That complex, bookish pope letter

1595641 A Sunday blessing from the Pope at StPeters RomeDear Roman Catholic readers of GetReligion:

I feel your pain. Truly, I do.

Some of you have written to me to express your dismay about the mainstream media’s coverage of the new theological document released by that complex, bookish fellow named Pope Benedict XVI. In particular, I realize that you are upset about the focus taken in the first few paragraphs in the story published by the only newspaper that really matters, The New York Times.

Thus saith the powers that be, through their scribe Ian Fisher:

Pope Benedict XVI strongly reasserted on Tuesday the church’s opposition to abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage, saying that Roman Catholic politicians were “especially” obligated to defend the church’s beliefs in their public duties.

“These values are non-negotiable,” the pope wrote in a 130-page “apostolic exhortation,” a distillation of opinion from a worldwide meeting of bishops at the Vatican in 2005.

“Consequently, Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce laws inspired by values grounded in human nature.”

Now, I want you to stop and think about this for a moment.

I know that you all realize that the ghost of Sen. John Kerry the non-confessional Catholic looms over this story. You are also smart enough to know that the odds are 10-1, or better, that the next Democratic Party candidate for president is either going to be a liberal United Methodist or a member of the United Church of Christ. Meanwhile, the leading GOP candidate — at this hilariously early point in the race — is a thrice-married Roman Catholic who is pro-abortion rights and pro-gay rights.

You know the odds are good that every journalist who receives a paycheck from the Times knows all of this.

So what did you expect the newspaper to put at the top of this story?

pope inaugural 1Did you really expect them to focus on the main contents of a document titled “Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful on the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission”?

You also knew that mainstream newspapers would focus on another part of this authoritative text:

In the document, the pope also repeated that celibacy remained “obligatory” for priests. In the 2005 meeting, numerous bishops lamented the shortage of priests in many parts of the world, opening a rare public debate about possible limited changes, such as allowing married deacons to ascend to the priesthood.

But Benedict ruled out any such changes. “I reaffirm the beauty and importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Kingdom of God,” he wrote.

Both of these subjects had to dominate the early reports. You know that.

That isn’t the important question. The important question is whether editors at the Times realize that they have missed the sections of the exhortation that are, at the level of pews and altars, the most controversial — the heart of the document focusing on worship and liturgy. If you want to create a tornado in a bunch of Catholics, start messing with the liturgy and, especially, start talking about Latin.

Yes, it is important to look ahead to the question of what conservative Catholic bishops will have to say about Rudy Giuliani and Holy Communion. But it is also important to ask if there will be another Times story about the heart of this document. Until then, everyone will have to read all the fine details at Amy Welborn’s Open Book. You can also visit Ruth Gledhill’s blog at The Times of London.

So hang in there and let me know if you see any stories in the next few days by reporters who “get” liturgy.



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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.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “But it is also important to ask if there will be another Times story about the heart of this document.”

    Only if Brittany Spears is spotted reading it.

  • tmatt

    That’s the New York POST.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    What’s most irritating to me is that all of the MSM skipped over 99% of the document and went to that 1% that talks about the consequences of our particular beliefs as Catholics. They missed all the rest of the stuff that talks about the basic beliefs on the Eucharist and why we believe as we do. Even the liturgical stuff, as important as it is, isn’t as important as the basis for belief he set forth prior to talking about the liturgy, so that he could then talk about the liturgy.

    Above all that, they missed the really, really obvious thing — the title of the document. We have two major documents from Pope Ratzinger so far. The first was entitled Deus Caritas Est. The second is entitled, Sacramentum Caritatis. While most would say two documents do not a trend make, I would argue for an exception here. Do you think that maybe, just maybe, Benedict is trying to make a point about caritas?

    If you look at everything else His Holiness is saying, he is focusing his pontificate on two realities that cannot be divorced from one another: love and truth. And these first two documents show that clearly. Love is given to us by God and we have to respond to that love, not only in love, but in truth.

    That’s “complex and bookish”? I hardly think so. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be drawing the crowds to his weekly audiences and Sunday Angelus’ that he is — even more than John Paul II.

    But unfortunately, the MSM can’t read anything beyond their own agenda and that agenda doesn’t include reporting what the Holy Father (no matter who he is) says beyond what they want him to say.

  • Chris Bolinger

    For most reporters, especially those at papers that “matter”, politics trumps religion.

  • saint

    Yep first think I noticed: All the usual suspects.

  • Denise

    Frank, too true! Or if a draft copy were found at one of Anna Nicole’s homes.

