Pod people: Pope steps down; many journalists fall down

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Gentle readers, one cannot make some of this stuff up.

So, everyone knows that Pope Benedict XVI is elderly and has physical ailments.

So how tired and elderly is this man? Read the following passage from The Washington Post carefully. The story offers details from his dramatic final dramatic Mass, as pope, at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Wait for it.

The pope has cited his failing body and mind to explain his decision, and … he appeared fragile, if determined, while presiding over the solemn pageantry of the Catholic Mass. He was shepherded down the long aisles of the basilica on a wheeled platform, although he at times walked unaided. In the pews, young seminarians took notes and grew teary-eyed as the pope hobbled down the marble stairs of the altar for the last time. Asian, European and American tour groups fortunate enough to be in Rome for the occasion strained their necks to catch a glimpse from the rear of the church.

At the conclusion of the Mass, as cardinals and bishops watched, a short nun stood on her chair to wave at the pope as he began his last procession out of the basilica. He walked with a gilded cane in the shape of a cross. Cheers erupted from the benches as he passed, along with shouts in Italian of “long live the pope!”

What? He walked with the help of a “gilded cane” topped with a cross?

Might that have been his papal crosier (sometimes spelled “crozier”), the formal pastoral staff — a symbol of this role as shepherd of his flock — that is carried by a bishop? Might this be the golden staff, topped with a cross, that Benedict has always used, the one that would be seen in many, many photos (click here for sample) of this particular pope that originate in liturgical settings?

In other words, it would have been genuinely strange if Benedict had NOT been using his pastoral staff, as he always has.

Oh well. This is not the strangest thing that has every happened in mainstream news media reporting about this particular piece of liturgical equipment. Who can forget this classic, from the funeral of the Blessed John Paul II?

“The 84-year-old John Paul was laid out in Clementine Hall, dressed in white and red vestments, his head covered with a white bishop’s miter and propped up on three dark gold pillows,” wrote Ian Fisher of the New York Times. “Tucked under his left arm was the silver staff, called the crow’s ear, that he had carried in public.”

Right. His “crow’s ear.”

Obviously, the sudden decision by Benedict XVI to step down as pope has dominated the religion-news beat all week. Readers will not be surprised to know that it was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, as well. Click here to listen to that.

There was much to discuss. Still, it says a lot about the state of the news world in which we live that one of the best commentaries on the press coverage of this week could be found over at The Onion. Here’s how it opens. Read The Onion and weep:

VATICAN CITY – Citing his advancing age and deteriorating health, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the papacy Monday, saying he no longer possessed the strength and energy required to lead the Catholic Church backward.

According to the 85-year-old pontiff, after considerable prayer and reflection on his physical stamina and mental acuity, he concluded that his declining faculties left him unable to helm the Church’s ambitious regressive agenda and guide the faith’s one billion global followers on their steady march away from modernity and cultural advancement.

This was not the only commentary about the mainstream coverage of this stunner. Needless to say, many readers noted this headline in an analysis piece at The Telegraph:

Pope Benedict XVI resigns: the mainstream media just doesn’t get God or Catholicism


Here’s the start of that essay by historian Tim Stanley:

For Lent, I’m giving up. How can anyone of faith not feel like surrendering after this week’s largely bad media coverage of the papal abdication? The identikit headline seems to be, “Elderly Homophobe Quits Misogynistic Institution Because He Can’t Hack It”. And my favourite piece of instant analysis has to be The Guardian’s “Five Key Issues for the Catholic Church”, which details the things the next Pope must do to rescue the Church from oblivion. They include ordain women priests, conduct gay weddings and hand out condoms. So The Guardian’s ideal Pope is someone who isn’t a Catholic. The paper reports that Sinead O’Connor is available.

Some parts of the mainstream media don’t do God and don’t understand people who do. They see everything through the prism of politics – presuming that Christians fall into camps of Left and Right, that Bible-talk is ideological slang or that the tenets of faith are up for negotiation in the same way that party platforms are easily forgotten by the hucksters who ran on them. Some journalists need a crash course in Christianity.

Or how about this from “She the People” columnist Melinda Henneberger at The Washington Post? In this she addresses this particular pope’s mixed record on sexual abuse by clergy. Was Benedict XVI uniquely to blame?

Though I won’t argue for his charm or pitch, … it’s simply not true that he protected predator priests. While I fault Benedict for many things, his record on abuse is far more mixed than that. When many others in the Vatican were still writing off reports of abuse as an anti-Catholic media plot, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke publicly of the need to remove clerical “filth” from the church, in reference to predator priests. Then, as pope, in a move that upset the accused man’s many powerful friends, he did the almost unthinkable by moving against Marcial Maciel Degollado, the abusive priest who founded the Legion of Christ.

Meanwhile, conservative editorial folks at The New York Post also thundered on the state of the mainstream news coverage, in an essay called “The Clueless Media.” Here is a key passage on the central issue, which is whether the work and life of the Catholic Church is best, is most accurately, described in political terms.

