NPR asks Vatican experts to discuss hopes of the Orthodox

Try to imagine a story about crucial, tense talks between Democrats and Republicans that only offered material drawn from interviews with Republicans, even when talking about the beliefs and aspirations of the Democrats.

Try to imagine a report about, oh, talks between liberal Episcopalians and conservative Anglicans that only featured commentary from one side or the other (actually, in some mainline publications that’s pretty easy to imagine). Or how about a pre-Super Bowl story that tried to cover the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams in the big game, but only talked to experts skilled in covering one of the teams or only talked to the coaches on one team. Can you imagine veteran journalists doing that?

This brings me to a report by NPR superstar Sylvia Poggioli that ran, online, under this headline: “The 1,000-Year-Old Schism That Pope Francis Seeks To Heal.”

Hear me now: This is not a fatally flawed news story, although some of the information is rather shallow. For example, any discussion of attempts to heal the painful schism between the ancient churches of East and West simply has to begin with, or at least mention, the efforts of St. John Paul II and this issue was a high priority for Pope Benedict XVI as well. NPR didn’t need to get these two popes into the headline, but one sentence in the story itself? That’s a must.

Also, let me note that the sources quoted in the piece are very qualified, especially when it comes to all things Rome. However, let’s see if we can spot a pattern in this report:

Meeting in Jerusalem in 1964, Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras set a milestone: They started the process of healing the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity of the year 1054. Moves toward closer understanding followed, but differences remain on issues such as married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican.

OK, pause. It’s crucial to know that the smaller Eastern Rite Catholic bodies, like the large churches of Eastern Orthodoxy, already follow the ancient tradition of having married priests and celibate, usually monastic, bishops. While the celibate priesthood is the norm in the West, I have never heard anyone say that this is a big issue affecting healing between Catholics and Orthodox. What’s up with that strange unattributed claim?

Back to the story:

It was the current Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I — known as the “first among equals in the Orthodox church” — who asked Francis to join him in Jerusalem.

Veteran Vatican analyst Robert Mickens says Bartholomew was impressed by the humble way the newly elected Pope Francis presented himself to the world.

“He talks about presiding in charity. Wow!” Mickens says. “When he says things like this, rather than having the power over other churches, this is music to ears of Orthodox and other separated brothers and sisters in the faith because they want a pope, a leader, but not with all the power of that the Bishop of Rome has accrued over the centuries.”

There are several problems in there, not the least of which is this: How does this Vatican insider know what the Orthodox leader is thinking? Also, the following statement is a mess, from an Orthodox point of view: “(The Orthodox) want a pope, a leader, but not with all the power of that the Bishop of Rome has accrued over the centuries.” There is no way that someone who studies the Orthodox closely would word the Eastern critique of papal supremacy in that manner.

So where is the Orthodox point of view? Back to the story, cutting in soon after a block of quotes from a Vatican spokesman:

John Allen, The Boston Globe‘s Vatican analyst, says “this will be a very warm, fraternal encounter full of very positive symbolism and generating hope about putting Humpty Dumpty [the split Christian church] back together again.”

Allen points out that although Bartholomew in Constantinople is the “first among equals,” the real Orthodox power lies with the much bigger Russian Orthodox Church. Based in Moscow, the Russian hierarchy fears Christian unity means submission to the Vatican, which it accuses of poaching on its turf.

“They accuse the Vatican of promoting proselytism in Russia, that is seeking to make converts in Russia,” says Allen. “Until those problems are solved there isn’t any realistic hope for real Christian unity right now. The substance of the relationship between the Vatican and the Orthodox world is not located in Constantinople, it has to be worked out in Moscow.”

Now Allen is offering some crucial information there, but again — where is NPR’s actual expert on Eastern Orthodoxy, which is the second largest body of believers in global Christianity?

Now I know, from experience, that the office of the Ecumenical Patriarch is not the most media-friendly operation in the world. But there are Orthodox scholars and insiders with email addresses, telephones and even weblogs. They can be found and interviewed. Many even speak English, including the Russians.

Come on NPR, just try it. Do that journalism thing that, on many stories, you manage to do.

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.

  • Chaplain Michael

    Sadly, NPR has forgotten how to provide both sides of a story for some time. Opinions and one sided musings as in this article with a total absence of historical perspective and how the Bishop of Rome’s seat at the table has always been there to return, when he decides to rejoin the Church.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Unfortunately, this is NPR’s MO when it comes to reporting on the Catholic Church — always go to the analysts, never to the real sources themselves. And always go to the analysts who fit their agenda. It’s obviously true for their reporting on the Orthodox Church as well.

    • bob

      Actually NPR might be better than Orthodox sources. From them you’d get some fairytales about the Apostle Andrew and the whopping figures of how many zillion Orthodox think Bartholomew is their “world leader”. Which is why this nonevent is such an embarrassment.

      • tmatt

        This is a site for journalism commentary, not attacks on other faiths. Chill.

  • Julia B

    Mickels was a poor choice. Too bad Professor Pelikan isn’t still around.

  • Julia B

    Since this is a live interview show – perhaps it would be better to get frank opinions about such a touchy subject on two different episodes. Why get well-intended people stirred up and arguing on air? Now NPR has done the Catholic one; next they should have one from the Orthodox viewpoint(s). Just be sure that links to both shows are posted together on-line, encouraging all to listen to both shows.
    And it is interesting to know what the Russian Orthodox think the Catholics’ intentions are [proselytizing]; so why not hear what the Catholics think the Orthodox motives and thinking are [the place of the Pope in any repaired union] .

  • emmiestar

    I rarely go to NPR for factual information anymore.

  • Fr. Savio

    And, just to note, I think any discussion on this should mention the Catholic understanding of Lyons II in 1274 and Ferrara-Florence in 1445. There’s an argument to be made that the schism is not a thousand years old. And even if that argument ISN’T made, it does need to be stated that Catholics and Orthodox have been working on reunion since before the Reformation – much less before the 21st century.

    • Alexander S Anderson

      Yep. 1054 is the “accepted” date by most people, but it’s worth noting that the excommunications that occurred at that time weren’t even valid.


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