Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Joseph Bottum FAITH Magazine March-April 2010


Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York caused a stir when he accused the New York Times of anti-Catholicism. In an October 29 blog post originally submitted to the Times as an op-ed piece, Dolan cited four recent examples from the paper to show that the Times has been unfair in its treatment of the Catholic Church. The archbishop's post sparked a reply by Clark Hoyt, the Times' public editor. "I think it is hard to pick a handful of examples, as Dolan did, and make a case that the Times has been 'anti-Catholic,'" Hoyt wrote in his column on November 8. "Could the newspaper sometimes choose a better word in a story or pay more attention to transgressions in other parts of society? Yes. Has it been guilty of anti-Catholicism? I don't buy it."

Hoyt, however, might want to explain two church-state stories that the Times published within days of each other. On November 2, the Times reported that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn recorded a message praising Brooklyn Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who also doubles as the Brooklyn Democratic county chairman. Supporters of a city-council candidate who had Lopez's backing used the message in a "robo-call" that was telephoned to voters in the candidate's district. (Lopez was not up for election.) A spokesman for the Brooklyn diocese said that the bishop simply wanted to thank the assemblyman for his service to the diocese, and he insisted that the message did not endorse any candidates by name.

The Times story takes a predictable path: "By recording his message, a legal scholar cautioned, Bishop DiMarzio could be treading close to legal lines limiting political advocacy by non-profit organisations - whose tax-exempt status could be jeopardised."

A few days earlier, on October 29, the Times reported on African-American ministers - among them the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and the Rev. Floyd Flake, a former congressman who is pastor of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens - who publicly endorsed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for re-election. The story did not even raise the issue of whether the ministers were violating IRS guidelines.

One Times story clearly treats the political involvement of African-American Protestant clergy as perfectly normal and legitimate. Another story treats the political involvement of a Catholic bishop as something bizarre that may even be illegal. The tax guidelines for nonprofits (available on the IRS website) treat all churches the same. There isn't one standard for the Roman Catholic hierarchy and a different one for African-American Protestant clergy.

Maybe Mr. Hoyt should have a word with his reporters.


Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, has ruled that the government of Italy must remove crucifixes from public school classrooms throughout that country. According to the decision of the court, "The presence of the crucifix ... could easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign." This, the court said, could be "disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists." The ruling stated that the display of crucifixes restricted not only the right of parents to educate their children "in conformity with their convictions," but also "the right of children to believe or not to believe."

The Italian government and the Church responded at once. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini termed the ruling a "mortal blow to a Europe of values and rights." The Italian Bishops' Conference said that the crucifix is "not only a religious symbol but also a cultural sign" and noted that its display in public buildings is "part of the historic heritage of the Italian people." On November 6 Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that the crucifixes would stay in place as Italy appeals the ruling. "Nobody," said Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini, "much less a European court that is steeped in ideology, will be allowed to strip our identity away." If, however, the seventeen-member Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg court rejects the appeal, the court will order the stripping ofthe crucifixes from Italian classrooms.

As Minister Gelmini commented, "It is not by eliminating the traditions of individual countries that a united Europe is built." Did the individual countries of Europe envision such sweeping decisions when they joined the EU? And how much power, exactly, does the EU have to compel its member states to abandon long-held traditions? Italy - and the rest of Europe - may find out soon.

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