AP frames Benedict XVI in some warped timeframes

On one level, I am rather disappointed to note that the editors at the Associated Press have already fixed an awesome typo that a Beltway journalist sent to me early today, the one that said the Pope Benedict XVI has, as is common among elderly men, experienced “some prostrate problems” in recent years.

Yes, that’s certainly the truth. Arthritis can make it hard to do prostrations during liturgical prayers.

Perhaps that typo crept into the copy while members of the AP team frantically worked to turn the basic obituary story that they had stashed away in a digital file into a live, breaking news report about the pope’s stunning announcement that he was retiring.

The nearly 3,000-word report that quickly hit the wires today contains a sweeping overview of Benedict XVI’s life, just like an obituary. It doesn’t contain the kinds of errors that will make faithful Catholics scream and spill coffee into their computer keyboards. That’s good, since this AP story is the one that millions of newspapers will see in their local newspapers — the many, many local papers that do not have fulltime religion specialists.

What this AP story has, however, is the kind of framing language that always makes me think of those moments in sporting events — especially in soccer and basketball — when one player fouls another, forcing the angry person who was fouled to lash out in response. The referees then, inevitably, call a foul on the second player. We do live in a sinful, fallen world.

All too often in daily journalism, reporters (and especially editors) have a tendency to think that big important stories actually begin when they first realize that they exist, as opposed to when these stories actually start affecting life in the real world (as opposed to newsrooms).

Take, for example, that whole “Anglican timeline” thing, with all of the stories proclaiming that the Episcopal Church battles over doctrine, sacraments and sexuality started in 2003 with the election of an openly gay, non-celibate bishop in the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire. In reality, the battles had been going on — with international consequences — for several decades.

In this AP story about the retirement of Benedict XVI, the big story is the sex-abuse scandal. There are times, in this report, when the editors truly seem to realize that there is no singular scandal, but a series of connected scandals that have been unfolding since the early 1980s. Many of these flareups actually received attention in the mainstream press (as well as in Hollywood).

However, the headline at AP states the thesis: “Pope’s mission to revive faith clouded by scandal.” There are several places in which the AP team fits Benedict into this picture. For example:

The German theologian, whose mission was to reawaken Christianity in a secularized Europe, grew increasingly frail as he shouldered the monumental task of purging the Catholic world of a sex abuse scandal that festered under John Paul II and exploded during his reign into the church’s biggest crisis in decades, if not centuries.

That isn’t bad, but, actually, the scandal did much more than fester during the long, long tenure of the Blessed Pope John Paul II — it exploded into view several times. For example, didn’t The Boston Globe win its Pulitzer in 2003 for earlier coverage of the scandal, before Benedict XVI became pope? I am aware that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was already involved in the story, but it’s simply wrong to make it appear that the scandal began on his watch or that the worst abuses came to light during his papacy.

You can see the timeline struggle again a bit later in the report.

… (His) his papacy will be forever intertwined with the sex abuse scandal.

Over the course of just a few months in 2010, thousands of people in Europe, Australia, South America and beyond came forward with reports of priests who raped and molested them as children, and bishops who covered up the crimes. Documents revealed that the Vatican knew well of the problem yet turned a blind eye for decades, at times rebuffing bishops who tried to do the right thing.

Benedict had firsthand knowledge of the scope of the problem since his old office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which he had headed since 1982, was responsible for dealing with abuse cases.

He met with victims across the globe, wept with them and prayed with them. He promised that the church must “do everything possible” to ensure such crimes never happen again. The Vatican updated its legal code to extend the statute of limitations for cases and told bishops’ conferences around the world to come up with guidelines to prevent abuse.

But Benedict never admitted any personal or Vatican failure. Much to the dismay of victims, he never took action against bishops who ignored or covered up the abuse of their priests or moved known pedophiles to new posts where they abused again.

Once again, much that material is fine. Still I am, frankly, mystified by the very specific reference to 2010, since victims had been coming forward around the world for many years. Yes, the decades-old scandal continued and, yes, 2010 included additional cases of hellish, heretical conduct by Catholic priests and some of their leaders.

But the story is so much bigger than that. Also, this language suggests that Ratzinger was a key figure in delaying action, when many have testified that he pushed for reforms and fought for bishops to take the issue seriously. It is safe to say that his record in those years is mixed, with a mix of good and bad. (I welcome input on the accuracy of that AP passage from readers, so long as you back your views — on both sides — with URLs, perhaps while leaving The New York Times out of the picture).

The story includes a few other cases in which AP seems to have assumed that major stories began years or decades after they really did. Note, for example, this story’s rather simplistic take on Benedict XVI and Vatican II.

And then there is the issue of the Anglican ordinariate, which gets shoehorned into the text in this manner:

Benedict relaxed restrictions on celebrating the old, pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. He reached out to a group of traditionalist, schismatic Catholics in a bid to bring them back into Rome’s fold. And he issued an unprecedented invitation to traditionalist Anglicans upset over women priests and gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church.

