Media: Pope says retweets spring the soul!

YouTube Preview ImageYou may have read stories about the Vatican announcing that Roman Catholics may earn time off purgatory by following Pope Francis on social media during World Youth Day. Many of the stories had serious problems. The main problem was getting the theology all wrong.

For a sample of how the media messed up this story, let’s look at the Telegraph:

Catholics to seek forgiveness for their sins via social media

Catholics will be able to seek forgiveness for their sins from afar next week when the Pope visits Brazil, simply by following the event on social media, the Vatican has decreed.

You don’t even need to know that much about Catholicism to see where this Rome-based (!) reporter or his headline writer went south. As one reader put it:

Please, please, please, this is not “forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness is granted via absolution in the Sacrament of Confession (or, if you prefer, Penance or Reconciliation).  An indulgence,  whether partial or plenary, is remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.

There’s actually much more wrong with the story. And practically every story I read on the matter just got the basics wrong. It was so bad that CNN’s Belief Blog had the Rev. James Martin, SJ, write-up a blow-by-blow of the various mistakes. It’s great and I encourage you to read it. Father Martin shows knowledge of newsrooms and church teaching in his account. A snippet from ” Sorry, you can’t get out of hell by retweeting the pope“:

In other words: the original document, the “source” and Archbishop Celli all said the opposite of what the headlines said.

That is, it’s not enough simply to follow the pope on Twitter. It’s not even enough to check his Twitter feed frequently. You need to be (a) contrite, (b) trying to follow the events at World Youth Day live and (c) performing these acts with “due devotion.”

In other words, the Vatican is clearly referring to prayerful participation in these events by men and women who could not otherwise go, through the various “new means of social communication.”

The end was a bit rough but deservedly so:

The worst headline came from the normally careful Slate: Pope Francis is not offering indulgences “in exchange for Twitter followers.” He has plenty of Twitter followers. But he’d probably exchange a few hundred of them for headline writers who actually read the story.

OK. The second disappointment in this media coverage is one that I’m almost reticent to suggest. Let’s just assume that we lived in an alternate universe where a Vatican announcement about indulgences was covered significantly better than what we saw this week. If that were the case, what I’d then like to see in that coverage is some airing of the theological debate about indulgences.

It’s important not only to accurately describe indulgences from the Roman Catholic perspective but it would be nice also to see this used as a hook to discuss how indulgences themselves are an incredibly contentious issue among Christians (that link goes to how one Lutheran pastor responded to the news, but there are many other such reactions). Still, while many reporters could ably handle it, I’m not sure we have a general media establishment capable of responsibly wading into that territory in an edifying manner.

Remember, as much as you (or I!) might like to discuss the theology of indulgences, this is not the place for that discussion. We’re just thinking about this topic from a media perspective.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “The second disappointment in this media coverage is one that I’m almost reticent to suggest. Let’s just assume that we lived in an alternate universe…” Yeah, I’d be reticent to suggest it as well because…well, Mollie, I hate to break it to ya — we don’t live in that alternate universe. Subsequently, there are very, very few people who can be entrusted with such a story (Ann Rodgers might be one; Julia Duin might be another — and both of them did grad studies in theology). I mean, look how long it took the guy at the link you provided just to give an explanation (very good, by the way) of Catholic teaching on purgatory, penance and indulgences — 3,000 words! (Though I do differ, of course, with his conclusions.) There’s no way on God’s green earth that the hacks who pass as journalists these days are going to be able to do it even the least amount of justice in the 300 words that most outlets allow these days.

  • Kevin Fritts

    Top notch, with a caveat. On a subject as historically important as
    indulgences, perhaps a reference to Lutheran and other Reformed response
    would be appropriate — but as a kind of historical refresher only. In
    what other context do we care about what other confessions think about
    the subject’s doctrine? Usually such questions are not germane and demonstrate bias; in this case it is probably germane, but only because of its role in
    sparking the Reformation tinderbox.

    • Roki

      Well, sometimes the distinctive features of one religion are best seen in the light of something contrasting. So, Shia and Sunni branches of Islam might illuminate one another, or perhaps the distinctive theology of Mormonism is best understood through reference to mainstream Christian teaching on the Trinity or on the afterlife.

      But I get your point: the debate about indulgences isn’t exactly raging today, except in apologetic or academic circles. Is it really news? And how useful is it for understanding the Catholic teaching and practice? Hard to say.

