Separating Vatican fact from myth

johnallenJohn Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter since 2000, delivered a speech earlier this month that humorously took apart five myths about the institution he covers. Candy Czernicki reported on Allen’s speech for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Catholic Herald. Here are the five myths, with quotes from Czernicki’s report.

Single-mindedness

“The Congregation of Divine Worship is much more conservative, sober, Romanesque,” Allen said. “The Office of Liturgical Celebration doesn’t buy that at all. Their liturgies are more modern, dynamic, expressive.” He joked that the liturgical office staff “try to set a record for how many liturgical rules they can break in one papal Mass. These things usually have dance numbers that rival ‘Cats.’”

Absolute control

“(People see the pope as) an ecclesiastical lion,” Allen said. “They think the pope is standing behind a computer terminal in the apostolic palace, calling all the shots for the Roman Catholic Church. But there is no person or group who has absolute control inside the Vatican.”

Secrecy

Allen said that while “the Vatican does have secrets, like every place else, (and) it is more insulated than a secular democracy … it’s no better at keeping secrets than anyone else. The problem at the Vatican is not secrecy, but that it’s unique, a culture outside the experience of most observers. The Holy See is a cultural preserve. What looks like secrecy is really singularity.”

Wealth

“(Harvard) could run five Vaticans every year and still have pocket change left over for an endowed chair,” Allen said, equating the Vatican’s patrimony — all the assets it could sell — to that of a medium-sized Catholic university. Its total patrimony is $770 million. The University of Notre Dame’s endowment is four and a half times greater, he said.

Careerism

According to Allen, a senior white-collar worker in the Vatican, equivalent to a senior vice president of an American corporation, makes $18,000 to $20,000 a year. He also noted that “Vatican documents are never signed. You’re supposed to hear the institution speaking, not the person.”

Allen said the five myths appear in “lazy popular journalism,” and he spelled out how they can affect coverage of something as important as the church’s response to sexual abuse by priests:

“Most journalists’ stories are derived from these myths,” Allen said. When the Vatican rejected the first draft of the child protection norms, journalists portrayed the Vatican as trying to squelch autonomy.

“The Vatican got it right, but this was not the dominant public perception,” Allen said. “(Journalists) created the impression of chaos — they were more concerned with authority than anything else. The press got the story wrong (because) they are collectively in the grip of this mythology.” He suggested that “while I am under no illusion that these myths are going to pass anytime soon — they’re too embedded in consciousness,” they could more easily be debunked by people who are “informed, nonpolemical, and rooted in a profound sense of communion.”

“In my view, journalism is a secular enterprise, and there is no specifically Catholic way to do it,” Allen wrote last April in his weekly NCR column. “You try to tell the story as best you can, covering the church the way you would City Hall or the White House. Obviously people’s beliefs about the spiritual depths of the church, the idea that God works through these human instruments, is part of the Catholic story, and we neglect that to our peril.”

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  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    Wow, that is great stuff. The next question is: Why do these myths persist? Sure, the larger answer has to do with anti-Catholic traditions, but what, specifically, allows the press to perpetuate them? What is the press’ structural problem? It may have nothing to do with Catholicism — you could just as easily make a list of five major myths about the Democratic and Republican parties perpetuated by the press.

  • Marinda R.

    Link to the article has changed; it’s now http://www.chnonline.org/2004-04-22/newsstory1.html

    (How come I couldn’t do that before?)

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for pointing out that better permalink, which I’ve incorporated into the text. Sorry for the previous troubles!

  • http://www.tmatt.net Tmatt

    Jeff:

    I think that word “template” fits again. We really do — all of us — have to wrestle with that.

    I also think that the Roman Church is the CLASSIC example of a news subject that is simply considered too important for it to BE a religion story. It’s huge, therefore it’s important. It’s important, therefore it must be….

    Politics! Political structures. Numbers. Offices. Election politics. You name it….


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