May 18, 2012

In the past six months, many readers have written to me to say that The Post is anti-Catholic. What led them to that conclusion?

It started with the annual March for Life anti-abortion rally in January, which readers said was inadequately covered. It accelerated with a front-page story in March about Barbara Johnson, a Catholic lesbian who was refused Communion at her mother’s funeral by the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo, a conservative priest in a Gaithersburg parish.

Later, readers were upset over The Post’s coverage of the federal government’s requiring employers such as Catholic University, Holy Cross Hospitaland Catholic Charities to provide insurance coverage that pays for contraception, morning-after pills and sterilization, even though the Catholic Church strongly opposes those practices.

The last straw for many Catholic readers was a full-page advertisementon May 8 from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a secular-atheist group, calling on “liberal and nominal” Catholics to leave the Church “en Mass” because Catholic bishops — “an avowedly antidemocratic Old Boys Club” — had launched “a ruthless political Inquisition” against the contraception mandate. Many Catholics saw it as hate speech, pure and simple.

As one reader put it, “If anyone paid money for an equally venomous and hateful tirade of lies against Islam, the Jewish faith, Buddhism or another religion, would you have published it as well? I sincerely doubt it.”

Let’s take the ad. The Post frequently runs advocacy ads from all sorts of political and religious groups. It has run ads from the Church of Scientology and from people supporting Warren Jeffs, the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist imprisoned in Texas. The Post sees this ad as consistent with its policy of taking all points of view except those that use hate speech or advocate violence.

Kris Coratti, a spokeswoman for The Post, said this: “The ad you’re referring to seeks to persuade Catholics to leave the church in response to specified actions or policies that the church has taken. We can certainly understand why some of our readers may have found it offensive, but the ad is not expressing hatred of Catholics or inciting violence against them. Because it was taking issue with institutional policies and actions, we decided it was acceptable under our standards.”

I thought that the ad was a little dicey in that nonbelievers were targeting a specific religion. But atheists have the right to their point of view, even if provocatively expressed.

The Post as an institution is certainly not anti-Catholic. I don’t think Michelle Boorstein, The Post’s religion reporter, is anti-Catholic, either — read, for example, her recent story about Catholic women who use natural family planning instead of the pill.

The Post’s wide-ranging On Faith blog has a multiplicity of Catholic voices, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Washington archbishop. The Georgetown/On Faith section of the blog has scholars from the university writing about religion in the news. Conservative Catholic theologian George Weigel is a contributor to On Faith, as are other Catholics, liberal and conservative. Post columnists E.J. Dionne Jr. and Melinda Henneberger, and yours truly, are Catholics.

Still, many Catholic readers, particularly conservative ones, and the Catholic hierarchy at the Archdiocese of Washington and at the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, whom I spoke with at length last week, say that The Post just doesn’t get Catholics.

They see most of The Post’s news as too political, too much about divisions within the church and the church’s position on divisive social issues, and not enough about the church in its many other roles.

Catholic Charities is the largest non-government social service agency in the area, for example, and it rarely gets covered, they say. Catholic schools have conducted a massive education program, nationally and locally, to train students, teachers and aides to recognize the signs of child abuse, in the wake of the priest sex scandals, but it is hard to get coverage of that effort. Liberal Catholic groups are quoted, but conservative or official voices not as much, they say.

They have a point. There are deep divisions within the church that Post reporting should accurately reflect. But sometimes The Post’s reporting and even editorials fall short in conveying the passion with which many Catholics hold their views, whether they be against the contraception mandate, gay marriage, and abortion or in favor of aid to the poor. It doesn’t mean that Post reporters or editorialists have to embrace those views, but they should accurately explain them in a ways all readers can understand. That, after all, is also part of getting at the truth.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For updates, read the omblog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/omblog.