Alas, next pope will probably defend same old doctrines

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So here is an interesting journalism question for this digital age: What do we do with the earlier versions of stories by major news organizations if the editors later take them down and replace them with cleaned-up, expanded versions?

Do all of those headlines and paragraphs go into journalistic limbo? Were they ever published in the first place?

Take, for example, the following headline from The New York Times:

Pope’s Successor Is Likely to Share His Doctrine

By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO 4:08 PM ET

You have to admit that this is a stunner. Doctrinal stability! You mean the Catholic Church doesn’t change doctrines whenever the top man steps down, rather like a National Football League team losing its head coach? For many journalists, the more likely parallel in their minds is the White House, with entire policies going up for grabs after a change in the Oval Office.

Anyway, I saved the URL for the story that went with that headline, which featured a lede that clearly inspired the headline. Only now, when you click that URL, one goes to a new story in which the gist is the same, but the wording is less, well, funny.

The key to this rather magisterial report is — as usual — the almost complete lack of attribution attached to its many sweeping fact statements. Readers are left with this undeniable impression: People are talking to The New York Times and the editors of The New York Times do not want to tell us their names, perhaps because they all come from the same camp in the battles over the direction of Catholic life here in North America and spiritually frosty Europe.

Check this out. Yes, I removed one quote with a clear attribution, simply to save space:

The resignation sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mold, who advocate a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who believe that the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like allowing divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment to receive communion or loosening restrictions on condom use in an effort to prevent AIDS. There are no plausible candidates who would move on issues like ending celibacy for priests, or the ordination of women.

Many Vatican watchers suspect that the cardinals will choose someone with better management skills and a more personal touch than the bookish Benedict, someone who can extend the church’s reach to new constituencies, particularly to the young people of Europe, for whom the church is now largely irrelevant, and to Latin America and Africa, where evangelical movements are fast encroaching. …

The other big battle in the church is over the demographic distribution of Catholics, which has shifted decisively to the developing world. Today, 42 percent of adherents come from Latin America, and about 15 percent from Africa, versus only 25 percent from Europe. That has led many in the church to say that the new pope should represent a part of the world where membership is growing quickly, while others say that spiritual vision should be paramount.

The questions are obvious: Who are the “many Vatican watchers”? Who, precisely, are the “many in the church” who are debating the voices captured in that “while others say” reference?

Oh, and why would there be a tension between “spiritual vision” and the Catholic leaders who represent parts of the world in which the church is thriving? Are there really people in Catholic circles who believe that “spiritual vision” conflicts with church growth? Perhaps these mysterious voices are talking about some other kind of vision, perhaps a vision of change and progress for the future. It’s hard to tell, since we have absolutely no idea who the Times team is quoting.

The story, of course, also offers a political-horse-race list of candidates, complete with lots of labels and, once again, no indication of who is going the evaluating.

Later on, a real live scholar with a name — a totally logical one, too — shows up, to address the crucial issue of Catholic work in the Global South.

“I’d say the biggest challenge was the collapse of Catholic numbers across Europe,” where “Christianity is in such free-fall in former Catholic countries, that the prognosis is not good,” said Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, in Waco, Tex., citing Ireland as a particularly telling case.

In much of the developing world, especially Latin America — which accounts for half of the world’s Catholics — and parts of Africa, evangelical churches are moving in on territory once dominated by the Catholic Church, drawing in new faithful with services that offer upbeat music and an emphasis on self-improvement.

“If I were investing the church’s efforts, I would put Latin American high, to avoid a second Europe,” Mr. Jenkins said.

Why quote this man from Baylor? Yes, it would have helped to have let readers know that this Jenkins guy is the author of “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” the trailblazing first book in what became his “Future of Christianity” trilogy.

Toward the end, readers are informed:

Nearly all of the 117 cardinals who will vote for the new pope were appointed by Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, both strong traditionalists, and it is likely that the next pope will share their vision and doctrine.

The key to all of this is the air of disappointment that the Vatican simply does not want to evolve, to change, to progress, to, well, lean forward — like the leadership of the progressive mainline denominations that are booming and thriving in Europe and North America.

I found the following transition in the main Los Angeles Times piece to be especially revealing.

… (Benedict XVI) was an ardent traditionalist, “God’s Rottweiler” to some, and he set about shoring up conservative elements of Roman Catholicism. He drew on his 24 years of experience cracking down on dissent as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, John Paul II’s chief enforcer of orthodoxy.

Within months of his elevation, Benedict issued a reaffirmation of the ban on men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” from the priesthood.

Yet his first encyclical, the weightiest document a pope can produce, centered on love and the tenet that God is love.

Read it again.

It’s all about that crucial word “yet.”

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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.

  • mollie

    That “yet” pretty much sums everything that is wrong with the mainstream media treatment of the topic. Sigh.

