What? You thought Francis, Peres and Abbas really prayed?

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Let’s state this in journalistic terms.

What? You thought that the mainstream journalists covering the remarkable Vatican rite offering prayers for Middle East peace rite would actually produce coverage that included any content from the prayers?

Friends and neighbors, this event was all about politics and statecraft. Clearly, if the men wanted to produce real change in the real world then the only words that they spoke that mattered were addressed to one another and, thus, to the press. Get real.

The story that most American news consumers saw this past weekend was from the Associated Press, so let’s consider that text (in the version used by The Washington Post). Here’s some of the key material about this encounter between Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:

The event had the air of an outdoor summer wedding, complete with receiving line and guests mingling on the lawn as a string ensemble played. …

Vatican officials have insisted that Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. But the meeting could have greater symbolic significance, given that Francis was able to bring them together at all so soon after peace talks failed and at a time that the Israeli government is trying to isolate Abbas.

“In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important,” noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican.”

So was the omnipresent Father Reese actually, literally at this event or was he merely acting in his unofficial role as the press spokesman for all mainstream journalists and alleged Catholic insiders who would join him in calling a Vatican prayer service a “symbolic gesture”?

No one was hiding the fact that other talks took place behind closed doors. Also, no one was hiding the fact that, with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I joining in some parts of the ceremonies (but not leading prayers), there were actually two participants present who represented elements of the Palestinian people. Well, the pope would make three, since there are Eastern Rite Catholics in the region, as well. The AP report noted:

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When you wish upon a trend … it’s no longer news

Sometimes, anecdotes are a wellspring for indepth reporting. Other times, it just leads to wishful thinking.

Here is what the Washington Post ran on March 27 as an attempt at background for the meeting of Pope Francis and President Obama:

FLORENCE, Italy – The power of the Catholic Church in Italy has compelled thousands of gay men and lesbians to live in the shadows, and the opposition of bishops helped make this the only major nation in Western Europe without broad legal rights for same-sex couples. But gay Catholics here now speak of a new ray of light from what they call “l’effetto Francesco.”

The Francis Effect.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, at a time when the new pontiff is upending church conventions and opening new doors. In their first face-to-face encounter, the two leaders — who have sought to bring change to their respective offices — focused on issues ranging from growing inequality to the challenges of global conflicts.

But for the pope, perhaps no one issue illustrates his divergence from tradition more than early signs of rapprochement between the church and gay Catholics.

Oh, dear. Where to start?

With the dateline, I guess. The president met the pope, of course, at the Vatican. Which is, of course, in Rome. Which would, of course, make the meeting hard to cover from Florence, 174 miles away.

Second, the code word. Have you ever noticed that when a reporter doesn’t like a person or organization, he/she uses words like “power” and “powerful”? And when he/she does like them, the adjectives run more toward “respected” and “influential”?

Third, if gay rights, same-sex marriage or anything like it came up at the Francis-Obama meeting, no media — including the Washington Post — have reported it. The meeting was the flimsiest of newspegs on which to hang a story about the Church and gays.

But the story premise itself is flimsy, as the article acknowledges more than once. A few excerpts:

Francis’s shift so far has been one of style over substance; nothing in the church’s teachings on homosexuality has changed, and conservative clerics remain deeply skeptical of any radical move toward broad acceptance.

And:

Among the gaggle of conservative cardinals and bishops of the Italian church, little has outwardly changed since Francis’s arrival.

And then:

Gay activists in Italy say it is far too soon to tell whether Francis will truly usher in a new era here. And for each priest who is partaking in an opening, there are probably 20 others who are not.

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They didn’t even agree on what they disagreed on

Can you have a meeting of minds when you don’t agree on what you discussed — and neither do news media?

President Obama and Pope Francis met for the first time on Thursday, nearly all of it behind closed doors. And their post-meeting statements were so different, they were the focus of some media reports — though the reports themselves didn’t always match.

Here’s a close look at the mismatch between media from different U.S. coasts: CNN and the San Francisco Chronicle.

The habitually pro-Barack CNN produced friendly coverage, starting with the traditional exchange of gifts between the heads of state. In the short video clip, above, clicking cameras drowned out nearly everything except “It’s a great honor” and “I’m a great admirer.”

The network also seemed to soft-pedal disagreements in saying the president and the Vatican had “slightly different takes on the tenor of their discussions.” Yet it did show how different the takes were:

“… (I)t was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved,” the Vatican said in a statement. “In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection. …”

Obama, in a news conference that followed, told reporters that such issues were “not a topic of conversation” with the Pope and instead were discussed with Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

Whoa. The Vatican and the White House disagreed on what they disagreed on? Good time for follow-up questions. Why weren’t there any?

