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Religion on TV News:

Secular Orthodoxy Still Reigns

Church and State

Kerry’s Catholic Communion Battle

textbox0328_3As in last year’s spate of stories on gay Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson, the network reporters covering the year’s major religion controversies treated these issues as primarily political and secular. Take the controversy over some Catholic bishops publicly declaring Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s record of pro-abortion voting and advocacy made him unqualified to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. Senator Kerry replied that his public life was entirely separate from his private life. In their set of stories (comprising eight evening news stories and two anchor briefs, as well as four morning segments) traditional church teachings were portrayed as a “conservative” violation of church-state separation and an unnecessary obstacle for “observant Catholic” Kerry. Networks preferred the Kerry Catholic Church to the Roman Catholic Church.

TV reporters did not explain official Catholic teaching on reception of the Eucharist. They also did not explain that priests should not give communion to someone who is in a state of “objectively” grave sin, i.e., a clear rejection of basic Church teaching. For example, the gay protesters of the Rainbow Sash movement wear sashes to Communion to suggest that by granting them the sacrament, the priest endorses their lifestyle as acceptable to the Church. They are regularly refused.

On Good Morning America April 9, ABC’s Diane Sawyer began the first network morning story by reporting, “There are some in the church, apparently, who believe that Kerry, although he is an observant Catholic, should not be allowed to take communion.” Reporter Dan Harris said the Kerry campaign was not worried about “an implied threat from the city’s top church official” that Kerry might be denied communion. Harris highlighted that Kerry “is a former altar boy who says he once considered becoming a priest. But his support of abortion rights has Vatican officials, U.S. bishops, and conservative Catholics concerned.” While they would identify’s Kerry’s critics as “conservative,” none of the network stories on this controversy used the label “liberal” for Kerry or his supporters.

Harris quoted Kerry stressing his own secular media-pleasing principle to never bring his religious beliefs to work: “I fully intend to practice my religion as separately from what I do with respect to my public life. And that’s the way it ought to be in America.” The ABC reporter then shifted the “implied threat” from Kerry back on to church officials: “Even as the Boston archdiocese is still reeling from the priest sex scandals, the archbishop might not want to invite any more controversy.”

textbox0328_4On CBS, reporter Jim Axelrod ended his April 9 Evening News story with what could have been labeled commentary: “Clearly, a quarter-century of conservative appointments by Pope John Paul II is having its effect on American politics. But church leaders need to be careful, and not just to avoid a backlash by those who think Kerry is being bullied. There’s a much bigger risk than that.” Then Joe Feuerherd of the liberal National Catholic Reporter newspaper suggested the Church ought to take dictation from the state: “After all, Senator Kerry might one day be President Kerry, and it’s a difficult circumstance to have distanced yourself from the head of a major superpower when you have world interests like the Catholic Church does.”

On April 12, the morning after Easter, NBC reporter Carl Quintanilla reported the church “targets” politicians who “according to priests” don’t vote their way. Kerry “defended his faith....dismissing some conservative Catholic bishops.” Quintanilla concluded that “polls show Catholics don’t believe the church should tell them or politicians how to vote, one reason Kerry believes he can ignore the protests without losing the voters.”

Today continued the discussion by interviewing not a church official or religious scholar, but liberal historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who dismissed the controversy: “It seems like it’s still a small group of conservative Catholics who are claiming...he’s not able to take communion. It’s not really what the general feeling of the Church is, as I understand it.” But the networks often confused the “general feeling” of Catholics, churchgoing and non-churchgoing, with official teachings. That night, NBC reporter Kelly O’Donnell summarized it right: “Kerry is Roman Catholic, but some of his positions are not.”

On the April 23 CBS Evening News, Bill Plante described Kerry as a “practicing Roman Catholic,” and quoted Deal Hudson for rebuttal, labeled as a spokesman for “conservative Catholics.” The networks often underlined their religious illiteracy or willingness to accept Democratic spin when they called Kerry an “observant Catholic,” a “practicing Catholic,” and even a “devout Catholic.” 

The definition of “practicing” begins with the duty of Catholics to attend Mass on all Sundays and holy days of obligation. Is that what Bill Plante meant in his report? More importantly, it should seem obvious that John Kerry cannot be both in very public disagreement with church teachings on a core issue like legalized abortion and yet be presented with adjectives like “observant” or “devout.” You could argue that in his campaign speech to NARAL Pro-Choice America in January 2003, Kerry was condemning the Catholic Church when he proclaimed, “We need to take on this President and the forces of intolerance on the other side.”

Clamoring Against Colorado

The networks upped the ante on Catholic officials when The Denver Post reported that Michael Sheridan, the Bishop of Colorado Springs, wrote a pastoral letter that stated that not merely pro-abortion Catholic politicians, but Catholics who vote for them, are outside of full communion with church teaching and should not receive communion.

