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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Oh, George!

After reading the recent story by the Belleville News-Democrat on Bishop Braxton's requirement that (horrors!) Catholics actually kneel at the consecration, I thought it worthwhile to offer the journalist who wrote the piece a bit of a critique. Here is the exchange:
Mr. Pawlaczyk,

Why did you go to Frank Flinn at Washington University for an opinion on the Catholic practice of kneeling during the Eucharist?

Is Flinn Catholic?
It doesn't look like he is, so what would he know about this issue?

According to the Wash. U. biography at:
Flinn is an adjunct who specializes in church-state relations.
That is, he doesn't necessarily know ANYTHING about liturgy.

Indeed, asking him for an opinion on liturgy is similar to asking a podiatrist about how best to treat a brain tumor, or asking an environmental lawyer to comment on a criminal homicide case.

It verges on malpractice for him to even voice an opinion.
Going to a man like Flinn does not help BND's reputation.

I have a graduate degree in Catholic theology.
I teach religion at the Art Institute of Dallas, Texas.
I have lectured world-wide on various aspects of Catholic theology and liturgy.
I grew up in Belleville Diocese.
I used to deliver the BND, as did every child in our 8-child family.

Say "hey" to Jay Tebbe for me - my brother and I were part of his sales "boy crew" when we took advantage of the demise of the St. Louis paper, lo!, these many years past back when he was in Circulation Department in the late 70's/early 80's.
I attended Althoff high school with his sister.
I'm pretty sure he would remember me.

As a Catholic theologian, I can state without equivocation that :
a) the bishop is perfectly correct to insist on this physical movement in Mass, as it is central to Catholic worship,
b) the priests who oppose the bishop on this matter are not in union with the Catholic Church on this issue,
c) the pastors who have failed to instruct and lead their parishioners on this are not in conformance with the Catholic teaching (orthodoxy) or Catholic worship (orthopraxy).

If you ever need opinion on a point of Catholic theology, I would be happy to provide it. My contact information is below.
The phone number is toll-free.
His answer was rather impressive if tendentious:
Dear Reader,
I am not interested in a person's private religious beliefs. Whether for a newspaper story or anything else.
Flinn has written widely on religion. That's why I went to him and to Father Driscoll at Notre Dame.
I am always looking for an objective point of view, but not necessarily that of a devout Catholic. If Catholicism means that you cannot raise questions that might, and I emphasize might, suggest that the church hierarchy could be wrong, then there is no point in seeking the opinion of a devout Catholic who will not tolerate such questions.
I guess the reason why there was a Reformation is that some Catholics did raise questions. Non Catholics know a lot about the Catholic faith, just as non-brain surgeons may write critically about brain surgery or those who are not Jewish may write authoritatively about Judaism. Or, to put it more bluntly, one not need be a witch to write about paganism.
Thanks for your interest.
George Pawlaczyk
Isn't that nice? Not only is he demonstrating a remarkable support for Protestant theology (rah-rah the Reformation), he also puts it "bluntly, one need not be a witch to write about paganism." I assume that he didn't feel the need to be a Catholic (witch) to write about Catholicism (paganism). I've never seen anyone directly compare Catholicism with witchcraft or paganism unless he were part of a fundamentalist ecclesial community, but here we have a "journalist" for a one of the two major metro newspapers in the St. Louis area making exactly that comparison.

As you may imagine, I felt he had missed the point.

Mr. Pawlaczyk,

When the story is about religion, a person's private religious beliefs
is likely to have bearing on their public statements, yes?

For instance, wouldn't Richard Dawkins' private religious beliefs affect
how he commented on this story?

Same for Christopher Hitchens, yes?

What makes you think Frank Flinn or Father Driscoll would be different?

Why wouldn't THEIR personal religious beliefs, or lack thereof, affect
how they commented on the story?
What makes Flinn's opinion "objective" - especially given that he has no
expertise in liturgy?

What test did Flinn pass for him to be rated "objective"?

Would you be willing to allow me to take the same test, to see if I can
pass as "objective" in your estimation?

Isn't it at least fair to give me a shot at it?

Sir, I was an atheist for over a decade.
What makes you think a devout Catholic would NOT "tolerate such questions?"
I not only tolerate such questions, I enjoy them immensely, and
encourage them from others.

