Wired Vatican? Can the digital security hold?

art00.gifSeveral years ago, as the clergy sexual abuse story kicked into high gear, papal biographer George Weigel made an interesting comment about a practical reason that many top officials inside the Vatican were failing to grasp the anger of many American Catholics — especially the anger of traditionalists who usually are Rome’s strongest defenders.

During an Easter trip to Rome, he said, he discovered that many in the heirarchy still thought the story was hype. They could not see that the big wave of fury was still to come. They didn’t get it.

But why? Didn’t they read their email?

Weigel was amazed. Clearly there was some kind of “information gap” between the U.S. Catholic establishment and Rome, he said. Also, the worldly European press had remained silent, perhaps due to a jaded view of American obsessions about sex. But something else was wrong.

“Suddenly it dawned on me that the Vatican is simply not, to this day, a part of the Internet culture,” said Weigel. “There are a few people who take the trouble to go online every morning or evening. . . . But in the main, what we have become used to and what frames our emotional responses to these questions, namely real-time information and a constant flow of chat, commentary, argument and so forth, . . . none of this exists over there.”

So the Vatican just doesn’t get the blogosphere. Does it grasp the realities of digital audio? I know Vatican officials will try to find hidden cell telephones inside the high walls of papal security. Can they find them all?

I bring this up because of an interesting Washington Post report the other day by Glenn Frankel and Alan Cooperman that ran with the headline “Wired, News-Hungry World Tests Venerable Traditions.” The digital bottom line is easy to find. In the best-case scenario, this conclave is going to take place under a cyberdome of listservs, blogs, email and a level of cable TV and speciality publication journalism that has never been seen before.

Someone on CNN, during the funeral coverage, noted that CNN did not really exist during the conclaves that elected John Paul I and John Paul II. Now the world’s media is so post-CNN. CNN is one of the old geezers of media, when it comes to this kind of insider, niche-oriented journalism.

So the Post is right to ask: What is ahead? What is the worst-case scenario?

The ritual contest to succeed the late pope could be another moment when tradition is tested. In a 1996 document setting out new rules and conditions for papal succession, John Paul conceded that he needed to take into account changing times and present-day requirements. Still, the document seeks to maintain the traditional wall of secrecy around the selection process and warns of dire consequences for violators.

“I absolutely forbid the introduction into the place of the election, under whatsoever pretext, or the use, should they have been introduced, of technical instruments of any kind for the recording, reproducing or transmitting of sound, visual images or writing,” wrote John Paul, who specified the exact wording of the three oaths of secrecy that all cardinals attending the sessions are required to take.

Once upon a time, the infamous Father Andrew Greeley claimed to have sources who gave him the scoop on what went on inside the year of the three popes. This year, there will be legions of digital Greeleys trying to get info. Does the Vatican truly grasp what is coming?

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Santo, santo, santo!

StPetersSquare.jpgThere is no one correct way to write a news story, other than to tell the truth of what you’ve observed and gathered. Reporting is more an art than a science, and that was clear earlier today in how The New York Times and The Washington Post differed in their descriptions of Pope John Paul II’s funeral in St. Peter’s Square.

Both papers referred to the astonishing moment at funeral’s end when the assembled mourners applauded and shouted their farewells. The Times kept that moment at the top of its story, but made it sound like a polite ovation:

Applause rang out from a huge crowd this morning at the end of the funeral of John Paul II, the little-known Polish cardinal chosen as pope in 1978.

After a Mass that lasted about two-and-a-half hours, his plain cypress coffin marked with a cross and an “M” for the Virgin Mary was brought out of St. Peter’s Basilica and placed before an altar in St. Peter’s Square. The book of the Gospel was placed on the coffin and a breeze riffled the pages throughout the service.

The bells of St. Peter’s tolled and 12 pallbearers with white gloves, white ties and tails then carried the coffin on their shoulders back inside for burial, after holding the coffin to face the multitude for a prolonged moment, as the great bell of St. Peter’s pealed, and waves of applause swept through the audience.

The pallbearers finally turned again and entered the church, as the crowd held on, mesmerized. The bell tolled on and on, and at last people chatted with their neighbors and began to move away, many of them weeping.

(The Times has since downplayed these graphs in the revised and expanded story at the same link.)

The Post broke up the narrative a bit with background details about the funeral and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily, but better captured the explosive emotions on the square. First the lede:

Under a clear Vatican sky, thousands of exuberant mourners, chanting “santo, santo, santo,” or saint, gathered in the shadow of the Basilica of St. Peter Friday and bid farewell to Pope John Paul II.

Then, after six brisk graphs of background, the heart of the drama:

The funeral began at 10 a.m. local time (4 a.m. EDT). Two hours and 40 minutes later, the cardinals filed back into the basilica.

