If only it were true

luther5This week I’ve been on a bit of a tear about the shoddy coverage of the Vatican’s supposed reissue of the Seven Deadly Sins. But I absolutely can’t let pass another horrible example of media malfeasance. Reporter Richard Owen, who was responsible for much of the “deadly sin” silliness, filed the following report from Rome:

That Martin Luther? He wasn’t so bad, says Pope

Pope Benedict XVI is to rehabilitate Martin Luther, arguing that he did not intend to split Christianity but only to purge the Church of corrupt practices.

Pope Benedict will issue his findings on Luther (1483-1546) in September after discussing him at his annual seminar of 40 fellow theologians — known as the Ratzinger Schülerkreis — at Castelgandolfo, the papal summer residence. According to Vatican insiders the Pope will argue that Luther, who was excommunicated and condemned for heresy, was not a heretic.

The only problem with the story is that, well, it’s completely untrue. (So, all my fellow Lutherans, put down the lager and take off your party hats.) Anyway, the lack of truth didn’t stop Owen from speculating on why the made-up event is happening:

The move to re-evaluate Luther is part of a drive to soften Pope Benedict’s image as an arch conservative hardliner as he approaches the third anniversary of his election next month.

Ah, yes. I love how Pope Benedict’s image — constructed by the mainstream media — is “arch conservative hardliner.” Anyway, Carol Glatz of Catholic News Service completely dismantled Owen’s story:

Rumors that the Vatican is set to rehabilitate Martin Luther, the 16th-century leader of the Protestant Reformation, are groundless, said the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi. . . .

Vatican officials said the topic of the pope’s annual summer gathering of former students this year has not yet been decided. Of the two topics under consideration, Luther is not one of them, one official told Catholic News Service.

So how did this happen? Reuters Philip Pullella — whose work I praised in the deadly sins debacle — laid out the sequence of events. It’s instructive:

It all appears to have started on March 2, when ApCom, an Italian news agency, ran a three paragraph article, here in Italian, merely saying that the pope and some of his former PhD students (the so-called Ratzinger- Schlerkreis), would discuss Luther during their yearly summer encounter in August at the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

APcom said the seminar would discuss whether Luther “wanted a rupture . . . or intended to reform the Church but without traumas”.

On March 5, two days after the APcom report, the Turin newspaper La Stampa ran a story with the headline “Ratzinger reforms Luther. ‘He had many Catholic ideas. The theologian pope summons his students for a seminar of study on the heretic.” The article, seen here in Italian, quoted Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, as saying the choice of topics was meant “to favour a climate of encounter with Protestants.”

The day after the article in La Stampa, the Times of London reported that “Pope BenedictXVI is set to rehabilitate Martin Luther, arguing that he did not intend to split Christianity, but only to purge the church of corrupt practices.”

From there, the story took off, was repeated by some news organisations around the world, was the buzz on the blogs, and even prompted an editorial critical of the pope by the Financial Times, called “Papal Indulgence – Cosmetic changes cannot hide Benedict’s dogmatism“.

The Vatican finally weighed in on March 8, squelching the story. Pullella’s account is a warning to reporters against taking stories from other news outlets without independently checking their facts. Unfortunately, the shoddy reporting he catalogues continues to damage public trust in the media.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Sometimes I think our Catholic parish should have, instead of a weekly St. Jude Novena, a “Get Religion” weekly study session wherein we go over the week’s media transgressions against Catholics and other Christians as revealed here.

  • Sarah Webber

    I enjoyed your writing before, Mollie, but I have to say your drollness is even more amusing at this sleep-deprived time in your life. Hope the baby girl is doing well.


  • Martha

    Annnd – here we go once again, with reporters deciding they can read the Pope’s mind and know all about what he’s going to do before he does it because they know it’s all only a PR stunt and you need good PR to get on in this world.

    And of course, the Pope is going to have to revisit the Reformation and say nice things about the Protestant leaders because the Catholic Church cannot seriously continue to maintain that it alone possesses the fullness of truth. That’s just rude and not considerate and hurts their sensitive feelings, regardless of whether or not they’ve darkened the door of a church in the last ten years.