In any case, trying to understand the Catholic Church through the prism of contemporary US politics is a fool’s errand. Popes routinely infuriate American political conservatives, for example, with their withering criticisms of capitalism’s inequities and its effects on the poor. At the same time, they draw the line on such lefty talking points as gay marriage and abortion.

What the critics don’t realize is that the Church is simply being consistent. At root, Catholic theology is concerned with the fundamental nature of human beings and their place in God’s plan — a plan not subject to change at the whim of the electorate or the urging of editorial pages.

I will offer one more. This piece from the left — entitled “Can secular journalists argue theology with the pope?” — ran in The Los Angeles Times. Michael McGough begins like this:

One of my least favorite pundits is the shrill and self-parodic conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin. But Rubin had a point when she criticized “liberal media types” for lecturing the Roman Catholic Church “about the need, you know, to get with the modern world and stop all that fussing about abortion, contraception and women priests.”

Rubin asked: “ On what basis do secular journalists assert the authority to lecture a religion on its tenets? Imagine instructing rabbis to lighten up on the Ten Commandments or evangelicals to stop being so, you know, literal. And it is inconceivable media elites would urge imams to alter their views. Yet with Catholicism, secular elites’ presumptuousness knows no bounds.”

Rubin didn’t mention her employer by name, but the Washington Post’s editorial about the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI contained this criticism of the soon-to-be-ex-pontiff: “The hallmark of Pope Benedict’s tenure, for better or for worse, was fierce resistance to [change]. He rejected calls by Catholic progressives for reconsideration of doctrines such as celibacy and the ban on women in the priesthood; at a time when acceptance of the rights of gays and lesbians is rapidly spreading across the world, he was outspoken in condemning homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ and ‘unacceptable.’”

This essay has some especially interesting points to make about how journalists CAN frame criticism of religious institutions. In other words, it doesn’t just focus on the bad. It’s constructive.

Here at GetReligion, we like the constructive stuff. Let us know if you see more of it in print.

Meanwhile, enjoy the podcast.

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.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The good stuff has been hard to find — not impossible, but very difficult. For the most part, we’re treated with stuff (I’m avoiding a different word) like this from The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2013/0211/Pope-Benedict-s-legacy-More-influential-than-Pope-John-Paul-II. This is chock full of things like: “For fully believing Catholics, the Roman church is a divine, not a human institution; its leader, the pope, is the ‘vicar of Christ,’ the direct spiritual descendant of Jesus Christ and his disciple Peter.” Or how about this inanity: “Indeed, a church hierarchy carefully pruned of liberal and ecumenical impulses may be one of Benedict’s enduring legacies, though it has brought the current pontiff into serious disagreements with powerful orders, like the Jesuits, that previously saw themselves as the main defenders of Rome.” After reading this, your head is left spinning.

  • Tregonsee

    In addition to the “Crow’s Ear,” I have also seen a reference to the “Karma Lite” nuns.

    • Dave

      Fell out of my chair laughing at that one!

  • Martha

    Drat it, tmatt, just when I’d stopped being all teary-eyed, you put that clip up and remind me!

    He is noticeably feebler physically; it struck me during that Ash Wednesday service when he didn’t walk around the altar to incense it, and he is using a cane (NOT the ferula) to walk, as can be seen at the end of this report on the talk he gave to the clergy of the diocese of Rome. But mentally, he is still on the ball.

    Actually, has there been much mention made of that talk? The Pope gave an account of his memories of Vatican II and at the end, he spoke very freely about the public perception of what the Council was about versus the reality:

    ““I would now like to add yet a third point: there was the Council of the Fathers – the true Council – but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council in and of itself, and the world perceived the Council through them, through the media. So the immediately efficiently Council that got through to the people, was that of the media, not that of the Fathers. …(T)he Council of journalists did not, naturally, take place within the world of faith but within the categories of the media of today, that is outside of the faith, with different hermeneutics. It was a hermeneutic of politics. The media saw the Council as a political struggle, a struggle for power between different currents within the Church. It was obvious that the media would take the side of whatever faction best suited their world. There were those who sought a decentralization of the Church, power for the bishops and then, through the Word for the “people of God”, the power of the people, the laity. There was this triple issue: the power of the Pope, then transferred to the power of the bishops and then the power of all … popular sovereignty. Naturally they saw this as the part to be approved, to promulgate, to help.

    …And we know that this Council of the media was accessible to all. So, dominant, more efficient, this Council created many calamities, so many problems, so much misery, in reality: seminaries closed, convents closed, liturgy trivialized … and the true Council has struggled to materialize, to be realized: the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council.”

    What have the media said in reply?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Much of some mainstream media coverage is so filled with venomous bigoted language that it brings to life Christ’s words in the Gospel of Matthew that are being embraced by many Catholics— those Catholics who love this great and humble pope whose life has been dedicated to passing on the Traditions and teachings of the Faith that goes back to the apostles::”Blest are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in heaven.”

