Time, Newsweek in early schism over the pope

Nicaea iconWow. Reader Janette Kok dropped us a note noting the radical difference taken in the Time‘s article on the papal trip to Turkey, in comparison to that in Newsweek, which, in fairness, was written by a ringer — Catholic scholar George Weigel.

The Newsweek piece is about the important ecumenical trip the pope planned long ago that has been changed, radically, by the tempest over his remarks about Christianity, Islam and human reason.

The Time piece by Jeff Israely focuses totally on Islam and politics, with little or no content on the original papal goal of pushing for human rights and religious liberty in Turkey (with a special emphasis on the plight of Orthodox Christians). Everything starts with the headline, which is “The Pope Tones Down His Act in Turkey — Long known for his rigid thinking, Benedict XVI shows new flexibility in trying to mend fences in the wake of his controversial speech about Islam.”

No, I didn’t make that up. Read the article for yourself.

Meanwhile, one of the early Associated Press reports contains a fine, concise paragraph of statistics — a wire-service basic — and then a historical paragraph that is, to say the least, puzzling or incomplete.

First the statistics:

Of Turkey’s 70 million people, some 65,000 are Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 are Roman Catholic, and 3,500 are Protestant, mostly converts from Islam. Another 2,000 are Greek Orthodox and 23,000 are Jewish. The European Union has called on Turkey to expand religious freedoms.

So far, so good. Then comes this:

The pope planned to travel to Istanbul later Wednesday to meet Bartholomew I, leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. The two major branches of Christianity represented by Bartholomew and Benedict split in 1054 over differences in opinion on the power of the papacy. The two spiritual heads will meet in an attempt to breach the divide and reunite the churches.

Well now. Papal authority certainly was an issue, but I think the great ecumenical schism was a bit more complex than that and it involved more than “opinion.” Click here for background. However, I will admit that this question looms in a discussion of wire-service coverage of complex theological issues: How many newspaper readers have heard of the Nicene Creed, let alone the filioque clause?

Meanwhile, does anyone on either side of the schism think that the pope and the patriarch are actually meeting “in an attempt to breach the divide and reunite the churches”? That’s overstating the matter a bit.

By the way, has anyone seen MSM coverage noting that the leadership of the massive Greek Orthodox Church may have a different take on Turkey entering the European Union than the tiny church that remains based in Istanbul? Greece is not a minor country in the Orthodox East.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dennis Colby

    “The two spiritual heads will meet in an attempt to breach the divide and reunite the churches.”

    I flinched over this as well. I mean, if that were true, that would be the lede.

    I sympathize with the AP reporter on summing up the Great Schism in one or two sentences, but I agree that “papal authority” is misleading. It might have been better to be purely vague, something like “The two Christian branches formally split in 1054 over theological differences.” Although that makes it sound like what rock bands say when they break up.

    But that bit about reuniting the churches – again, probably better to be vague and say they’re meeting in a bid to improve relations between East and West.

    I understand the normal jounalistic urge is against vague wording, but sometimes it’s needed.

  • http://www.washingtontimes.com Julia Duin

    Sigh..once again religion pieces written by folks who know little or nothing about the topic or have any grasp of church history. According to the RNA database, Time magazine has no religion writer. They should.

  • anne

    Is Bartholomew 1 a leader of Orthodox Christians (as oppposed to a specific Church within Orthodoxy), and, if so, what exactly does that mean? I really don’t understand how authority issues are handled within Orthodoxy.

  • http://pomoconservative.blogspot.com Irenaeus of Lyons

    I think Bartholomew is considered first among equals in the East, so it’s more honorary, symbolic and spiritual than involving real political power over happenings elsewhere.

    Good post on these columns. I saw the TIME one and blanched, didn’t have time to blog on it when it came out. And on that note, shameless plug: pomoconservative.blogspot.com.

  • Dennis Colby

    Actually, the Ecumenical Patriarch has direct jurisdiction over all Orthodox churches that are not either autocephalous or autonomous. It also has jurisdiction over a number of organizations and foundations, including, for example, the Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, Calif. Here’s a list:


  • Dennis Colby

    The patriarchate’s Web site, by the way, has been a treasure trove of information (for reporters or anyone else) this week. They had live video feeds of Benedict’s meeting with Bartholomew, rapid translations of their remarks, schedules, photos, context, you name it. Kudos all around.

  • Dan

    “Long known for his rigid thinking, Benedict XVI shows new flexibility in trying to mend fences in the wake of his controversial speech about Islam.”

    This sentence is nothing more than a statement of the journalist’s bias against Pope Benedict. I say this because the sentence levels a vague criticism — “rigid thinking” — when there is no factual support for the criticism (which is why none is offered). I’m not sure what constitutes “rigid thinking,” but the phrase suggests thought that lacks subtlety. To suggest that Pope Benedict’s thought lack subtlety stands the truth on its head. Pope Benedict is known as being one the top theologians of the 20th Century. The fair adjectives for his thought are “nuanced,” “insightful,” “lucid,” and “careful.”

    The fair adjectives for the sentence that accuses Pope Benedict of “rigid thinking” are “sloppy” and “uninformed.” The sentence suggests that current diplomatic efforts with regard to Islam contradict previously expressed “rigid” thought, and that only a change to “new flexibility” from the old “rigidity” has made the diplomatic efforts possible. This is sheer nonsense. The current diplomatic efforts in Turkey do not remotely contract or change anything in Pope Benedict’s previous writings about Islam or inter-faith dialogue.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    How many newspaper readers have heard of the Nicene Creed, let alone the filioque clause?

