The masterpiece of Satan

Ad fontes — to the sources — is a helpful phrase to keep in mind when reading press reports about church leaders. It is always useful to set what is reported to have been said by the pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leading clerics against the text of their address. Sometimes the two do not agree.

The Daily Mail this week had a story about a speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, that was sort of true. The reporter’s interpretation of what the archbishop said missed the nuances of Dr. Williams’ objections to gay marriage. As British commentator Peter Ould noted, the “over my dead body” tone ascribed to Dr. Williams by the Daily Mail didn’t quite match the archbishop’s argument that gay marriage was not an “intrinsic human right.”

This is nuance, (and I should say that understanding Rowan Williams is like learning Hungarian — a very difficult skill that few people have mastered and one that doesn’t reward the student for his labors).

And then there is error. By error I mean the sort of report produced last Friday by the Independent on Pope Benedict XVI. (The same story by the same author also appeared in the Belfast Telegraph and the print edition of the Irish Independent.)

Blogger Amy Welborn drew my attention to this 24 February 2012 story datelined Milan entitled “Pope warns Church to resist temptations of power after moves to canonise Don Luigi Giussani.”

It begins:

Pope Benedict XVI has warned the Catholic Church to resist temptations of power, even as it emerged that ecclesiastical figures in Milan had moved to canonise Don Luigi Giussani, the founder of the Vatican’s controversial political campaigning wing.

It then moves into a one paragraph summary of the pope’s Ash Wednesday audience.

The Pontiff told his weekly audience on Ash Wednesday this week that the Church was faced with temptations of power just as Jesus was in the desert. “Jesus found himself exposed to danger and faced with the temptation of the evil one who offered him a Messianism far afield from God’s plan, through success and power and dominion,” he said, adding that the same was faced “by the Church and us believers”.

The article drops the pope in paragraph three and moves the scene north to Milan. It reports that unnamed critics are concerned about moves “to make a saint of Don Giussani,” a priest and scholar whose “teachings gave rise to Communion and Liberation”, which the article describes as an “ultra-conservative, lay organisation” that has pursued a “right-wing social agenda on topics including stem cell research and assisted dying.”

It would have helped had the Independent mentioned Mgr. Guissani’s first name was Luigi. Don is an honorific that is almost always followed by the first name, not the surname, but I digress. More commentary and a quote follow:

Moderate catholic groups have opposed its aims and methods. But Pope John Paul II backed the organisation’s political campaigning. And its current, central position in Italian society was underlined last year when a key Communion and Liberation figure, Cardinal Angelo Scola, became the Archbishop of Milan.

As archbishop, Cardinal Scola, who had been a close friend of Don Giussani until his death in 2005 aged 82, received the official Communion and Liberation request to begin the beatification and canonisation processes.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise: the Vatican has always been about power,” said James Walston, a politics professor at the American University in Rome. “But if Don Giussani’s the sort of person they’re going to be canonising, then Heaven help us.”

The article then goes off on a different tangent, dropping the Communion and Liberation angle but moving farther away from the Ash Wednesday homily.

Another prominent Church figure – the Milan priest, tycoon and hospital director Don Luigi Verzè, who died last year – was accused of being too close to the rich and powerful as result of close friendships with Silvio Berlusconi and disgraced former Italian prime minister Bettino Craxi.

He left a €1.5 billion black hole in the accounts of Milan’s San Raffaele teaching hospital and faced allegations of fraud.

In her note to GetReligion, Ms Welborn stated that the author appeared to have a “lot of time on his hands” to be able to connect the Pope’s Ash Wednesday Homily to the “first steps in the movement in the canonization cause” of Mgr. Giussani.

She also observed that “power is used to connect these first two stories with “some random rich guy priest in Milan who seems to have no connection to any of this.”

Is Ms. Welborn being fair? I think she is being too kind. This article is, as she notes, “bizarre”. But it is also tendentious, sloppy, one-sided, and logically challenged.

What we have are three stories that concern Italy and Roman Catholics that have been cobbled together by the Independent under the theme of power (or the abuse thereof). Now a talented writer possesses the stylistic legerdemain to tie just about any story together — this reporter does not have this skill.

Looking at the official English language text of the pope’s Ash Wednesday weekly audience, I did not find the quotes cited in the Independent article. The power passage does appears in the Italian version. A partial English language translation came in a 22 February 2012 bulletin from the ANSI news agency. As the Independent story was written from Milan the day after the English-language ANSI story was published, I assume ANSI was the source.

Remember — ad fontes. The ANSI summary does not do justice to what the pope said. His homily was not about power but conversion of life.

In these forty days may we draw nearer to the Lord by meditating on his word and example, and conquer the desert of our spiritual aridity, selfishness and materialism.

The Independent assumes the audience for the pope’s warning against the pursuit of power was the Vatican. However, if you read the homily you find the intended audience are Christians believers — the “pilgrim church” (Chiesa in cammino), not the institutional church. The issue of power was one of a number of minor chords played by the pope. Nor did I find the English equivalent of the phrase quoted by ANSI, faced “by the church and us believers.”

I was also struck by the reporter’s apparent unfamiliarity with the pope’s book “Jesus of Nazareth“. The best seller (2.5 million copies as of 2008) discusses the temptation narrative in detail and the Ash Wednesday homily is thematically tied to the book.

