Headline writers duck and cover when Francis improvises

Headline writers duck and cover when Francis improvises June 23, 2014

It must be very hard to be a headline writer in the age of Pope Francis.

I mean, the man serves up — during his off-the-cuff homilies and chats — a wealth of material that simply screams, “You must put this phrase in a headline because it sounds amazing.”

The only problem is that this pope has a way of using words that have specific doctrinal or legal content, in terms of Catholic tradition, in strange ways. He says words that make HUMAN sense, yet do not precisely say what the pope seems to be saying. Journalists quote the words accurately. Then, later, Vatican officials then have to clean up what the pope SAID, as opposed to what he did not actually mean to have said.

Headline writers get caught in the middle. Consider this case study from Reuters, care of The Washington Post:

Pope Francis lambastes mobsters, says mafiosi ‘are excommunicated’

The key quote holds up at the top of the report. Can you spot the key word?

SIBARI, Italy — Pope Francis on Saturday issued the strongest attack on organized crime groups by a pontiff in two decades, accusing them of practicing “the adoration of evil” and saying mafiosi are excommunicated.

It was the first time a pope had used the word excommunication — a total cutoff from the Catholic Church — in direct reference to members of organized crime.

“Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he said in impromptu comments at a Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in one of Italy’s most crime-infested areas.

Key word? “Impromptu.”

So what did the pope say, according to the Vatican? Or, to put it another way, what did he not legally say in terms of Catholic canon law?

Vatican spokesman Ciro Benedettini said the pope’s stern words did not constitute a formal decree of canon law regarding excommunication. Rather, he said it was more of a direct message to members of organized crime that they had effectively excommunicated themselves, reminding them that they could not participate in church sacraments or other activities because they had distanced themselves from God through their criminal actions.

Still, the use of the highly charged word by a pope was significant because many members of organized crime in Italy see themselves as part of a religious, cultlike group, take part in sacraments, go to church and, in some cases, have also found complicity by some clerics in the south.

There is that phrase that journalists have heard so many times in recent years in terms of fights over the ordination of women, Catholics publically supporting abortion and gay marriage, etc., etc. What does it mean to say that Catholics who commit certain acts have “effectively excommunicated themselves,” especially when these Catholics have found priests who are willing to help provide cover?

That’s another subject, of course, and a good one. It deserves a whole story. Meanwhile, could Reuters editors have produced one more paragraph to note that juicy complication? What does the Catholic church teach, when push comes to shove, when priests help hide heretics when they approach the altar?

Meanwhile, back to that headline. What could the headline writer do? The pope said “excommunicate,” yet that is not what he actually said, according to the Vatican. Readers, what do you think a headline writer can do, other than frame the key term in quote marks that provide some distance? Duck and cover?

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