    • ceemac

      Sorry but I do not see the problem with the “yet.” It is a fair and accurate description isn’t it?

      • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

        No it’s not, ceemac. The “yet” places the Pope’s encyclical in opposition to the ban on men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies from the priesthood and there is no such opposition.

        • ceemac

          TAS, not buying it. The “yet” is correct.

          • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

            Buy it or not, the experts here believe — and I agree — that the “yet” has no place in what is not supposed to be an analysis from a homosexual perspective, but is supposed to be an objective, fact-driven article. If the reporter believes there is a contradiction between what is stated in the first paragraph and what is cited in the next, then he needs to find someone of some authority who can say that. Otherwise, the “yet” has no place in this article.

  • FW Ken

    Do journalists not hear the giggling every time they write about Vatican “crackdowns”?

  • tmatt

    FW KEN:

    Nope. They hear the cries from the Georgetown faculty lounge.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Uber-liberal Margery Egan, columnist for the Boston Herald, wrote this morning about the pope’s resignation. The first paragraphs were her usual whining about the pope not throwing 2,000 year -old (and tried and true) Christian teachings on sexual morality into a rubbish bucket –the same sexual moral issues turning many liberal Christian denominations into basket cases organizationally and demographically.
    Only liberal writers like Ms. Egan have been belaboring the sexual morality issues (gay marriage, ordination Traditions, abortion,etc.)in the coverage I have seen so far.
    But then she boggles the mind by going on a rant about the sex-obsessed hierarchy. Huh??? Who is sex-obsessed??? Who regularly and constantly writes and speaks as if there is ONLY ONE category of issues worth discussion. For example, so far virtually nothing from them about the butchering and persecution of Christians around the world and what the next pope might be able to do to help out our beleagured brothers and sisters–especially the Copts and the Orthodox who are bearing the brunt of some of the worst horrors directed against Christians.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    One of the things that the media NEVER get is that the Catholic Church measures success in a way that is completely alien to the secular world.

  • bob

    The press knows three questions to ask about the next Pope: will you ordain women, will you allow same sex marriage, will you allow (and rejoice in) every single thing I want to do outside of marriage? When the the three no’s come back, it’s back to who lip synched at the Superbowl and how much hide was exposed at the Grammies where they feel more intellectually at ease.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    This line from the L.A. Times piece gets me: ” …though he is said to be engaging and humorous in private, a cultured man who plays the piano and loves cats and designer shoes.” OK, we know he plays the piano and loves cats, but designer shoes? Where did they get that information? From some fashion blogger who speculated that he was wearing a pair? I can guarantee that when he goes back to being Cardinal Ratzinger, he shall be wearing what he always wore before he became Pope — a simple cassock and plain black shoes.

    “Apparently he has now won that argument. He made his announcement during a canonization ceremony, and delivered it, characteristically, in Latin.” No, it was not during a canonization ceremony, but during a regular consistory called to announce three upcoming canonizations. But more importantly, it was not characteristic of him to deliver his talks in Latin but in Italian. And he did it in Latin in order to make it completely official since Latin is the official language of the Church. But did the author ask anyone about that?

  • The Old Bill

    “… and those who believe that the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like allowing divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment to receive communion or loosening restrictions on condom use in an effort to prevent AIDS. There are no plausible candidates who would move on issues like ending celibacy for priests, or the ordination of women.”

    Just small, little ways. Nothing major. Just a little window dressing, a touch of paint here and there to freshen things up and make the Church a bit more stylish, a bit more edgy, so it will appeal to the refined tastes of those who hate it.

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

    In (partial) defense of the “Yet”:

    I’ve always felt that B16 was coaxing the world into dialogue with Deus Caritas Est. His words about human love being (often imperfect) pathways to Communion with the Triune God that is Love seem to prompt discussions that few have had–especially in the media. I am not a fan of AP’s coverage of the (scandal-rocked!!) Church, but I think that “yet” signals that the wisdom of B16 is working. The reporter must be wondering, how could someone not approve of same-sex relations and write so passionately about love? Good question. And B16 wants there to be a long, long dialogue that answers that question. Now, if only journalists could move beyond the “yet” and seek answers on B16′s legacy of preaching that God is Love.

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  • Julia

    Wish there was still a “like” feature. Like, like, like, like, etc.

    • Hillary Spragg

      Hi Julia,
      I added the Like feature to the post, is that what you were referring to?

  • Matt

    Question: Do you feel the media has been less reticent to “speak ill” (as the saying goes) of the outgoing pope this time around, for the simple reason that he isn’t dead?

    I suppose it’s hard to say, because we don’t really have anything to which we can compare the current situation. JPII had his charisma, and the fall of communism, to temper criticism at his death, and no other pope has died since the climate of media hostility toward traditional religion took its current form.

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