Do your homework.
At the beginning of the week when the world was thunderstruck with the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI had submitted his ‘Declaratio‘ announcing his resignation, and therby vacating the Seat of Peter on February 28, 2013, there was so much breath-catching and jaw dropping and scrambling to get something out in the press…that I decided to focus on the good, right and true and leave the bad reporting alone. Some of my friends and colleagues in the Catholic media world were blogging and tweeting about the outburst of nastiness and venom aimed at the Pontiff and the Catholic Church in general, but I was all the more resolute not to pay attention to that because…sigh…there’s only so much time and space to devote to coverage and I wanted mine well spent.
That lasted a day.
By Tuesday, I couldn’t let nonsense pass without remark or challenge. Or, with fraternal charity, the exhortation to try harder to do better the task we journalists have to seek and report the truth. And seeking is easier these days with global digital access to archives and every thought and utterance expressed in some detectable form. So it’s just lazy journalism and tendentious reporting to let things like…say…the Tuesday, February 12 front page top of the fold headline news get reported as the New York Times did that day.
In the paper edition, the Times headline ‘Pope Resigns, With Church At Crossroads’ had a sub-head ‘Scandals and a Shift Away From Europe Pose Challenges’ sets you, the reader, up for plenty of loaded reporting. Take the lede:
Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement on Monday that he will resign on Feb. 28 sets the stage for a succession battle that is likely to determine the future course of a church troubled by scandal and declining faith in its traditional strongholds around the world.
No, it’s not a “succession battle,” and to put it in such terms is shaping the news purposely. It is a process by which the college of cardinals goes into seclusion, and whether or not this is comprehensible in today’s world, devote themselves to prayer that the Holy Spirit guides their process of discernment. There are politics involved in anything human, but it’s not a “battle.”
So the third paragraph opens with this sentence:
Saying he had examined his conscience “before God,” Benedict said he felt that he was not up to the challenge of guiding the world’s one billion Catholics.
Why the set-apart citation “before God”? To distance the reporting from actually acknowledging through an otherwise paraphrased summary that Benedict prayed about this before God? And, as he stated it in his Declaratio, “repeatedly.”
After listing the sins and struggles of the Church in the modern world, right up front, the piece says the pope’s resignation “sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mold, who advocated a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who feel the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like…loosening restrictions on condom use to prevent AIDS,” as if Church teaching were a matter of papal opinion than Church ethics and moral handed down from age to age.
It’s no surprise the Times sees these matters in political terms because everything is political these days. But this reaches:
Many Vatican watchers suspect the cardinals will choose…someome who can extend the church’s reach to new constituencies.
New constituencies? This is not politics.
Someone who will be “the church’s missionary in chief, a showman and salesman for the Catholic faith…”
The ‘missionary in chief’ is the only part of that statement that resembles a respectable description of the role the Catholic Church needs to fill when Benedict vacates the Chair of Peter.
Next to that piece, center of the front page under the large photo of Pope Benedict, was this ‘news analysis’ piece by Laurie Goodstien. For some reason, these news outlets change their headlines from print version to online, but it was titled ‘For Benedict, Clear Teachings and Many Crises.” She focuses on crises, starting with this for some inexplicable reason:
He inadvertently insulted Muslims on an early trip to Germany, which resulted in riots across the Islamic world…
That is a misrepresentation of the facts, a short and snappy summary of a deeper and intellectually challenging episode in Benedict’s pontificate. He did not ‘inadvertently insult Muslims.’ His deeply theological and scholarly address at Regensburg was treated by the media as most things are, when they plucked one line out of a longer engagement of ideas.
The scholar-pope himself stands as much an exponent of the German intellectual tradition as a critic. In the final analysis, it was not Christianity or the Church really that was harmed by the edgy, skeptical, and even – at times – hostile German guild. Rather, it was reason itself that suffered when scholarship excluded from its purview the investigation of the highest order truth claims about God.
Benedict did not echo the well-worn traditionalist critique by arguing that Christian scholarship had failed because the scholars slew too many sacred cows or had the wrong attitude when slaying them. On the contrary, the scholars stopped asking questions at all concerning the rationality of faith – relegating it to the realm of subjective opinion. This was paradoxically subversive of the central conceit of the Enlightenment itself, to say nothing of faith, which is intrinsically joined to reason.
