My older son has a gift subscription to Time magazine. I was flipping through the current issue at lunch, and saw a full-page essay about Pope Francis’s recent remarks about gays in his press conference. The author? Gene Robinson, the retired Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, who made news years ago as the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church.

It wasn’t just an editorial decision. In the essay, Bp Robinson says:

Pope Francis’ comments may be a baby step toward inclusion–but it is a step that should be greeted with optimism and hope that the church may one day welcome all of God’s children. If God is love, as Scripture attests, then surely God is gay love too.

Love that “surely.” And I love, in a hathotic way, that Bp Robinson takes it upon himself to describe the Pope’s actions in such demeaning terms. “Baby steps” indeed, as if the supreme pontiff, in his spiritual immaturity, requires tutoring in how to walk from Gene Robinson and his friends at Time. 

I don’t really fault Bp Robinson for his point of view here. After all, he has made it central to his life and to his ministry. It’s not so much his point of view that chafes — after all, Robinson is a liberal Protestant — but his choice of words reflecting a condescending attitude towards the Bishop of Rome, whose status is rather more elevated than a retired Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. Still, if Time calls and asks for your opinion, you give it. I don’t fault Bp Robinson for that at all.

But I do fault Time for poor news judgment in making the call in the first place. Is phoning a gay-activist Protestant bishop for his opinion really the best a national newsmagazine can do? It’s a disservice to the magazine’s readers, who deserve better than Bp Robinson’s boilerplate. Granted, Time wouldn’t dare reach out to a conservative Catholic for analysis (though calling one who would offer the right-wing version of Gene Robinson’s shtick would be scarcely more helpful to readers). But they could have called a thoughtful liberal Catholic writer like Peter Steinfels or Michael Sean Winters to offer his thoughts about Francis’s newsmaking comments. Commissioning an essay from Gene Robinson on this topic is the journalistic equivalent of phoning it in.

Besides, it requires a special kind of inside-the-bubble-ism for Time editors to think that Bishop Robinson has anything to teach the Roman pontiff about how to run his church with regard to homosexuals within it. Take a look at these numbers. In the United States, there are about 700,000 Episcopalians in church on Sunday morning. There are about 22 million Catholics at mass. That’s no reason for US Catholics to gloat. The US Catholic Church has suffered a steep decline in non-Hispanic massgoers; without the immigration-fueled Hispanic influx, it would be declining at pretty much the same rate as the Episcopalians. Still, it is vastly bigger than the liberal Episcopal Church, and overall, it is holding its own.

Not so the Episcopal Church. According to TEC’s own figures, the Diocese of New Hampshire lost about 10 percent of its attendance in its years under Bp Robinson’s leadership, and 19 percent from 2000 to 2010. The national Episcopal Church lost 23 percent of its Sunday churchgoers in that same decade — a stunning collapse. Not a single Episcopal diocese in that decade reported growth. Not one.

As Ross Douthat wrote last year:

Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)

Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.

Again, if Bishop Robinson believes that truth and justice require liberal reform on homosexuality, then he must, in good conscience, say so. I don’t blame him. What I do blame is the editorial leadership at Time magazine, for seeking out the opinion of a leader in a failing church staggering toward demographic extinction, asking him to tell the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world how to do his job like a grown-up. Time is not helping its readers understand basic realities and trends in religious life, but rather misleading them with groundless ideological optimism. Asking Bishop Robinson to comment on the Pope’s failure to be pro-gay enough is like asking Dick Cheney to write a piece advising President Obama how to build a thriving democracy in Iraq.

This is a failure of journalism. If Time is so willing to allow ideological wishful thinking to shape its religion coverage and commentary, how much can its other coverage be trusted as a reliable guide to the way the world is? I’m glad this was a gift subscription; we are getting what we paid for.

Over to you, Get Religionistas…

UPDATE: More elite media laziness and cluelessness on this front comes from Sally Quinn of the Washington Post, in her profile of the dean of the National Cathedral, which is Episcopal. Look at this:

He tells of sitting next to the renowned atheist Richard Dawkins at a dinner and discussing God. Hall told Dawkins, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either.”

“That kind of atheism, though, is bankrupt. It’s like picking a fight with a cultural image no theologian would buy into. I don’t want to be loosey-goosey about it,” he says, “but I describe myself as a non-theistic Christian.”

And he goes on to expand on the concept.

“Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” he says. “He talks about his Father.”

Hall explains: “Where I am now, how do I understand Jesus as a son of God that’s not magical? I’m trying to figure out Jesus as a son of God and a fully human being, if he has both fully human and a fully divine set of chromosomes. . . . He’s not some kind of superman coming down. God is present in all human beings. Jesus was an extraordinary human being. Jesus didn’t try to convert. He just had people at his table.”

At this point, Hall leans back in his chair, a rueful smile on his face.

“This is like therapy,” he says. “I should lie down on the couch.”

Gary Hall has been dean of the National Cathedral for less than a year. He has taken on a huge job: The church is in need of money, and Episcopal congregations across the country are shrinking.

“We’re in a period where people under 50 don’t see the church as a credible place to explore their questions about God.” Instead, they see the church as obsessed with “survival and squabbles.” Interestingly enough, he says that young people these days seem to be drawn to monasteries for spiritual retreats.

Hall, of course, prides himself on his theological progressivism, especially on gay issues. OK, fine. But he tells Quinn that the National Cathedral, if it wants to survive, has to be “the spiritual hope of the nation.” And he says that if the Episcopal Church wants to survive, it has to liberalize, as he has done.

He gets no apparent challenge from Quinn, though there is an avalanche of data to belie these feelgood assertions by the rector. Come on, Washington Post, practice some damn journalism! I don’t expect a liberal Episcopalian to agree with me, for heaven’s sake, but I expect the leading newspaper in the nation’s capital to expect him to defend his easily falsifiable assertions. Then again, he’s only saying what Sally Quinn already believes, and probably most of the WaPo editorial staff too.