Torture lost to Mafia coverage, at least in news on pope talks

If the coverage of Pope Francis this weekend was any indication, the Mafia is more interesting to mainstream journalists than torture chambers are. The reporters paid lots of attention to the pope’s anti-Mafia statement on Saturday, but hardly seemed to notice the next day when he urged all Christians to join in ending torture.

Meanwhile, torture is used in 141 nations in every region of the world, according to Amnesty International. Yet when Francis focused on it in his weekly Angelus address, it got little more than a brief in some media.

The Associated Press gave the story a mere five paragraphs. And only three of them had to do with the speech:

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis is urging Christians to work together to abolish every form of torture, condemning the practice as a grave sin.

Francis told the public in St. Peter’s Square Sunday he wanted to reiterate his “firm condemnation of every kind of torture.” He sought united efforts to work for torture’s end and to support victims and their families.

Francis said it was a “mortal sin, a very grave sin, to torture people” and noted that Thursday marks the United Nation’s day for torture victims.

The other two paragraphs mentioned that the military government of Argentina, Francis’ homeland, often used torture from 1976 to 1983. “Francis has been credited with saving lives of political dissidents while a Jesuit priest in Argentina,” the story adds.

Surprisingly, one of the best mainstream stories on the Angelus ran in the International Business Times:

In Sunday’s Angelus prayer, Pope Francis called for the end of all forms of torture. The Pope condemned the practice ahead of the United Nations’ International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on June 26.

Pope Francis’ Angelus address Sunday focused on charity and forgiveness prior to the closing prayer, Vatican Radio reported. Closing the Angelus prayer, the Pope recognized the U.N.’s day for supporting victims of torture and called for an end of its practice.

“In this circumstance, I reiterate the firm condemnation of all forms of torture,” Francis said, calling on Christians to end the practice, saying it was a “mortal sin.”

And the International Business Times added admirable background on the planned anti-torture observance:

The U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture was enacted Dec. 12, 1997. In his message for 2013, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged “all member states to accede to and fully implement the Convention against Torture and support the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. Let us work together to end torture throughout the world and ensure that countries provide reparation for victims.”

One of the longer articles on the topic appeared in the Latin Post, understandable for a publication that serves Latinos in the United States. Yet it didn’t have much on the pope’s actual words.

Instead, the Post’s very simple prose said …

Pope Francis is taking a public stance against torture. He told an audience in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday that he wants to reiterate his “firm condemnation of every kind of torture.” He is seeking to end the practice and to garner support for victims and their families.

He said that it is a “mortal sin, a very grave sin, to torture people.” The pope also recognized that Thursday is the United Nations day for supporting victims of torture. He is calling for all Christians to come together and end torture.

… before adding five paragraphs on the use of torture in Argentina, an apparent copy from the AP story.

Some media, like The Blaze, gave the pronouncement only a short mention. And SFGate spent most of its scant 79 words on Argentinian torture and Francis’ effort to rescue dissidents.

In all of these stories, what I missed is an explanation of “grave” and “mortal,” the terms Francis used. For a populace that attends church less and less — especially in North America and western Europe — it’s a bad bet to assume that readers will know the language.

And it’s not hard for reporters to inform themselves. Googling “definition mortal sin” yields a section of the Catholic Catechism, right on the Vatican’s website.

“Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent,” the document says. It further defines “grave matter” as one of those offenses specified in the Ten Commandments.

If that language is too hard, reporters could turn to the Catholic Culture website, which dials back the jargon. For that site, mortal sin is defined as:

An actual sin that destroys sanctifying grace and causes the supernatural death of the soul. Mortal sin is a turning away from God because of seriously inordinate adherence to creatures that causes grave injury to a person’s rational nature and to the social order, and deprives the sinner of a right to heaven.

Grave sin? Catholic Culture says it’s “The transgression of a divine law in a grievous matter with full knowledge and consent.” From there, even religiously illiterate reporters can probably identify torture as one of those grievous matters.

It takes only a little time and effort to convey understanding, rather than just relay data. Do reporters and editors care anymore?

I think the readers and viewers do. If they’re interested in what this winsome, unpredictable pope says, they’ll likely want to know what he’s talking about.

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About Jim Davis
  • http://www.lisagraas.com Lisa Graas

    A big problem here is that the Pope is condemning everyone who commits a particular act (in this case “torture”) to hell for all eternity. He was right to say “who am I to judge” when it comes to whether someone is in a state of mortal sin, and wrong here to judge that everyone who engages in “torture” intends to do harm and to defy God. He simply has no authority to judge people into hell this way. Only God can judge whether someone is going to hell.

    Further, scaring people into confessing where another terror attack is going to occur is clearly covered as licit under the just war doctrine. If the intention is to save lives, it cannot be a mortal sin. At best, it is venial sin, and under the just war doctrine the case can easily be made that it is not even venial sin.

    • AuthenticBioethics

      Perhaps the pope is within bounds after all. Just war doctrine is not dogma. It is not widely accepted among Catholic theologians and competent authorities that torture can be a legitimate part of a just war, since captured enemies or criminals are incarcerated and no longer capable of aggressive acts. Some try to justify it using the principle of double effect, but that is neither doctrine nor universally accepted nor necessarily even a valid approach.

      Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      2297 …. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity….

      2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.

  • Julia B

    Neither the Pope nor anybody but God can condemn a person to hell for all eternity, Francis was condemning the act of torture by calling it a grievous sin, not judging individual people.

    • Jim Davis

      That’s how I read it, Julia. It’s like the previous day, when Francis said Mafiosi were excommunicated. A Vatican spokesman explained that in their evil actions, they effectively excommunicate themselves.

  • Julia B

    “when Francis focused on it in his weekly Angelus address, it got little more than a brief in some media.”

    I’ve noticed that more often than not, the press describes the Angelus appearance by Popes as a “Blessing” and not an ancient prayer custom usually accompanied by a short address with a blessing. I think reporters must have picked up this innocuous “blessing” sense of the event from tourists who want to get a blessing from the Pope at these things. Actually Popes bless people at all kinds of events – not just at the noon Angelus. The short talks are often very serious and important.
    Examples: JPII, over a number of months, used these Angelus addresses to spell out his take on sexuality, among other things. Benedict was known for his teachings in series of structured talks on apostles, saints, theology, etc and many people came specifically to hear them.
    Bottom line: the media is usually not interested in hearing this kind of thing and so doesn’t treat the Angelus appearances as news worthy.


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