Religious illiteracy reigns on mainstream TV

Religious illiteracy reigns on mainstream TV Evelyn Cusack featured on RTÉ Radio 1.

One of the (many!) things that irritates me about mainstream media is the level of religious illiteracy among commentators.

A glaring example turned up in last Saturday’s Countrywide (RTÉ Radio 1), when Damien O’Reilly interviewed Evelyn Cusack of Met Éireann. Weather superstitions and the alleged influence of saints were discussed but then O’Reilly dropped this clanger: “I’d say there isn’t a scientist that’s a believer, you can’t be both”, and then “if you’re a scientist it’s very hard to be going to Mass on Sunday”! Later he upgraded the scientist believers to “very few”. Where would you even begin to dispel the ignorance? Maybe a long list of believer scientists, perhaps starting with William Reville, columnist in this paper and The Irish Times. 

One of the many believer scientists turned up in the sad and disturbing radio documentary Polar Opposites, on RTÉ Radio 1 last Saturday. Mike Frigge is a scientist who is also a Catholic, and he is involved in the anti-abortion movement in Iceland.

Along with his wife April, Fr Denis O’Leary (from Cork and parish priest in Reykjavik) and others campaign on the issue with the group ‘Defence of Life’ which among other things holds prayer vigils outside a hospital where abortions are performed. April Frigge had once been offered pre-natal screening but refused as she wasn’t going to have an abortion no matter what the result.


Fr O’Leary was moderate and soft spoken in his defence of unborn children and obviously saw prayer as one way to pursue the goal of ridding Iceland of abortion. These pro-life people were given plenty of time to speak and weren’t challenged and interrupted in every sentence.

The ‘polar opposites’ included a young girl Dagbjört who had two abortions in her teens and early 20’s. Though she wasn’t admitting to regret for these she was obviously upset by all that had happened. She had little support, her mother just dropped her off at the hospital for the first abortion and left for work. The boyfriend was away working and afterwards going out with friends.

She found the nurses to be judgemental, though this was more about being critical of her carelessness in getting pregnant.

She was upset also when the medical professional doing her pre-abortion scan was pointing out various body parts of the still living baby to a medical student. There was blood.

I’ve often been critical of the media in Ireland for continuing to discuss abortion without ever showing what it actually is. We got some insight in the documentary – a doctor described a procedure that “kills the foetus”, described how “we suck it out”, and told of how most of the bodies are burnt. Tellingly she said they generally  don’t show pre-abortion ultrasound images to women but reckoned  if they did it might change minds.

Kudos to producers Nicoline Greer and Liam O’Brien for a show that was low key, with both sides getting a good airing.  I’d have some reservations though – we didn’t get to hear from any woman who regretted her abortion, or from one who was going to have one and changed her mind. The only opposition we heard about was from a Catholic perspective, which fed into stereotyping of the pro-life position.

It’s well worth listening back to on the RTE Radio Player or the Documentary on One App.

You’d certainly want the public broadcaster to be impartial, but obviously, on EWTN, the US Catholic station, you know what the ethos is going to be, and that’s generally why you’d watch it.

Last Friday, on their show Pro-Life Weekly much of the emphasis was on the Charlie Gard case, which presenter Catherine Szeltner described as a ‘confusing medical situation’. She spoke to lawyer Catherine Glen Foster, President of Americans for Life, who had been over in London helping the baby’s parents.  She was bothered that the situation featured doctors fighting with parents. In the end, she said, it’s all about family.

In a related item they spoke to Bobby Schindler, brother of Terri Shiavo, the subject of a high profile end-of-life controversy in the US over ten years ago. Schindler now works in support of the medically vulnerable and his sister’s case along with this activism has brought him back to the Catholic Church.

As he tried (in vain) to save her, he reckons she was also working to save him.


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