‘God’s representative on Earth to Catholics’

From time to time, readers send notes to your GetReligionistas in which they ask us to pass journalistic judgments on whether this or that mainstream newsroom has successfully split a fine theological hair.

In this case, several Catholics were either offended or bemused by an interesting choice of words in a recent lede at The Washington Post.

Yes, this is another papal horse race news feature. Here’s the top:

When someone becomes pope — God’s representative on Earth to Catholics — he dons all white, takes the title “his holiness” and is greeted even by top cardinals with a kiss of his ring. Can a cardinal who pals around with Stephen Colbert fill such a vaunted role? How about one with a style so simple that he serves tuna sandwiches and chips to even his most important guests?

Yet these two men — Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — are being talked about as contenders for the papacy, marking the first time an American has ever been seriously considered.

The phrase that jumped out at readers, of course, was “God’s representative on Earth to Catholics.”

As I see it, there are two questions here. The first concerns “God’s representative on Earth” and the second is connected to that interesting addition at the end, which is “to Catholics.”

First, one of the formal titles attached to the papacy is that the pope is said to serve as Vicarius Christi, the vicar of Christ. That’s pretty explicit, especially if one looks up the meaning of the term “vicar,” as it is used by Catholics.

Roman Catholic Church

* an ecclesiastic representing the pope or a bishop. …

* a person who is authorized to perform the functions of another; deputy: God’s vicar on earth.

So, seeing as how Trinitarian Christians believe that Jesus Christ is part of the Holy Trinity, it is pretty easy to accept the paraphrase that the “vicar of Christ” could also be called “God’s representative on Earth.” Of course, a wide variety of people in various flocks would want to debate the meaning of the term “representative” and whether this term is singular.

But let’s move on.

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That minister of humor unloads on the pope coverage

The thought for the day and, perhaps, for the next week or two, care of Father James Martin, the chaplain of The Colbert Report and author of the essential “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.”

The problem, as you will see in this Facebook entry, is that — other than a choice poke or two — I don’t think this particular Jesuit is laughing at the moment. Hang on.

The conclave hasn’t even started, and I’m already submerged by a sea of stupid articles, idiotic commentary and boneheaded op-eds about the Catholic Church, by people who have no clue what they’re talking about. I’m not talking about people with whom I disagree, or who challenge me with new ways of thinking about the church, but writers who seem completely clueless about the most basic concepts. Some of this is to be expected: the church is a highly complex institution with 2,000 of history behind it.

But the number of misinformed articles I’ve read about celibacy, the priesthood, the papacy, the church in this country, the causes of the sexual abuse crisis, church authority, papal infallibility, the role of the magisterium, life in a religious order, the vow of chastity, and Benedict XVI, just boggles the mind. Or at least my mind, which perhaps is too easily boggled. Needless to say, I don’t expect commentators to know everything about the church. (I sure don’t.) But I think it’s a reasonable to expect that people should refrain from commenting (especially publicly) on stuff that they clearly don’t know much about.

Wait, there’s more! Trust me on that.

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Where’s the faith content in these sex scandals?

On one level, that New York Times feature story on the fall of Msgr. Kevn Wallin of Connecticut has everything one would want in a religion scandal. I mean, it’s got sex, crystal meth, Broadway show tunes and a hazy link to a future cardinal.

Consider this summary material:

At a time when priests from California to Delaware have been accused of loathsome deeds, the allegations against Monsignor Wallin, the former pastor of the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Bridgeport, are of a notably different dimension: that he was a drug dealer and addict who was buying an adult novelty shop to launder ill-gotten proceeds, a priest who was cross-dressing and having sex with men.

The enigmatic double lives of Monsignor Wallin burst into public view last month after federal prosecutors announced they had arrested him on charges of possessing and conspiring to sell drugs that could send him to prison for life. Now 61, he languishes in jail, having pleaded not guilty to behavior that many who know him find both twisted and ungraspable.

Or how about this?

After his departure, church officials found a bag stowed in the rectory containing adult pornographic videos, sexual toys and leather masks, according to church workers.

Alarmed at the possibility of child pornography or child abuse, the diocese hired an outside lawyer. The diocese said Monsignor Wallin was questioned and denied interest in children. An expert searched his computer, but found nothing related to children.

The diocese decided it had a priest who had committed a sin but not a crime.

