Breaking news about the pope of Rome

What we have here is an example of a very serious religion-news story, one that is worthy of serious coverage in the mainstream press. A newspaper has covered it and that is good.

Kind of.

However, this story from Toronto also contains one of the scream-out-loud hilarious mistakes that I have seen in the entire history of GetReligion. You literally could not make this one up. No way.

So where to start? The serious story, of course. What we have here is another clash between an ancient faith (in this case Coptic Orthodoxy) and the moral tug of modernity (symbolized this time around by the government of Canada). What makes this case interesting is that educators in Catholic institutions have been caught in the middle of the conflict.

Here’s the top of this Toronto Star report by the “visual arts” (?!?) reporter:

The president of the Canadian Egyptian Congress is urging parents to reject a call by a Coptic Orthodox priest to pull some 4,000 children out of the Catholic school system if it adopts a policy more accepting of homosexuality and religious difference.

The school board has proposed an Equity and Inclusive Education policy, to be voted on at the end of August, that softens some strictures of Catholic doctrine to fall more in line with provincial standards.

“The kids have friends, they have a place to go, and they would lose that,” Nazeer Bishay said. … “And besides, we don’t have enough schools for all of them. So we will lobby, we will pressure the board, we will keep up the fight. But we do not recommend withdrawal.” He and others in the Coptic Orthodox community plan to schedule a meeting with the Toronto Catholic District School Board to discuss their concerns.

At this point, the Star does something very logical, which is to explain why Coptic Orthodox children would be attending Catholic schools in the first place.

Oh, sorry, the story doesn’t really do that. That would have been an interesting point to make, since I would be willing to bet that Coptic parents have been making these decisions in order to send their children to schools with moral doctrines that echo those in their own faith. In this case, the parents may also have hoped that the schools would stand firm on underlining the differences between ancient Christianity and Islam, a subject that matters to Copts.

However, what this story does attempt to do is, in one paragraph, explain the differences between Copts and Catholics, since someone must have mentioned that both churches have hierarchies that feature a leader with that highly newsworthy title — “pope.”

If you are holding a beverage of any kind, please put it down on a flat surface several feet away from your computer keyboard.

Ready? Proceed with caution.

Though most in the Coptic Orthodox community send their children to Catholic school, they are not Catholic themselves. The differences are slight — they use the same liturgies, though Orthodox Christians differ from Roman Catholics in their belief that the Pope is a human being, not a divine figure — which has meant Coptic Orthodox children most often are sent to Catholic school.

All together now: Catholics teach that their pope is WHAT?!?!

A “divine figure”? What in the world does that mean?

While we are at it, in Associated Press style the word “pope” should be lower-case when it stands alone. Also, I should mention that there are major liturgical differences between the Divine Liturgy as celebrated in Coptic Orthodox congregations and the Mass as observed in Western Rite Catholic parishes.

All of that, needless to say, is small potatoes compared with the howler about the pope somehow sliding into the Holy Trinity or Holy Quartet as some kind of “divine figure.”

Obviously there should be a correction. However, it does not appear that the editors of the Star will take that honorable path. Instead, the online version of the story now reads:

Though most in the Coptic Orthodox community send their children to Catholic school, they are not Catholic themselves. The differences are slight, which has meant Coptic Orthodox children most often are sent to Catholic school.

No mention of an error being corrected.

Nothing to see here. Please move along.

Images: Coptic Pope Shenouda III and, second, Pope Benedict XVI.

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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.

  • http://keaneobservation.blogspot.com/ Largebill

    Dang-it. I was bound and determined not to learn anything new today and you ruined it. Didn’t know they had their own pope. I, cluelessly, assumed we were the only ones to use that title.

    As to the subject of your post I’m almost to the point that my blood doesn’t boil anymore from the blatant anti-religious slanting of most news stories.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Largebill:

    This isn’t anti-religious slanting, at least in the passage containing this error.

    This is just… DUH.

  • http://www.simondodd.org Simon

    “While we are at it, in Associated Press style the word ‘pope’ should be lower-case when it stands alone.”

