A Roman Easter Rashomon

Marge: “You liked Rashomon!”

Homer: “That’s not how I remember it.”

The Simpsons, Thirty Minutes over Tokyo, (16 May 1999).

The title of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, Rashomon, has entered the English-language as a term to describe the conundrum where eyewitness accounts to an event are true but contradictory.

Set in 12th-century Japan, Rashomon  describes a chance meeting in a forest between a bandit, a samurai and his wife. A sexual encounter takes place followed by a death — but the plot revolves around whether this was a rape and if the death was murder or suicide. The film shows four conflicting accounts of the incident: from the perspective of the bandit, the samurai’s wife, the dead samurai speaking through a spirit medium, and a passing woodcutter.  As each narrates their version of the event, the film shows images of the incident that demonstrate truthfulness of the four characters’ accounts. But unlike a traditional mystery where falsehood is unmasked, and truth revealed, Rashomon presents each account as being true. What is truth?

I share this nugget of Japanese film lore as one explanation of the reporting of Pope Benedict XVI’s Holy Thursday chrismal mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope took a verbal stick to a dissident priests’ movement and gave them a mighty whack, or the pope held out an olive branch to a dissident priests’ movement and invited them to enter into dialogue. Are one, both, neither accounts true?

The English-language press reports Pope Benedict XVI denounced in harsh terms the Pfarrer Initiative (pastor initiative), a reform movement founded in 2006 by Austrian Roman Catholic clergy that has called for abolishing priestly celibacy and permitting the ordination of women priests.

Some of the stories are quite strong. The Daily Mail‘s article was entitled “Pope denounces rebel clergy who question church teaching on celibacy and ordaining woman.”

A number of newspaper ran the story from the Associated Press. Most newspapers along with the television networks ABC and CBS used the headline supplied by the AP: “Pope denounces dissident priests on celibacy”.  The New York Daily News picked up the tempo with “Pope Benedict XVI slams priests who question church on celibacy.” The Washington Post chose “Pope denounces dissident priests who question church teaching on celibacy, ordaining women” for its title, while across town the Washington Times ran with “Pope rips into dissident priests on celibacy”.

The pope “rips”, “slams”, “denounces” rebel clergy — strong stuff. All that is needed to complete the picture are Batman art cards — “Sock, Bam, Pow, Biff, Boom.”

The BBC and the New York Times followed this general line but used the less harsh but still strong verb “rebuke.” “Pope Benedict XVI rebukes Austrian dissident priests” and “Pope Rebukes Priests Who Advocate Ordaining Women and Ending Celibacy.”

However, the Irish Times did not follow the herd on this one. The story submitted by its Rome correspondent was entitled “Pope chides Catholics who query key beliefs.” The Italian newspaper La Stampa also broke ranks with its story “Disobedience is not a way to renew the Church, Pope tells dissident priests.”

The report in the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, on the pope’s homily entitled “Pope to priests: Be configured to Christ” is even further from the AP’s perspective.

The lede in the AP story is that the pope

issued a blistering denunciation Thursday of priests who have questioned church teaching on celibacy and ordaining women, saying they were being selfish in disobeying his authority.

The article offers a quick summary of the Pfarrer Initiative and then pulls quotes from the pope’s homily.

… Benedict said the dissidents claim to be motivated by concern for the church. But he suggested that in reality they were just making “a desperate push to do something to change the church in accordance with (their) own preferences and ideas.”

“We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date,” he said. “But is disobedience really a way to do this?”

He said Jesus always followed true obedience to God’s will, not “human caprice.”

And he rejected the dissidents’ idea that the church had been “fossilized” since the Second Vatican Council, saying that on the contrary, the growth of new religious movements in recent decades showed the vitality and true renewal of the church called for by the 1962-65 Vatican II.

These are accurate quotes from the pope’s homily, but the truth of this report conflicts with the truth of the Italian reports. L’Osservatore Romano states the pope accepts the

“possibility as well that the signers of this summons were motivated ‘by concern for the Church’, and … invites us to reflect on how it is possible to realize this configuration to Christ  “in the often dramatic situation of the Church today”. The temptation to disobedience, the Pope explained, seems to be merely “a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas”.  Maybe because Christ “seems too lofty and too great for us to dare to measure ourselves by him”.

The Austrian press  reports the leaders of the Pfarrer initiative did not take the pope’s words to be a harsh rebuke but an invitation to discussion. Mgr. Helmut Schueller said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the homily according to an account printed in the Weiner Zeitung. “It is important to note the Pope has threatened no consequences. We are part of the church for him,” the Kurier quoted Mgr. Schueller as saying in response to the homily.

