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Good News in the Newsroom

"Deciding to become a religion reporter at a newspaper is not unlike walking into a biker bar on a drunken Saturday night wearing a white linen suit and spats. This form of dress is not an act of wilful aggression, but it does have a way pf upsetting the balance of things. Some in the bar might laugh, some might get angry and others still might become aggressive."

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Good News in the Newsroom October 18, 2011  |  By Charles Lewis
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In the spring of 2007, after 18 straight years as an editor at various papers, and the last six years as a senior business editor at the National Post, it was announced that I would be covering religion. In other words, I would be covering people who really believe God exists. It might sound strange to put it in those terms but that really was the crux of it.

The arenas of life written about in newspapers always involve covering people who are engaged in tangible pursuits. Some people might think baseball is frivolous, but they cannot deny that games are played and players make real money. Many people find the stock market bewildering and economics impenetrable, but they do not deny the existence of the Dow nor the hit they take on their retirement savings during an economic crisis.

Religion, on the other hand, is the only topic in which the people covered believe in something that is not only invisible but is considered delusional and even evil by a large chunk of the population. It is, to the estimation of otherwise fine and intelligent people, a form of superstition and a weight holding back the progress of the world.

I have found that popular views of faith—that exist in society at large as well as in newsroom—are often shaped by religion's worst aspects. It is amazing how many people are still bitter at the Catholic Church for the Inquisition and the Crusades. AIDS in Africa would vanish if not for the Catholic Church's ban on condoms. Many believe that evangelical Protestants are really just ignorantfundamentalists who want to create a theocracy.

It does not help, either, that the airwaves are still stuffed with religious charlatans trying to convince viewers to send away for magic prayer cloths.

Of course, it soon becomes clear that those who hold those beliefs have never read a serious book about religion. And if they have, it is usually something to reinforce their prejudices, such as Christopher Hitchens' dreary atheist tome, God Is Not Great. To be fair, ongoing revelations of sexual abuse cover-ups by Catholic bishops and a number of incredible public relations disasters instigated by the Vatican itself have not helped soften the antireligious view.

As a religion reporter I often cringe when the Vatican puts out a news release. The list is long but two come to mind: One is the welcoming back to the Church of Bishop Richard Williamson, a nasty Holocaust denier and crank, as part of a greater move to rehabilitate the conservative Society of St. Pius X in 2009. No one at the Vatican seemed to know of Williamson's views about Jews even though he was all over the Internet with his rantings.

The second? In July 2010, the Vatican came out with its long-awaited norms on dealing with sex abusers. Unfortunately, someone who clearly did not have a flare for public relations attached a second document on the evils of ordaining women. Nearly every media outlet in the world ended up reporting: "Vatican equates female ordination with sexual abuse of children."

The Vatican is not alone in this. The recent spectacle of the Anglican Church of Canada going to court to claim parishes from breakaway conservative groups has not been a great advertisement for Christian love and forgiveness.

We live in a time of great secularization and so it should come as no surprise that those who inhabit newsrooms are for the most part secular in their thinking. With that comes an attitude that secularism is the societal norm, like wearing a bathing suit at a public pool or not eating with one's hands at a good restaurant.

So it was not all that surprising that the initial reaction to my decision to cover religion struck many of my colleagues as peculiar. Almost immediately I was being asked questions such as: "ARE YOU A GOD GUY?" "ARE YOU RELIGIOUS?" "REALLY? RELIGION?"

There was a combination of bemusement and incredulity, and even a bit of hostility from some. This, of course, was not universal—otherwise I would not have been permitted to create a religion beat.

It also was assumed that I had a belief in God. What else could explain an interest in religion? I do believe in God and consider myself a devout Catholic. I am also a convert to Catholicism, which makes me appear even more religious or possibly even fanatical. But I initially resented the question because I thought the assumption was presumptuous.

When someone at a newspaper takes over the airlines beat, for example, no one assumes that the reporter was once a pilot or an executive at Air Canada. No one assumes that the police reporter once walked a beat and swung a nightstick. And clearly no one raises an eyebrow if the basketball reporter is short in stature and couldn't hit a three-point shot if his life depended on it.

