Action Alert!

Quick hits: AP’s hidden assumptions, a canonical mismatch, Spinoza’s excommunication

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 25, 2017

Terry Mattingly, who writes perceptively on media coverage of religion, often notices that reporters are tone-deaf regarding matters of faith. Then, at other times, Mattingly notices how reporters slip their own prejudices into their coverage. So, for instances, he asks his readers to notice this sentence, culled out of an AP story on the children of Catholics priests:

The number of children known to be fathered by Catholic priests isn’t known, but there are about 450,000 Catholic priests in the world and the Catholic Church forbids artificial contraception and abortion.

Wow! First there’s the revelation that the reporter has no idea how many people fit into the category he has described. But then, Mattingly observes, the AP story also seems to imply that if you don’t have recourse to contraception and abortion you will have children, ignoring the option of faithful celibacy. Or is the reporter suggesting that contraception and/or abortion would solve the problem he has described, if only the hidebound Church would relax? If the story is not implying one or the other (or both) of those two messages, it’s hard to see how the second half of the sentence is logically related to the first.


In Little-League baseball there’s the “slaughter rule.” In boxing, the referee can stop the fight when he sees that one man is defenseless. There should be some similar policy to spare Commonweal magazine from further embarrassment after canon lawyer Ed Peters demolishes a spurious argument by Matthew Boudway. In defense of Amoris Laetitia, Boudway tries to make the argument that the Code of Canon Law already allows for second marriages in some exceptional cases. This gives Peters the opportunity to remark—and then to demonstrate—that it’s imprudent to argue canon law with a canon lawyer.


And speaking of arguments that make the debater look bad, Sandro Magister of L’Espresso calls to my attention a tidbit that, I confess, I had missed. During an interview with Pope Francis this summer, the Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari argued “passionately” that the Holy Father should lift the excommunication of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. According to Scalfari’s account, the Pontiff did not respond to that plea. Which might seem odd at first glance, since the Pope has usually been receptive to Scalfari’s ideas—at least by the journalist’s accounts, which should always be treated with some skepticism. But in this case the Pope might have been doing his friend a favor by dropping the subject. A Bishop of Rome does not have the authority to undo the excommunication of Spinoza by an Amsterdam synagogue.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: shrink - Oct. 26, 2017 11:43 AM ET USA

    The AP story sounds like an argument for a married priesthood. Pope Francis take note. It's worked marvels for the Anglican Church. As for lifting excommunications of Jewish intellectuals, heck, if the Pope can abrogate the 6th commandment, lifting an 400 year old Rabbinic excommunication is small potatoes.