  • Jacqueline Y.

    I wish journalists wouldn’t rely on the lazy and uninformed use of the word “ban” when referring to Catholic teaching against use of contaceptives (“ban on contraception”) and for the reservation of sacramental priesthood to men (“ban on women priests”).

    • Will

      Well, they also keep referring to “bans on gay marriage”… that is, refusal to institute something which has never existed is a “ban”.
      They also keep saying “the Pope’s ban” on such and such, as though it was a bright idea he had just come up with.

  • Jacqueline Y.

    I meant to add: Bans are by nature reversible, and usually instituted by legislation or decree, unlike Church teachings on faith or morals. What do you think?

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      You are right that these are not simply “bans” and that there are actually positive ideas behind the prohibitions. However, try explaining that to someone who writes, “To do so, Benedict crushed the liberation theology movements of the third world, put a slammer hold on efforts to ordain women and question celibacy, put earlier ecumenical impulses on the back burner, and, instead, has greatly empowered more hardcore orders like Opus Dei, Legions of Christ, and other orthodox wings, largely on the idea that the church must first cherish its most ardent believers.” (courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2013/0211/Pope-Benedict-s-legacy-More-influential-than-Pope-John-Paul-II)

      You see what we’re up against.

      • Patrick

        They do make Catholicism sound like it involves a lot of buttkicking. I dig that.

        SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY! Prepare yourself for MONSTRANCE JAM coming to the Coliseo this WEEKEND. You want to see Papal vigilante justice, total schismatic annihilation B-16 style – YOU GOT IT. Watch Pope Benedict pick up his crozier and see heresies get ELIMINATED. $4 Coors Lite / Miller lite pitchers and a full service SNACK BAR. Come down for the meet and greet with WWF’s THE HEADBANGERS, supercross in St. Peter’s Square, freestyle madness, freeprizesandgiveaways, and a special appearance by CARDINAL LAW. You thought the crucifixion was bad? Wait until you see NUNS ON THE BUS. Free parking, kids get in free with adult proof of purchase. Call Ticketmaster NOW.

      • Martha

        Whoa, whoa, whoa: empowered the Legion of Christ? This same Legion of Christ (no fault of the sincere members) which has pretty much imploded due to the Fr. Maciel scandal? The same Fr. Maciel whom Benedict was determined would not be permitted to get away with it?

        That’s empowering them?

        • Will

          Sure, just like moving Law from a major metropolitan see to a ceremonial post in Rome is “promotion”. If it happened to someone the meeja approved of, we would be told that he was “kicked upstairs”.

  • Julia

    The Christian Science Monitor article is truly awful. Among other things, t
    he writer is obviously unaware that the young professor Ratzinger actually took part in Vatican II as a theology expert for the Cardinal of Cologne. It used to be that he who wrote the history book controlled how succeeding generations saw a particular event or era; today it’s the media that controls who we view events. Entertainment Tonight did a hit piece on the Pope this past week. I’m sure that will have more impact than the better media pieces the average person will never read.

    • Martha

      I thought previous Christian Science Monitor articles I saw were okay, or at least no worse than the general run of the media, but since the Pope’s announcement of his resignation, all the ones quoted have been dreadful.

      They started with the “There has never been a non-European pope” and immediately were corrected in the comments to that, but whomever is in charge of fact-checking or vetting seems to be ignoring all that; this really glaring lapse about “empowering” the Legionaries of Christ (and the associated lay movement, Regnum Christi) would be laughable if it were not slanted to give the exact opposite explanation of what really occurred.

      Pope Benedict, far from empowering the Legion, ordered an apostolic visitation in 2009. You may remember from all the squeaking in the media about the Apostolic Visitation of the LCWR that this is a Bad, Terrible, Dreadful Thing where the Vatican Cracks Down, Slams and otherwise puts its big kicking boots on.

      So how is an Apostolic Visitation empowering?

  • Lori B.

    “For Lent, I’m giving up.” That may be the best sentence I’ve read all week.

  • Julia

    The National Catholic Reporter has set up a site where they are posting links to all their articles about Benedict resigning, the coming conclave, when and how things are going to happen, etc.
    http://ncronline.org/feature-series/benedict-resigns
    The ever-valuable John Allen happened to be in Rome at a meeting with a Vatican official when the announcement was made. He is interviewing people right and left – very interesting pieces. A great many of the articles at the link above are by John. Here’s a sample you should find very informative.
    http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/critical-tone-among-cardinals-begins-emerge

  • Julia

    And here’s a very topical piece by John Allen – an interview of a German sex abuse expert who talks about how the church, particularly Benedict, has handled sex abuse by priests.

    http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/jesuit-expert-calls-benedict-great-reformer-sex-abuse

  • Pingback: Pope Benedict XVI's Hebephrenic Media Maelstrom

  • http://www.tobextended.com IC

    This retrospective article seems very informed and generally even-handed: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/news/world/historic-departure-part-of-pope-benedict-xvis-legacy-675705/


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