid-off staffers, and with the editor of the vertical, Teresa Hanafin, being “redeployed [in] an exciting new position as an early morning writer for Bostonglobe.com,” as McGrory wrote in his memo. “I expect if The Globe had launched a vertical exclusively dedicated to coverage of the Patriots and Red Sox, we would not be here,” Allen said.

From the standpoint of religion journalism, the end of the Globe-supported version of Crux is a significant blow. A number of publications are solely dedicated to covering Catholicism, but the big differences between Crux and those organizations, Allen said, are independence and critical distance. Many outlets are expressly affiliated with the Church, and even independent publications such as The National Catholic Reporter have fairly close ties with Catholic institutions.

But I wonder. As much as I like to read Allen, he also massaged the papacy and the Vatican in much of what he wrote.

For instance, Allen applauded Pope Francis for showing a better way to be a culture warrior (read not to fight):

With regard to Italy’s Family Day, Francis used an address to judges of the main Vatican court on Friday to insist that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,” which was taken locally as a green light for resistance to the civil unions measure.

In the long run, a pope’s impact is measured not just by what he says or does, but also by which impulses in Catholicism rise or fall on his watch. Almost three years in, it does not seem that a drop-off in the Church’s commitment to what St. John Paul II called the “Gospel of Life” will be part of Francis’ legacy.

Perhaps the question is not whether Pope Francis will lead the Church away from its traditional positions, but whether he’s modeling a different way of making the argument.

It’s sometimes been said that the worst enemies of the anti-abortion movement can be the abortion opponents themselves, because they can seem shrill, angry, and judgmental, turning people off to the message because of the unattractiveness of the messengers.

Examples like this pile up.

Others have also wondered about Crux’s reporting on the church:

2016 March for Life. Allen writes “As to the March for Life, Francis didn’t offer any direct endorsement, but US leaders in the anti-abortion movement say they’re convinced he’s got their backs.” Sorry? This sentence says that Francis said and did nothing in regard to the March for Life, reporting only that some pro-lifers feel that the pope supports them. If it is anything, that sentence is not a claim about Francis, it’s a claim about pro-lifers.

Francis need not, of course, have attended the March for Life (no pope has); he need not have sent it a supportive message (though other popes have); he need not even mention the March for Life if he does not wish to. But, if he did not attend, did not greet, and did not even mention the March, how exactly is this series of non-actions evidence that the pope is ‘pioneering’ a new way to oppose abortion? If eisegesis is reading one’s opinions into another’s words, what is it when there literally are no words to read one’s opinions into, but a message is divined from them anyway? . . .

These remarks are not a criticism of Francis—there is no doubt whatsoever where he stands on the gravity of abortion and on the impossibility of ‘gay-marriage’ (even if his manner sometimes muffs his message) and he is not obligated to engage in any specific acts of opposition to either. But my remarks are a criticism of reporters who, with some proclivity these days, seem to offer the pope’s silence on various matters as evidence for what they think he means on various matters. May I suggest, instead, that silence is usually, pretty much, just silence.

Perhaps Allen was too deferential to his subjects and this undermined his relationship with the Globe. Or, perhaps the Globe wanted good public relations with the Boston Roman Catholic community and Crux failed.

Terry Mattingly is Tightening My Jaws

Mr. Mattingly’s point, as someone with journalistic credibility, is to point out how journalists get religion stories wrong. I get it. Reporters make mistakes. Worse, they have bias. But what if Mr. Mattingly gets journalists wrong?

Case in point. He pits the New York Times’ and Boston Globe’s (via Crux) coverage of Pope Francis’ refusal to meet with the chief Italian bishop as an indication of the pope’s refusal to identify publicly with a pro-family, anti-gay marriage parade sponsored by the Italian episcopate. Here is a crucial passage from the Crux:

Pope Francis abruptly canceled a meeting last Wednesday with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference and a vocal proponent of Family Day. Many took that as a snub, suggesting that Francis wants to keep his distance from the fight.

Two days later, however, Francis reversed course and stepped directly into the debate.

In an annual speech to a Vatican court, Francis issued a blunt warning that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,” which was taken by Italians as a criticism of the Cirinnà bill and, at least indirectly, an endorsement of Family Day.

Mattingly thinks this shows that the Times’ report — which indicated a papal slap down of pro-family Italians — was wrong.

Why isn’t the papal speech on Aug. 22 – the one stating “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and every other type of union” – relevant to the Times report that was published on Aug. 24?


Saying something to the Vatican court is not meeting with the head Italian bishop. Nor is it an endorsement of the pro-family rally. Even Roman Catholic theologians know this:

[Pope Francis] has not directly endorsed the upcoming Family Day; he has not appealed to Italian politicians or to Italian Catholics; and he has emphasized repeatedly that this is something in the hands of the Catholic laity. His speech to the Rota Romana last week was clear in drawing a distinction between Catholic marriage and other unions, but it was a speech in no way similar to those given by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It was a strong defense of traditional Catholic marriage, but made no references to Italian politics or “non-negotiable values.”