    I’m just waiting for the “Pope Says Christ Just This Guy, Y’Know?” headline. Any day now…

  • Joe

    This and the ‘Seven Deadly Sins” a few days ago remind us that stories coming out of the Vatican are similar to stories coming out of Washington. Both have big state departments with lots of opportunity to hear wayward opinions and agendas.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Sarah wrote:

    I enjoyed your writing before, Mollie, but I have to say your drollness is even more amusing at this sleep-deprived time in your life.

    Thank you! I feel like Hillary Clinton — I’ve found my voice!

  • Corban

    OT here – when are you going to hit the Obama-Wright story?
    It looks immense.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00368463715994694203 FrGregACCA

    Sometimes I think our Catholic parish should have, instead of a weekly St. Jude Novena, a “Get Religion” weekly study session wherein we go over the week’s media transgressions against Catholics and other Christians as revealed here.

    I would think, Deacon John, the thing to do would be to have the study session, as you suggest above, and THEN offer the novena. St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, after all.

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  • Joe

    I added a link to some insightful comments by Phil Lawler of Catholic World News. http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=57130

    The fundamental point of the L’Osservatore Romano interview was that Catholics need to recover a sense of sin, make use of the sacrament of Confession, and receive absolution for their offenses. Sin, the archbishop insisted, is a reality that man cannot escape.

    Archbishop Girotti said that the modern world does not understand the nature of sin. With their coverage of the interview, the mass media unintentionally underlined the prelate’s point.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    It seems there may also be an academic/journalistic divide here, too. Pope Benedict was and is an academic, and often makes carefully nuanced statements that are completely misread by non-academics. When a group of academics in any field gather to discuss a question with two answers offered (such as “Luther: heretic or reformer?”), you can be sure that the conclusion will not be a mere endorsement of one option over the other. As I heard a journalist say earlier this week, academics love to make the simple complex, while journalists love to make the complex simple. You can see how this frequently plays out in journalistic coverage of academic controversies.

  • Greg

    It would be a better world if the Roman Church still maintained that it alone possessed the fullness of truth and if the Lutheran Church still maintained that the Pope is the very AntiChrist. It would be a better world if the press would report that for many people these differences are very saliant and real and enduring and stop trying to shove this kumbyya ecumenical truth does not matter garbage down our throats. If we want to know the roots of postmodernism, look to the century of ecumenicism that taught people that truth does not matter.

  • carl

    When I first heard about this story about Luther’s possible rehabilitation, I was virtually sure it was false because of the staggering implications such a decision would have for Infallibility. It sounded ‘false’ to a knowledgeable ear. I wonder if this is not just one more manifestation of the tendency by journalists to cover religion as simply politics by another name. They look for the conflicts but have little understanding of the underlying doctrines. How many journalists could (without looking it up) locate the Council of Trent within 100 years, let alone describe its purpose and content? How many could properly explain infallibility?

    The last religion article I remember reading in a newspaper had Augustine, the First Archbishop of Canterbury, arguing with the Pelagius over Free Will. If this is a typical example, I am not surprised these overblown stories continually get reported. If reporters do not understand the doctrines involved, they cannot discern whether a potential story is credible or should be questioned.


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  • http://chaz-lehmann.livejournal.com Charles Lehmann

    Well, Luther’s rehabilitation would have no implications for infallibility. Vatican I defined papal infallibility so narrowly that this wouldn’t fall under it. The Pope has only spoken ex cathedra twice, and neither time had anything to do with Luther.

  • Kyralessa

    If I were called an “arch conservative hardliner” by the media, I’d take it as a compliment.

  • carl

    Luther’s rehabilitation would have no implications for infallibility.

    The Council of Trent is an Infallible magisterial council. It anathematized the Reformation. If Luther is rehabilitated, then Trent cannot be considered infallible.


  • Augsburger

    Now, now, there is a very large distinction between the claim of Rome to have the fullness of truth and a claim that no one else has any truth (even shared).

    I for one, look forward to reading what he and his students come up with. Trent condemns things that Luther wasn’t teaching. There was a lot of miscommunication and short tempers – and some real differences – on both sides. And if B16 wants to repeal the excrable bulla exurge domine, more power to him!

    Carl, Trent anathematized some doctrines that they -thought- the Reformers were teaching, but weren’t. The doctrines anathematized are one thing. What was actually being taught is a different question.