"Poisonous" Catholic reporting from La Stampa

Sometimes a story is too good to be true. A story with sympathetic victims, righteous heroes, dastardly villains and an issue that all agree is important, but yet is remote to the reader -- something that doesn't touch me -- makes a reporter's day. One of these stories appeared in the Italian sky last week and burst, producing a torrent of outraged news stories. A Catholic priest denied Communion to a mentally disabled child because the boy was "Non è capace di intendere e volere" -- not capable of consent, of understanding the holy mysteries of the sacraments, reported the Italian daily La Republicca.

The Italian press had a field day with the story of Fr.  Piergiorgio Zaghi of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Porto Garibaldi, a village near Ferrara in Northern Italy. And it was picked up by all of the major newspapers and news sites in Italy.

It also topped the now famous Washington Post story about Fr. Marcel Guarnizo who declined to give Communion to Buddhist-Catholic-artist-gay-activist Barbara Johnson. The gay angle muddied the Fr. Guarnizo story, pushing it into the U.S.'s battle over the normalization of homosexuality. The Fr. Zaghi story, however, was clean and clear of political mines. There was no downside in expressing shock, horror, and outrage over the news that a 70-year-old rural priest had refused to allow a mentally handicapped boy to receive his first Communion.

Here is Worldcrunch's translation of La Stampa's report.

Controversy has erupted both inside and outside the Catholic Church after a parish priest in northern Italy refused to offer communion to a disabled child. Father Piergiorgio Zaghi of the Immaculate Conception church in Porto Garibaldi, a village near Ferrara, denied the sacrament at Easter mass, saying that the mentally-disabled boy was unable to “understand the mystery of the Eucharist.”

The parents of the boy in the Emilia-Romagna region have taken their case both to the European Court of Human Rights and to the higher authorities at the Holy See in Rome.

La Stampa followed its lede with a comment from a children's rights activist who denounced the 70-year-old priest's actions as “cultural obscurantism from the Middle Ages.”

The newspaper picked up the intensity by saying "parishioners are divided" between those who support the priest and the boy, 10-year old Luca. It then followed with this quote:

A boy who attends catechism classes with the disabled child wrote a letter to the priest: “If he was with us, it would be a great joy for him, and we would see the actual value of Communion.”

Cardinal Velasio De Paolis offered his opinion of the controversy, denouncing Fr. Zaghi.

“As long as the disabled person does not desecrate the host, if they receive it calmly, it is normal practice to offer it to them,” De Paolis said. “Never have I denied host”, and above all, “the strength of the sacrament also touches the ill and the dying.”

The child's mother was quoted as saying she hopes the priest will reconsider his actions, but they have engaged attorneys to press their case. La Stampa reported the Bishop of Ferrara is backing Fr. Zaghi, but the article closed with the mother's hope the church will reconsider.

“I hope that my son will be able to have the communion with all his friends," Claudia said. "They want to celebrate the ceremony with us. They stand in solidarity.”

This story appears to have covered all the bases. Sympathetic victim. Couragous mother fighting for her disabled child. Catholic cardinal siding with the embattled family. Unnamed bishop backing cranky old priest. Crisp, clean, clear. It doesn't get any better.

It would have been nice to have the other side of the story. A comment from the diocese, the bishop or the priest. Fr. Zaghi appears to have done himself no favors. The Corriera Della Sera got hold of the priest to ask him why he did it and was told:

«Non ho nulla da dire, voglio essere rispettato» ("I have nothing to say. I want to be respected.")

A perfect answer -- one that allows commentators to wax eloquent on the priest's pastoral failings, and ignorance of canon law and doctrine. The Archbishop of Ferrara defending backing Fr. Zaghi makes it all the better -- old boys network, cover up -- what fun!

But, all good things must come to an end. And after 100+ Italian newspapers, websites and blogs reported on the controversy, the Archbishop of Ferrara spoke to Vatican Radio to explain what happened.

Archbishop Paolo Rabitti of Ferrara-Camacchio stated Fr. Zaghi had declined to allow the disabled boy to receive Communion because he had not attended the requisite number of First Communion classes. The boy was not banned from receiving Communion because he could not understand the mysteries of the sacraments due to mental defect, but because he had skipped class.

In its summary of the broadcast, EWTN wrote that two years of preparation were required before First Communion.

“The path of preparation intensified starting last October,” Archbishop Rabitti said. “First Communion took place on a very significant day – Holy Thursday – and a couple not belonging to the parish came to the pastor on February 29 to request that their mentally handicapped son also make his First Communion.”

Due to the lack of preparation, Father Zaghi explained to the parents that they should be sure to attend Mass with their son during the final month before Holy Thursday, “but they only came a few times: the child had participated in Mass and catechism classes only a few times.”

At some of the classes the boy did attend, he spit out the unconsecrated host from his mouth when catechists were helping the children to familiarize themselves with how to receive the Eucharist.

Father Zaghi informed the parents that their son had not received enough preparation and he suggested that he make his First Communion next year, but they reacted by calling the decision “discrimination,” Archbishop Rabitti explained.

As Miss Emily Litella used to say, "Never mind."

Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference responded to the press furore in an editorial entitled "Le lenti offuscate" ("The clouded lens").

In focusing a spotlight on an episode that was divorced from its ecclesial setting, the press acted trivially, forgetting to check the news (and perhaps to manipulate it to raise the dust of anti-clerical propaganda.) ...  In this runt of a narrative --  Communion "denied," the priest "bad", the child "excluded" -- all was false. This was poisonous reporting whose flow, drop by drop, undermines religious freedom and public faith and trust in the Church.

The story was too good to be true. Avvenire's editorial implied that the fault lay with lawyers for the family who enlisted a credulous media, quick to believe the worst of the Catholic Church.

Perhaps. But the church did itself no favors by not moving more swiftly to put out its version of events. It may have been safer to wait for the archbishop to appear on Vatican Radio to explain what happened, but by then two days had passed -- and the narrative was set.

Does that excuse the reporting or the herd mentality of the press on this story? It is easy to beat up the media on this one. One side exaggerated and the other side was slow to respond. Should the press have waited until the church decided to speak? Did it have a duty to run with a story that showed a callous disregard of the church's teachings about the sacraments for the disabled (remember they had the cardinal weighing in against the priest).

Given a conflict  between unequal forces -- a disabled boy and the Catholic Church -- sympathy for the boy is the natural response. How do you respond to this GetReligion readers? What should the press have done?

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