It’s clear that the Vatican has a strong preference for a same-sex union law over one for gay marriage; further, it views the section of the bill that would legalize gestational surrogacy as alarming and rushed through by the government of Matteo Renzi, a Catholic whose strongest suit is surprising allies and enemies alike with the rapidity of his actions. Francis has remained largely disengaged from the politics of the bill, and his main effort seems to be protecting the authority of the pope from any attempt to manipulate it—especially when that attempt comes from Italian bishops. Interestingly, an audience scheduled with Cardinal Bagnasco was canceled the day before it was supposed to take place, on January 20.

We do not know yet what kind of popular support Family Day 2016 will have, but it is clear that Pope Francis has reset the role of the papacy not only in Italian domestic politics, but also in Italian ecclesiastical politics.

Sure, the theologian in question, Massimo Faggioli, is sympathetic to the Times except when Ross Douthat is the author. Still, its not as if Mattingly’s take on matters Roman Catholic is such an obvious one.

Sola Scriptura?

Don’t listen to the polls but only to Jesus except when he teaches about what will become of Jerusalem:

Q. Recent polls indicate that some 70 percent of Catholics in the United States (and 66 percent in Ireland) do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but rather a symbolic presence.

I happen to be one of them. I am Jesuit-educated, and I have written to my pastor with my question but have been greeted with stone silence. If these polls are even halfway true, why is this elephant in the room never addressed or even mentioned in church? Are we all condemned to hell for this belief? (Duxbury, Massachusetts)

A. The beliefs of the Catholic Church are not determined by plebiscite. That is to say, what is fundamental in determining the core content of the Catholic faith is not how people feel, but what Jesus said. And for that, we go to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Jesus has just multiplied the loaves and the fish to feed 5,000 people, and the crowds are in awe. The very next day, Jesus says something that turns out to be very controversial (Jn 6:35, 51): “I am the bread of life … the living bread that came down from heaven … and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” People are shocked and ask: “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52).

Even his followers are horrified. Christ has every opportunity to pull back and explain. “Wait,” he might have said, “I was only speaking figuratively.”

Instead, he presses the point, watching as people start to drift away: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:54-56).

Later, at the Last Supper, Jesus reaffirms this teaching in language that is virtually identical.

Polling data varies widely regarding this teaching. The National Catholic Reporter, for example, found in a 2011 survey that 63 percent of adult Catholics believe that “at the consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

But as I said at the start, polling data is largely irrelevant, except to this extent (as your question suggests): If a fair number of Catholics do not subscribe to a long-held and central article of faith, the Church should doubtless do more to proclaim and explain that teaching.

As to your last line, about the consequences of not believing, one thing is certain: No one is going to hell who sincerely follows the dictates of his own properly formed conscience. So why worry about that? Why not focus instead on determining what Jesus taught?

So bishops should teach what the Bible teaches or church members should follow their consciences? No wonder the polls’ results and authority.

An Extra Helping of Conscience

That’s the advice to Cafeteria Roman Catholics from the Boston Globe‘s new website:

Q | Dear OMG,

What of those who cannot accept in good conscience various teachings of the magisterium [official Church policy]? Are we still to consider ourselves Catholic, or should we go elsewhere?

A | Dear Albert,

Ah, the age-old identity questions.

Are we black with one African-American parent? Jewish if we’ve never set foot in a synagogue? Catholic if we oppose the Church on questions of personal morality, such as homosexuality, divorce, abortion, contraception, and pre-marital sex? What degree of observance, adherence, and agreement is required of Catholics to consider themselves Catholic?

This is a difficult question, especially in the US, where a certain tension between teachings and observance has always existed among the faithful, and “conscience” has been the tool people use to justify individual departures from orthodoxy. There are women who, in good conscience, have taken priestly ordination vows and consider themselves Catholic; and (many more) people who’ve had abortions or supported the right to abortion who do as well. These self-defined Catholics defy official teaching and risk excommunication; yet on some level, the choice to be Catholic remains a deeply personal (and private) one.

Perhaps a more provocative question is this: To what extent must the hierarchy heed the consciences of the faithful?

For decades, the bishops have appeared to be a my-way-or-the-highway kind of crew, and Pope Benedict gained a reputation for disdaining the cafeteria approach of American Catholics, wanting instead to build a smaller, purer church.

But Pope Francis has taken a different, and historically significant, tack, says the Rev. Drew Christiansen at Georgetown. For him, the beliefs of faithful Catholics ought to define the faith – at least as much as the hierarchy does.

“The faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief,” Francis told America magazine last year. “This church … is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”

My unordained advice, therefore, is this: Hold onto your Catholicism – as well as your conscience – and perhaps your leaders will follow you there.

That’s audacious alright.

Reporting as Cheerleading

Here’s another sign that the world is not going to the secularist dogs: the Boston Globe has started a website devoted to covering Roman Catholicism. Here’s one early story about the effort (and another):

Crux joins a small, and growing, network of sites connected to the paper, including Boston.com, BostonGlobe.com, BDCWire, and the most recently launched Beta Boston. For newspapers like the Globe, diversification typically means finding a way to spin off parts of the existing business to niche audiences inside a geographic boundary. Crux shares a strategy more common with online publishers who want to tap digital audiences through interest areas.