So which is it?

Singling out the Pfarrer initiative for criticism in the context of a holy week homily is unusual. The notice given to this is warranted, however, the “rips”, “slams”, “denounces” rebel clergy line taken by the AP and other papers misses the point of the pontiff’s homily.

The pope accepts the dissident clergy are acting according to the lights of their own conscience, but he rejects the notion that disobedience is the way to achieve a moral good. “A priest never belongs to himself,” the pope said, but must conform his life to Christ and in service to the church. “We preach not private theories and opinions, but the faith of the Church, whose servants we are.”

Are Mgr. Schueller and his compatriots in Austria being disingenuous then by saying they are pleased by the pope’s comments. I think not. What they hear is the pope’s disagreement with their views, but not a call for their silence. While the AP reports the pope rejects criticism the church has become fossilized, the Pfarrer Initiative clergy hear him to be saying their concerns have merit. The reasons for their concern are being heard. It is the way they are seeking to address these concerns that is being criticized.

Is this an example of the Rashomon effect — with the Austrian clergy, the Italian newspapers and the English-language newspapers hearing the same words but hearing a different truth? Or has the press blown it by focusing on one portion of a homily to the exclusion of the full message?

What say you GetReligion readers? Read the pope’s homily for yourself and tell me what you think.

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  • Jerry

    Is this an example of the Rashomon effect — with the Austrian clergy, the Italian newspapers and the English-language newspapers hearing the same words but hearing a different truth? Or has the press blown it by focusing on one portion of a homily to the exclusion of the full message?

    Or both at the same time?

    I think I’ve posted this quote here before but it might apply here:

    “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant”

    Because I think that to some extent this quote illuminates what is going on.

    A related perspective is how difficult communication between people can be due to different styles. When my wife says “I think I probably” want to do something, she’s not expressing uncertainty but making a strong statement. When she asks me what my plans for the evening are, she might or might not want to have us plan something together rather than asking a straight forward question.

    These examples illustrates the communication style recommended in business and in psychology: reflect back what you heard to the speaker and ask for concurrence or correction. Only with a completed feedback loop do you have some certainty about understanding.

    Specifically to the homily, I read it the way the Pfarrer people did. What I believe I read was the Pope saying that those people could have legitimate concerns but that their method and conclusion about what should be done was in error. In other words the La Stampa headline was correct and your reading of what the Pope said is correct.

  • http://www.doulos.at Wolf Paul

    I think a part of the press is not interesting to hear the Pope speaking in a reasonable and pastoral tone to these dissidents. “Pope rips dissidents” is a much better headline than anything a reasonable reading of the homily would have afforded. And of course it is more in keeping with their own view of the Pope and the Church.

  • Julia

    “Roshamon” is the perfect comparison for the wildly different takes on the Pope’s words. There is an American film that re-tells the story as a Western that is pretty good, too.

    The differing takes on this homily were startling. I had read La Stampa first – a different article than the one linked here, but I can no longer find it at the La Stampa site. That article included a description of Benedict’s usual style of putting himself into the head of the other to show his understanding of the real issues. The other reports seem to have a Rotweiler version of the Pope in mind.

  • Julia

    Singling out the Pfarrer initiative for criticism in the context of a holy week homily is unusual.

    Not really. In the Catholic Church, Holy Thursday is considered the anniversary of the institution of the priesthood. Note that the occasion was not the evening services, but the morning Chrism Mass where holy oils for the coming year are consecrated. These oils are distributed at the Mass to representatives of the various parishes in the diocese. As a consequence, there will be many parish priests in attendance from all over the diocese. The Pope is the bishop of Rome, after all.

    Bishops around the world will often focus their homily at their Chrism Masses on the meaning and sometimes difficulties of being a priest. Parish priests can feel isolated and not understood by their bishop; Holy Thursday is the perfect opportunity to speak about the responsibilities and duties of priests, and their importance to the church.

    And I have heard pastors at the evening Holy Thursday Mass speak about the priesthood in the homily directed to their congregation.

  • Julia

    Found it. Here’s the La Stampa article that addresses how the Pope’s homily at the Chrism Mass was received by the Austrian priests’ group.

    Ratzinger advocates dialogue not sanctions for “rebel” Austrian priests

    One of the members of the Pfarrer Initiative’s executive board, Hans Bensdorp, goes further. Speaking to Vatican Insider, he stressed that when the Pope states that Christ “corrected human customs which threatened to suffocate the word and will of God,” he chooses “words” which are not that much different to the ones used by his own movement to express its “concerns”. What is more, he added, “he does not condemn our group. He asks a great deal of questions – questions we should take seriously.”