Anyway, I think that we will skip the part about the “lace panties and other articles of women’s clothing” in his laundry.

The journalistic question, for me, is this: What about the actual content of this talented clergyman’s faith and ministry? I mean, was he one of those priests who was silent on the church’s teachings? Was he a progressive who gently undercut the doctrines of the church? Was he a traditionalist to preached one thing, while secretly living a life that completely contradicted the doctrines he had vowed to defend? Was he high church or low church?

Readers don’t get much on that side of the equation, which is strange since many unnamed Catholic leaders — we are told — believed that this man was on his way to being a bishop.

I mean, we are told that he was “erudite” and that the faithful “felt buoyed by his homilies.” He apparently loved to talk about church history and to take people on pilgrimages of some kind or another (other than to the opera and Broadway shows). Then there was this interesting paragraph that combined both sides of his life in a mysterious and unexplained manner:

Monsignor Wallin’s fall seems precipitous. But colleagues said that his faith had been weakening for years under the imperatives of running a financially crippled church, and that he had long been sexually active with men. His drug use, they suspect, may have been more recent, and the final tinder that exploded his life.

And then there is this glimpse of spiritual issues:

“His lifestyle was go-go-go-go, doing 50 things at once,” said a businessman who knew him. “He loved to mix with the big shots.”

But there was evidence he was wrestling with his faith. A church worker who has known him for decades described a session with other priests years ago during which they spoke of things like the mercy of God, and Monsignor Wallin said, “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“He had become disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the church,” this worker said. “You’re always doing the ceremony. You’re always dealing with the paperwork. You’re not shepherding souls.”

But the fact everyone agrees on was that, before the drugs, before his mental breakdown, there was always his double life in which he was violating his oath of celibacy. So whatever his approach to the Catholic faith, it was one in which his public, celebrated priesthood was mixed with his life as a sexually active homosexual and church officials close to him seemed to have known about that, according to the Times.

So there is a crucial question here, once again.

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Unnecessary words and the Vatican’s ‘gay lobby’

YouTube Preview ImageYesterday a reader tweeted that The Guardian was clearly trying to insinuate that Pope Benedict XVI is compromised in some way, resigning in disgrace. The headline:

Papal resignation linked to inquiry into ‘Vatican gay officials’, says paper 

Pope’s staff decline to confirm or deny La Repubblica claims linking ‘Vatileaks’ affair and discovery of ‘blackmailed gay clergy’

Sounds deliciously scandalous! The long and the short of it is that some claim there’s a shadowy “gay lobby” in the Vatican, blackmail was involved and such dark forces may have factored into Benedict XVI’s decision to resign. David Gibson over at Religion News Service ruins the fun by saying there’s not much to the report:

I’m one of those who would say this is pretty massively overplayed. For one thing, Benedict’s resignation was most certainly the result of numerous factors, mainly revolving around the internal problems of the Vatican, of which sexual shenanigans were likely one — but hardly the only one, or even the principal one. His advancing age was the element that pushed it all to the brink.

The other thing is that Benedict would receive the Captain Louis Renault Award (see below) if he were to declare himself “shocked” that gay men inhabit the priesthood and hierarchy, and of course the Vatican itself.

So that’s where I got the art for this post! As for criticizing The Guardian, I’m not sure it was doing much more than just reporting on some salacious and unsubstantiated gossip in La Repubblica. But the ultimate paragraph in The Guardian piece did make me laugh:

The Vatican does not condemn homosexuals. But it teaches that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered”. Pope Benedict has barred sexually active gay men from studying for the priesthood.

Anyone want to spot the unnecessary word there? Who wants to tell the Guardian about the celibacy requirement for priests? They’re going to be s.h.o.c.k.e.d. to find out, I bet.

Back to La Repubblica report, you simply must read John Allen’s analysis of it in the National Catholic Reporter (but, then again, you must read nearly everything Allen writes). He says there may be something to it. In so doing, he also explains some interesting media tips:

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Turkson wouldn’t be first African pope

Yesterday morning a Lutheran friend sent me an email joking that he was “off Team Turkson” on account of Turkson campaigning for the job of pope. That would be Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson. Now, I realize just how unseemly it is for a churchman to campaign for any job but this may be an unfair reading of an interview Turkson gave in the Telegraph.

