AP knows what the Pope really thinks

AP knows what the Pope really thinks October 23, 2012

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 /

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14 responses to “AP knows what the Pope really thinks”

  1. The extreme example on this type of journalism writing – the use of the infamous “they” – surely belongs to the economic reporters who daily ascribe a reason (attributed to “investors”) for the movement of the stock exchange whether it be up or down. Just who are these “investors” who tell the reporters why they sold or bought on any day? I have never been asked!

  2. Thanks, Mollie. I laughed and had some pleasant memories of a few not-so-pleasant dressing-downs when I read the anecdote about the old reporter ripping apart the notion we can know what a politician believes. Nevertheless, I think we can make a valid inference about what the AP believes about miracles, saints and the RC Church.

  3. I think the deemed ‘miraculous’ part comes from the Vatican’s requirement that any alleged miracle be subjected to extensive testing and debunking. There have been stories over the years about the lengths the Vatican goes to, to assure that there are no non-miraculous explanations for phenomena. I have read stories for years about the Devil’s Advocate who is appointed to argue against each and every miracle. So, I find that the deemed ‘miraculous’ refers to the rigorous and thurow process required by the Vatican. What it says is that this is not some hasty conclusion but a finding based on extensive and rigorous investigation. It is a compliment not a put down.

  4. I know that some Catholics leave the Church because they deem it too rigorous on morality (Humanae Vitae and all that), or because they consider it too liberal on the liturgy (we want traditional Latin only!), but I never heard anyone express the opinion “I am leaving because they aren’t canonizing enough saints for me!” Is there even a very remote possibility that any reporter could find anyone who would actually say that canonizing new saints, or certain new saints, would make them remain in the Church? It is, of course, very obvious that the reporter in question didn’t even try.

    The reporter is also very obviously ignorant of the basic way canonization processes are carried out. Ultimately the movement for each and every canonization comes from the people, not the Vatican. The saints whose processes are set in motion are those for whom there is popular devotion among a large enough group of people to get noticed, and who appeal to the Holy See. The process is almost always carried out on the diocesan level first. It gets more complicated when a person lived a long time ago, and sometimes scanty historical evidence has to be reviewed, as in the case of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. The process takes years, decades, or even centuries. Native Americans have been waiting a long, long time for the Vatican to recognize St. Kateri, for example.

    How typical of reporters immersed in modern politics, business and advertising to imagine the Pope saying “Oh, new saints! That is really quite some PR stunt to promote the New Evangelization! These people look good – let’s canonize them to get more interest in the Church!”

    There is a tiny bit of truth in it, of course – the Vatican is usually on the lookout for would-be saints who might genuinely appeal to large numbers of modern people and might prioritize them — but they generally learn that from the large number of people these individuals do appeal to.

    On the other hand, canonization often takes place when justice is due – for instance to Pope Paul VI, who, as any acquaintance with his biography will demonstrate, was a genuinely saintly man, though unpopular for much of the last 40 years with large sectors in both the right and left of the Church. His cause is now approaching the finish line, and he too may be beatified during the Year of Faith – quite fitting because it was he who inaugurated the first Year of Faith in 1967. But is his cause being “rushed” because of this opportunity? Or, since work has been continuing on it for almost 20 years, is is really long overdue? Who can say – except someone who has actually studied it? Trouble is, the Church thinks in decades or centuries, while the media has a 15-minute attention span at most.

    Then there is Pope John Paul I, who died in 1978 and whose process was inaugurated in 2003. Just a few days ago, October 17, the centenary of his birth, the final documentation for his cause was submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. For a long time, I’ve wondered if the delay in starting his process was due to the long-standing (and ridiculous) rumors that he was murdered by senior Cardinals, even his Secretary of State. If the Vatican had pushed his canonization early on, many would have accused them of a coverup. Interesting to note that the other day when the Positio was turned in, the postulator for his cause proclaimed, “we have been through every bit of evidence about the Pope’s life, and we can say that it is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was not murdered!”

    With drama of this kind available in the saga of recent and future canonizations, why would anyone stick with the flabby speculation of this AP reporter? Unless of course, they just haven’t done any research.

  5. Can someone explain to me why the Catholic Church deems it necessary for three miracles to occur before they canonise a person? I don’t remember this system in place before, so why now? And since most miracles are medical miracles, the question needs to be asked – will there be many Catholic persons praying to G K Chesterton or J R R Tolkien to help get rid of a cancer? I mean, it makes sense for medical miracles being performed by saintly men and women who were out there in the medical field or took care of the poor and the dying but how does this help authors like Chesterton and Tolkien become saints? These men brought countless people into the Church through their books.

    Can the Church change those three miracles request some day perhaps?

  6. “Can the Church change those three miracles request some day perhaps?”
    Done years ago. It is now one-one.

    And when someone is “canonized”, what this constitutes is a declaration that this person definitely IS in Heaven. Miracles, demonstrating that the personage is here and now in a position to intercede with God for us, seems a reasonable criterion for deciding this.

  7. And “the system in place before”? Before when? It has been the case for as long I, for one, can remember. Are you for some reason under the impression that the inclusion of miracles in a “cause” is something They just came up with?

  8. I agree with Mollie 100%. It looks like just about every sentence this reporter writes is worth pulling apart. But I also want to point out his phrasing regarding the evangelical churches in Africa. He implies some type of competition between protestant evangelical missionaries and Catholics. While there might be isolated cases of this, he doesn’t seem to understand that (theologically) conservative evangelical protestants and Catholics are enjoying the most symbiotic relationship in history. Both branches of mainstream Christendom understand that the furtherance of the Kingdom of God is hardly about competition! This guy has his head “someplace where the sun don’t shine”! How’s that for a use of quotation marks?

  9. Whenever I see “AP” affixed as the news source, I just pass over to something else. For a good number of years now, I have been watching AP become more and more anti-Catholic.

  10. If the AP is truly this dismissive of things Catholic and/or religious, why do they even bother covering the event? Seems like such a waste of time to attend these “dreary” festivities in all those terrible locations…..and to actually have to listen to B16 speak, that must be sheer torture. Maybe they should just cover others’ coverage.