Story by Cass Luke
Photos by Violetta Kryak
Throughout his life, Vancouver Sun religion reporter Douglas Todd has faced hardships, which led him to a life dedicated to the exploration of faith through journalism. Though his beliefs have helped him find meaning, it has not stopped him from reporting critically.
Todd grew up an atheist, but once he met people with other beliefs and visited Salisbury Cathedral in England, he realized religion may not be as “kooky” as he’d been led to believe. Todd largely credits his interest in religious life to a desire to understand pain and misfortune.
“I’ve always been a bit of a meaning-junky,” he says. “My dad was schizophrenic and he had a terrible life, so I think I was trying to make sense of suffering.”
The first time Todd met his father was on a Sunday afternoon, at the age of four, when he visited him in the Crease Clinic at Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam. These visits soon became a weekend routine. Back in the 1950s, being mentally ill was seen as criminal, so rather than getting psychological treatment, Todd’s father spent much of his life behind bars.
His father passed away in 1999, but Todd’s need to understand the reason behind his father’s battle endured.
“I still am involved in the search for meaning, and I find some religious leaders can still surprise me with new ways of seeing the world and seeing reality,” says Todd. “I really appreciate that.”
Today, Todd is an award-winning reporter who uses his curiosity to explore belief systems for the benefit of the public. While Todd searches for meaning through his writing, not all journalists reporting on religion have had such a positive—or even benign—impact on religion.
Father David Poirier is a Franciscan priest currently teaching at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Richmond—the last Franciscan Friar of Atonement in B.C. Poirier believes negative media coverage—especially of scandals within the priesthood—has played a role in the decline of young people pursuing religious professions.
“There’s been some scandals and those have certainly had an impact on the number of people entering,” Poirier says. “I don’t think it’s had any impact on the attrition, but certainly on the number of people coming forward to join religious life and priesthood has gone down.”
Todd, who has reported on a number of these scandals, believes that they are only partially to blame for the public’s negative perception of the Catholic priesthood.
“The priesthood, especially the celibate priesthood, is under increasing suspicion by the public for a lot of reasons, and the relatively rare cases of sex abuse by priests certainly didn’t help,” says Todd. But he also lays the blame on a “culture in general that has become more secular and more suspicious.”
Wherever the blame lies for the decreasing numbers in organized religion’s ranks, the trend line is hard to deny. Poirier’s Franciscan Friars of Atonement, for instance, started with over 200 priests worldwide in 1898. Today, there are 65 left—and that number is still in decline.
“For some reason, Catholics are expected to be perfect, and as soon as one isn’t perfect then it’s blown all out of proportion. That certainly has had a big impact on the number of people entering the priesthood,” Poirier says. “Priests are the only people in the United States who are not innocent until proven guilty—they’re guilty even when they prove themselves innocent. That’s the way it works in people’s minds, and that’s the way media seems to feed it.”
While Todd believes the news media play a part in the existential debates over religion and its role in North American society, he points to other places in the world where religion is treated more gently by the media—and where “the church” still has significant sway and influence.
“The Catholic Church is way more popular in places like the Philippines, where the media is not very critical,” says Todd. “If there was a completely uncritical media in North America, it’s conceivable that more people would be going to church. But is that what we want? An uncritical media? I don’t.”
Todd argues that religious leaders who only want positive coverage—who get defensive about tough questions facing their organizations—are doing a disservice not only to their followers but to society as a whole. “Do we not criticize Catholicism? Do we not criticize Judaism? Do we not criticize Sikhs when they’re being aggressive? Do we not criticize atheists when they’re being aggressive?” asks Todd.
As for Father David Poirier, because no new friars are completing their training with the Franciscan Friars of Atonement, he has been told that a different social ministry will soon replace him; by the summer of 2018, he was expected to transition out of the community and, indeed, the province. Poirier still does not know where he will live or who will replace him.