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.