“We saw an opportunity to fill a need,” said Globe editor Brian McGrory. “There’s a real hunger. We’re at a unique moment.”

But since other organizations do this, why bother with Crux?

Crux is entering a crowded field of Catholic news sites like the National Catholic Reporter, the National Catholic Register, and Commonweal. Allen said many religious news sites can be too close to the story, either backed by the church or sponsored by Catholic groups.

Allen said they hope their independence and backing from the Globe will give Crux credibility and a distinct identity. “The trick is to be close enough to the story to get it right, but far enough away to be objective,” he said.

The early signs are not encouraging, since Allen’s first story (and he is a fine journalist in my estimate) is one part Chamber of Commerce, two parts devotional uplift (and oh, by the way, does Jesus matter?):

■ In India, the Catholic Church this week hosted a major conference on family farms, responding to a growing crisis of farmer suicides.

In the last 10 years, 300,000 Indian farmers are believed to have taken their own lives. Generally these are small-time rural farmers squeezed among mounting debts, declining yields, and pressure from large agriculture conglomerates.

Led by Caritas, a Catholic charitable group, the Indian church is proposing a program of support for small farmers that includes favorable tax and credit policies, price supports, organization of rural cooperatives, and stronger social security protection.

■ In South Sudan, security services loyal to President Salva Kiir raided the church-run Bakhita Radio in Juba, taking it off the air for alleged violations of national security. Most observers saw it as an effort to muzzle criticism, which was seemingly confirmed when officials said the station could resume broadcasting if it agreed not to air political programs.

Catholics are an important chunk of the population in South Sudan, and Kiir himself is Catholic. The church backed independence in 2012, but many Catholics have soured on the country’s direction. It’s mired in a civil war and, according to the United Nations, has the worst food crisis in the world, with 50,000 children facing death from malnutrition.

Bakhita Radio was a voice of the independence movement, and Kiir appears afraid it could be a threat to his power as well.

■ In Lebanon on Thursday, leaders of Eastern Catholic churches from across the Middle East issued a statement denouncing the Islamic State in northern Iraq and urging the international community to stop its “crimes against humanity.”

In a separate interview with Italian TV, Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad called for an international military effort, including Arab nations, to bring down the self-declared caliphate. He objected to the current US strikes, not on pacifist grounds, but because they don’t go far enough. If the United States was serious, Sako said, it would go after ISIS in Mosul.

In their statement, the patriarchs also warned against mounting anti-Christian pressure in Syria and Egypt, saying Christians there are being forced to migrate due to “aggression and criminally hateful acts.”

These cases are all different, but the common thread in each is that Catholicism matters.

Peter Lawler, a Roman Catholic himself, might be tempted to say in response, “not so fast”:

A plausible interpretation of America and the world at the moment is that the imperatives of the 21st century global marketplace are so powerful they trump anything religious and political leaders say or do.

Techno-economic change does not, to be sure, trump anything and everything that nature might do. We recently had the near-miss of the stormy sun disrupting our electric grid and plunging us into the 18th century, and experts think there’s a 12 percent that could still actually happen over the next decade. That’s a lot more scary, if you think about it, than the possible long-term effects on the climate of anthropogenic global warming, although I’ll admit there’s an inconvenient truth or two there, too.

There’s also, of course, the disturbingly successful indifference of Putin and ISIS to the market, and the maybe more disturbing agility by which the Chinese manage to be both authoritarian nationalists and techno-cagey capitalists.

Still, there’s plenty of evidence that capitalism—despite lots of blips here and there—has won. On the strength of that evidence, we are seeing a kind of libertarian convergence in the behavior of the two major American political parties. We read that the Koch brothers, who understand themselves as humane social liberals on issues such as same-sex marriage, are moderating the Republican agenda by working to rid the party of its reactionary social/cultural conservatism. The Republicans should restrict their message to the issues of cutting taxes on “job creators” and eliminating as many government regulations as possible—including getting rid of the basic arbitrariness of affirmative action quotas and any laws privileging the rights of unions over the rights of free individuals to work.

Granted, it might be hard for the editors and reporters for the Globe’s new website to report that capitalism matters more than Roman Catholicism, but then again, isn’t it a journalist’s job at least to ask that question.

My impression of Crux so far is that it is going to do to Roman Catholicism what features journalism does to the new restaurant in the neighborhood. Whether Bostonians or U.S. Roman Catholics need such a service is anyone’s guess, and whether non-Roman Catholics will be tempted to turn to the Globe’s Crux for news on why Roman Catholicism matters is even a bigger mystery.

What does deserve some attention, though, is that for all the complaints about the secular media and its neglect of religion, when journalists do report on faith they wind up saying more positive things than asking tough questions. That’s true for Protestants as much as Roman Catholics. Believers generally like to have their religious identities stroked. Accentuate the positive.

That’s an odd outcome for Christians since if they pay any heed to the Bible they will notice that a large section of it — the Old Testament — is devoted to the royal screw ups (literally) who ran Israel and Judah into exile. That is not an uplifting story, and that may be another reason for taking the republication doctrine to heart.