The questions aren't the problem - it's the biased answers you're getting.

Look, I lecture on world religions at the university level.
I've gotten rave reviews from Wiccans, Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics -
you name it.
All of them have taken my classes, all of them agree that I treat their
faiths fairly.

But in order to treat a faith fairly, you have to acknowledge what it
actually TEACHES.
You can't just cherry-pick your quotes to get the predetermined answer
you want.

Every faith has people who claim to be part of it, yet those people
don't actually buy into what the documents of their own faith teach.

I've taught various aspects of theology and religion in general and
Catholic faith in particular since 1997.

I've met very few Catholics who understand the history and theology of
Catholic faith.

I've never met any non-Catholic who really understood what Catholicism
was about.

Indeed, it is exceedingly rare for anyone to even be able to define the
difference between theology and religion, much less the importance, or
lack thereof, of various liturgical beliefs and practices in the various
faith traditions.

I'm not impugning your reporting - you did the best you could.
I'm just pointing out that there are better sources.

For instance, you didn't provide any quotes from experts who supported
the bishop's position.
Certainly such people would not be THAT hard to find, eh?
Or is there NO recognized expert who supports the bishop in this instance?

I am pointing out that there is at least one - me.

I could find others for you if you like, full professors at various
Catholic universities (and not just adjunct professors at non-Catholic
universities). Even a phone call to the USCCB would undoubtedly find
SOMEONE there who supported the bishop.

If you want to report objectively, and I'm sure you do, isn't it fair at
least to include a quote or two from such voices?
But, alas, the idea was more than his little brain could handle...

Dear Reader,
You just cannot base a newspaper story center (sic) on religious beliefs. That would go nowhere and would be a kind of invasion of privacy. You will always believe, I gather, that whatever a bishop says or does in the name of religion is correct, because the Bible or church practice so decrees it. There would be no room for discussion.
That's why reporters like myself avoid discussions of faith. You believe what you believe. And I have my private beliefs.
As for the manner in which Bishop Braxton went about informing his priests to enforce the kneeling rule, that subject is best left to persons who can comment without basing their remarks totally in faith. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is.
If you need more on this, I suggest calling our executive editor Jeff Couch at 618-239-2551. You can feel free to quote any my comments to you when talking with Jeff. Thanks.
George Pawlaczyk
Isn't that quaint? He wants me to PHONE someone and quote him as I please. Phone... When was the last time you PHONED someone to discuss an e-mail conversation? I can't remember ever having done so. I've FORWARDED e-mails on to people. I've entered into and left e-mail discussions, bulletin board discussions, forum discussions, Facebook and Twitter discussions. But PHONED someone about any of these?

No, I don't believe I've done it.
And the man is so backward, he didn't even provide the necessary e-mail address.
He just gave me a PHONE NUMBER. :)


So, I replied to George.

Your story was ABOUT religious belief.
So if you can't base a story on religious belief, why did you write the story?

I'm not asking you to expose the personal religious beliefs of Flinn or Fr. Driscoll.
I'm asking why you were unable to find any experts who discussed the situation in the bishop's favor.
It's not that hard.

Again, I offer my own services as a Catholic professor who teaches world religions at the Art Institute of Dallas.
I have lectured both in the United States and in Europe on various aspects of Catholic theology and liturgy.
I have received rave reviews from Wiccans, Lutherans, Baptists, etc., on my presentation of various faith traditions.
I have written books about Catholic faith that have been critically acclaimed.
I have Belleville ties, having grown up in Belleville, delivered the News-Democrat as a teen, and I was educated largely in the metro area.
I worked with Jay Tebbe back when he was a truck driver, sold BND subscriptions with him in Cahokia, Granite City and the whole east metro area when the second-last St. Louis paper died back in the late-70's.

I offer you balance.

And, George, you gather incorrectly.

Catholics are not fundamentalists.
It is not at all unusual for bishops to be wrong.

Indeed, I have publicly told more than one priest and more than one bishop that he was wrong on various aspects of Catholic theology and praxis. In fact, I run a news website that regularly takes priests and bishops to task. It currently has a headline story about the Cincinnati archdiocese. The story simply documents that what the head of that diocese is saying about liturgy is directly contrary to what Rome says is necessary in regards to the liturgy.