    I do not take very seriously the AP’s recommendations about anything—least of all style, considering that the very same style book urges (and is in large part responsible for the prevalence of) the lamentable substitution of “Cardinal John Doe” for “John Cardinal Doe.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    SIMON:

    You are welcome to your opinion.

    It’s rather irrelevant to discussions of newspapers, but you are welcome to it. That is a classic issue of style, not a matter of accuracy that affects content of NON-CATHOLIC READERS of newspapers.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Whenever I read mistakes as egregious as the one calling the pope a “divine figure’ in the mainstream media–and I have seen very, very many of them– it makes me wonder if a similar level of ignorance or stupidity is at work on stories we read about political affairs, about world events.

  • Chris Jones

    Father Deacon,

    it makes me wonder if a similar level of ignorance or stupidity is at work on stories we read about political affairs, about world events.

    Probably not, because world events and (especially) political affairs are considered Important by journalists, whereas things having to do with religion are, by definition, unimportant, except insofar as they have an impact on politics (which is the only important thing).

  • Chris Jones

    The differences are slight

    As I noted on another blog, both the Pope (Benedict of Rome) and the Pope (Shenouda of Alexandria) would be very surprised to learn that the difference between Miaphysite and Dyophysite are “slight.” Difficult to explain, yes, and not all that relevant to the matter being reported, to be sure; but not “slight.” The Star is probably right that its readers would find the differences arcane, but they are robust enough to have kept the two Churches out of communion for over 1,500 years.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    A howler like this reaches the level of “not even wrong”.

  • Chris Jones

    Some context about public education in Ontario may be helpful in understanding this story.

    Ontario has a system of what are called “separate schools.” A “separate school” is a public school (paid for with public funds) which serves children of a minority religion. In most of Ontario, the “minority faith” is Roman Catholicism, so a “separate school” is a Catholic school on the public dime.

    The choice faced by the Coptic parents is whether to send their children to the “public school” or the “separate school.” The public school is avowedly secular and the separate school is avowedly Catholic, but both are operated and funded by the province. The point at issue in this story is to what extent the province can, or should, make the Catholic “separate schools” conform to the secular values of the wider society (which would make them less distinctively Catholic).

    It is a bit ironic that the non-Roman-Catholic Copts are the ones who are making a stand that the separate schools should continue to have separate values. It would seem that the Copts of Toronto are being “more Catholic than the Pope” (though not, perhaps, more Catholic than their own Pope).

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    Thanks for this post. On a day when the stock market sank another 500 points, I needed the laugh.

  • SouthCoast

    “it makes me wonder if a similar level of ignorance or stupidity is at work on stories we read about political affairs, about world events.” Given the egregious levels of ignorance and inanity present in reportage about things with which I am personally acquainted (ranging from religion to anthroplogy to engineering to…), I’d say that your fear is well-founded.

  • Harry

    Huh. Maybe Jack Chick is their advisor when it comes to Catholic topics?

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    I would not call the separate school “avowedly Catholic.” It is run by a board elected by people who were baptized Catholic. Many of them don’t go to mass and don’t really want their kids taught the faith. They want secular education with a few prayers and proper holidays. Then there are some parents and teachers trying to inject a more solid faith formation into the curriculum. Their success is very uneven. Some schools are a lot more Catholic and other are a lot more secular mostly based on the principal.

    The bishops do have a limited role. They can withdraw their approval and the schools would stop being Catholic. But that is a very blunt instrument and typically not used. The Bishop in Calgary did recently get the school board to stop running casinos by making this kind of stand. Still the separate school board normally runs the schools with the bishop playing only a minor role.

  • str

    From the title I expected that this would be about Catholics and Copts supposedly recognizing different people as Pope, when in fact they don’t, as one is the Pope, Patriarch and Bishop of Rome and the other the Pope, Patriarch and Bishop of Alexandria.

    As it turned out, such a false claim was not explicitely made and the actual statement was not merely false but ridiculous.