    Only if Brittany Spears is spotted reading it.

    Praise be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, that you have given us this “complex, bookish Pope”! We would be in deep trouble indeed if the world “got” him. Let’s just us pay attention to him and get him, and we’ll be doing just fine.

    I fully expect that if Jesus were to return today on the clouds, coming to judge men, that He would be the last page item (bear with me for a moment and suppose that they got to publish a last hurrah, okay?)–and on the front would be a pic of bald Brittany or Anna Nicole or some such rot.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is disgusting how 99% of the pope’s encyclical is ignored and the spotlight is put on its passages which have a “sex” angle.
    And what is more revolting (and everyone knows this will be next) all the usual haters of traditional Catholic teachings will put a few digs in about the pope and the Church being obsessed with “pelvic” issues all the while knmowing it is the media that obsessed on the 1%.

  • Dan

    I agree that the coverage of the Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist was miserable. But the coverage of the Regensberg address was far worse. I can to some degree understand why the NYT reported on the Apostolic Exhortation in the way it did: most readers of the NYT could care less about Catholic theology on the Eucharist or the Catholic liturgy. Given the “churchiness” of Apostolic Exhortation, I think it is foregiveable for the NYT to not report on it in a straightforward manner. But I can’t forgive the failure to report straightfowardly and objectively on the Regensberg address. In contrast to the Catholic-centric Apostolic Exhortation, the Regensberg address was aimed to at the whole world and had messages addressed specificly to the secular West and the Islamic world.

  • Dennis Colby

    I know how much fun it is to feel persecuted by the New York Times, but I think aggrieved Catholis should calm down and realize that the media is trying to take those elements from the document that will be interesting to the broadest possible audience.

    The widespread coverage this got was an acknowledgement of the ongoing importance of the Catholic Church to non-Catholics; how many other churches or religious bodies get this kind of coverage when new documents are issued?

    There’s interesting stuff in the exhortation about liturgy and homilies, and hopefully the Catholic press will take its time in exploring the implications of that. But the duration of kneeling during Communion is not an issue that many non-Catholics are likely to care about, and the coverage by the mainstream press reflects that.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Mr. Colby,

    I agree with you to a point. True, the rest of the world isn’t that interested in all that the Pope wrote.

    However, what happens is that the NYT and company present what they are interested entirely out of context. And it is the context that is important. To take it out of context is to make it seem like an old celibate guy with a weird hat giving orders from on high. But that’s not at all what it is and it’s irresponsible for them to report it that way.

    This is, as the document says, an apostolic exhortation. The pope is exhorting Catholics to follow the way of Christ, but his exhortation is couched in the language of love, not harsh demands or orders (as the apparently jealous Cardinal Carlo Martini seems to think). All the headlines (which is what most people read) focused solely on the exhortation to action in particular contexts, not on why that action should be taken.

    Unfortunately, this is the only way that the MSM have reported on papal documents of late. As much of an outpouring of gracious sentiment as there was after John Paul II died, the MSM handled his documents the same way they’ve been handling B16′s — out of context.

    That doesn’t mean I’m looking for them to reprint the entire document. However, there are ways they can report it within the context of the entire document rather than jumping to the end of the report in order to get at what they think is the bottom line, as Mr. Bollinger said — what issues going to stir up the masses in political terms. And those, as Deacon Bresnahan astutely observed, are the pelvic issues.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I sort of understand the MSM putting the “pelvic issues” as ledes and headlines. Even the NY TIMES needs to sell newspapers (or get ratings if TV). But to then see their house columnists and commentators constantly and repeatedly, blame (sometimes viciously) the Church for their institution’s (and some of the public’s) obsessions gets pretty hard to take.

  • Martha

    But tmatt, if Joe Bloggs issues a slim volume on “Red Spotted Toadstools”, one would expect a newspaper review to focus at least on toadstools, not begin with “Bloggs says owls should all be shot!”, particularly if Bloggs only mentions in one paragraph “Some people say that owls which predate on the rodents which eat red spotted toadstools should be encouraged, others think they should not. It depends on what one hopes to achieve by either encouraging the owls or reducing the rodent numbers.”

    But yes, you’re right: what did we expect? I mean, the Blessed Sacrament is only the most vital thing in the world, so of course “gay marriage” is the one and only worthwhile point to pick out of it, since this was the vital topic of concern at the Last Supper.