Well, the pope’s action was new and unique, but Rome had taken smaller steps in this direction in the past — responding to overtures over several decades by distressed Anglo-Catholics. So this AP story lunges at the end of the process, but forgets the beginning.

The same thing is true with the whole Vatican war on the nuns.

The Vatican’s crackdown on American nuns — accused of straying from church doctrine in pursuing social justice issues rather than stressing core church teaching on abortion and homosexuality — left a bitter taste for many American Catholics.

Sigh. Forget that the Vatican actually praised the nuns for their work on behalf of economic and social justice. The doctrinal straying took place on other issues — primarily linked to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the male priesthood, abortion and gay rights — and the tensions had been building (once again) for several decades. Do some Google searches for “New Ways Ministries,” “Sister Jeannine Gramick” and “Father Robert Nugent.” Or try searching for “Sister Laurie Brink.”

Yes, the tensions with the American nuns is part of the Ratzinger/Benedict XVI story, but it’s important to get the timeline right. Facts matter. This pope did not rush into any of these fights.

That’s enough for now. Once again, please help us keep watching for the good and the bad in the Big Ben coverage in the days ahead.

PHOTO: The increasingly frail Pope Benedict XVI rolls into Mass on a platform to help lessen the stress on his arthritic legs.

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.

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  • Martha

    I had my attention drawn to a story from the Christian Science Monitor where this sentence appears:

    “There has never been a non-European pope, and naming a leader from Latin America, Africa, or Asia would be considered a radical new direction for the Eurocentric Vatican.”

    As several people pointed out in comments, sure, there haven’t been any in this millennium, but in the first five centuries there were a few from Judea, Syria and Roman Africa. And I’m nearly sure that Peter fellow was non-European :-)

    Some struggling with the concept of “Organisation that has been around since the Roman Empire” going on there, I think.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Yes, the timeline is a huge issue. It’s something Laurie Goodstein couldn’t quite get right in her coverage of the Father Murphy case. Oops, sorry, there’s that NY Times thing again.

    These lines get me: “…whose mission was to reawaken Christianity in a secularized Europe…” Says whom? There’s no mission statement anywhere that says that. Now maybe Benedict picked that mission for himself, but there’s no attribution to that declaration. “Documents revealed that the Vatican knew well of the problem yet turned a blind eye for decades, at times rebuffing bishops who tried to do the right thing.” Examples? Or is it just “throw the accusation out there because everyone knows it’s true”? “His conservative vision is a direction his successor will likely continue given that the bulk of the College of Cardinals – the princes of the church who will elect the next pope – was hand-picked by Benedict to guarantee his legacy and ensure an orthodox future for the church.” This has a conspiratorial tone to it. Every single Pope hand-picks the members of the College of Cardinals. Again, it’s that timeline thing since two-thirds of the College was chosen by John Paul.

    • Martha

      I like the implication that a pope should ensure a heterodox future for the Church. Um, not how it works, reporters?

    • Meg

      Maybe it should have attribution, but that is a pretty accurate description of the mission Pope Benedict has set over the last several years with the New Evangelization.

      • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

        I agree, Meg, that it was part of his mission and it is accurate. My beef with it is the lack of attribution.

  • Paul Chigwidden

    Get ready for lots of Regensburg rehashing in which a legitimate academic paper was appropriated by Islamic extremists who, while vindicating its key claims, cemented the Pope’s reputation as a public-relations failure. This narrative demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the role of the Papacy and obfuscates the Pope’s unusual academic prowess. Benedict is one of the great theologians of the last 100 years and to judge the effects of his papacy by the standards of a 24hr news cycle is absurd. His books and encylicals will continue to be read for years where as glib editorials from effete NYT writers will be tomorrow’s rubbish. It would be useful to get a reaction from theologians and thinkers from the other Christian denominations in order to better guage the effect that the Pope has had. The Pope’s dialogue with Habermas (Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion) is a clear example of a prelate and teacher engaging with the intellectual world in a meaningful manner which clearly proved to challenging for mainstream media types. The John Paul good/Benedict bad dichotomy reveals a superficial understanding of the Papacy as a public relations office in which the incumbent wins an election and then must spend the rest of his life in election mode. The fact that a giant intellectual abely filled what is essentially a teaching role and most saw him as a failure goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Kardashians…

  • Julia

    The press like to call Cardinals “princes of the church”. That’s not an official title and the Papcy is not a monarchy.
    It’s incredible to read how many people/reporters think the Pope can just dictate anything he wants.

    • Jon in the Nati

      Cardinals have borne the epithet “Princes of the Church” for a very long time. It is not a media creation. See, e.g., http://www.osv.com/tabid/7631/itemid/7004/Princes-of-the-Church.aspx

      And the Papacy is very much a monarchy. He may not be able to dictate anything he wants, but then again neither can QEII, and that doesn’t stop her from being a monarch.

      The issue may well be that the use of royal titles and imagery to describe church officials imputes to them, in the eyes of the poorly-informed public, power that they do not in fact have. That is a separate issue. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t (ecclesiastical) Princes, and that he is not a monarch.

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