Can we get some historical context on the canonized popes?

If you’re elected Bishop of Rome, you join one of the world’s most exclusive lists. As the Supreme Pontiff of the 1.2 billion member Catholic Church, you are — quite literally — one in a billion. But after you die you have a chance to join an even more exclusive group: papal saints. Out of the 264 deceased popes only 78 have the honor of being canonized.

If you were one of the first 54 popes you had a good shot of making the cut (all of the first 35 popes and 52 of the first 54 were canonized). But since the 1500s, only one man — Pope Pius X, who died in 1914 — has been added to the list. Sixteen others are on the track to sainthood, but last week two former popes were moved to the front of the line: Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.

From 1572 to 1954, only one pope was declared a saint. And now, in 2013, two more are added to the list. In other words, this is significant religion story. So why then isn’t it being treated that way?

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the media covered the second miracle attributed to JP II. This weekend tmatt also wrote about the way journalists cover the divine healing in response to the intercessory prayers of the saints. But while some reporters have covered the miracles, the significance of the event seems to be lost on the media.

Consider, for instance, the lede in the New York Times:

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Round two: How not to report on a miracle

Being recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church is a difficult process — almost as difficult, apparently, as trying to explain that process in a mainstream new story.

I realize that tmatt just wrote an early post on this topic, but, trust me, there’s plenty more coverage out there, complete with new and unique gaffes. Let’s go with round two.

So, an official at the Vatican claims that a new miracle has been attributed to the late John Paul II, clearing the way for his canonization. The news may be fairly straightforward, but journalists seem to make the same three mistakes in their reporting:

Not defining the theological terms — The AP must assume that its readers are familiar with the process since they don’t attempt to define or explain any of the terms used in their report:

A Vatican official says a commission of theologians approved a miracle attributed to his intercession, clearing a key hurdle. The case now goes to a commission of cardinals and then Pope Francis. John Paul’s canonization is possible in autumn to coincide with the 35th anniversary of his election, though the official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to reveal details about the case that it may be too soon.

The Polish-born pope has been on the fast track for sainthood ever since retired Pope Benedict XVI waived the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the investigation into his life and virtues to begin just weeks after his 2005 death. John Paul was beatified in 2011.

Leaving terms like “intercession,” “canonization,” and “beatified” unexplained might be acceptable for the National Catholic Reporter. But a mainstream wire service should not assume its readers are fluent in Catholic.

Claiming the process makes a person a saint — As EWTN explains, “By canonization the Pope does not make the person a saint. Rather, he declares that the person is with God and is an example of following Christ worthy of imitation by the faithful.” That’s not the impression you’d get, though, from reading The Daily Telegraph:

The Polish pontiff is likely to be formally made a saint in the autumn.

Or as CBS News says:

Pope John Paul II has moved a step closer to sainthood.

Well, no. John Paul may be closer to being recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, but his status has already been determined and is not due to what CBS refers to as “the saint-making process.”

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AP knows what the Pope really thinks

I was at a meeting of a journalism fellowship program I’m part of this weekend. We heard from Sam Feist, CNN’s DC bureau chief.

So, earlier in his career, he’d written some copy for the on-air talent to read for that night’s show. The line was something like “Clinton believes that the tax bill will pass.” The guy who was supposed to read the line — he happened to be an old-school journalist with little time for silliness — excoriated him. He told Feist that a reporter can never know what a politician thinks, believes or feels. The reporter can only know what the politician says. Politicians might be telling you something for any number of reasons. It might be because they believe it. It might be because they want to send a particular message to the opposition or to the ground troops. It might be for any number of reasons. But a reporter can’t know what someone believes. He can only know what the source says. (The old-school journalist said this rule goes double for buildings, such as “The White House believes” or “The Vatican is hoping.”)

Good reporting might be able to put the quote in context, but it’s important that the reporter start by going with what the source says.

I thought of that when I read the first paragraph of this Associated Press story on big news in the Roman Catholic Church this weekend:

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Some 80,000 pilgrims in flowered lei, feathered headdresses and other traditional garb flooded St. Peter’s Square on Sunday as Pope Benedict XVI added seven more saints onto the roster of Catholic role models in a bid to reinvigorate the faith in parts of the world where it’s lagging.

This seems to be a variation of the “believes” edict from above. Unless the Catholic Church has stated that they canonized these seven saints just to “reinvigorate the faith in parts of the world where it’s lagging,” why would the reporter say that?

Later we’re told:

The canonization coincided with a Vatican meeting of the world’s bishops on trying to revive Christianity in places where it’s fallen by the wayside.

At first it was just lagging. Now we’re talking about those places in the world where Christianity has completely fallen by the wayside! Where are those places? Is it in those places where it’s illegal to be Christian or convert to Christianity? Apparently Christianity has “fallen by the wayside” in the places mentioned below (and I have to say, I think that’s hyperbole or a terribly problematic word choice in most of the locations listed):

Several of the new saints were missionaries, making clear the pope hopes their example — even though they lived hundreds of years ago — will be relevant today as the Catholic Church tries to hold on to its faithful. It’s a tough task as the Vatican faces competition from evangelical churches in Africa and Latin America, increasing secularization in the West and disenchantment due to the clerical sex abuse scandal in Europe and beyond.

I’m sorry, but as a Lutheran who almost named my daughter after an early martyr — even though she lived and died more than 1800 years ago — that first sentence is cracking me up.

I mean, I guess I understand the point being made, but it’s a line that is just so very foreign to how the church operates and how Christians learn from the saints who have gone before. But you’ll notice that “tries to hold on to its faithful” sentiment again. It’s just odd considering the entire lack of substantiation for it from anyone, much less anyone affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Or as one reader put it:

I don’t mind the quote marks around “miracle”, at least on the first use of the term, since I don’t expect the AP to believe the miracle anymore than I’d expect them to believe a miracle emanating from another faith. However, the constant editorializing — sans any quote or data, not even from Fr. Reese — about how the saints seem to be just to keep up a flagging faith gets tiresome.

Anyway, I’m less willing to give a pass on the “miracle” quotes just because it seems redundant here:

Among the few people chosen to receive Communion from the pope himself was Jake Finkbonner, a 12-year-old boy of Native American descent from the western U.S. state of Washington, whose recovery from an infection of flesh-eating bacteria was deemed “miraculous” by the Vatican.

I think that readers are smart enough to figure out that the line “was deemed miraculous by the Vatican” means that the event was, you know, “deemed miraculous by the Vatican.”

But no, sometimes we need quotes to let us know that this is just the view of the particular group, but since the word “deemed” is in the phrase, I think it’s unnecessary. But I’m one of those logical people who, if I dressed up for Halloween this year, would be dressing up as “scare quotes.”

Pope Benedict XVI picture via vipflash / Shutterstock.com


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