Parsing the Pope

Pope Benedict XVI greets foreign ambassadors to The Holy See - Rome

Whenever Pope Benedict XVI gives a homily or addresses a crowd, it’s always fascinating to see how the media write it up. This week, Benedict addressed the Vatican’s diplomatic corps that, by its nature, dealt a bit with broader political themes. How does a reporter sum up a 3,000-word address or figure out what aspect to focus on? To be sure, it’s a difficult task. The Boston Herald headlined its Associated Press story:

Pope denounces failure to forge new climate treaty

The article says the Pope denounced world leaders, that he’s been dubbed the “green pope” and that under his watch the Vatican is going green, etc., etc. The article does an admirable job of trying to explain how environmentalism is a moral issue for the church.

Reuters, on the other hand, took the exact same speech and said it was about gay marriage:

Pope says gay marriage threat to creation

So was the main point of the speech to denounce world leaders for failing to take action on global warming or was it to oppose laws that support same-sex marriage? What was this speech about?

Well, Benedict did talk about Copenhagen. He didn’t “denounce” world leaders so much as say he “shared in the growing concern” about resistance to combating the degradation of the environment and added:

It is proper, however, that this concern and commitment for the environment should be situated within the larger framework of the great challenges now facing mankind. If we wish to build true peace, how can we separate, or even set at odds, the protection of the environment and the protection of human life, including the life of the unborn? It is in man’s respect for himself that his sense of responsibility for creation is shown. As Saint Thomas Aquinas has taught, man represents all that is most noble in the universe.

It might not be as sexy as denouncing world leaders or fighting gay marriage, but the speech was really about the Pope’s view of creation and how it encompasses more than just the earth’s natural resources but all life. It touched on politics but in order to make larger theological points. It’s difficult for many reporters to grasp that. To be fair, both of the reports above did include a tiny bit of the Pope’s theological statements in the stories. I read the Pope’s remarks after I read the stories about his remarks and I saw very little resemblance between them. Not just in the story’s content but in style and tone as well.

And, I have to note, what came off as the strongest denunciation to me was against the proliferation and maintenance of nuclear arms. In a different era, under different world leaders, I’m sure that would have gotten the headlines.

Like I said, it’s difficult to sum up a big speech or figure out what to focus on. But I’m not sure how well served the folks interested in the speech’s contents are by these summations.

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  • Marie

    Okay I skimmed it and it looks like he’s denouncing atheism and relativism. The gay marriage interpretation of the speech looks like a stretch. But I guess Reuters knows no body is going to read the speech and counter them.

  • michael

    This sort of thing continues to amaze me. It’s tempting to take it as exhibit a of the sort of thing I was railing against the the thread on ‘One’ below, but really, this can’t be as complex as all that. It doesn’t seem as if this is a matter of the structural deficiencies of journalism so much as journalists (and their headline writers) simply being uninterested in what the Pope is saying and in conveying its meaning. Is it cynicism? Unwillingness? Incomprehension, what?

    This is what I continually don’t get where this sort of reportage is concerned: isn’t it the very essence of ‘reporting’ to convey the gist of something as the gist?

  • Stoo

    I just had a read of the pretty short BBC Piece. Which comes down to, Pope says:

    1: we have a responsibilty to preserving creation
    2: terrorists stop it plz
    3: gay marriage is an assault on creation

    1 and 2 seem straightforward enough but 3 had me going waaht? I mean I know he has his reasons against but “assault on creation” really needs further explaining. Would at least another paragraph have killed them?

  • Peter

    Is it cynicism? Unwillingness? Incomprehension, what?

    Or is it trying to make news out a speech that isn’t all that newsworthy?

    Popes have been giving these kinds of speeches for centuries. They are essentially variations on the same theological themes. So when a reporter has seen the same version of the message 20 times, how do you turn it into news.

    We have come to expect that every utterance of the Vatican is going to be turned into a news story. Maybe the problem is that the Pope and the Vatican–while having worldwide influence and importance–just aren’t very good at making news and therefore reporters are forced to piece together a news story from some scraps of theology.

    Pope being Catholic just isn’t a story you can write 75 times a year.

  • Mollie


    While not ever utterance from the Vatican may need to make front-page news, you’d be hard pressed to convince me that the annual speech to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps shouldn’t be covered well.

  • sapphie

    To be fair, when the Pontiff gives a speech this long and this broad, modern media is hard pressed to sum it up. It’s easy to blame the press, but bear in mind that the press is only delivering the goods that the public demands. And the public demands short, clear summations.

    Perhaps, if the Vatican wants to get its message out in this day and age, it wouldn’t burden them too much to structure it in a way that makes it easier to share with the world?

  • Jerry

    sappie makes a good point. It can be very hard to summarize any complex speech into an accurate, pity headline. “Pope gives speech” or “Pope Presents His Views” are accurate but vague. Pope Repeats His Views? Pope Emphasizes His Theology? I’d love to see someone here do a better job than I and suggest an accurate, clear headline that summarizes what is unique about the event.

  • Charles Collins

    Actually, it was quite a profound speech dealing with ecology. This annual address is usually an laundry list of concerns, going from region to region, touching on peace and justice issues.

    This year the Pope tied almost every problem facing the world to ecological concerns. This is actually an intersting story in its own right, and easy to peg to world news, especially after Copenhagen.

    I would say the AP emphasis is more right on.