    Still, you forgot to point out that the passage containing the statement doesn’t make sense in either version:

    The differences are slight (…), which has meant Coptic Orthodox children most often are sent to Catholic school?

  • Howard

    I had assumed the howler was

    The school board has proposed an Equity and Inclusive Education policy, to be voted on at the end of August, that softens some strictures of Catholic doctrine to fall more in line with provincial standards.

    Since when does a school board have the authority to “soften some strictures of Catholic doctrine”?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Thank goodness this got clarified. I’ve been so busy worshiping statues that adding a pope into the mix would blow my schedule out of the water.

    Ok, the article: apart from the howler, I thought it was interesting, but clearly for an insider audience that would understand the funding of Ontario schools.

    More significantly, if you wade through the comments,(in flame-retardant clothes), the question comes up as to whether the Canadian Egyptian Congress is a legitimate organization. In fact, a google search turned up nothing about it apart from the story (this post, btw, was the first hit). There was a hit on “Canadian Egyptian Congress”, but the page appears to be dead.

    So what’s up with this Congress?

  • Chris Jones

    The “Canadian Egyptian Congress” may well have been organised specifically to represent the Copts’ interests in this particular controversy. But that does not mean that it is not representative of the Toronto Coptic community, or that it is somehow not “legitimate.” It is an interest and advocacy group for a particular community, and such groups are usually organised and run by those with the most enthusiasm about whatever the issues are. They have just as much legitimacy as their numbers and financial support from their community give them — no more, no less.

    (I remember from my youth back in the late 60s one such advocacy group called “Operation Give A Damn.” I’ve always thought that an excellent name for such a group: those who “give a damn” about whatever the issues are are in the group; those who don’t, aren’t.)

  • Matt

    Um…how about the fact that there is a MAJOR difference in theology. The Copts aren’t even in union with the Eastern Orthodox Church. They’re Chalcedonias. Wow Star…epic fail!

  • Howard

    @Matt — You mean the Eastern Orthodox are, like the Catholic Church, the ones who accept the Council of Chalcedon. The Copts have been accused of being monophysites. My understanding is that they now claim that they never were truly monophysites, but that the confusion came (as it so often has) due to a difference in language. Well, maybe. If so, the theological divide may be less than it has traditionally been perceived to be.

  • pcorder

    “the differences are slight”

    Well is Jesus 50% man and 50% God or is He 100% man and 100% God? That is a difference of 50 percentage points. That seem like a big difference to me :).

    I had a hard time controlling my laughter when I read this post. Bless their hearts.

  • Bene D

    “…Associated Press style the word “pope” should be lower-case when it stands alone”

    Why would a Canadian newspaper be expected to use AP styling?

    #14: “Since when does a school board have the authority to “soften some strictures of Catholic doctrine”?”

    I think Chris explained @9. 3 provinces have separate schools, paid for by taxpayers. Public and private school boards are subject to civil authority; the trustees answer to voters and provincial law. Because RC schools are publicly funded, they have to abide by Canadian Charter principles.

  • str

    “Because RC schools are publicly funded, they have to abide by Canadian Charter principles.”

    That’s the claim but the one does not follow from the other.

    What’s the point of having separate school when do interefere with their being separate?

  • str

    pcorder,

    “Well is Jesus 50% man and 50% God or is He 100% man and 100% God? That is a difference of 50 percentage points. That seem like a big difference to me”

    Only that nobody believes that Christ is 50% man or God – even claiming that Copts – Monophysite as they are – believe that Christ is 100% God (and 0% man?) would be a misrepresentation.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Bene

    AP style is global, since the wire service is global.

    The Star is a major MSM publication. I am sure they contribute material to AP and, thus, use the AP stylebook or there own which is built on it.

  • Howard

    @Bene D

    You miss my point. The school board has no authority to change “some strictures of Catholic doctrine”. The school board can refuse to believe them, refuse to teach them, and refuse to live by them, but they cannot actually change anything about Catholic doctrine.

