As GetReligion readers keep reminding us in the comments pages, it is getting harder and harder to know how to do news critiques of essays, commentaries, editorials and the occasional news reports that appear in the once towering weekly news magazines — by which I mean Time and nonNewsweek.
Consider the new “commentary” in by Time correspondent Jeff Israely in Rome, which appears under the headline, “Sex Abuse: The Vatican’s Struggle for Damage Control.” The goal of the piece, I assume, is to offer a sympathetic mini-profile of Father Federico Lombardi, the Italian Jesuit who has a hard job. The lede is more blunt than that.
For centuries, the papacy has operated with the conviction that it answers to no earthly power. Many in Rome still believe that to be the case, but nowadays the church’s faithful also believe in the sanctity of a free and vigorous press, with its unrelenting questions and nose for controversy. This all makes running modern media relations for the Vatican, in polite terms, a job from hell.
This raises an obvious question: What is a Jesuit doing acting as press secretary for Pope Benedict XVI? I realize that there are traditional Jesuits left today and this man may be one of them, but it still would be interesting to read a sentence or two about how he reached this post, in this papacy.
The mini-profile part of this commentary is fine, as far as it goes. However, I think that most Catholic readers — at least those pro-Catechism Catholics who do things like go to confession — will not make it that far into this particular piece. No, they will probably smash their keyboards into pointy shards of brittle plastic and aluminum after reading this intro paragraph:
The current pedophile-priest scandal — what the Catholic writer and papal critic Andrew Sullivan pointedly refers to as “child rape” by clergy — has transfixed Catholics around the world, particularly with the allegations out of Germany that Benedict XVI, then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, may have allowed a transferred priest accused of sexual abuse to work again with children. The scandal has had a telling effect on the tradition-bound Holy See. High-ranking clerics have complained of media bias and a conspiracy against the Pope.
And so forth and so on, world without end. Amen.
Now, this raises a question. Of all the essential adjectives that one could use to describe Andrew Sullivan — even if that talented force of nature was describing himself — would you pick “Catholic writer”? I realize that the words “papal critic” are pinned on, but that combo seems rather mild as well.
In addition to making that point, I would like to note that there are all kinds of people who would use even stronger language than “child rape” to describe the activities at the heart of this multi-decade scandal. Sullivan is by no means alone among “Catholic” writers in using that kind of brutal, but justified, public language. Many of these angry “Catholic” writers even embrace and defend the doctrines of the Catholic faith and see the scandal as a betrayal of those doctrines.
If you have a very strong stomach, click here and get yourself a copy of the scathing “Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church” by conservative scholar Leon J. Podles, a book so detailed that it contains passages that made me — literally — want to throw up. Click here for clips from a National Press Club event in which the author tees off on Catholic leaders — on the right and the left — who are in denial about the details and the scope of the crisis.
So here is my journalistic question for the reporters and editors who read this blog: In this context, how would you describe Sullivan? What do readers need to know to understand his point of view, when doing his work as a “papal critic”? Is the word “Catholic” — alone — enough in this case?
Be kind. Be journalistic. How would you identify Sullivan in this context?