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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Miracle caused by mere memory of John Paul II?

There has been another development in the canonization case of the Blessed John Paul II, which means it’s time for another round of news stories that — to one degree or another — mangle what Catholics and members of other ancient churches believe about prayer and the saints.

Before we get going, here is a handy doctrinal reminder: For Christians, only God can perform miracles. Here’s how Father Arne Panula of the Catholic Information Center here in Washington, D.C., explained it to me in 2011:

“What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray ‘with’ us, rather than to say that we pray ‘to’ a saint,” he said.

“You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not.”

Now with that in mind, check out the lede on this quick online story from The Atlantic:

The Vatican has reportedly “approved” a second miracle that can be attributed to the memory of Pope John Paul II, opening the door for him to become a full saint faster than anyone in recent history. The Vatican won’t reveal the details of the miracle just yet, but it allegedly concerns the “extraordinary healing” of a woman in Costa Rica, who recovered from a brain injury after praying to the deceased pope. A similar healing miracle was attributed to John Paul in 2011, giving him the two miracles required to reach full sainthood.

Whoa, that contains at least one totally new twist on the usual errors.

What in the world does it mean to say that the “memory” of Pope John Paul II was the cause of a miracle? Later on in the same paragraph, we have the more familiar error — the part about the healing talking place after someone “prayed to the deceased pope.”

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