“Poisonous” Catholic reporting from La Stampa

Sometimes a story is too good to be true. A story with sympathetic victims, righteous heroes, dastardly villains and an issue that all agree is important, but yet is remote to the reader — something that doesn’t touch me — makes a reporter’s day.

One of these stories appeared in the Italian sky last week and burst, producing a torrent of outraged news stories. A Catholic priest denied Communion to a mentally disabled child because the boy was “Non è capace di intendere e volere” — not capable of consent, of understanding the holy mysteries of the sacraments, reported the Italian daily La Republicca.

The Italian press had a field day with the story of Fr.  Piergiorgio Zaghi of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Porto Garibaldi, a village near Ferrara in Northern Italy. And it was picked up by all of the major newspapers and news sites in Italy.

It also topped the now famous Washington Post story about Fr. Marcel Guarnizo who declined to give Communion to Buddhist-Catholic-artist-gay-activist Barbara Johnson. The gay angle muddied the Fr. Guarnizo story, pushing it into the U.S.’s battle over the normalization of homosexuality. The Fr. Zaghi story, however, was clean and clear of political mines. There was no downside in expressing shock, horror, and outrage over the news that a 70-year-old rural priest had refused to allow a mentally handicapped boy to receive his first Communion.

Here is Worldcrunch’s translation of La Stampa’s report.

Controversy has erupted both inside and outside the Catholic Church after a parish priest in northern Italy refused to offer communion to a disabled child. Father Piergiorgio Zaghi of the Immaculate Conception church in Porto Garibaldi, a village near Ferrara, denied the sacrament at Easter mass, saying that the mentally-disabled boy was unable to “understand the mystery of the Eucharist.”

The parents of the boy in the Emilia-Romagna region have taken their case both to the European Court of Human Rights and to the higher authorities at the Holy See in Rome.

La Stampa followed its lede with a comment from a children’s rights activist who denounced the 70-year-old priest’s actions as “cultural obscurantism from the Middle Ages.”

The newspaper picked up the intensity by saying “parishioners are divided” between those who support the priest and the boy, 10-year old Luca. It then followed with this quote:

A boy who attends catechism classes with the disabled child wrote a letter to the priest: “If he was with us, it would be a great joy for him, and we would see the actual value of Communion.”

Cardinal Velasio De Paolis offered his opinion of the controversy, denouncing Fr. Zaghi.

“As long as the disabled person does not desecrate the host, if they receive it calmly, it is normal practice to offer it to them,” De Paolis said. “Never have I denied host”, and above all, “the strength of the sacrament also touches the ill and the dying.”

The child’s mother was quoted as saying she hopes the priest will reconsider his actions, but they have engaged attorneys to press their case. La Stampa reported the Bishop of Ferrara is backing Fr. Zaghi, but the article closed with the mother’s hope the church will reconsider.

“I hope that my son will be able to have the communion with all his friends,” Claudia said. “They want to celebrate the ceremony with us. They stand in solidarity.”

This story appears to have covered all the bases. Sympathetic victim. Couragous mother fighting for her disabled child. Catholic cardinal siding with the embattled family. Unnamed bishop backing cranky old priest. Crisp, clean, clear. It doesn’t get any better.

It would have been nice to have the other side of the story. A comment from the diocese, the bishop or the priest. Fr. Zaghi appears to have done himself no favors. The Corriera Della Sera got hold of the priest to ask him why he did it and was told:

«Non ho nulla da dire, voglio essere rispettato» (“I have nothing to say. I want to be respected.”)

A perfect answer — one that allows commentators to wax eloquent on the priest’s pastoral failings, and ignorance of canon law and doctrine. The Archbishop of Ferrara defending backing Fr. Zaghi makes it all the better — old boys network, cover up — what fun!

But, all good things must come to an end. And after 100+ Italian newspapers, websites and blogs reported on the controversy, the Archbishop of Ferrara spoke to Vatican Radio to explain what happened.

Archbishop Paolo Rabitti of Ferrara-Camacchio stated Fr. Zaghi had declined to allow the disabled boy to receive Communion because he had not attended the requisite number of First Communion classes. The boy was not banned from receiving Communion because he could not understand the mysteries of the sacraments due to mental defect, but because he had skipped class.

In its summary of the broadcast, EWTN wrote that two years of preparation were required before First Communion.

