We already looked at the major inaccuracies with mainstream media coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on condoms. But there are a few other points that are worth sharing.
USA Today religion reporter Cathy Grossman nailed it. In her first post on the matter, she wrote:
Pope Benedict’s unexpected citing of a rare exception to the church’s no-condoms teaching makes no change in Catholicism’s teachings on contraception. And he reiterates his controversial comments from his visit to Africa that condoms are not the answer to combating HIV/AIDs.
I just read the Vatican spokesman’s clarifying remarks on the matter and he pretty much says just that. You can read that statement here.
But there was one angle that we didn’t really explore in yesterday’s discussion. The whole brouhaha began because L’Osservatore Romano — Vatican City’s daily newspaper — violated the embargo on the new interview book of Benedict. They published Italian-language passages, which angered many folks who have been keeping the embargo. Official launch for the book was supposed to be on Tuesday.
I think there’s probably a fascinating story about just what in the heck is going on with L’Osservatore. At best, it’s known for praising American pop culture (The Simpsons! The Blues Brothers!). But sometimes its news judgment is lacking, to say the least. In this case, part of the media firestorm was due to L’Osservatore‘s flawed translation of what Benedict had said. For instance, by now everyone realizes that Benedict was apparently giving a particular statement about a male prostitute. But in L’Osservatore, they had him talking about female prostitutes. Tom Heneghan at Reuters tried to make sense of that mess in “Grammar experts needed for pope comment on condoms“:
The problem is that the pope gave the interview in his native German, which is not 100% clear on this issue. The key phrase about condom use reads in the English translation: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be the first step in the direction of a moralisation.”
He explains how different languages have different rules for gender (in the language sense). Benedict used a word with a masculine
casegender. But, of course, the weirdness is that L’Osservatore translated it so as to give the impression he was singling out female prostitutes. Why does this matter?
The difference isn’t just grammatical. If Pope Benedict means only male prostitutes, he is speaking about gay sex, which cannot lead to procreation. The Church rejects artificial methods that block procreation, such as condoms and contraceptive pills. Since that doesn’t apply between two men, a condom could be condoned even though the Church thinks homosexual sex is wrong anyway.
But if he means male or female prostitutes, then he is allowing condum use for a sex act that could possibly led to pregnancy, i.e. when a male visits a female prostitute. From there, it’s only a short step to condoning it in a marriage where the man is HIV-positive. And then the question will arise, why not allow condoms for heterosexuals who aren’t infected?
Since he rules out artificial birth control in another chapter, a good grammarian would have to conclude from the context that Benedict does indeed mean masculine gender here in the sexual sense. I’m curious to see how the Vatican explains that its own newspaper used the feminine. Maybe a long essay about Italian grammar?
I’ll be posting later this week about the Vatican and press management, but it seems like the Vatican should explain just what was going on with L’Osservatore. The translation is one thing but the broken embargo is another. It’s hard to criticize the mainstream media for ignorance when L’Osservatore was the first to flout the embargo, mistranslate the Pope’s actual words, and provide no context. It’s not that — contra the implication above — L’Osservatore is “The Vatican Newspaper,” but there is a relationship between the Vatican and the paper.
In related news, one same-sex attracted GetReligion reader shared his personal experience with Catholic counseling on the issue Benedict addressed here. And here’s another interesting read about how media representation of Catholic teaching about contraception in general has been flawed for a long time. Jimmy Akin at National Catholic Register also has a post on that point.
George Weigel, who wrote the forward to the book in question, diagnoses the “false assumption(s) beneath the latest round of media condomania”: that the Church’s teaching on sexual morality is a policy position that can change, like tax rates; that all papal statements of whatever sort are equal; and that a change in Catholic teaching would ever be announced in an interview (“It will perhaps come as a blow to the self-esteem of the fourth estate to recognize an elementary fact of Catholic life, but the truth of the matter is that no pope with his wits about him would use the vehicle of an interview with a journalist to discuss a new initiative, lay out a pastoral program, or explicate a development of doctrine.”).
And the biggest problem, he says, is the media obsession with “the notion of Salvation by Latex.” He points out that in the last media maelstrom over condoms for AIDS, the media mostly forgot to discuss the efficacy of abstinence and fidelity:
What humane purpose is served by this media obsession with condoms? What happens to the press’s vaunted willingness to challenge conventional wisdom when the issue at hand is anything touching on sexual license? It seems to disappear. And one fears that a lot of people are seriously hurt — and die — as at least an indirect result. Consciences indeed need to be examined in the matter of condoms, Catholics, and AIDS. But the consciences in question are those of the press.
So even if most readers just went for the headline and will forever be confused about the matter, the press can’t help but be aware at how many of them flubbed the story. How should they handle it now? Run corrections and clarifications on the same front-page the other stories ran? Examine their consciences, as Weigel suggests? Or what?