Why is the pope so old? (And other media questions)

Why is the pope so old? (And other media questions) February 28, 2013

A few days ago, the Washington Post tweeted out a link to a piece on its web site with the tease “Why is the pope always so old?” and a link to an article. Within moments, a bunch of people responded negatively to the tweet. I attached a screen shot here, but the comments included:



Why is the press always so stupid?

And why is he always so Catholic?

The article itself has the headline “Why is the pope always so old? (Video)” and it’s more a blog post on two items from outside the paper than an article. The first is an explainer video on how someone becomes a pope. It has almost nothing to do with the pope “always” being “so old.” It does have a few errors (on whether priests can be married and that whole catholic/Catholic thing we’ve been discussing) but you can peruse it on your own. Or watch it here, what do I care?

The Post blog piece itself isn’t awful, but it is kind of silly. It explains that becoming pope is a lot like becoming president:

But unlike politics, becoming pope basically requires you to work your way up the ladder, step by step. The political equivalent would be advancing from local office to state office to federal office to leadership in Congress and eventually to president. While any Catholic can technically be elected pope, it’s really a race between 100-plus cardinals who have spent their entire lives climbing that ladder.

One hundred-plus indeed! Anyway, then it takes a graphic from The Guardian about papal tenures and how old people are when they become popes and leave the papacy.

I was going to defend the headline but then I imagined a headline like “Why are presidents always the age of your dad?” or “Why aren’t there more toddlers competing in the Olympics?” and I don’t quite have the heart to do it. Neither do I think this is worth getting terribly upset about it.

But I do think it’s worth remembering that even when we’re tossing out silly stories as part of our papal coverage, they are part of a larger relationship with readers. And we want to convey some expertise about the matter at hand, for the sake of the larger journalistic project. David Mills wrote something for a Catholic publication in Pittsburgh about this:

As soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, you knew that everyone and his brother would be saying something about it, and that some of them would take the chance to make whatever anti-Catholic points they could. Even I, who read a lot of the secular press, didn’t expect the piling on we’ve seen.

We get the supposed experts who explain to their readers what’s really going on in that weird mysterious world of the Catholic Church. The church lives its life before the world in a way rare for institutions its size (How much do we really know about what goes on in Congress, for example?), but many people think the church is something like the Central Intelligence Agency. Some of these supposed experts just get things wrong, like the television reporter who solemnly told his viewers that Catholics wouldn’t know who to pray to this Easter and the Protestant magazine that explained Catholics believe in “the divinity of the pope.”

For some reason journalists can make almost any mistake about the church or religion in general and no one says “boo.” No editor would hire a guy who said the Steelers were going to draft a point guard to help improve their relief pitching, but religion? There it’s “OK, whatever, just say something.”

Then there are all the editors and writers who decided that the problem with Pope Benedict was that he didn’t agree with them. Many of them claimed concern for the future of the Catholic Church if it didn’t stop being so irrelevant and out of step, which meant … if it didn’t stop disagreeing with them.

Much of the coverage we’ve seen in recent weeks has actually been quite good and interesting and informative (e.g. here). But papers should remember to help out inexperienced reporters who are trying to get in on the action. Religion reporters tend to do very good work on covering religion. Reporters with other beats frequently struggle. In the same way we wouldn’t have the Congressional reporter writing a high-profile report on tackling methods in football (probably), neither should we reat religion coverage as something that anyone can do without any guidance or knowledge.

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18 responses to “Why is the pope so old? (And other media questions)”

  1. If the average age for popes at the start of their pontificate is in their 60s, then that means that Sally Quinn, the “Washington Post” On Religion blogger, is more than qualified on grounds of age (Sally is or will be 72 this year).

    I wonder if she would appreciate being labelled as “so old”?


    Okay, this is the kind of puffery that makes you roll your eyes and move on, but the serious part is that if a reader, who knows something about the topic – such as, in this instance, Catholicism – can see how wildly inaccurate on factual grounds and how much wishful thinking dressed up as analysis gets published, then it makes that reader wonder how he or she can trust those same reporters on stories he or she has no inside knowledge about – is the same level of factual inaccuracy and passing off opinion as scrutiny the same?

    • (Sally is or will be 72 this year). I wonder if she would appreciate being labelled as “so old”?

      I hope she doesn’t think it makes her eligible to be Pope!

  2. Can’t find it now, but there was an article on MSNBC.com (I think) that said JPII, in the 1990s, changed the ancient conclave rules so that the Cardinals could be let out of the Sistine Chapel now and then to sleep and eat, if necessary. I’m not kidding.
    And it said that in the new hotel/residence on the grounds, the Cardinals are locked into their rooms!!! Where do the get this stuff? There are plenty of reliable sources, people and authoritative websites with the basic information.

  3. And as someone is doubtless about to point out for the umpteenth time, Eastern rite and now Ordinariate priests CAN be married.

  4. Well, of course Ann Rodgers covered the papal resignation well. What did you expect? Any other examples? 🙂

  5. There is an expression I heard growing up in the Midwest, something of great age was referred to as ‘older than the pope’. The idea being that popes are always really old. It was a colloquialism, don’t know if has any bearing on the question here.

  6. Actually, Ann’s line here was absolutely right-on and totally contradicts everything her colleagues keep saying about Regensburg, but she did it beautifully: “But his goal to bring renewal to an increasingly secularized West was often overshadowed by problems ranging from the sex abuse crisis to riots in parts of the Muslim world after a line in one of his speeches was misconstrued.”

  7. Errors in the video:
    *Must be an unmarried man.
    *The “doctorate in theology or equivalent” is not a requirement to be a bishop (lots of bishops have no more than their Masters or equivalent).
    *It’s the Congregation for Bishops, not the Congress of Bishops.
    *There is no interview with the nuncio for potential bishops. In fact, potential bishops have no clue that they’re being discussed as candidates for the job. Anyone who has heard a press conference of a new bishop knows that he’s always stunned when it happens.
    *Not all cardinals are bishops. Cardinal Avery Dulles was a priest, not a bishop, when he was elevated and remained such.
    *The burning of the ballots is done with a chemical that makes the smoke black or white, depending on the need.
    What is most disconcerting, though, is the assumption throughout that these men are all ambitious.
    As Cardinal Marc Oullet said, being pope is “a nightmare.” Being a bishop is a nightmare as well. Anyone who is sane doesn’t want to be dealing with sexually abusive priests, people who think they’ve seen visions, traveling to parishes and being swarmed by people after Confirmations while having your picture taken with kids you know aren’t going to be practicing the faith the moment they step out the door, hospitals that use state laws that don’t recognize the humanity of the unborn child to get out of having to pay for the death of such a one….and I could go on.

    • Actually, Thomas, I would have to correct you on one point. Canon 378.5 says a bishop must be “in possession of a doctorate or at least a licentiate in sacred scripture, theology, or canon law from an institute of higher studies approved by the Apostolic See, or at least truly expert in the same disciplines.” A Masters doesn’t cut it. That’s why in America bishops have the pleasant fiction of being given the honorary Doctor of Divinity degree, the cause of the D. D. after so many of their names.
      But in general I enjoy your posts!

      • Well, Father, the guy said “doctorate” so I took him at his word, and the canon semi-supports my contention by saying “or at least a licentiate.” Yes, we can quibble about the worth of a Masters vs. a licentiate, but…

  8. Fr. Savio: but if the candidate has “is truly expert” then he doesn’t need to have the licentiate or PhD, right?
    That is probably being fudged a lot.

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