As it turned out, the questions about being a believer were more relevant than many people suspected. I do not think I could have done the job without believing in God. I am more and more convinced that to cover religion objectively, it is important to have a faith of one's own. If I didn't think that God is real, how could I cover a subject that is really all about God? Imagine someone covering baseball without being a fan or having a deep sense of the game's history?

Not long after I took over the beat, I read something by the late Father Richard Neuhaus in First Things magazine. He was pointing out the problem with religion reporting in America. The main issue, he wrote, was that religion moves slowly and newspapers move fast. The kinds of questions demanded by the media of religion are often not easy to answer because they do not lend themselves to quick responses. So, in order for a reporter to get religion, he should be religious himself. It was the only way to understand the ebb and flow of faith and then begin to translate that to a secular audience.

No one should imagine that when I became the National Post's religion reporter I was chased by angry mobs or faced physical threats. The fact that I was even allowed to make this into an area of full-time coverage, given how many papers in North America have dropped religion as a beat, speaks volumes. Since the paper's inception, there had always been columnists writing on religion, editorials in support of religious views, and features—but not someone devoting their entire day to the subject.

More to the point, I have been given tremendous freedom to write about all sorts of things that most newspapers would never even consider: our modern view of angels, the power shift of religion to the developing world, the nature of miracles, the process by which saints are recognized. I have written about Mormon pageants and Mariology and an anniversary piece on the meaning of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical that once and for all settled the Catholic view on birth control.

One of my first feature stories was a piece on the new atheists: Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and the like. It seemed like a safe way in to the beat and a way of showing that though I am personally religious I am willing to give equal time to my godless friends. As a Catholic, I find many of the new atheists offensive, often bordering on hate speech; but as a reporter I knew I would have to be completely agnostic about such things and attempt to step out of my own prejudices.

And, of course, I have covered a myriad of news stories that other newspapers have simply ignored—even though these stories showed the state of religion in Canada today and would be of interest to even the most hardened secularist or atheist.

I have also been allowed to do something quite unusual for someone in the media today: give voice to those conservatives whose views immediately put them at odds with the vast majority of secular society and who have generally been written off as cranks and reactionaries.

But this does not mean that translating the religious view for a secular audience has always been easy or fun. As I said earlier, secularism is just as ingrained in society at large as it is in the newsroom. Religious explanations for secular ears often sound discordant or part of a fantasy, not something a reasonable person would believe or accept.

There is also a belief that when a religious figure does something wrong, or has been accused of doing something wrong, it is expected rather than the exception. People in power are always in the crosshairs of the media. There is a reason why the Catholic Church comes in for more scrutiny than any other faith: it is the largest and most powerful, and it is the only organization with one billion followers and a distinct hierarchy that engages regularly with the world.

"We should be grateful for the attention that the media devotes to the sins of the Catholic clergy, even if constant repetition may give the false impression that Catholic clergy are particularly sinful," Thomas Collins, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Toronto, said in April 2010 in regards to the abuse scandal. "That attention is a profound tribute to the priesthood . . . People instinctively expect holiness in a Catholic priest, and are especially appalled when he does evil."

As a Catholic, I have at times felt horribly conflicted—I was concerned that the Church was being treated unfairly and I was worried that those concerns could cloud my objectivity.

In March 2010 the New York Times wrote what seemed to be a blockbuster story about how Pope Benedict, when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ignored letters sent to him about an abusive priest in Milwaukee, Wisc. named Lawrence Murphy.

According to the story, the Vatican also directly interfered with the late Father Murphy's canonical trial and refused to defrock this disgrace to Christianity. The story also stated categorically that the greatest priority in the case was protecting the Church from scandal. None of this squared with what I understood about Pope Benedict and his efforts—greater than those of John Paul II himself—to rid the Church of sexual predators.

Father Murphy's case was a particularly odious one. The late priest had worked at a school for the deaf and was known to have abused roughly 200 children. As a Catholic, my first reaction to the New York Times story was that this could not be happening.

The first reaction of one editor was, "I knew it." Meaning, she knew the ongoing abuse scandal would wash up at the feet of the Pope.