Moving to the second story within this story, the comments about Communion and Liberation (CL) are a bit much. The Independent states Pope John Paul II backed CL’s political campaigning. When did he do this? And when did CL engage in political campaigning. Facts that support these allegations are needed to justify the story’s claims.

Pushing Cardinal Scola into this story is also questionable. While the cardinal was involved in CL some 20 years ago, his membership ended when he became a bishop. Was CL responsible for his appointment as Archbishop of Milan? If so, say so and show how.

What is the Independent alleging when it mentions that Scola received the request to being the process of canonization of Mgr. Guissani? Is this a hint of an old boys network at work? Why did the Independent omit the statement that as a priest of the Archdiocese of Milan Mgr. Guissani’s case for canonization must first go to the Archbishop of Milan — Cardinal Scola?

The third story within this story is even more bizarre. How does the flamboyant Fr. Verzè relate to CL or the pope? The Independent‘s story about his death makes no mention of any these links but focuses on the priest’s ties to disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. A further aside — the Independent should widen its expert list, the same professor who offered caustic comments about Mgr. Giuissani in this article is the go to guy in the Independent‘s Verzè story.

So what do we have here. Distorted quotes. No voice appearing in support of Mgr. Giussani or CL. No explanation of the homily. No links between Fr. Verzè and the first two items. Plenty of opinion, but little reporting.

Why did this happen? Did a sub-editor cram three stories into one and slice out the balancing voices and background? Did no one not know any better. Is the Independent‘s reporter a knave or a fool? Or is there more to it?

Anti-Catholicism has a long and respectable history in Britain. Theology, great power rivalries, nationalism, anti-Irish animus have all played their part in its first five hundred years. The last half of the Twentieth century saw the rise of a new variety — an English anti-clericalism expressed by the chattering classes in disdain for the established church and a loathing for the Church of Rome.

Now this is a very broad statement that I concede is simplistic. But placing the question of the fell hand of a poor editor to one side, I am hard pressed to find an explanation for this story. Knave, fool, something more? Does this meet the test of good reporting?

What say you GetReligion readers?

N.b. The title … Charles Spurgeon said “The masterpiece of Satan is popery;” while Cardinal Manning said “The Catholic Church is either the masterpiece of Satan or the Kingdom of the Son of God.”

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  • Martha

    “understanding Rowan Williams is like learning Hungarian — a very difficult skill that few people have mastered and one that doesn’t reward the student for his labors”

    Now, now, George! Hungarian is a beautiful and distinguished tongue! Granted, the sum total of my exposure to it is (a) Jonathan Harker’s encounter with the Carpathian national dish in “Dracula”: “I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (mem. get recipe for Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called “paprika hendl” and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians” (which apparently is a Romanian rather than Hungarian name for the dish) and (b) the cast list of “Countess Dracula” from Hammer Horror, which starred Sandor Elès as Lt. Imre Toth, but are they not musical and euphonious names, and can a language containing such be anything but beautiful and distinguished? :-D

    As for the news reportage:

    “the Vatican’s controversial political campaigning wing” and “ultra-conservative, lay organisation…a right-wing social agenda”?

    Well, they got the “lay organisation” part right, but as for the rest of it – what can one say? Except in Hungarian, of course!

  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    From what I have read about Communion and Liberation, the core of it seems to be a network of weekly small-group Bible studies within a Catholic framework; it does have a weekly newsletter in Italy that does tack right and makes some of the same mistakes that Christian conservatives in the US and Canada do in getting a bit too attached to the main conservative party.

    Since the small-group Bible studies don’t make news, it’s the stuff that does that the media categorizes as political.

  • Dan

    The Independent article about the Catholic Church forgot to mention the corrupt Renaissance popes, the Inquisition, the sex abuse scandal and Pope Benedict’s stint in the Hitler Youth.

  • Asshur

    @Martha
    “Paprika Hendl” is neither Romanian nor Magyar. It’s a German name … Good ole’ Transilvania was rather a languages/religious “gulash” ;-)
    As for the euphony i agree; but near 20 gramatical cases is a bit too much for me …

  • Martha

    Thanks for the clarification, Asshur. You can’t expect an Anglo-Irishman who did all his research from travel books and who never journeyed to the countries in question to be too clear on what was which, but I should have realised when his character, Jonathan Harker, explains how his school German is really coming in handy :-)

    Also, I just wished to spare both geoconger and GetReligion the righteous wrath of the legions of loyal Hungarian readers ;-)

  • James

    Kind of reads like a DaVinci Code wannabe, doesn’t it?

  • Martha

    James, I suppose if Opus Dei has already been used by Dan Brown, and the Jesuits are too cliché, there was room for a new Roman Catholic Right-Wing Conspiracy Scare group, so here comes the turn of Communion and Liberation :-)

  • Frank

    English anti-Catholicism may be related to the fact that Catholics invented religious terrorism in England when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament.

    Just saying.

  • Max

    It is not too hard to google the www page of Communion and Liberation and get first hand information about who they are. Looks quite fascinating, indeed.
    http://www.comunioneliberazione.org/


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