Under the Glass places both the secular and religious media’s coverage of the Church and other issues of importance under a magnifying glass to uncover what is hidden between the lines.
May 18, 2009

Time and Notre Dame: Send Amy to Sunday school

Since summer vacation is beginning and soon interns will be coming to CNA, this is a good time to send out a warning: if any of the new kids ever tries to pull the kind of blatant anti-journalism that Ms. Amy Sullivan exemplifies in Time Magazine under the title "The Pope's Stand in Obama's Notre Dame Controversy," you will get a big fat "F." Count on that.

And the reason is not that Amy Sullivan is a self-described liberal evangelical with little knowledge of the Catholic Church or that she shares the same agenda of those outside and inside the Church who are trying to sell the idea that Catholic bishops who joined the protests against the presence of Obama at Notre Dame are at risk of becoming "irrelevant."

Of course, one wonders why Sullivan, America Magazine, the National Catholic Reporter or Thomas Reese are suddenly so concerned about the bishops becoming "irrelevant"… unless the contrary is happening and they are not liking it.

But the real problem with Sullivan’s article is the ridiculous, half-baked arguments made by the author that are no less than an insult to the reader and a further reason why Time Magazine should keep going down as it is now.

The piece is way too long to quote, but here’s a summary in a nutshell:

"While several prominent conservative Catholics in this country are apoplectic over the University of Notre Dame's invitation of the pro-choice Barack Obama to give the school's commencement address on May 17, the Vatican has stayed completely silent on the matter.

"The two very different reactions to the question of whether a Catholic institution should honor anyone who disagrees with the Church's teaching on abortion are just the latest examples of the strikingly divergent responses American Catholic leaders and the Vatican have had to the Obama Administration."

Being a non-Catholic and quite ignorant about the Catholic Church, it is not surprising that Sullivan does not realize that the U.S. is not the center of the Catholic Church, and if the Pope himself has not released a statement, say, about a former bishop who is now president of heavily-Catholic Paraguay and had more than one child while being a bishop, there is no reason why he should release a statement on Notre Dame.

But to jump from there to the conclusion that his silence actually means something, and that someone is opposing the Catholic bishops in the U.S. is simply unacceptable mental acrobatics.

"Three-quarters of Catholics either approve of or offer no opinion on Notre Dame's decision to invite Obama, and the same percentage of U.S.bishops have opted to stay out of the fight. However, for a small but vocal group of conservative Catholics, the episode has become an opportunity to draw lines between those who are genuinely Catholic and those whom they accuse of being Catholic in name only — even the head of the country's premier Catholic university."

Sullivan tries to lay the groundwork for her key point, one she will do nothing to support with facts: That the "small but vocal group of conservative Catholics," especially the bishops, are at odds not only with the majority of Catholics, but with the Pope.

In fact, according to Sullivan, the Vatican:

"has displayed a surprising optimism, bordering on enthusiasm, for Obama's presidency. Breaking with protocol that usually prevents the Pope from addressing heads of state before they take office, Benedict sent a congratulatory telegram to Obama the day after the November election."

Sullivan ignores that no protocol was broken by the Pope on Obama, and that if she thinks the oft quoted L’Osservatore Romano article on Obama’s 100 first days reflects how the Vatican feels about Obama, she should read what the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, another Vatican dicastery, had to say about him.

But the most surprising quote from Sullivan’s article is this:

"Obama is broadly popular among American Catholics, 67% of whom gave him a positive approval rating in a recent Pew poll. At a time when the U.S. Catholic Church is losing members — a separate Pew study found that for every American who joins the Catholic Church, four others leave — Benedict may not be willing to test the costs of opposing Obama."

What? Is Sullivan suggesting that the Pope is afraid of losing Catholics by confronting Obama? The same Pope who had no problem in rejecting condoms to fight AIDS in Africa, thus angering the whole secular world and part of the lukewarm Catholic one as well?

No wonder, Damian Thompson, the top religious blogger at "The Telegraph," describes Time’s piece as "a thoroughly biased article by Amy Sullivan which dismisses the unprecedented Catholic opposition to Obama's commencement address as the work of, wouldn't you just know it, ‘a small but vocal group of conservative Catholics.’"

According to Thompson, "‘Small but vocal group’ is the media's code for a protest that offends them. You rarely see small but vocal groups of liberals described thus."

"Amy Sullivan –Thompson continues- isn't above a bit of wedge-driving herself, by the way. She implies that the Vatican is laid back about Notre Dame's decision, unlike Cardinals George, DiNardo, Stafford and Archbishop Dolan. No, it isn't. The Pope, for perfectly good reasons, is leaving the protests to the local Church rather than turn Fr. John Jenkins' disastrous invitation into an international diplomatic incident."

Catholic blogger Amy Welborn, for her part, provides some good advice for budding journalists: "the Sullivan special is where you claim some special knowledge that is not shared in detail with readers. It may be conservatives secretly giving her, a liberal reporter, information off the record that miraculously supports her point. Or maybe it's just a personal interpretation of data. It's kind of hard to know how seriously to take these anonymous sources since they appear so frequently in Sullivan's pieces and always in favor of the point she's so obviously trying to make."

Welborn finally poses the right question: "how does the ‘reporter’ ‘reporting’ on the story for a ‘news magazine’ not manage to speak with a single, solitary person in favor of the campaign? Is Sullivan's advocacy so fragile that she can't actually discuss the topic with someone who doesn't share her views? Does she need help locating the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops? She should just follow this hard-to-find link for better sources on future stories."

Of course, there is the temptation to provide a fairly easy answer to Sullivan’s mishap… but that would definitively be a bad example for interns to come.

Alejandro Bermudez

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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