But several things bothered me as a reporter more than as a Catholic. The reference to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ignoring letters assumed that he opened his own mail and that any letters sent to his office ended up on his desk. But when the story first broke, I knew that no one in my newsroom wanted to hear that the story might be wrong. This story was a runaway train. And sometimes it is best to just get out of the way and regroup for another day.

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The National Post was not going to ignore this story on the hunch of its religion reporter. And if I had been an editor, I would have ignored me too and run what the New York Times reported. But to the paper's credit, I was allowed to spend a few days researching the documents, making calls to those Church officials who had looked into the Father Murphy case in the mid-1990s.

I found that there were those in the Vatican who took an interest in the case, none of them Cardinal Ratzinger, and that questions were raised about whether a trial would do any good given that Father Murphy was already dying. I actually spoke to Father Thomas Brundage, the canon lawyer who ran the case against Murphy. He was clear that the Vatican could have shut down the trial at any point—but did not. Unfortunately, Murphy died before he could be held accountable for his actions.

This did not exactly knock the New York Times story off its pedestal, but it did allow our readers to see that not all was black and white—or so sensational.

Just as secularism is the societal norm today, so is religious ignorance. People suffering from religious ignorance would not even label it a form of ignorance because religion for them is so meaningless and not worth knowing about. This is an interesting view given that so many of the forces at work around the globe today are driven by religion.

Being ignorant of the Bible—even just as a piece of Western literature—is considered these days a badge of honour, proof that one is not taken in by a lot of hokum. But what's worse is that many religious people are clueless, so they cannot refute anti-religious charges that are baseless.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found earlier this year that half of American Catholics did not understand what the "real presence" in the Eucharist meant, and half of all Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the leader of the Reformation. It followed other studies that have come up with equally embarrassing results. My favourite nugget was the notion that Sodom and Gomorrah were a husband-and-wife team.

Two years ago a bogus story broke that Stephen Harper, the prime minister, had pocketed a communion wafer during a funeral mass for former governor general Romeo LeBlanc at a Catholic church in Memramcook, N.B. When it first came out, a number of editors in the newsroom had no idea why this was a scandal.

How do you explain to a secular group that Catholics and members of the Orthodox Church believe that the bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ? Other Christians do not get this one, so consider how strange this would seem to secularists.

I pointed out that even if Mr. Harper did not pocket the wafer—which he had not—he had no business, as a Protestant, taking communion in the first place. This then became a source of debate among some editors, most of whom could not believe that the Church would deny communion to non-Catholics.

What made this frustrating, of course, was that I was not offering an opinion but a fact. Yet in a secular world, in a secular newsroom, these notions seemed so obscure as to be almost laughable. How can something like this be taken seriously?

Eventually one editor realized that it did not matter what he believed about communion. It mattered that Mr. Harper had caused offence by not having had the wherewithal to be briefed on Catholic protocol—much the same way as he would have done if he had visited a synagogue or Hindu temple.

A story like this was not exactly the biggest deal in the world and was likely quickly forgotten. But it was interesting how it opened a window onto something that religious people see as obvious and others see as superstitious. Shortly after the story ran, Charles Adler asked me to do a radio spot on the Harper faux pas. Mr. Adler was genuinely surprised to learn about the "real presence" and wanted to know as much about it as he could. It was an exhilarating experience to talk about something like this in an intelligent manner without the need for sarcasm or jokes.

I think the job of writing about religion for a secular paper is to tell stories with a wide appeal and yet not lose the truth of what religion is all about. A year or two before I took over the religion beat, I had started reading from the modern canon of Christian authors: Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day. These authors moved me in a way that I had not been moved in years. I was beginning to see how good writing could take religious themes and make them burn with real passion, stirring both the heart and the intellect.

Like many others in the secular world, I thought "Christian writing" concerned mind-numbing rants about salvation and Hell, usually replete with dozens of Biblical quotations printed on really cheap paper. But here was something far different. I could see why even the most cynical hearts were moved deeply by Merton's Seven Storey Mountain and Lewis' Mere Christianity. This was tough writing, lacking sentimentality and unafraid to speak unapologetically about the truth.

I began to realize that to write in this manner could be a legitimate journalistic pursuit. Fortunately I was lucky enough, blessed in fact, to have had a few outstanding editors who told me to tune out the noise, do my job and it will all work out.

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