    The biggest missing of the point, though, is that this document arises out of a synod – you know, a big gathering of the bishops of the church to discuss the areas of concern? It’s not the Pope telling everyone “Ya gotta do this or else!” It’s the Pope summing up the things the bishops raised as important to their congregations and to the wider church, and relating all of it to the Eucharist.

    Collegiality, guys. Try looking it up in a dictionary. Though yes, it doesn’t make as appealing a story as “Instructions from the Man of Blood to the Romanist hordes massing on our borders to overthrow democracy, freedom and goodness!”

  • Martha

    Somebody tell the Vatican that the relevant parts of the document are not up on the website:

    “The Eucharist and Matrimony

    The Eucharist, a nuptial sacrament

    27. The Eucharist, as the sacrament of charity, has a particular relationship with the love of man and woman united in marriage. A deeper understanding of this relationship is needed at the present time. (83) Pope John Paul II frequently spoke of the nuptial character of the Eucharist and its special relationship with the sacrament of Matrimony: “The Eucharist is the sacrament of our redemption. It is the sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride.” (84) Moreover, “the entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist.” (85) The Eucharist inexhaustibly strengthens the indissoluble unity and love of every Christian marriage. By the power of the sacrament, the marriage bond is intrinsically linked to the eucharistic unity of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church (cf. Eph 5:31-32). The mutual consent that husband and wife exchange in Christ, which establishes them as a community of life and love, also has a eucharistic dimension. Indeed, in the theology of Saint Paul, conjugal love is a sacramental sign of Christ’s love for his Church, a love culminating in the Cross, the expression of his “marriage” with humanity and at the same time the origin and heart of the Eucharist. For this reason the Church manifests her particular spiritual closeness to all those who have built their family on the sacrament of Matrimony. (86) The family – the domestic Church (87) – is a primary sphere of the Church’s life, especially because of its decisive role in the Christian education of children. (88) In this context, the Synod also called for an acknowledgment of the unique mission of women in the family and in society, a mission that needs to be defended, protected and promoted. (89) Marriage and motherhood represent essential realities which must never be denigrated.

    The Eucharist and the unicity of marriage

    28. In the light of this intrinsic relationship between marriage, the family and the Eucharist, we can turn to several pastoral problems. The indissoluble, exclusive and faithful bond uniting Christ and the Church, which finds sacramental expression in the Eucharist, corresponds to the basic anthropological fact that man is meant to be definitively united to one woman and vice versa (cf. Gen 2:24, Mt 19:5). With this in mind, the Synod of Bishops addressed the question of pastoral practice regarding people who come to the Gospel from cultures in which polygamy is practised. Those living in this situation who open themselves to Christian faith need to be helped to integrate their life-plan into the radical newness of Christ. During the catechumenate, Christ encounters them in their specific circumstances and calls them to embrace the full truth of love, making whatever sacrifices are necessary in order to arrive at perfect ecclesial communion. The Church accompanies them with a pastoral care that is gentle yet firm, (90) above all by showing them the light shed by the Christian mysteries on nature and on human affections.

    The Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage

    29. If the Eucharist expresses the irrevocable nature of God’s love in Christ for his Church, we can then understand why it implies, with regard to the sacrament of Matrimony, that indissolubility to which all true love necessarily aspires. (91) There was good reason for the pastoral attention that the Synod gave to the painful situations experienced by some of the faithful who, having celebrated the sacrament of Matrimony, then divorced and remarried. This represents a complex and troubling pastoral problem, a real scourge for contemporary society, and one which increasingly affects the Catholic community as well. The Church’s pastors, out of love for the truth, are obliged to discern different situations carefully, in order to be able to offer appropriate spiritual guidance to the faithful involved.(92) The Synod of Bishops confirmed the Church’s practice, based on Sacred Scripture (cf. Mk 10:2- 12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist. Yet the divorced and remarried continue to belong to the Church, which accompanies them with special concern and encourages them to live as fully as possible the Christian life through regular participation at Mass, albeit without receiving communion, listening to the word of God, eucharistic adoration, prayer, participation in the life of the community, honest dialogue with a priest or spiritual director, dedication to the life of charity, works of penance, and commitment to the education of their children.