    Doing it for C$, as you admit they are doing, is just one indication of how far from the Catholic ideal Canadian “Catholic” schools really are.

  • Julia

    Actually, some Copts do have a Pope in Rome. That’s why it is so funny to read the usual phrase in news reports: “Copts and Catholics”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_Catholic_Church

    Since the Catholic Copts use the Alexandrian Rite and not the one called the Roman Rite, their liturgies are different from the standard Western liturgies and more like their fellow Egyptian Copts, the Orthodox Copts.

  • Julia

    On the subject of Coptic Christians:

    On July 22nrd, CSPAN broadcast the US House/Helsinki Commission hearing on the kidnapping of Coptic women, who were forced to marry Muslims and convert. It was titled “The Future of Christians in Egypt”. One of the speakers, Jean Maher, is an Orthodox Copt, now living in Paris, who explained why indigenous Christians across the Muslim world, including Egypt, are often well-to-do and can afford to flee to the West.

    Mr. Maher explained that his and others’ Christian ancestors had the wherewithal to pay the jezira tax levied on Christians who didn’t convert to Islam. Those who thus remained Christian were not necessarily rich, but they did have enough to afford the tax. Consequently, their descendents are often professionals and shop owners, which irritates some of their less-well-off Muslim neighbors.

    Another thing of interest to news reporters – he said all indigenous Egyptians are Copts, which is an ethnic not a religious term. It was the invading Muslims who called the indigenous Egyptians “Copts”. He has Muslim friends back in Egypt who are proud to say they are Coptic Muslims and not Arabs. This point is also missed by news media who assume that all Christians in the Near East are Arabs – they are not. They are typically not Muslims who converted; they are Christians who did not convert to Islam.

    The hearing is over 2 hours long. The Coptic gentleman is the last of the main speakers.

    http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/MinoritiesinE

    Here’s the timeline so you can find Jean Maher’s testimony.

    http://www.c-spanvideo.org/videoLibrary/event.php?id=196001&timeline

  • Greg

    The Canadian press is not known for the mental acumen of its reporters, particularly when it comes to religion, especially Catholicism.

  • MartinS

    LOL! God provides humour and employment even during times of persecution. :) You guys won’t run out of work showing us the funny finger painting of the MSM.

  • Titus

    Didn’t know they had their own pope. I, cluelessly, assumed we were the only ones to use that title.

    The similarity is purely semantic: a Coptic pope is merely a patriarch; he does not purport to exercise the Petrine office.

    “While we are at it, in Associated Press style the word ‘pope’ should be lower-case when it stands alone.”

    I do not take very seriously the AP’s recommendations about anything—least of all style</blockquote

    Although the author's summary of the rule is a bit clumsy, this is the general CMS standard for all offices: the name of an office is not capitalized unless it precedes the holder's name ("Pope Benedict") or is used in place of the particular holder's name ("The Pope said hello.") Cf. "The pope is the successor of St. Peter."

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Invoking anti-Catholicism seems much, particularly dragging up the ghost of Jack Chick. He was malicious and bore false witness. This article is just rather silly.

  • KM

    @Simon: I remember more than a few years ago when Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore got his red hat. He was appearing on a local morning news show (where the Presbyterian anchor and Jewish weatherman were just going stone cold bonkers with excitement bordering on giddyness that Baltimore was getting a cardinal; but I digress) and the question of where to put the title came up. His Eminence (at the time, technically, His Excellency) himself told them that the form “William Cardinal Keeler” would be used in formal ecclesiastical situations, while “Cardinal William Keeler” would be fine in less formal use. Although I grew up in an era where even the secular media used the formal address, I would think Cardinal Keeler’s statement is as definitive as any, questionable opinions of the AP notwithstanding.

    Of course, when we’re talking AP style, we know we’ve entered an area where, infamously, no one is pro-life or anti-life, only anti-abortion or pro-choice, respectively. That kind of warped mentality is depraved in the extreme, and a casual stroll through the style guide will reveal numerous such instances of straining out gnats and swallowing camels.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    KM:

    Actually, it’s anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights.