The CNN report also said where the two sides agreed:

According to the Vatican, the two men also discussed the issue of immigration reform and “stated their common commitment to the eradication of human trafficking throughout the world.”

On this point, the President and the Pope were simpatico.

“I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded,” Obama told reporters after the meeting.

Ghost alert, BTW: The CNN writer — and whoever edited his work — apparently missed where Obama got the phrase “the least of these.” It’s from Matthew 25, where Jesus talks about the needy: “Whatever you did for the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”

CNN then obediently quoted Obama on his newest campaign, “income inequality”:

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GR reader contributes a little ghost-spotting of his own

You know that cliché about some stories writing themselves? Well, sometimes a reader fairly writes stories for us, too.

It came this past week with a brief e-mail by James Stagg, a friend of this blog. He called our attention to mostly excellent interview with the Rev. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory. Not without its issues, though. See below.

The Q&A-style interview, on Syracuse.com, has an adept triple news hook. For one, many people would be surprised that the Vatican even has an observatory. For another, as a priest and scientist, Coyne is chairman of religious philosophy at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school. And the college is in Syracuse, providing a local angle for the interview.

Coyne also gives a “snappy interview,” in Stagg’s words. We’re treated to inside info such as:

* The Vatican has two big working telescopes, neither of them in Italy.

* All 15 staffers with the Vatican astronomers are Jesuits.

* A meteorite laboratory and a library are part of the Vatican Observatory.

Why was the interview “mostly” excellent, then? Because of a “major ghost”spotted by Stagg himself. In the second-to-last paragraph, we see Coyne saying:

I have been a vocal opponent of intelligent design. It is not science, although it pretends to be. I am concerned that fundamentalist religious beliefs might continue to influence the role of science in the modern decision-making process.

“The reporter missed a BIG discussion about why Father Coyne opposes ‘intelligent design,’ which, as a Catholic priest, he should support in some form,” Stagg writes. “What he is actually opposed to is probably the teaching of “creationism,” which is fundamentalist in belief. BIG hole; otherwise good article.”

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Doing right by the pope — and by the readers

What a pleasure it is to see a writer do it right. So it’s a pleasure to read John L. Allen Jr.’s interview with Cardinal Sean O’Malley in the Boston Globe.

Allen, an associate editor of the Globe, brings years of skill and experience in having covered the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter in interviewing the archbishop of Boston.

The story, which Allen wrote along with religion reporter Lisa Wangsness, picks the brain of Pope Francis via the man who, as it says, “is widely considered to be Pope Francis’ closest American adviser.” The journalists set a balanced tone right from the first three paragraphs:

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley says he shares in the sense of wonder at how swiftly Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention and softened, with his sometimes startling words and personal gestures, the image of the Roman Catholic Church.

But he cautions that those with high expectations that the shift in tone presages major changes in church teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and other flashpoint issues are likely to be disappointed.

“I don’t see the pope as changing doctrine,’’ O’Malley said in an interview with the Globe, though he said the pontiff’s focus on compassion and mercy over doctrinal purity has reverberated powerfully throughout the church.

That’s another sign of an original reporter. Allen is aware of the tone in many secular media, anticipating liberal changes in the Roman Catholic Church. But unlike many colleagues, he chooses reporting over parroting.

He is also scrupulous in telling us what limitations he accepted for the interview. One is not to bring up a flap at a local Catholic school, where someone wasn’t used to provide food service after revealing that he’s gay. That’s analogous to Bob Costas’ agreement to confine his Wednesday interview with President Obama to matters related to the Winter Olympics.

Nor does Allen assume everyone knows O’Malley’s prominence in clerical circles. He offers this crisply written background:

O’Malley’s read on Francis carries special weight.

He is the only American cardinal Francis knew well before his election. O’Malley has traveled widely in Latin America, and once stayed at the Buenos Aires residence of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. They conversed comfortably in Spanish, a language O’Malley speaks fluently.

The 69-year-old archbishop is the only American on the pontiff’s all-important “G8” council of eight cardinal advisers, who will have their third session with Francis later this month to ponder reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and other matters.

He adds later that it was O’Malley who announced in December that Francis was forming a commission to deal with sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

The interview offers some tantalizing tips on future developments under Francis. One is to boost women’s leadership, even at the Vatican level:

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Concerning AP and the Vatican’s ‘glass ceiling’ for women

Your GetReligionistas received several angry emails this past week about the following Associated Press story, each of them triggered by a single unattributed term in the piece. In The Washington Post, this piece ran under the following headline:

Pope: Women should play expanded role in Church

Nothing unusual there of course, unless you, like me, were surprised to see the Post copy desk go with an upper-case “C” on the word Church, which is Catholic tradition but not AP style.

