Catholic News Agency: All the News That’s Fit to…Spin?

June 22, 2010, 1:20 pm | Posted by

An old journalism professor once barked at my class: “If your mother tells you she loves you… Check it out.” Catholic News Agency, which often operates more like a conservative propaganda outlet than a legitimate news source, has been called out for fabricating quotes attributed to Cardinal Francis George in this article describing a closed meeting at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent spring assembly. The executive session included discussions about the Catholic Health Association’s high-profile rift with the USCCB over health care reform legislation.

Helen Osman, the Secretary for Communications at the bishops’ conference, writes in the USCCB blog that the Catholic News Agency simply “cobbled together its own fabrication of the session.” Osman, who attended the executive session closed to reporters, also went back and reviewed the transcript to verify the errors. In contrast to CNA’s report, Cardinal George “never used the phrase ‘so-called Catholic,’ accused the Catholic Health Association of creating a ‘parallel magisterium’ or said the meeting of the three bishops with Sr. Keehan had ‘frustrating results,” Osman writes. Disagreement between the USCCB and CHA over health care legislation has been well documented. But, as Osman points out, to “confuse the situation with quotes that aren’t true is just plain dishonest.”

Even worse, CNN picked up Catholic News Agency’s flawed report in this online story. Many of us who work at the intersection of faith and politics have come to expect spin from outlets like Catholic News Agency or Raymond Arroyo’s segments on EWTN. CNN should know better than to use CNA as a credible news source. CNN would have been better off doing their own digging or calling John Allen, a National Catholic Reporter correspondent regarded as one of the most respected chroniclers of Catholicism in the world. Allen covered the same meeting and got on-the-record quotes from Cardinal George that offered a conciliatory tone toward CHA. He also included a quote from Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., that could be read as thoughtful criticism of the bishops’ conference approach to health care legislation. “I’ve been associated in one way or another with the Episcopal conference of the United States since 1972,” Bishop Lynch said. “I have never before this year heard the theory that we enjoy the same primacy of respect for legislative interpretation as we do for interpretation of the moral law.”

Not surprisingly, there is more to this unfolding story than you’re ever going to be reading about in Catholic News Agency.

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Checking the Numbers

June 21, 2010, 4:01 pm | Posted by

Numbers USA, an organization whose goal is “lower immigration levels,” is encouraging their members to take action to stop passage of comprehensive immigration reform, including putting pressure on clergy who speak out in favor of reform. The action alert they sent Friday included the following:

On Tuesday, leaders from a majority of the country’s largest churches held a

meeting in Washington announcing their support for a mass illegal alien amnesty. It’s a sad fact that most of America’s religious leaders hold completely different political views than their members…

…go to your Action Board and send any faxes of protest you’ll find there to your religious leaders.

The premise of this call to action–that there is a divide between the pews and the pulpit on support for reform–is false. Recent nationwide polling shows that a broad range of people of faith overwhelmingly support comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to earned citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Public Religion Research Institute’s national poll released this spring demonstrates that Catholics, white evangelicals, and white mainline protestants all support comprehensive immigration reform— including an earned path to citizenship– by two-to-one margins over an enforcement-only policy. In fact, the poll showed that these three groups favor immigration reform even more than religiously unaffiliated Americans. (The full report is available here.)

Furthermore, PRRI’s research demonstrates that a majority of regular worship attendees approve of clergy speaking out on the issue immigration reform from the pulpit, and ¾ of regular attendees approve of clergy speaking about the issue in the media and in other public forums such as community meetings.

Also, Numbers USA’s claim that the clergy who spoke out last week support “amnesty” is disingenuous and misleading. What faith leaders mean by comprehensive immigration reform is basically the opposite of “amnesty”–reform would require immigrants who are here illegally to pay fines and any back taxes they may owe, hold jobs, pass background checks, and study English in order to earn citizenship. “Amnesty” might be Numbers USA’s buzzword of choice, but it’s not a remotely accurate description of the policy.

Numbers USA’s false claims and loaded language may motivate their base to attack pastors for standing up for their principles, but we know that clergy leaders won’t back down in fighting to keep families together and fix a system that doesn’t protect our interests or our values as a nation.

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To petition or not to petition

June 1, 2010, 5:43 pm | Posted by

Michael Sean Winters had a thoughtful post at America last week reflecting on a recent petition campaign by Catholics United in response to the news that a Catholic elementary school in Massachusetts denied admission to a student because his parents are in a same-sex relationship. The petition quickly amassing over 5,000 signatures (including mine) encouraging Archbishop O’Malley to affirm a diocese-wide policy preventing this kind of discrimination.

While affirming that he appreciates Catholics United’s general work providing a counterweight to conservative Catholic groups who treat GOP talking points as religious doctrine, Winters sees this petition as misguided:

“But, the school case in Boston is not about politics. Better to say, the most important thing is to make sure that it doesn’t become about politics. I am sure that for every one of the 5,000 signatures Catholics United got for its petition, a conservative group can marshal an equal number of signatories urging Cardinal O’Malley to take the opposite course and ban the children of same-sex couples from attending catholic schools. A pastor has an obligation to keep his flock together as much as possible. I do not see how petition drives, the counter influences they elicit, or any of the accoutrement of contemporary politics will advance the cause of unity among the faithful.”

