For Cologne archbishop, Reuters emits a scent of bias

For Cologne archbishop, Reuters emits a scent of bias July 15, 2014

The new archbishop of Cologne, Germany, is all about gays.

At least it is, according to a Reuters story on the transfer of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki there from Berlin. A full 203 of the story’s 430 words deal with what he thinks, or says, or what Reuters thinks he says, about homosexuality:

But Woekli surprised Berliners by saying he respected all people and would gladly meet with gay activists.

A year later, in 2012, he said: “If two homosexuals take responsibility for each other, if they are loyal to each other over the long term, then one should see this in the same way as heterosexual relations.”

Berlin’s Alliance against Homophobia nominated him for its Respect Prize that year, an honour he politely declined by saying it was normal for a Christian to respect all people so he should not receive an award for it.

Reuters starts with the ostensible theme of Woelki, a relatively young 58, as part of a “new generation” of bishops. Drawing their cue from a newspaper in Berlin, they characterize him as “not grumpy and dogmatic … these men speak of mercy and mean it. They’re open to people, even their critics, to a point and have a heart for the disadvantaged. Still, they’re theologically conservative.”

The newspaper may have especially liked Woelki because it disliked his former mentor, the (cliche alert!) “staunchly conservative” Cardinal Joachim Meisner. Still, the setup is a tantalizing appetizer.

So, where does Cologne’s new leader stand on the environment? Pollution and urbanization? Relations with Jews and Muslims? Clerical sexual abuse? Vatican fiscal reform? The aging ranks of nuns? The secularization of Europe? Refugee movements in Africa and Central America? The looming annihilation of Christianity in the Middle East?

Wellllllll, Reuters doesn’t get around to any of that. They’re too busy reading — perhaps reading into — Woelki’s attitude toward gays, and gays’ attitude toward him:

When his Berlin appointment was announced, some politicians and Catholics in Berlin said he was too conservative for a city with such a large gay community, pointing to comments he had made that homosexuality was against “the order of creation”.

They also noted that he did his doctorate in theology at a pontifical university in Rome run by the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei.

Aside from the booga-booga value of bringing up Opus Dei, Reuters and its sources apparently found it hard to grasp that Woelki could differ with someone without disliking him or shutting him out. Reuters, of course, quickly relates Woelki’s stance to the pope’s remark from a year ago (cliche alert #2!):

In July 2013, the newly elected Pope Francis changed the tone of Vatican comments on homosexuality in comments on the plane returning from a visit to Brazil, saying, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?”

Reuters ends with three paragraphs on how influential the German Catholic Church is with the Vatican, through its economic strength and the many missionaries it contributes. The article also reminds us that retired Pope Benedict XVI is German; so is Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, who sits on Francis’ church reform committee.

That’s all nice, but do you know what it tells me? That Reuters had room for a fuller picture on its alleged subject. This is where they could have fleshed out Cardinal Woelki’s role in that new generation of Church leaders. But it doesn’t bother.

You’ll get more from veteran Vatican reporter John Allen at the Boston Globe, although he nests his piece in a roundup of Church doings. His item heavily overlaps Reuters on homosexuality, but then broadens to other topics:

Woelki also emerged as a leader among the German bishops on poverty relief and advocacy on behalf of immigrants and refugees. He took a special interest in the work of the Catholic charitable agency Caritas. At a personal level Woelki comes off as humble, not wearing a lot of ecclesiastical finery and not taking himself overly seriously.

The German news service Deutsche Welle described his profile on Friday as “open-minded, tolerant, and concerned for the poor.”

Given that background, even some progressives in the North Rhine-Westphalia region centering on Cologne, who generally saw Meisner as a bête noire, have expressed cautious optimism.

It’s also impressive that Allen cites a secular power broker:

Volker Beck, a member of parliament and a spokesman for the Green Party, said he sees Woelki as a man of dialogue.

“He’s a conservative, but he has shown in Berlin that he can reach out to people,” Beck said. “He meets people as a spiritual shepherd, not as an opinionated dogmatic.”

Given the importance of the Cologne archdiocese, Allen thinks the choice got Francis’ personal attention. He concludes: “Not only does the result set a tone for Germany, it’s also a clear message to papal ambassadors elsewhere that this is the kind of leader the new boss wants.”

The differences between the stories — Reuters and the Globe — appear to come down to experience and curiosity. One takes years to develop. The other, you either have or you don’t.

Photo: Cardinal Rainer Woelki, Copyright Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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