    Commenting on the Pope’s homily, the director of Vatican daily broadsheet, L’Osservatore Romano, Gian Maria Vian, wrote that Pope Benedict XVI “placing himself, as he always does, in the shoes of the person whom he is questioning, asked himself whether obedience does not in fact foster ultra-conservatism and make tradition more rigid.” He added that “Disobedience is not the way forward and neither is inflexibility.”

    http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/homepage/the-vatican/detail/articolo/austria-14134/

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    What I see is that, as usual, themeeja reported on one paragraph

  • Martha

    I think this is a case of “both/and” rather than “either/or”. For the Pope to mention a particular group that are easily identifiable in a sermon during Holy Week, and not just talk in general terms about obedience, is very strong, particularly for this Pope, so I was fully expecting the “slams, denounces, condemns” language. And naturally, for their part, the Austrian group is going to concentrate on the parts most favourable to them, rather than saying “Yes, Holy Father, we hear your paternal rebuke and return chastened!”

    On the other hand, the Pope is giving the best interpretation to their motives that he can – that they are acting out of genuine principle, even if their methods are wrong, and it is not because of selfishness on their part.

    However, all in all, I think what he is saying is that while freedom of conscience is preserved in legitimately debatable matters, where matters have been decided and pronounced upon once for all – and his invocation of Blessed John Paul II here on women’s ordination was a very strong mention – then they must conform their practice to the teaching of the Church.

  • Meggan

    Read the pope’s homily for yourself and tell me what you think.

    What?! Think for ourselves?

  • Guy

    In my experience, Roman Catholic institutional discourse is always reminiscent of Kabuki theatre, to borrow another Japanese cultural metaphor. That is to say, an elaborate “dance” in which the participants all understand the gestures and steps, but which appears hopelessly opaque to the uninitiated, particularly among the secular media, which is always somewhat perplexed by religious discourse in
    general.

    Similarly, given the media’s economic drivers, representing the political posturings of religious factions as “Fight Club” is bound to stir up more reader interest and generate higher advertising revenues, than a more restrained approach.

    I had the occasion to watch Kurosawa’s film recently and was struck by how the emphasis is not so much on the inability of the court to arrive at the “truth” of what actually transpired – and it’s easy to forget that the stories are presented as testimony within a legal context – but on the trauma of the characters who have taken refuge
    from the deluge within the crumbling shrine.

    That is to say, the film takes as “given” the perspectival /
    subjective nature of narrative accounts – this is, after all, a mise-en-abîme of the cinematic form itself – we are dependent on unseen hands for the filmic representation of what we are watching; we know nothing of their reliability or the “truth” of the narrative presented – indeed, we take for granted that what Kurosawa shows us is a fictional account.

    Rather, I think, the film’s central theme appears to be whether there can be faith or hope in the human condition in the absence of a common understanding of “facts” or what we might call objective narratability. And, it seems to me, the Roman Catholic Church itself already implicitly accepts these limits of representation by vesting authority in the institution itself, and its human representatives.
    Note that the Pope’s critique of the Austrian priests isn’t based on a failure of textual exigesis or a misunderstanding of certain “facts”. Instead, the Pope relies on an appeal to institutional tradition and his own authority (as the representative of Christ on earth).

    So, at the end of “Rashomon” we are left with something of a
    Kiergegaardian “leap of faith” or fideistic affirmation of life in the absence of “truth”, as conventionally understood.

    Or something like that.

  • SouthCoast

    ” “It is important to note the Pope has threatened no consequences. We are part of the church for him,” the Kurier quoted Mgr. Schueller as saying in response to the homily.”

    Pure Rashomon, much as was Ms. Pelosi and supporting media’s reporting of her Papal audience.

    Btw, the origin of “Rashomon” is the story, “In a Bamboo Grove”, by the great Japanese author Ry?nosuke Akutagawa (whose works I humbly recomment to all readers).

  • Ross

    All I can say for sure is that my general mistrust of any and all newspapers came when I realized that what they don’t say about a story is just as important, if not more so, than what they do say about a story. After that, how they say what they do say is the next most important thing.

    Notice I’m not saying that they were inaccurate or deliberately misleading. I merely think that it is telling and often intriguing what a news report will choose to mention and/or emphasize.

  • Will

    And of course, there was an outbreak of tabloidese.

    London, Aug. 20 1888 — YARD SLAMS RIPPER

  • Will

    Or, if Sharpton was mouthing off about conditions on Riker’s Island, would it be
    AL RIPS SLAMMER


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