The pallbearers, in turn, lifted the cypress coffin, hoisted it on their shoulders and rotated the box to show it one more time to the crowd, which roared its appreciation.

It was a curtain call. Tears flowed down from thousands of faces.

Bishops on the steps waved goodbye as the coffin then disappeared within the doors and the big bell on a tower to the left of the basilica tolled somberly, joined immediately by the rest of Rome’s church bells.

Ten minutes after the coffin had disappeared, the crowd was still applauding. Then, as the dignitaries along the steps retired into the basilica to be escorted out into Rome, the crowd began to stream across Tiber River bridges away from the square. They seemed to be keeping pace with the slow tolling of the bells as they shuffled away.

If you missed TV coverage of these last glimpses of the pope’s coffin, or the entire funeral, the Post provides an impressive variety of links on this page.

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CNN and the heart of the pope story

Is there anyone else out there who would like an update on the status of that CNN International report about the future location of the heart of Pope John Paul II? While everyone else talked about the hopes and dreams of Polish leaders, CNN posted this:

KRAKOW, Poland (CNN) — The city that captured the heart of Pope John Paul II long before he followed his calling into the priesthood may become the final resting place of his physical heart, a Roman Catholic church official in Krakow has told CNN.

That’s a stunningly powerful lead, if it’s true. What happened to that? Might it happen in the future? If so, as Peggy “Friend of this Blog” Noonan wrote, beginning with a reference to the chants when the pope first returned to Poland:

John Paul gave us what may be the transcendent public spiritual moment of the 20th century. “We want God.” The greatest and most authentic cry of the human heart. They say he asked that his heart be removed from his body and buried in Poland. That sounds right, and I hope it’s true. They’d better get a big box.

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Sinners! Let's pray along with the royal couple!

principe_charles_e_camila.jpgMaybe it’s just me, but I find it sort of amazing that The Daily Mail believes the following information is a hot news story. In fact, I would argue that it would have been a much more important story if the Prince and his Lady fair had elected not to recite a major-league prayer of repentance.

Then again, judgmental editors down in New Zealand seem to agree it is a big deal that Prince Charles and the other woman are willing to say they are sinners. Truth is, Christian orthodoxy teaches that sin is sin and it would be a good thing for everyone to read themselves the spiritual riot act regularly (and sexual sins are not worse than others, while we are at it).

Maybe they don’t have many sinners down under.

Back to the Mail story. If the point of the story is that Charles and Camilla made news by selecting a traditional prayer of repentance, then it would have been good for the editors to have reproduced one of the modernized, confession-lite prayers so that readers could compare the two texts.

Anyway, here is the top of the Mail story:

The Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles will acknowledge their “sins and wickedness” when their wedding is blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Charles will pledge to be faithful to his new wife in the service of prayer and dedication. . . .

Charles and Camilla will say the prayer book confession which reads: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.”

And all the fallen creatures said, “Amen.”

The newspaper notes, for those who have been living on Venus for a decade or two, that Charles committed adultery with Camilla, while still married to Diana, Princess of Wales.

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Is being an absolutist absolutely wrong?

stern pope.jpgDamon Linker, former editor of First Things, has written a provocative (and sometimes annoying) essay on how he believes Pope John II’s moral absolutism has affected Americans’ discussions of embryonic stem-cell research and the court-sanctioned dehydration death of Terri Schiavo:

After a century of mass murder, John Paul’s unconditional defense of human dignity cannot fail to impress. His articulate and passionate advocacy for human rights helped to bring about the fall of communism, and it justly earned him the respect and admiration of humanists (Christian and non-Christian alike) around the globe.

Yet there are reasons to be suspicious of all absolutisms — even the noblest kinds. While they inspire great certainty and conviction, they also distort our vision, obscuring the exceedingly complicated, even paradoxical, character of morality itself.

Take the Pope’s influence on the way stem-cell research is discussed in the United States. John Paul convinced many American conservatives that the union of sperm and ovum instantly produces a unique person who possesses the same dignity (and thus rights) as a mature human being; embryonic stem-cell research, which destroys this person within two weeks of conception, must therefore be prohibited. From this standpoint, those who support such research appear to be immoralists advocating a bloodthirsty “culture of death.” But this is far from fair. . . .

It also tends to poison and polarize political debate, as we recently observed in the rancorous conflict over the fate of Terri Schiavo. It is an eerie coincidence that John Paul’s death followed so swiftly on the heels of this saga, since it stands as a further, and even more troubling, example of the Pope’s influence on moral argument in the United States. Those who sided with Schiavo’s parents in their efforts to have her feeding tube reinserted (including President Bush and leading members of the Republican Party) explicitly described themselves as defenders of a “culture of life” against its enemies. It didn’t matter to them that 19 judges had ruled that removing Schiavo’s feeding tube was permitted under Florida law. It didn’t matter that established legal procedures precluded appeals to the federal courts. It didn’t matter that the U.S. Constitution left open no role for Congress or the president. Such procedural and pragmatic considerations were irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was that they turn back the “culture of death” by any means possible.