    Most newsrooms dropped pro-choice long ago out of issues of fairness.

  • David Elton

    As more and more young people take “journalism” jobs, you see more and more of these silly mistakes. Poorly educated, with adolescent, sometimes cartoonish, views.

  • Dr Robert Pichette

    The Government of Canada is not involved, rather the Government of the Province of Ontario is since, in Canada, education is, constitutionally, the exclusive jurisdiction of provincial and territorial governments.

  • Patrick

    (Knock on the Catholic school door)

    “Open up! We’ve got a warrant to impound that pro-homosexual literature.”

    Catholic teacher: “Oh (expletive)! Flush that stuff – it’s the COPTS!”


    What?

  • Bene D

    TMatt:

    Okay. Thanks. CP (Canadian Press) is the AP distributor/supplier in Canada, and is partially owned by TorStar Holidings.
    The CP style book is online, and you’d be more qualified than I am to ascertain how much is AP styling. I was in broadcasting and we fed BN. If CP also uses styling from Columbia and BBC etc., that wouldn’t be surprising.

    Howard, I’m not saying the province can change Catholic doctrine, I’m saying that as a provincial tax dollar receiving entity, Ontario Catholic School Boards are subject to provincial and federal law.
    Dr. Pichette, schools can’t violate Charter rights – by extension – the Ontario Human Rights Code. So yes, it’s a provincial jurisdiction matter, I stand corrected.

    The Equitable and Inclusive Education policy is in line with a 2009 Ontario Ministry of Education strategy.
    The Catholic School boards don’t get a pass.
    I don’t see why this is a Catholic doctrinal issue in reading the board document. I not clear why it’s a Copt doctrinal problem either.

    http://www.tcdsb.org/policyregister/HM24.html

    A heck of a lot of none Catholics attend Ontario Catholic schools. In Ontario if one parent gets baptized Catholic, their kid is in and not stuck on a waiting list for elementary school. Ontario Catholic high schools do not have that requirement.

    http://www.oneschoolsystem.org/denominational_rights.html

    It’s a dumb system, and some day Ontario may get up to speed. The kids in my family attend separate and public schools btw.

    Meantime Hindu and Jewish groups in TO object to the public system offering Muslim kids a Friday prayer space.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Actually I can see an anti-religious bent to this. If Roman Catholics really did think the pope was divine, I could see how this would justify a lot of the anti-Catholic bigotry that exists, or at least make it seem less extreme.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    The differences are slight — they use the same liturgies, though Orthodox Christians differ from Roman Catholics in their belief that the Pope is a human being, not a divine figure . . .”

    In Catholic school, we learned that after the College of Cardinals selects one of their own to serve as the new Pope, a crack team of white-suited albino cryogenicists rushes in to place the Pontiff-elect into a state of suspended animation. After extracting the new Pontiff’s mojo and transferring it into a crystal vessel, they place the vessel onto a manually operated lift located deep within a dungeon in the Vatican. A skylight in the dungeon ceiling is opened and the crystal vessel is raised on the lift (to the tune of Latin chant) and a celestial lightning bolt strikes the vessel of mojo, thus rendering it divine. A three-dimensional holographic image of the Pontiff is created and the image generator is infused with the now divine mojo, and it is this holographic image that appears to the public for the remainder of the new Pope’s pontificate, always operated behind the curtains by a cadre of sinister priest-handlers.

    It is thus perfectly true, as the newspaper account mentions, that Catholics believe the Pope is not a human being, but a divine figure.

    Honestly! Don’t you all know anything about your Catholic faith?

  • str

    Bene D,

    “Howard, I’m not saying the province can change Catholic doctrine, I’m saying that as a provincial tax dollar receiving entity, Ontario Catholic School Boards are subject to provincial and federal law.”

    So are you saying, those not receiving state money are not subject to the law?

    Neither does it follow that because they receive state money the state may dictate to them.


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