    When legitimate doubts exist about the validity of the prior sacramental marriage, the necessary investigation must be carried out to establish if these are well-founded. Consequently there is a need to ensure, in full respect for canon law (93), the presence of local ecclesiastical tribunals, their pastoral character, and their correct and prompt functioning (94). Each Diocese should have a sufficient number of persons with the necessary preparation, so that the ecclesiastical tribunals can operate in an expeditious manner. I repeat that “it is a grave obligation to bring the Church’s institutional activity in her tribunals ever closer to the faithful” (95). At the same time, pastoral care must not be understood as if it were somehow in conflict with the law. Rather, one should begin by assuming that the fundamental point of encounter between the law and pastoral care is love for the truth: truth is never something purely abstract, but “a real part of the human and Christian journey of every member of the faithful” (96). Finally, where the nullity of the marriage bond is not declared and objective circumstances make it impossible to cease cohabitation, the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God’s law, as friends, as brother and sister; in this way they will be able to return to the table of the Eucharist, taking care to observe the Church’s established and approved practice in this regard. This path, if it is to be possible and fruitful, must be supported by pastors and by adequate ecclesial initiatives, nor can it ever involve the blessing of these relations, lest confusion arise among the faithful concerning the value of marriage (97).

    Given the complex cultural context which the Church today encounters in many countries, the Synod also recommended devoting maximum pastoral attention to training couples preparing for marriage and to ascertaining beforehand their convictions regarding the obligations required for the validity of the sacrament of Matrimony. Serious discernment in this matter will help to avoid situations where impulsive decisions or superficial reasons lead two young people to take on responsibilities that they are then incapable of honouring. (98) The good that the Church and society as a whole expect from marriage and from the family founded upon marriage is so great as to call for full pastoral commitment to this particular area. Marriage and the family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself.”

    I see a reference to polygamy, but they either didn’t put up or deliberately left out the bit where the Pope wrote “And zen we burn at ze stake ze homosexuals who ask to be married, bwahahaha!”

    Maybe they can ask Ian Fisher to lend them his copy so they can correct this mistake?

  • Amy Welborn

    Let me attempt to address another angle here.

    Is it actually news that in this Exhortation, the Pope affirmed the need for what is called in the document “Eucharistic Consistency” – that is the coherence of life and faith? Is it news that the document says what documents and voices from Rome are generally expected to say?

    I say – no.

    (I’m not saying the issue itself is not news. But in the context of a Roman the reaffirmation the news?)

    The question to explore then, it seems, what would the news hook be in this document for the secular press – why is it newsworthy (if it is)?

    It might even be an example of how those who issue or mediate the documents to the secular press might be helpful in explaining – not in terms of dictating the news, of course, but in terms of clarifying what’s important about the doc.

  • Michael T

    Chris, what you said, “for most readers, politics trump religion”, so true. When Jesus came down himself and met Judas, all that Judas could think of was revolution. No surprise that no matter how Pope Benedict states doctrine and belief, he will and should be misunderstood, for, afterall, no servant can ever be greater than his master.

  • Michael

    Amy raises an interesting question. Why is it necessary to cover every utterance the Pope makes and every thing he writes. Beyong the wire services and the relgious press, maybe it’s time to rethink how the Pope is covered.

  • Grant Gallicho

    1. What do you mean by “nonconfessional Catholic”?

    2. What do you make of the the Times’s placement of and headline on the Sobrino story?

  • Matt

    The things that the media focuses on about the Catholic Church are things that, for most average Catholics, are non-issues. Celibacy is one of the main issues. Only to a Protestant would a ban on marriage for clergy be scandalous, and it is obvious that these are the ones writing the articles. They do not seem to understand that this is not an HR (human resources, in the corporate sense) issue, but a religious one. They see a divinely ordained mandate for it, and no amount of Equal Employment Acts passed by any secular Congress will change this. For 1500 of the last 2000 years, the secular government was subordinate to the Church, not the other way around.

  • Dennis Colby

    Michael asks, “Why is it necessary to cover every utterance the Pope makes and every thing he writes.”

    Because, like it or not, the pope is the single most important religious figure in the world. There’s no other religious group with as many adherents who acknowledge a single leader. And what the pope says often has effects beyond the Catholic Church – witness the Regensburg speech and its aftermath.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to stop covering the pope – that would be ridiculous. The press is going to cover his major statements and documents; that’s inevitable. But when they do, reporters are going to be looking for things that will be of interest to the broadest possible audience, which is why those news reports aren’t going to focus on the Eucharist or Latin. That’s what the specialty press does best.

  • Dan

    In my earlier post I too questioned whether the Apostolic Exhortation has newsworthiness outside the Church. On reflection though I think it does, although it is probably not front page news. What is newsworthy about it is that it marks another step in the Catholic Church toward a more traditional liturgy and away from the free for all that followed Vatican II. This is a trend that is of general interest.