No, what set our readers off — some of them non-Catholics, by the way — was a pair of words near the top of this alleged work of straightforward news copy.

Can you spot the red flag?

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis … lauded women for their sensitivity toward the society’s weak and “gifts” like intuition, insisting they take on greater responsibilities in the Catholic church, as well as in professional and public spheres.

Francis was full of praise about female talent and untapped potential in a speech at the Vatican to an Italian women’s group. But the pope gave no sign that the Vatican glass ceiling against ordaining women for the priesthood might see some cracks during his papacy.

From day one of his papacy in March, Francis has been trying to make the Catholic church more welcoming, but it forbids women from becoming priests, arguing among other things, that Jesus and his apostles were men.

Actually, there are several groaners in there, including the fact that anyone would need to argue about the fact that Jesus and the 12 apostles were all males.

Argue? Isn’t that something like someone needing to “argue” about whether the moon travels around the earth or that the Mother of God was a woman? (Personal note: Yes, I am an Eastern Orthodox layman and accept the teachings of the ancient church on this matter, although that was not the case when I was a Protestant.)

What the AP team meant to say is that arguments about women serving as priests center on what that historical fact MEANS and whether or not 2,000 years of tradition in the ancient churches is still binding on modern believers.

So there is that.

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Pope Francis to the media: Try being good neighbors

Think of this as a one-time GetReligion commentary from a guest who is an expert, in many ways, on the behavior of the professionals who work in the world’s news media. This is, of course, the annual papal message for World Communications Day, marking the feast of St Francis de Sales — the patron of writers and journalists.

Click here for the full document.

Now, parts of this text raise some interesting question. The pope is, clearly, serving as a good cop and a bad cop at the same time, in terms of his commentary on the news business.

But which point of view gets the upper hand in this essay? That’s where I would like to hear from GetReligion readers in the comments pages (those of you who are patient enough for the whole Disqus process).

Let’s start here:

In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all. Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity. The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. We need to resolve our differences through forms of dialogue which help us grow in understanding and mutual respect. A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive. Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.

Would the people charged with moderating the comments pages at The National Catholic Reporter agree? Times have been rather rough over there.

Now, only a few words later, there is the flip side of the coin, with @Pontifex offering some thoughts — plus and minus — on (I’m reading between the lines) everything from that MSNBC vs. Fox News thing to Twitter:

The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression. The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests. The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings. The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbours, from those closest to us. We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind.

While these drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media; rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement. What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding? We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen.

Some would consider that final statement to be quite wise.

Others in the world of social media will simple scream: LOL!

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Journalists editing Pope Francis: Who are we to judge?

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Sometimes, in this tricky world of media criticism, it’s hard to pay attention to what someone said without focusing too much on which person, from what group, did the alleged media criticism.

So in this case, let’s read some of the words in a specific op-ed essay before we get to the issue of who wrote them.

This is a short piece, so we can actually parse most of the actual contents. Let’s begin at the beginning:

Not a day goes by without a pundit or editorial writer opining on what Pope Francis said about some controversial issue. While every pope, as well as every religious and secular leader, properly has his remarks subjected to scrutiny, Pope Francis is having his words sliced and diced far beyond anything his predecessors were accustomed to. Quite frankly, the goal of many commentators is to make the pope’s statements appear to underscore their own ideological agenda.

Frankly, there is a lot of that going on out there. This is almost as big a problem on the right, when dealing with papal statements on, oh, capitalism (hello, Rush Limbaugh) as it is on the left (hello college of cardinals at The New York Times editorial pages). However, since the Times is much more important than Limbaugh, when talking about mainstream journalism, let’s proceed on that tact.

Nothing excites the passions of those on the left today more than gay rights. Their obsession is shown with Pope Francis’ comment, made over the summer, “Who am I to judge?” …

What Francis said was, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” The difference between what he is quoted as saying, and what he actually said, is not minor. Those who parse his words agree, which is why they parse them. It is important to note that the pope did not offer two sentences: his one sentence was chopped to alter his message.

We will get to the full papal transcript in just a minute. However, based on my own reading of waves of coverage of this pope and this statement in particular, I believe that this is an accurate statement about how this one papal phrase is being yanked out of context.

Yes, the statement is important and, yes, the tone of the statement is important. But so is the content of the full quote.

Here is the paragraph of this op-ed that I thought would most interest GetReligion readers, especially those working in mainstream newsrooms:

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