“The path of preparation intensified starting last October,” Archbishop Rabitti said. “First Communion took place on a very significant day – Holy Thursday – and a couple not belonging to the parish came to the pastor on February 29 to request that their mentally handicapped son also make his First Communion.”

Due to the lack of preparation, Father Zaghi explained to the parents that they should be sure to attend Mass with their son during the final month before Holy Thursday, “but they only came a few times: the child had participated in Mass and catechism classes only a few times.”

At some of the classes the boy did attend, he spit out the unconsecrated host from his mouth when catechists were helping the children to familiarize themselves with how to receive the Eucharist.

Father Zaghi informed the parents that their son had not received enough preparation and he suggested that he make his First Communion next year, but they reacted by calling the decision “discrimination,” Archbishop Rabitti explained.

As Miss Emily Litella used to say, “Never mind.”

Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference responded to the press furore in an editorial entitled “Le lenti offuscate” (“The clouded lens”).

In focusing a spotlight on an episode that was divorced from its ecclesial setting, the press acted trivially, forgetting to check the news (and perhaps to manipulate it to raise the dust of anti-clerical propaganda.) …  In this runt of a narrative –  Communion “denied,” the priest “bad”, the child “excluded” — all was false. This was poisonous reporting whose flow, drop by drop, undermines religious freedom and public faith and trust in the Church.

The story was too good to be true. Avvenire‘s editorial implied that the fault lay with lawyers for the family who enlisted a credulous media, quick to believe the worst of the Catholic Church.

Perhaps. But the church did itself no favors by not moving more swiftly to put out its version of events. It may have been safer to wait for the archbishop to appear on Vatican Radio to explain what happened, but by then two days had passed — and the narrative was set.

Does that excuse the reporting or the herd mentality of the press on this story? It is easy to beat up the media on this one. One side exaggerated and the other side was slow to respond. Should the press have waited until the church decided to speak? Did it have a duty to run with a story that showed a callous disregard of the church’s teachings about the sacraments for the disabled (remember they had the cardinal weighing in against the priest).

Given a conflict  between unequal forces — a disabled boy and the Catholic Church — sympathy for the boy is the natural response. How do you respond to this GetReligion readers? What should the press have done?

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  • Jerry

    There are a couple of important lessons for us. The first is to not be so quick to condemn the American media and especially the NYTimes because this is a clear case where the Italian media got it wrong without any help from us. The second point is the balancing one: we should not be quick to assume the Catholic church is guilty of a crime either. Rushing to judgment in either way is to run off a cliff all too often.

    There’s also a lesson for the media. It’s the same lesson about not rushing to judgment. The words alleged, reported etc which indicate a lack of conclusive proof are very valuable words and should be liberally used when a news story breaks unless there is real time video of the event.

  • Mike O.

    One side exaggerated and the other side was slow to respond.

    I think that’s a pretty good summary.

    Should the press have waited until the church decided to speak?

    No. I wouldn’t expect a reporter working on a story involving city hall to sit on the story until it deems it necessary to answer questions. The press should certainly contact whatever party(-ies) are involved, but if they don’t respond in a timely manner then the story should move forward stating just that.

    Did it have a duty to run with a story that showed a callous disregard of the church’s teachings about the sacraments for the disabled

    Yes. If a rule-enforcing body enacts a rule that a significant amount of people object to, and if this is newsworthy, then it should be reported. By not reporting the story they are making a decision as to the value and validity of said rule. If instead it’s reported then both sides can make their cases for or against the rule.

    Another thing to consider is the public’s opinion at this time regarding the mentally disabled. There is an effort to get them as involved and active with others as possible. Whether such an effort should supercede the church’s teaching is up for the court of public opinion to decide; but the press needs to take such pervailing attitudes into consideration when deciding on whether to print such a story.