But what has all this to do with Islam? His point was this: Though Christian scholars might have taken a long sabbatical from fundamental questions of truth, Christianity has always opened its sources and truth claims to friendly criticism from within and even to hostile criticism from without. Unfriendly external criticism is one of Providence’s main tools to help the Church forge more precise understandings of revealed things. But there is no tradition of either kind of criticism in Islam, and indeed no basic recognition among Muslims that Islam and its sacred text are suitable objects for such rational analysis. Such recognition is the sine qua non of real dialogue with Islam.
Top Vatican watcher and journalist Sandro Magister was one of the few who pointed out the fruit of the Regensburg experience, the scholars who did engage.
One month after his lecture at the University of Regensburg, Benedict XVI received an “open letter” signed by 38 Muslim personalities from various countries and of different outlooks, which discusses point by point the views on Islam expressed by the pope in that lecture.
The authors of the letter welcome and appreciate without reservation the clarifications made by Benedict XVI after the wave of protests that issued from the Muslim world a few days after the lecture in Regensburg, and in particular the speech that the pope addressed to ambassadors from Muslim countries on September 25, and also the reference made by cardinal secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone, in a note issued on September 16, to the conciliar document “Nostra Aetate.”…
The authors of the letter appreciate Benedict XVI’s desire for dialogue and take very seriously his theses. “Applaud” pope’s “efforts to oppose the dominance of positivism and materialism in human life,” while contest him on other points, adding their reasons for their opposition.
In this sense, the letter signed by the 38…goes towards what the pope meant to accomplish with his audacious lecture in Regensburg: to encourage, within the Muslim world as well, public reflection that would separate faith from violence and link it to reason instead. Because, in the pope’s view, it is precisely the “reasonableness” of the faith that is the natural terrain of encounter between Christianity and the various other religions and cultures.
And on it goes, well worth reading. It’s worth bringing up again with more time and reflection, but seeing that snip on the front page of the New York Times irresponsibly thrown in there without context or apparent background knowledge required some attention.
On that same day, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed Opinion piece by Andrew Nagorski opens with a rather stunning statement from the former rome bureau chief for Newsweek:
Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy has not been known for stellar moments, yet he is ending it with a stellar action.
This would be a startling opening statement from anyone penning an analysis on Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy who garnered space on the WSJ op-ed page. But a former Rome bureau chief for Newsweek? I read that opening sentence to a highly-respected American priest theologian whose opinion is often sought in media, and his response was respectful amazement. ‘Whoever wrote that obviously didn’t know or pay attention to Pope Benedict,’ he said.
Not known for stellar moments?
How about releasing his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est? Or Spe Salvi? Any thoughts about the exquisite trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, finishing with the ‘Infant Narratives,’ a treasure in three volumes?
Anybody in the media remember Benedict’s Apostolic Journey to America in April 2008 and his addresses at every venue here? The address to the United Nations General Assembly alone is an elegant reminder of what that body’s original purpose was in drafting and serving the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The visit and prayer at Ground Zero. And what really threw the press was his unannounced and private meeting – which Benedict called – with victims of clergy abuse. The meeting out of which victims tearfully spoke of the healing they felt after meeting with the profoundly apologetic and pastoral pontiff.
His Apostolic visit to Britain, an open hostile landscape if press coverage covered it all in advance, yet one that wound up as a highly successful and joyful occasion. His Apostolic journey to Australia, World Youth Days, the tremendous outpouring of zeal and outburts of joy at seeing and hearing him and the love fest that greeted him.
Remember any of that, anyone assigned to cover him while those stellar moments were taking place in real time?
Enough. For now. I’m not even going to get into CNN and HuffPo and all the other outlets who have been hammering His Holiness. They don’t deserve the attention.
But he does. And in the coming weeks, I’ll be among those who work to bring it, as fully and truthfully as possible. I know those media outlets are struggling with diminished resources and manpower. But they’re also struggling with diminished journalistic values and powers of reason. I’m just one person. But I’m on it.