Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs daily at Aleteia. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and ten children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.
Here's something new: For the first time, the new edition of the Associated Press stylebook includes a chapter on religion. The AP Stylebook is a reference guide for reporters, and lays out consistent rules for things like how to abbreviate the names of states, how to refer to congressmen and military people, and how to report sports scores.
I haven't seen the new religion chapter, but I have seen how the press generally reports on Catholicism -- and it seems like there are already some agreed-upon guidelines. For instance:
Catholics in the news. If an actor, a football player, a CEO, or any other reasonably decent, successful or attractive person is a practicing Catholic, that is never relevant, and any reference to receiving the sacraments or belief in God must be edited out for clarity and brevity. However, if the story is about a transvestite stripper, a comedian who draws heavily on the comedic value of abortion and masturbation, or a politician who was heavily involved in the push for the criminalization of the wearin’ of the green, it is accurate and relevant to refer to him or her as a devout Catholic, even if it’s only because he or she once tried on a plaid jumper.
Catholic women. Catholic women fall into two categories: pro-life ones, who are self-loathing and mentally deficient, and pro-choice ones, who are brave.
Nuns. Reporting on nuns can be confusing, because there are so many different orders. Follow this basic rule of thumb: if the nuns in question are teaching Catholic theology, and/or if you can’t see their hair or knees, they can easily be identified as the kind of nuns who smack people with rulers, teach children to be ashamed of their genitals, and torture pregnant girls in a laundromat or something. However, if the nuns in question are on a bus, then they are brave.
Economics. Remember that, when Pope Benedict spoke about the duty of every Christian to care for the poor and to work for economic justice, that was during the Great Ink Blight of Ought Five, when nobody’s pen would work, so there was no possible way of recording or publicizing what he said; but when Pope Francis sneezes and it sounds a little bit like he said “money,” Newsweek magazine goes back into business just to put him on the cover.
Priests. There must be at least one dedicated staff member on round-the-clock duty to maintain the public’s Pavlovian response to the word “priest.” If the word “priest” appears in a story in any context whatsoever, it is stylistically necessary to balance it out with the phrase “pedophile” within two inches of text. A corollary rule is that, if the story is about a homosexual who is not a priest, the words “pedophile” or “ephebophile” must be put in a three-month journalistic holding pen, so as to avoid confusion.
In general, when reporting on Catholic issues, recall that there no resources available for fact-checking. There is no online Catechism handily indexed according to topic; there is no such thing as a Catholic encyclopedia which gives you a short synopsis of Church history; there is no About.com page to explain Catholic customs and practices in clear, accessible language. Also, if Pope Francis does something or says something, you can assume that no pope has ever done or said it before. There is no need to research this. For instance, if Pope Francis says something about priestly celibacy being a discipline, not a dogma, you could Google “Benedict XVI priestly celibacy dogma,” and you might learn that they said more or less the same thing, and are both in favor of continuing this discipline. But why would you do that? You’re a reporter, for crying out loud. There's such a thing as a deadline, okay?
Overview. The Catholic Church is an enigma: while it is impossibly unwieldy, mysterious, and saddled with thousands of years of murky and impenetrable history, it can, at the same time, be fairly and concisely summed up in the typical comment box by readers who peaked intellectually right before third grade. Just remember: Galileo, Galileo, pedophile priest, Galileo.