    I had thought the controversy over the Filioque wasn’t so much about the clause itself as whether the Western Church had the authority to insert it unilaterally, which would also be an argument over the pope’s authority.

  • James

    I just ran across this Time article “The Pope’s Push to Protect Minority Christians in the Muslim World” http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1564055,00.html. It seems to address some of the issues the other article neglected.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Time magazine has no religion writer. They should. ”

    I don’t know… if Newsweek did so well by hiring a “ringer” then why can’t TIME do the same?

    The objective here is to get someone writing about religion that knows about religion.

    I think it will be easier to find a bishop, rabbi, or monsignor who can write than a J School Graduate who can understand filioque.

    And what ever happened to the phrase “for reasons to complex to be adequately explained here?”

  • Jens

    Does anyone else think it’s slightly strange to have Weigel writing that piece for Newsweek? He’s the former pope’s _official_ biographer and a culture warrior on the right. Yes, he’s extremely knowledgable about the issues at hand, but perhaps too partisan to be the writer of a news article — better as a significant source. As I’ve only seen the Newsweek piece online, I can’t adequately judge how the editors framed the story in print. Perhaps it was given more of an opinion shading. I find the blurb underneath the article describing who he is to be somewhat inadequate in terms of revealing his very strong viewpoint.

    Tmatt, would you grant that while the Orthodox-Catholic discussion is important theologically, any objective person looking at the world scene today would have to say the Catholic-Islam dynamic (and within that, the push for reciprocity for the Orthodox community) is far more important in its ramifications? In that sense, I don’t think Time really missed the big picture.

  • MattK

    Jens, I’m a different Matt but allow me to offer an answer to your question: For the 1,220,000,000 Roman Catholic and Orthodox in the world reunion, or even the rumor of reunion is much much much more important than anything involving Muslims or the “world scence today”. Islam will eventually pass away. The “world scene today” is exactly that. It will change tomorrow. The Church, however, is held by its members to be eternal. So, yes. Time not only missed the big picture, they missed the eternal story, too.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    This is a case where — like the NYTimes — you really have to find a way to cover both subjects. Look at the previous post on the papal visit.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    This is the third day of the Boston Globe’s coverage of the pope’s trip by Anne Barnard of the Globe staff.
    Finally, some coverage of the problems Christians–especially Armenians and Greek Orthodox–have had in Moslem Turkey, both in the past and today. The story was on the front page and titled: “For Turkey’s Armenians, painful past is muted.”
    It was a far cry from the previous two major
    stories by her in the Globe where the problems that Christians have had and still have in Turkey were brushed over so as to make it look like Christians have no more problems in Turkey than Christians do.
    As a retired history and English teacher I would give this story an “A” but I am Catholic and maybe an Armenian or Greek Orthodox Christian might have a different view.
    The best parts of the story were when she put on the record information on the Armenian Holocaust while making it obvious the Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul was almost fearful of stating obvious truths about the past.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The line in above comment should read “to make it look like Christians have no more problems than MOSLEMS do.” Sorry for mix-up. Lower my grade to a “D”

  • Dan


    The above link is to an International Herald Tribune piece that does a much better job of explaining what is going on in Turkey. The piece actually addresses how Pope Benedict’s thought relates to the statements that are being made in the course of the trip.

  • Mike

    “Meanwhile, does anyone on either side of the schism think that the pope and the patriarch are actually meeting “in an attempt to breach the divide and reunite the churches”? That’s overstating the matter a bit.

    Hey, there’s always hope!

  • padraighh

    Re: the Armenian genocide. It is apparently considered a crime in Turkey to mention it.

  • dpt

    “Long known for his rigid thinking, Benedict XVI shows new flexibility in trying to mend fences in the wake of his controversial speech about Islam.”

    “Rigid thinking”? I wondered if the journalist has read anything about the Pope (previously, Cardinal) outside the mainstream media? Or for that matter, anything written by the Pope?

  • MJBubba

    Professor Mattingly, in your post in this thread (6:12am on Nov. 30) you seem to praise the New York Times for covering both angles of the Papal visit story. However, the NYT should be chastised for continuing an error that I have seen in dozens of stories and columns from a variety of sources. In your Nov. 28 post, you quoted the NYT: “But for various reasons having to do with its complex relationship with Orthodox Christianity, the Turkish government protested. No doubt the nation’s leaders wish they had approved a visit then. Now, after the pope’s speech two months ago that many interpreted as suggesting that Islam was prone to violence, the trip that starts Tuesday has become far more complicated.”

    I do not believe that the Muslim world went nuts because their prophet was described as teaching “violence,” but because he was described as teaching “evil.” I think that this sloppy characterization hinders an understanding of the Muslim world on the part of most of us bubba readers. I believe I heard this distinction made on NPR once (Two months ago) but they also have repeated the violence-irony view.
    Please continue your good work at GetReligion. Reporting on religious matters must capture this sort of nuance if we are to achieve understanding. The dozens of columns declaiming the irony of Muslim violence prompted by Papal remarks condemning Muslim violence were unhelpful at best, and were certainly misleading to many.