I'm not asking for you to take sides,
I'm not asking for you to delve into anyone's private religious belief.
I'm asking you to give the reader enough information to make a comparison.
I'm pointing out that context is relevant, that the "experts" you chose were not necessarily qualified to comment.
I'm pointing to their public credentials to make that point.
By choosing who to quote, you gave a completely biased context to the Braxton story on kneeling in the Mass.

But George, you DID NOT avoid a discussion of faith with me.
Indeed, from your remarks to me, you obviously believe the Reformation was a good thing.
That means you carry a certain pro-Reformation bias which is necessarily an anti-bishop bias.
It clouds your reporting on matters of Catholic interest and it biased your story.

EVERYBODY has a bias, including you, including your experts, including me.
The point is, you gave a PARTICULAR bias to your story.
You did not attempt to balance it.
You went to at least one unqualified person (Frank Flinn) to get a money quote.

Furthermore, you say you want remarks that are not totally based in faith?
So, you're saying that Fr. Driscoll of Notre Dame is not basing his remarks in faith?
That's a remarkable aspersion to cast on a priest, wouldn't you say?

What have I said that makes you think I would base my remarks "totally in faith"?
As I indicated before, I'd be happy to take any test you want to give me for objectivity.
So far, you seem to have passed judgment on me without actually finding out where I am.

And, given that you are writing a story based PRECISELY on how total faith is supposed to be undertaken by a Catholic, I don't understand your response. How can you write a story about Catholic liturgy - when Catholics believe sacraments and liturgy (not preaching) to be the heart of their Faith - and insist on getting responses which are not "based totally in faith"?

When you go swimming, do you insist on not getting totally wet?
Do you refuse to interview Olympic swimmers because their remarks on the subject would be biased?

Finally, George, this is 2010.
That means we use e-mail, in order to make clear EXACTLY what was and wasn't communicated.
I haven't phoned anyone over this kind of conversation in over a decade.
I don't even own a telephone directory...
Asking me to phone your editor is ludicrous.
You are just perpetuating the stereotype of the "out of touch" journalist.

And, since he seemed no longer interested in the conversation, I forwarded the conversation to the editor, including his little bit about the Reformation and witchcraft, the bit George had conveniently cut out of the last e-mail...

Mr. Couch,

I'm copying you on this e-mail conversation.
George Pawlaczyk seems not to "get it" when it comes to the bias in the article he wrote.
I have offered my services as a university professor to be a resource for him, but he seems to think I'm a raving loon.

Please tell me if I'm crazy, or if George and I are talking past each other.
Please read from the bottom up.

And tell me, is it company policy to refer to someone you have a conversation with as "Dear Reader"?

It seems a bit off-putting, slightly condescending, and certainly silly, if you know the name of the person you are having a discussion with.



Kathy said...

Way to go Steve!

Matheus F. Ticiani said...

A great effort on your part indeed, Steve. Enjoy doing it while it's still linguistically possible to dialogue with a journalist (as for a few years from now...I'm not quite sure). :)

Anonymous said...

This seems to be a common failing of journalists, especially journalists who decide what the story ought to communicate and then cherry pick quotes to support it.

This is humorously similar to those who decide their doctrine and then cherry pick their scripture to support it.

Most journalists are woefully ill equipped to comment on religious (let alone theological matters). They consistently say things like "the bread represents the body of Christ" when referring to the Eucharist. I get tired of correcting them, but we have a stake in fighting disinformation, and I for one appreciate you taking your valuable time to do so.

Patrick said...

Don't worry, the BND has already felt the impact from this type of journalism. They just fired more than a quarter of their journalist staff and it looks like they may be out of business before the end of this year. Local newspapers can blame the Internet for their demise, but this is an obvious supporting example why it is due to their choice in how they wish to cover their local news and the idiots they employ to do so.

Paul said...

Well done! Thanks for taking the time to explain things so patiently to that all-too-typical journalist.

More of us should do this sort of thing, and try to do it as well as you did.

Randall said...

Dr. Flinn was formerly a Franciscan friar, and currently attends a Catholic church in Saint Louis.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Well, given his commentary, I can see why he left the Franciscan friars.