  • michael


    I can’t tell whether your query is with the Pope or with the reporter. But the connection which seems to be puzzling you (and a lot of other people) is one that this Pope has made with increasing frequency, alluding to it in some way or other in each of his encyclicals and a quite a few homilies or speeches. Obviously I can’t speak for the Pope, but it seems that at least one of the underlying links uniting these two, seemingly disconnected concerns–what he has taken to calling environmental and human ecology and what he means in Deus Caritas Est when he talks about integrating the biological and the personal–has to do (among other things) with how we tend to conceive of matter or bodies: whether they are essentially dumb stuff or whether they are already informed by meaning or logos. The problem, once again, is that it is hard to see how this logic is very amenable to a journalistic point of view without journalism itself becoming a participant in a philosophical debate about what a human being is, which journalism seems to take as more or less settled. There is a lot more to say about this, and of course, this is all highly debateable, but the Pope does have a logical rationale for connecting these things. The connection isn’t an arbitrary mixture composed of a ‘few scraps of Catholic theology’.

    Which brings me to Peter. I don’t really know what to say in reply to you (which is probably just as well, if you can’t say something nice….). But perhaps it isn’t really necessary to say anything since clearly you’ve heard it all before and you understand that there is really nothing in the Pope’s remarks worth thinking over.

  • Jon in the Nati, non-Catholic

    Perhaps, if the Vatican wants to get its message out in this day and age, it wouldn’t burden them too much to structure it in a way that makes it easier to share with the world?

    That depends on who, exactly, Il Papa is talking to. Generally speaking, the Pope speaks to his constituency (that is, faithful members of the church), who, if they are truly interested in what he has to say, will go and read the speech in its entirety. And, on a certain level, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vatican simply didn’t care what secular media have to say, because the message wasn’t meant for them anyway.

    Of course, there are times when the pope speaks to a wider audience (ie, is explicitly addressing people outside the church). In this case, you have a legitimate point.

  • Stoo

    Michael, my query was with the reporter. I’m sure the Pope has his reasoning, I just would like to know what it is when throwing out an assertion like that! (thanks for throwing in some insights,tho)

  • michael


    You’re welcome, happy to do it. May I make one modest suggestion though? If you’re really interested in Benedict’s reasoning, then read Benedict, not a journalist’s brief, second hand account of this or that speech.

  • Stoo

    Sure, and I should. I just wish that particular article had been about twice as long, so as to at least provide a starting point as to understanding where he’s coming from.

  • michael


    Well if you’re serious, I’d recommend some of the things Ratzinger wrote before he became Pope; it makes his official writings that much clearer. Introduction to Christianity is simply a beautiful book and one of the finest works of theology in the twentieth century, and there is a short little collection of homilies on creation called In the Beginning…that is simple yet profound, and only about 100 pages. They make a nice backdrop for interpreting the things he is saying now as Pope.

    Journalism angle: If I were a reporter, and my job were to cover the Pope, I think I’d want to understand him a bit (not to mention I’d take that as part of my job) and I’d read those books as well.

  • Julia

    I think there is more of an audience for intellectualizing in European and Latin American countries. Authors and professors are sometimes lionized like rock stars.

    Before becoming Pope, Benedict had some public debates with prominent atheists that were transcribed as books.

    Maybe they’re getting more into sound bites like us, but it’s still true that Europeans do pay attention to intellectual ideas more than we do here – in the popular press, at least.

  • michael


    You make a really good point, I suppose, though I can’t say in the main that Europoean (or at least British) treatment of these matters is much better. The London Times, for instance, is routinely awful in its fairly extensive coverage of religious matters.

    It’s hard to imagine a science reporter who didn’t know the first thing about science. Well, ok, maybe not so hard, but you get my drift.

    But we see again and again on these pages that the theological (and philosophical and historical) literacy of people covering religion is often astonishingly bad.
    Either that, or there is simply a positive unwillingness to take such things seriously.

    When I was complaining against journalism as a thought form in an earlier thread, Stoo asked what I would do to ‘fix it.’ I do think, at bottom, that the problems are endemic, but it would be a good start if reporters assigned to this (or any) beat actually became serious students of their subject matter. I see little evidence of that, even among the best religion reporters, though somebody will no doubt dispute this. Maybe it’s just me, but I would think that really understanding my subject–by which I mean getting to know it on its own terms–would be part and parcel of what it is to be a good reporter.

  • Julia

    Michael (if you are still reading this thread):

    I think the UK is a different story because of the historical antipathies toward the Pope which can be seen in the comments box of UK papers and even in the writing of the Times’ religion reporters.

    The Continental and Latin American media might ignore frankly theological talk but do pay attention to intellectual ideas. This Pope is well known as a serious thinker, agree or disagree with him.

  • michael


    I am still checking in.

    Fair point about papers in the UK, although while they are typically a bit friendlier toward the C of E, I wouldn’t say the intellectual substance of that coverage is any better.

    I take the point about Continental media; I’ll have to take your word for it on Latin America.

  • Jon in the Nati, non-Catholic

    I think there is more of an audience for intellectualizing in European and Latin American countries. Authors and professors are sometimes lionized like rock stars.

    Sounds like my kinda place…

  • Julia

    I learned about the greater media interest in intellectuals outside the US while in a class about Latin American literature. It was amazing to hear & read about the serious attention given to writers in Mexico and other areas South of our border – as much as politicians sometimes. The professor then pointed out how seriously Sartre and other writers were/are treated by European media, etc. That was over 20 years ago and I’ve noticed that it’s true. Not all readers are as interested in what these folks say, of course. And in the US Hollywood has a greater impact.