  • carl jacobs

    So it would have been nice if the article contained some rationale for why the European Court of Human Rights could possibly have jurisdiction over the administration of Sacraments by the RCC. Otherwise, this is just the media doing what it does best – jumping to and actively promoting incorrect conclusions about organizations that have received the Official Stamp of Journalistic Disapproval. For not every organization would have been subjected to this level of cynical disrespect. Surely we can all name organizations that would have received the benefit of the doubt.

    carl

  • Jacques

    The stance of that poor priest may look odd, because giving the Holy Eucharist to a disabled person would not be a desecration so far as the communicant has the age of reason and already has made his first communion.
    Indeed it may look odd how often the communion is given to adult people who are not worthy to receive it since they are not even christian or are living in a manifest sinful way (like this miss Johnson)thus prompting scandal to the catholic faithfuls.
    A catholic disabled person, a priori, is an innocent person who certainly will never be conscious of what a mortal sin may be.
    But this person’s parents had an exaggerated reaction in rushing the case to the European Court of Human Rights. That is completely ludicrous: How an atheist court may be able to assess who is and who is not worthy to receive the Body of Christ?
    Of course the priest made an error of judgement and a frank talk with his bishop would have settlde the issue more easily than the European Court.
    The day is not remote when the human judges will be asked who is and who is not worthy of going to Heavens. Crazy

  • Julia

    It seems the stunning hiring of lawyers to try to force the church to provide Communion is the shocking part of this story. I think the parish priest’s initial refusal to talk about the boy was rather heroic. It’s probable the priest thought the public had no right to know the details. Was he wrong?

    The Cardinal and the bishop should not have been so quick to respond to press inquiries. Does the press really have the right to poke into matters of this kind? Would the press have been interested if the lawyers weren’t stirring up support for their lawsuit?

    The press in Italy notoriously hyper-ventilates. It used to be that the Times (of London)’s reporter would translate these wild stories, send them back to London where their readers just loved them and the American press would pick them up as gospel. With the advent of translator apps, it looks like the American press is getting these stories straight from the horses’ mouth these days. American newspapers should take what it reads in the Italian press with a grain of salt and check out the stories first. Don’t imitate what the Times (of London) did with them.

  • Julia

    Suppose the boy now goes to sufficient classes but still cannot quit spitting out the unconsecrated host while practicing (as was reported)? Would it be the media’s place to judge that situation? Would the priest be justified in not wanting information like to be broadcast in the press, embarrassing an innocent child?

    The bigger problem is allowing attorneys to use the media to pressure courts, taint jury pools and even pressure/villify churches. Why does the media allow itself to be used like that?

  • sari

    Church officials could have provided the story at the beginning, not through the priest, but through the Archbishop’s office. Instead it chose to wait. After making reasonable attempts to obtain comment, the media is justified in running the story with the data that they have. Poisonous is a bit strong given deliberate withholding of information.

    More than litigation against the church, the story speaks to the problem of providing a religious education to special needs people, be it for First Communion or Bar Mitzvah, and including them as full members of any given religious body. Reading between the lines, more enlightened parents might have practiced at home with unconsecrated host provided by the church or spent more time at church–first empty, then with people–to help acclimate the child. Religious education should never be one-sided; this is doubly true when working with certain disabilities. The journalist should have asked whether the parents had tried to work with the church to create appropriate accommodations.

    Lastly, the child’s disability should have been disclosed, at least in a general way. Disabled can mean anything from blind to cognitively delayed. The description as passed down through the Archbishop’s office suggests autism (tactile defensiveness with the host), mental retardation, or both.

  • Stan

    I don’t know why you believe the story reported by Vatican radio. It reads to me like a story concocted to explain the priest’s action. If the situation really were as simple and straightforward as the Vatican story makes it out, I think the priest would have said so at the time. It continues to smell.

  • sari

    Thinking about this a little more–the press missed an opportunity to educate readers on the difficulties religious institutions face when trying to serve the spiritual needs of the disabled and the difficulties the disabled encounter when they (or their parents) seek to be included. As a whole, organized religions have been behind the curve on inclusion, so it would have been nice if the press had done a little homework on the child’s disability to contrast the boy’s experience with that of a similar child whose parents and church worked in tandem to provide a successful experience.