Here’s the essential paragraph: “Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem cell research or for any form of euthanasia ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the Church and so jeopardize their salvation. Any Catholics who vote for candidates who stand for abortion, illicit stem cell research or euthanasia suffer the same fateful consequences. It is for this reason that these Catholics, whether candidates for office or those who would vote for them, may not receive Holy Communion until they have recanted their positions and been reconciled with God and the Church in the Sacrament of Penance.” That is the teaching of the Catholic Church — not the “conservatives” or the “liberals” in the Church, but the Church.

In a June 2 newspaper column, Bishop Sheridan protested the media treatment: “The most serious misrepresentation of my letter was the conclusion drawn by many that I or other ministers of Holy Communion would refuse the sacrament to people who voted in a particular way. Nowhere in the letter do I say this or even suggest it....How, in fact, could I deny anyone Holy Communion since I would not know the condition of the communicant’s soul?” If the bishop had written abortion advocates “should not” receive communion instead of “may not,” it may have been seen as less of a command. But the networks were in a fighting mood.

On ABC’s World News Tonight on May 16, reporter Brian Rooney put all the pressure on the Church, not Kerry. Typically, Rooney began with the liberal assumption: “The bishop says he’s not violating the separation of church and state, merely instructing Catholic parishioners that when they vote, they should vote according to Catholic teachings.” Rooney then used liberal Georgetown theologian Chester Gillis to claim President Bush was also an unsuitable voting choice for Catholics, who would have to vote for someone closer to perfection, like Mother Teresa. Rooney ended by pressing Bishop Sheridan on who he was going to vote for, as if it was improper for him to have a public opinion. (The bishop declined to endorse Bush.)

CBS liked the angle of church “punishment.” On the May 14 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather said “some Roman Catholic voters may soon face a hard choice between a matter of faith and the orders of their church superiors and casting a ballot in line with their own political beliefs. CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod reports on the politics of punishment for voting against church doctrine on abortion and other issues.”

On the May 30 CBS Evening News, substitute anchor John Roberts announced “A new CBS News poll tonight finds that Democrat John Kerry enjoys overwhelming support among Catholic voters, which makes it particularly ironic that Kerry has recently run afoul of church doctrine because of his support for abortion rights. And Kerry is not the only one. Sharyn Alfonsi tonight on parish politics and punishment.” 

textbox0328_5Alfonsi touted more CBS poll results: “And 78 percent of Catholics polled by CBS agree. They said they don’t think it’s appropriate for bishops to refuse communion to elected officials who differ with official positions of the church, people like presidential candidate John Kerry.” Alfonsi brought on Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the liberal Catholic magazine America, to state there could be a pro-Kerry backlash among Catholic voters. CBS even concluded by leaving the distinct impression that the bishops were graver sinners than abortion-enabling John Kerry.

When NBC Nightly News picked the story up on June 17, the tone was still putting church officials on the defensive, as Tom Brokaw promoted the report: “God and politics: where’s the line that separates church and state in this election year?”

Reporter Roger O’Neil began with liberal Catholics: “With their Bibles, signs, and voices, some of the faithful are hoping to persuade Catholic bishops, their leaders, to reject the latest explosive issue facing the Church: playing politics with God.”

The burden of scandal rested on church leaders, with O’Neil using bomb terminology: “The Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, lit the fuse in January, saying he’d refuse communion to Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic, because he’s pro-choice, defying church law. Then last month, Michael Sheridan, Archbishop [sic] of Colorado Springs, shortened the burning fuse, writing ‘even rank-and-file Catholics who vote for sinners should stay away from the communion rail.’” 

This was the worst case of utter network misquotation. NBC was not quoting from Bishop Sheridan, who didn’t use terms like “rank-and-file Catholics” or “vote for sinners” (as if President Bush was without sin!) in either his pastoral letter or the June 2 newspaper column. The Denver Post routinely used the phrase “rank-and-file Catholics,” but not the bishop.

O’Neil quoted Catholic author George Weigel with a rebuke of Kerry, but the reporter concluded: “But for Catholics who sit in the pews, like Denver’s Amy Sheber-Howard, communion shouldn’t be a divisive weapon...which if denied, could divide rather than unite.” Here again, O’Neil misled the audience: Sheber-Howard does not just “sit in the pews.” She’s a vice president of the left-wing Catholic splinter lobbying group Call To Action, which lobbies for an end to priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, and ultimately, an overthrow of the teaching authority of the Pope, giving way to a church run by majority vote. To portray this lobbyist against “authoritarian and hypocritical” Catholic tradition as opposed to “division” is to provide a clear example of misleading liberal bias. 

For all of their First Amendment alarm, none of the networks contemplated their own secular interpretation as threatening church-state separation in reverse: that candidates for federal office or their supporters would tell the Church what their teachings should be about reception of the sacraments. After all, if John Kerry didn’t want to accept Catholic teaching, he is free to join a Protestant church instead. No one took offense at the idea that Catholicism would be defined not by bishops or pontiffs or the Scriptures, but by focus groups assembled by political organizations like the Democratic National Committee or CBS News.