Some media outlet called The Week pretty much just recycled someone else’s work into their story headlined “Peter Turkson not shy about his wish to become first black Pope.”

CARDINAL Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian prelate who is hotly-tipped to become the next Pope, has given a candid interview about the “life-changing” responsibility of leading the Catholic Church.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, the 64-year-old bookies’ favourite openly admitted he has pondered the possibility of becoming the first black Pope and what it would mean for himself and his church. He concedes it “would signal a lot of [personal] change. I have been an archbishop, which involved a certain amount of leadership, and now having to do this on a world level, the dimensions expand almost infinitely.”

Bookmaker William Hill was today offering odds of 7/2 on Turkson becoming Pope, making him the joint favourite with Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

Despite his surprising candour on the subject of succeeding Pope Benedict XVI, Turkson was “quick” to take a conservative line on controversial issues such as gay marriage and other “alternative lifestyles”, the Telegraph says. He said the Catholic Church needed to find ways to “evangelise” or convert those who had embraced “alternative lifestyles, trends or gender issues”.

The article then quotes Queerty — noted experts on all things papal.

Anyway, where, oh where, to begin.

First off would be my question as to why The Week contends Turkson would be the first black pope.

I know of at least three African popes and I don’t believe I’ve heard anything about their skin color. I have heard that Victor I — the first African pope — was the first black pope but I don’t think that’s been proven. Apparently skin color is a more modern obsession. As for Miltiades and Gelasius I — and any other African popes — no reports on their skin color.

Does anyone have a good answer on this?

I’m seeing this “first black pope” thing all over the place. I’m not sure the history can confirm such a claim regarding Turkson.

But it’s that last paragraph that is so bizarre.

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WWROD: No, Pope Benedict XVI did not ‘resign’

To my shock, no one out in cyberspace filed a pope-retirement question over at veteran religion-reporter Richard Ostling’s handy new website, “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers your Questions.”

Come on folks! The retired Time and Associated Press scribe is out there willing to give you input on the kinds of news-related questions that often pop up here in the GetReligion comments pages. Ostling wants to provide basic info. Take him up on it!

Lacking a question from a reader, Ostling provided his own topic.

The obvious topic for the day: The decision by the elderly Pope Benedict XVI to abdicate — not resign — the Throne of St. Peter.

Yes, “resign” is easier to fit into news headlines. The problem is that a pope has no one to resign to, other than God. The correct word is “abdicate.”

This passage struck me as especially interesting. Take it away, Ostling:

The Guy leaves it to expert Vaticanologists to assess this Pope’s accomplishments during a reign of just under eight years. But the resignation will surely be regarded as his most significant act. A highly traditional priest has taken a highly radical step. He may be implicitly questioning his close colleague and predecessor John Paul II, who felt a duty during decline to hang on till death.

Regardless, Benedict has forever changed his sacred office. All future popes will face the question of abdication when they reach a phase of physical or mental limitations. The resignation signals to the world Benedict’s awareness that John Paul permanently altered expectations for the ancient office. Popes are now globe-trotters and media stars, not the mysterious and remote figures of old. And in the age of the Internet and cable news, important policy moves (e.g. how to handle those unending and dispiriting priestly molestation scandals) can no longer to delayed for months — or years.

In short, a revolutionary act by a very traditional Catholic leader.

How long ago was it that he went live on Twitter?

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Godbeat 101: Localizing the pope resignation story

For a newspaper junkie, one of the joys of the digital age is being able to scan hundreds of front pages when major breaking news occurs.

And the first resignation of a pope in nearly 600 years falls under the category of major breaking news, right?

Already, tmatt and Mollie have tackled key angles and questions in the media’s coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising announcement — read their posts here, here, here and here.

I want to focus on the exceptional — and in a few cases, not-so-exceptional — reporting on the 85-year-old pontiff’s decision by some of the nation’s leading regional newspapers.

On breaking news such as this, reporters at major metro dailies scramble to “localize” the big international story. For most, that means seeking comment from the local bishop or archbishop. It means visiting a daily Mass and interviewing the priest and parishioners. It means contacting experts at the closest Catholic university or seminary.

Peter Smith, the Godbeat pro at the Louisville Courier-Journal, produced one of my favorite local front-page stories:

The stunning news came through early morning tweets, texts and broadcasts.