  • Marie

    The press doesn’t have to wait until the church decided to speak, but they do have an obligation to do their research. The information they had ease 1) Parents are outraged that their mentally dialed son was denied the opportunity to receive his first communion on a particular day, and 2) the Priest in question stated that the child was unable to fully understand the rite. At this point the press has an obligation to answer questions that come to mind and seem to me directly related to the validity of the story:
    1. What is the position of the Roman Catholic Church with regards to administering communion (and other rites) to the mentally disabled, as well as their position on the state of the soul of mentally disabled individuals who do not receive communion (wether due to their disability or to the Churches decision)?
    2. What are the requirements for receiving that initial communion?
    3. Did the boy meet those requirements?
    4. Does the Cardinal weighing in on the subject have first hand knowledge of the event (or at the least discussion with the Priest in question) or is his comment based solely on information presented by the parents or the press.
    None of this information would be to hard to find. The first two as easy as ringing up a local parish. The fourth by a follow up question to the Cardinal. The third may have been the trickiest, but the press need only state that the Church had not commented on that issue but give the parents answer to it.
    Thirty minutes of extra work on the part of the reporter would have given them and their readers a fuller view of the incident at hand.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is clear from the info here that the press could have framed the narrative of the situation in a number of ways–the way chosen was to make the Church look bad.
    As for the Church not instantly jumping to respond: for it’s own self interest Church leadership should respond as quickly as possible in situations like this.
    But I find it ironic or hypocritical for the press to claim that when they demand it, the rest of the world must immediately drop everything and provide rapid response. Isn’t the media snail-like slow when it wants to be??? Like right now the John Edwards case comes to mind. Not only was information about him very slow to surface–it would have remained buried if it weren’t for the super market tabloids.

  • Suzanne

    I think many institutions are slow to respond out of an abundance of caution. Unfortunately, the 24-hour news cycle waits for no man, and the Church is not the first (nor the last) institution to get caught up in it.

    I think Marie is right about the reporter’s obligation in this case, and sari makes a great point about the larger issue of disability and religious practice.

    But if you go back and the church officials continue to decline comment, the reporter has one last obligation — advising that refusing to comment isn’t going to make the story go away, and that they’re better off getting their side heard up front. That can be an awkward conversation, but it’s a necessary one.

  • Julia

    deliberate withholding of information.

    Does the media have the right to demand an explanation about a private organization’s interaction with a disabled child on a sacramental matter? In any case, as a lawyer, I would advise a client not to comment to the media about a situation that is going to be litigated.

    In Rome, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis denounced the priest’s decision, noting that in the Eastern Rite churches children receive the Eucharist soon after their christening. “As long as the disabled person does not desecrate the host, if they receive it calmly, it is normal practice to offer it to them,” De Paolis said. “Never have I denied host”, and above all, “the strength of the sacrament also touches the ill and the dying.”

    There is no quotation indicating that the Cardinal is denouncing anybody. Was he just asked his opinion about a hypothetical situation about disabled children? Doesn’t read like he is opining about this particular case.

    It would have been nice to describe this Cardinal and his position. What is his authority to speak on this matter?

    On 25 January 2010 he was appointed as a member of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court, in addition to his duties at the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See.[6] On 29 December 2010 he was appointed a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. He will hold these memberships until his 80th birthday.

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

    He is now 77 and elsewhere it says his resignation due to age from the Economic Affairs was accepted last September.
    As a member of the Congregation dealing with the sacraments, was he speaking authoritatively for the congregation or just giving his opinion? Was his statement a result of an official appeal to the higher authorities in Rome as La Stampa said the parents were going to pursue? Then was his statement an official ruling from the Apostolic Signatura?

    Guess who is the highest authority at the Apostolic Signatura ? – none other than American Cardinal Raymond Burke who, as the St Louis Archbishop in 2004, famously said he would refuse communion to John Kerry. NYT missed an interesting US angle.

  • Kristen

    Seems to me that this situation only became news when the lawyers showed up on the scene.

    In terms of communication, the Church, yes, does itself no favors and often makes it worse by saying nothing until it is too late. However, there is a prudence in that.

    For the priest, there is only one issue here: the spiritual needs of this child and his family, and since the family was quick to throw in the lawyers to this situation, I feel that they deserve at least as much blame, perhaps more. The church (both the priest and his bishop) kept silent about a very personal situation that any priest ought to have kept confidential for the sake of the family.

    For the record, I am the mother of autistic sons and have prepared autistic kids of varying degrees of mental ability for communion. There was one who could not/would not keep the Host in his mouth and swallow it. Finally, in frustration, his mother decided not to bring him forward to the Eucharist, because she felt he did not understand and she believed he might desecrate the Host.

    In the situation with my friend, and in the case cited above, the decision to present a child for communion has nothing to do with rights, legal or otherwise. Receiving Jesus in the Eucharist is a privilege, not a right. grace is not legislated.

    I wish the media were as suspicious of lawyers as they are of priests.


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