  • Mark Surburg

    The story itself provides an opportunity to reflect upon the differences that still exist between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran confessions. There is a need to speak accurately about current teaching.

    http://surburg.blogspot.com/2013/07/marks-thoughts-penance-purgatory.html

  • wlinden

    I would like to see some of these “journalists” do penance in Lazarus Long’s Klein bottle trap.

  • wlinden

    At his first appearance Urbi et Orbi, the Blessed John Paul offered a plenary indulgence specifically to all who were watching. I do not remember any such fanfaron… or indeed, any coverage at all.

    I also did not see any coverage reporting whether or not his successors followed this example… in fact, I STILL can’t find out.

    • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

      It seems to me that an indulgence for the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi is probably normal, though how it is done or whether it is announced differs. If an indulgence is normally applied to this, I think it would be effective whether announced out loud at the time or not, but I could be wrong.

      I’ve watched the entire first balcony appearance of Pope Paul VI (on You Tube) and I recall that the Pope himself only gave the short formula for the blessing, but a prelate on the balcony (Ottaviani?) said the Pope was granting the indulgence. Pope John Paul I, on the other hand, chanted the entire very long Latin formula, including the granting of the indulgence (and he had lungs about as weak as Pope Francis!). This is also on You Tube under “Pope John Paul I: Election and First Blessing.” The Pope always has an open book from which he chants, so both formulas must be there(?)

      I don’t recall about Pope Benedict or Pope Francis, though I believe they only chanted the short formula blessing. The thing to do would be to look in the Enchiridion of Indulgences to see on what conditions this indulgence is granted or to watch the You Tube videos of the most recent Popes’ appearances and see if anyone says in Latin something about an “indulgentia”.

      Now I must beg the moderator’s indulgence for the digression, but I think a question deserves an answer :-)

      • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

        OK, I just had to check. . . .

        First, both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis used the longer form of the blessing, as did JPI and JPII, though Francis only spoke it.

        Second, for Pope Francis, there was definitely an announcement of the indulgence, make just before he delivered it, by the same cardinal who announced the election. But for Benedict, apparently there was none. The video I looked at for JPII was incomplete and didn’t have that part.

        only now I’m not entirely sure the “indulgentia” in the formula of blessing refers to the plenary indulgence; it was translated on air as “remission etc. of your sins.”

        Back to the Enchiridion, I guess.. .

        • wlinden

          As I was watching the broadcast, John Paul’s remarks were translated as “Our Apostolic Benediction and a plenary indulgence”, and he explicitly included those who were watching on television.

          • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

            could be, inasmuch as I couldn’t find that part.

  • http://thetension.info/ Stephen

    Thanks for this. Totally agree that the media had a field day with this–publishing all sorts of misrepresentations and inaccurate information. It’s sad to me that many non-Catholic Christians joined in the mockery.

    http://thetension.info/pontifex-followers-granted-indulgences/

  • Julia B

    This focus on indulgences and blessings by the Pope might explain why the secular press always seems to refer to the Wednesday appearances by the Pope at his office window as Blessings. Catholics, and the official calendar of the Pope’s doings, recognize it as the noon Angelus prayer followed by a short homily and a blessing. But then, Popes are always giving blessings so I couldn’t figure out why the press was focused on that aspect on Wednesdays and not the Angelus, an ancient prayer of the Church, which marks the event as different from other appearances. I guess the novelty of “blessings” is still amazing to the secular world.

  • Ann Rodgers

    Tom S: Thanks for vote of confidence. You can read the story below to see if it’s merited. I had to go two inches over my length limit to even mention that indulgences are a point of division between the Catholic and Protestant traditions. Fortunately the editors kept it. Also, the communications director for the diocese blessedly opted to skip the technical language about “temporal punishment,” which usually opens up whole new avenues of misunderstanding

    http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/news/world/popes-twitter-not-road-to-heaven-695994/

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      You did a great job clarifying all the nonsense that the 200+ papers put out there. But while I love Bob Lockwood, I wouldn’t have gone to him for this story. I would have gone to Father Kris Stubna or Father Kim Schreck, or Mark Miravalle or someone else at FUS. Perhaps, though, you had a deadline and he was the only one you could get at the time. But you’re right about him having the sense to skip the temporal punishment bit. Unless you had a story about 1500 words long, it wouldn’t have worked.


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