Throughout the Archdiocese of Louisville on Monday, Catholics were processing Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to become the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to leave the papacy by resignation.

Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who has met Benedict many times and is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that it was a “morally strong” decision.

Smith’s story avoids the editorialization about Benedict and the Catholic Church found in so many national reports. Instead, Smith stays true to old-fashioned journalistic virtues, quoting specific sources — such as Kurtz — by name and allowing them to react to Benedict’s announcement and reflect on his eight years as pope.

Likewise, The Dallas Morning News does a nice job of sticking to the facts — although its report lacks Smith’s writing eloquence:

The resignation of 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI is a symptom of a changing world, where leaders are expected to make split-second decisions and more appearances than humanly possible, Bishop Kevin Farrell said Monday.

“I believe this was a sign of his great love for the Catholic Church,” said Farrell, who leads the Dallas diocese of 1.2 million Catholics. He was appointed by Benedict in 2007.

Benedict is the first pope to resign in over 600 years, and his tenure will end at 8 p.m. Feb. 28.

Farrell said he was shocked when he heard the news, but the feeling diminished upon further reflection on the pope’s declining health and the increasing expectations of the Catholic Church’s highest leader.

On the other hand, The Arizona Republic’s front-page report reads more like an editorial — one highly critical of Benedict and the Catholic Church — than an impartial news report.

This section of the Arizona story is typical of that newspaper’s slanted approach:

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Alas, next pope will probably defend same old doctrines

YouTube Preview Image

So here is an interesting journalism question for this digital age: What do we do with the earlier versions of stories by major news organizations if the editors later take them down and replace them with cleaned-up, expanded versions?

Do all of those headlines and paragraphs go into journalistic limbo? Were they ever published in the first place?

Take, for example, the following headline from The New York Times:

Pope’s Successor Is Likely to Share His Doctrine

By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO 4:08 PM ET

You have to admit that this is a stunner. Doctrinal stability! You mean the Catholic Church doesn’t change doctrines whenever the top man steps down, rather like a National Football League team losing its head coach? For many journalists, the more likely parallel in their minds is the White House, with entire policies going up for grabs after a change in the Oval Office.

Anyway, I saved the URL for the story that went with that headline, which featured a lede that clearly inspired the headline. Only now, when you click that URL, one goes to a new story in which the gist is the same, but the wording is less, well, funny.

The key to this rather magisterial report is — as usual — the almost complete lack of attribution attached to its many sweeping fact statements. Readers are left with this undeniable impression: People are talking to The New York Times and the editors of The New York Times do not want to tell us their names, perhaps because they all come from the same camp in the battles over the direction of Catholic life here in North America and spiritually frosty Europe.

Check this out. Yes, I removed one quote with a clear attribution, simply to save space:

The resignation sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mold, who advocate a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who believe that the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like allowing divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment to receive communion or loosening restrictions on condom use in an effort to prevent AIDS. There are no plausible candidates who would move on issues like ending celibacy for priests, or the ordination of women.

Many Vatican watchers suspect that the cardinals will choose someone with better management skills and a more personal touch than the bookish Benedict, someone who can extend the church’s reach to new constituencies, particularly to the young people of Europe, for whom the church is now largely irrelevant, and to Latin America and Africa, where evangelical movements are fast encroaching. …

The other big battle in the church is over the demographic distribution of Catholics, which has shifted decisively to the developing world. Today, 42 percent of adherents come from Latin America, and about 15 percent from Africa, versus only 25 percent from Europe. That has led many in the church to say that the new pope should represent a part of the world where membership is growing quickly, while others say that spiritual vision should be paramount.

The questions are obvious: Who are the “many Vatican watchers”? Who, precisely, are the “many in the church” who are debating the voices captured in that “while others say” reference?

Oh, and why would there be a tension between “spiritual vision” and the Catholic leaders who represent parts of the world in which the church is thriving? Are there really people in Catholic circles who believe that “spiritual vision” conflicts with church growth? Perhaps these mysterious voices are talking about some other kind of vision, perhaps a vision of change and progress for the future. It’s hard to tell, since we have absolutely no idea who the Times team is quoting.

The story, of course, also offers a political-horse-race list of candidates, complete with lots of labels and, once again, no indication of who is going the evaluating.

Later on, a real live scholar with a name — a totally logical one, too — shows up, to address the crucial issue of Catholic work in the Global South.

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