Winters’s concern about stoking culture war flames is reasonable, but I think he misses the forest for the trees in this particular instance. Catholics United didn’t politicize this issue; that happened the instant it hit the national media, where years of conservative Catholic politicization of LGBT issues has portrayed the Church as a monolithically conservative institution pitted against liberal secularists. Moreover, the school incident fit into an existing political context because of its similarity to a recent case in Colorado, which garnered national attention and galvanized the Catholic right, ultimately prompting Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput to issue a statement defending the policy of expelling children of same-sex parents.

I share Winters’s concerns that political efforts can threaten the unity of the faithful, but I think responsibility for divisiveness lies with advocates of “litmus-test-Catholicism” who use disagreements like these to separate the Church into good and bad Catholics. The way to change this narrative isn’t to sit quietly and hope — hesitation to speak out against partisan polarization in the Church is exactly what got us here in the first place. There’s no going back to a time when events like this school’s decision escape media attention or go un-remarked upon by conservative partisans. To be an effective counterweight, groups like Catholics United need to stand up and demonstrate that the Catholic Right does not speak for the whole Catholic church.

Regardless of whether the petition influenced Archbishop O’Malley, it certainly had an effect on the media coverage of the story and disrupted the idea that the school pastor or Chaput’s previous statement spoke for all Catholics on this issue. Combined with Archbishop O’Malley’s ultimate decision to help place the child in another Catholic school, I think the story stood out as a welcome change in Catholic coverage, showing a compassionate, reasonable side of the faith over a politicized, divisive one.

To be clear, I don’t mean to read Winters’s post as a general dismissal of progressive faith work. Fair with both his support and critiques, I think his opinions are valuable insights for progressive groups, and I’d be interested to hear more of his thoughts on how they can best make an impact in the Church and the public square.

Full disclosure: I previously worked for Catholics United

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Politics vs Principle

May 13, 2010, 12:00 pm | Posted by

Wanted to flag this post by Michael Sean Winters on the continuing fallout of the healthcare debate in the Catholic community, because he raises an extremely important yet seldom-raised point:

Bishops, of course, have unique authority when they teach on faith or morals. But, they have no such authority regarding the interpretation of civil legislation or their best guesses as to how market forces will respond to that legislation. … the USCCB also has no divinely guaranteed authority when it comes to intelligently awarding grants through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. We Catholics are not automatons. We can disagree with bishops about such matters. Our differences may be stupid, they may be short-sighted, they may be based on a difference in perspective, but they are not grounds for a charge of disloyalty (emphasis added).

What Sr. Carol Keehan and other Catholic supporters of the health care bill did was exercise their best judgment on how to apply Catholic moral principles (like opposition to abortion) to complex legislation. Based on expert legal analysis, they came to a different factual, not moral, conclusion than the USCCB — that the health care bill did not, in fact, fund abortion.

This, however, does not stop people like former Republican operative Deal Hudson from attacking Keehan. Hudson alleges Keehan had no other option than to fall in line with not just the USCCB’s moral claims, but also their legal claims about the healthcare bill.

All this is a bit rich coming from Hudson, who is quick to ignore the USCCB himself when it suits him. He recently called for Catholics to “tea party” the USCCB, and has himself made Winters’ point about the differences between the bishops’ authority in moral vs legislative matters:

Catholics need to realize there is no “Church view” on the present health-care bill, but there is a position being taken by the bishops’ conference. The Church teaching Catholics are obliged to consider comes in the form of moral principles that must be applied prudentially to the legislation under consideration.

I guess in Hudson’s mind, the USCCB has no authority on healthcare reform, unless that authority could help the GOP.

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An emergency delegation for immigration reform

May 12, 2010, 6:51 pm | Posted by

In a story FPL helped generate, Jeanne Cummings reported in Politico yesterday that an “emergency delegation” of faith leaders is coming to Capitol Hill Thursday to persuade John McCain to support immediate action on comprehensive immigration reform – a policy he championed the last time Congress took it up in 2007. Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, a member of the delegation and a leading public voice for immigration reform, told Jeanne:

I understand the politics of his race. But the bigger picture is the legacy he can leave. He understands the border, the needs for comprehensive immigration reform, and he understands how to make it happen.

In addition to meeting with Sen. McCain, the delegation will meet with the White House and several Representatives from Arizona to explain how Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law makes federal action on comprehensive immigration reform more urgent than ever. As prominent leaders with large constituencies and direct experience with their Arizona immigration crisis, these leaders – including protestant and Catholic bishops, a rabbi, a megachurch pastor and a statewide ecumenical leader — are compelling messengers with unique political sway. The full roster of the delegation is after the jump.

Bishop Gerald Frederick Kicanas, Tucson Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church

Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, Desert Southwest Conference of The United Methodist Church

Rev. Monsignor Richard William O’Keefe, Episcopal Vicar, Yuma – La Paz Vicariate Immaculate Conception Parish

Rev. Dr. Gary D. Kinnaman, Pastor at Large, Phoenix-area City of Grace Church, and Chairman, AZ Governor’s Council on Faith and Community Initiatives, 2008

Rev. Jan Olav Flaaten, Executive Director, Arizona Ecumenical Council

Rabbi John Andrew Linder, Temple Solel, Scottsdale, Arizona

Joseph David Rubio, Lead Organizer for Arizona, Industrial Areas Foundation

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