Both culture of life and culture of death take sneer quotes throughout the essay, but that’s pretty much inescapable in reports that acknowledge the concepts. In writing about the dangers of moral absolutism, Linker paints with too broad a sweep. It would help, for instance, to see an acknowledgment that some activists opposed Terri Schiavo’s death on grounds other than moral absolutism.

Still, given how often religious leaders favor avoiding difficult moral stances, it’s refreshing that the pope affirmed moral absolutes clearly enough to attract criticism. Compared to an editorial that blames millions of African deaths on John Paul II’s opposition to contraception, Linker’s essay is a model of restraint.

Tom Round of the Father McKenzie blog says Linker’s essay is a man-bites-dog phenomenon because in 1996 First Things questioned the American government’s legitimacy amid earlier culture of life/culture of death debates. But First Things raised that question five years before Linker joined the staff as an associate editor.

Linker’s subsequent employment at First Things is a tribute, I think, to that journal’s editorial ecumenism and to Linker’s diverse interests as a writer. More specifically, Linker — a Roman Catholic — has:

• Taught for two years at Brigham Young University.
• Written as the first non-LDS contributor at a Latter-day Saints blog called Times and Seasons.
Criticized Richard Rorty’s liberal absolutism.
Tagged Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez as a work of New Age theology.
• Ticked off the right people in a letter to his alma mater’s Ithaca College Quarterly.

Linker’s bio line in The New Republic mentions that he is “writing a book about the influence of religious conservatism on American politics.” However that book turns out, it’s unlikely to be boring.

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Da winna? And still champion

PopeCovers.jpgFor my money, Newsweek beat the pants off of Time with its pope package.

The second-run newsweekly dragged Ken Woodward out of mothballs to file the lead story, which begins with reporting on the ground from St. Peter’s Square at the moment of the pope’s death and then moves on to the long sweep of his papacy: the fight against Communism, the grand ecumenical gestures, the trips around the globe to try to sow the seeds that would change cultures, the slow but persistent drive to bring some uniformity to Catholic worship and theology.

Other pieces of the package include:

• An article by the incomparable Melinda Henneberger (allowed to write on religion for the print issue for once) on how JPII didn’t always make nice with his American audience.

• Andrew Nagorski on his experience covering the pope (near as I can figure, the article on the web has a different lede and different title from the same piece in the print magazine — odd).

• George Weigel on his experience as the pope’s quasi-official biographer.

• Nagorski again on the coming papal conclave.

Now, I can’t actually link to all of the Time package, because of that website’s Khrushchevian firewall, but the web monkeys have posted a few excerpts. We have James Carroll explaining that JPII’s true legacy will be pacifism and ecumenism; a short item on the order of events to elect the new pope; a short bit by Nancy Gibbs; and an extract from reporter David Van Biema’s longer, rather plodding treatment of the pope’s life and legacy.

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That gap between newsrooms and pews

padpew.jpgThe anti-Borg here at GetReligion does not go out of its way to comment on op-ed page columns, unless they are directly related to how the press is covering a particular news story.

In this case, Washington and Lee University scholar Edward Wasserman has jumped right on top of this blog’s Ground Zero with a Miami Herald column about why religion news is so controversial. He thinks all kinds of thoughts about this, some of them — in my opinion — quite muddled and some of them right on the money.

However, there is no doubt about what makes him mad:

. . . Steven Roberts, a 25-year New York Times veteran, said, “I could probably count on one hand in the Washington bureau of The New York Times people who would describe themselves as people of faith.”

So the connection was drawn: The media neglect religion because journalists themselves are impious.

No, no, no, no. Both sides of that debate are being too simplistic.

Wasserman later says the key is that journalists who cover religion have to respect the beat and try to get their facts straight. GetReligion will continue to say “Amen!” to that sentiment, as often as we can. But as I noted in a lecture at the Poynter Institute, that does not mean the gap between newsrooms and pews is meaningless.

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Our latest cosmetic surgery

By now many of you will have noticed that we’ve dropped our right sidebar column. If it’s still appearing on some browsers, such as Safari, try clearing your cache.

For several months we offered a Short Takes feature in our left column, but we were never pleased enough with how it functioned. Now we have integrated all Short Takes items and done away with the sidebar column. When you see a short item without art, you’ll know it’s what we used to call a Short Take.

We have scrapped our three-column layout because it was becoming increasingly cluttered. Our blogroll items are now listed in our individual biographies. (The link for Jeremy’s bio is broken at the moment, but we’re working on it. Try clicking here if you can’t wait for us to get it together.)

We hope you like our two-column layout, and we’ll keep improving on it.

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