Vatican

Le Figaro finds that pope Francis may have lost his touch

Le Figaro finds that pope Francis may have lost his touch

Only a very few journalists working in the field of religion reporting today consistently produce quality work distinguished by a pleasing and fluid skill with language, a deep knowledge of the field, discrimination, and a maturity of insight that enables the journalist to offer just the right remark or vignette that takes a story a level beyond reporting to journalism.

Jean-Marie Guénois, Le Figaro’s religion reporter, is just such a craftsman. His reports from Pope Francis’ trip last month to Strasbourg to address the European parliament have been the most well rounded, considered and intelligent of the reports I have read of this event.

A great deal has been written about what the pope said on November 25 when he addressed the European Parliament -- and most of what has been written is of high quality. The BBC, New York Times, the wire services, and major European newspapers have accurately conveyed the concerns Francis has for Europe.

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The Baltimore Sun covers most of the voices in that controversial non-controversial D.C. art exhibit about the Virgin Mary

The current exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is, as described in a weekend Baltimore Sun feature, certainly sounds like an "embarrassment of riches," featuring works by Michelangelo, Durer, Botticelli and Titian. Some of the art has never been in an American exhibit before. As the museum's website notes:

Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea explores the concept of womanhood represented by the Virgin Mary as well as the social and sacred functions her image has served through time. This landmark exhibition organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts brings together more than 60 Renaissance- and Baroque-era masterworks from the Vatican Museums, Uffizi Gallery, and other museums, churches, and private collections in Europe and the United States.
Divided into six thematic sections, the exhibition presents images of Mary as a daughter, cousin, and wife; the mother of an infant; a bereaved parent; the protagonist in a rich life story developed through the centuries; a link between heaven and earth; and an active participant in the lives of those who revere her.

However, there is a problem.

Since the exhibit takes a rather conventional approach and focuses on a specific period of time in art history, it suffers from an shocking lack of elephant dung.

In other words, this exhibit has -- among a elite art critics -- become controversial because it is not causing controversy among (wait for it) religious believers who are, by definition, opposed to modern art. As the Sun report notes:

The resulting kerfuffle underscores a dilemma facing museum administrators: It's impossible to mount a religiously themed exhibit in America in 2014 without becoming enmeshed in politics — no matter how strenuously organizers seek to avoid that pitfall.
"Museums are terrified of tackling any show having to do with religion," says Melissa Katz, the former museum curator who wrote an essay for the "Picturing Mary" exhibition catalog.
"They fear that if you open up that conversation, people are going to come with fixed ideas. Protests and picketers generate press, but they close down the discussion. You get two sides that already have their own point of view, and then nobody looks at the art."

Please hear me stress that this story does a very fine job of allowing the exhibit's creators to defend themselves. The story, as is should, devotes lots of ink to the views of those who believe the exhibit -- because Mary is such a controversial figure to feminists and others -- should have focused on a wider period of time and, thus, included some controversial modern works.

Instead, museum officials settled for an exhibit that would merely please the masses, which means pleasing traditional Christians, apparently.

"I think Washington is still smarting from the culture wars," says Tey Marianna Nunn, director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center Art Museum in Albuquerque, N.M.
She was referring to the period in the 1980s and 1990s when religious leaders and right-wing politicians attacked the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities for supporting programs perceived as promoting anti-Christian values.
"The ground beneath museums is shifting," Nunn says, "and there are a lot of different stakeholders. Self-censorship shouldn't happen, but it does."

So what we have here, again, is a story about a debate, a debate with more than two sides, in this case.

The story makes it clear, for example, that this astonishingly deep exhibit could not have taken place if its planners had decided to include modern art about Mary that would have offended the very churches and museums that controlled some of these priceless masterpieces. Why?

... "Picturing Mary" provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience certain paintings and sculptures that rarely leave Europe. The exhibit was three years in the making and is being shown only in Washington.
In addition, some pieces on view were lent by the Vatican, by individual churches and by private collectors for whom the paintings and statues aren't just works of art, but an expression of faith. Katz says it's not unusual for potential benefactors to inquire about the context in which their works will be shown before agreeing to ship them overseas.

So who is missing in this story? Well, three groups of folks, at the very least.

First, the anti-modern art religious believers loom over this piece like demons, yet the Sun team never bothers to talk to one. Why not just quote one sentence from a website? That's so much easier than allowing these people to speak for themselves and answer real questions.

Readers also never hear from the shallow, anti-intellectual people who, apparently, are flocking to this exhibit. What do they think? Do they have minds as well as souls?

Most of all, I missed hearing from religious believers -- intellectuals, artists, critics, collectors and others -- who genuinely love art. Period. How would they defend or criticize this exhibit?

You see, when covering a debate about a controversy, it does help to talk to the people are on both sides of the controversy. Can we agree on that?

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Your weekend think piece(s): Listening in as conservative Catholics cheer for Pope Francis

Your weekend think piece(s): Listening in as conservative Catholics cheer for Pope Francis

Yes, this is an op-ed piece by George Weigel who is a Catholic conservative. But every now and then, it really helps to read advocacy pieces by thinkers on the right and the left, especially when they bring up interesting facts that cut against then grain of normal coverage in the mainstream press.

In this case, Weigel is noting what many doctrinally conservative Catholics have noted, as of late, which is that the contents of remarks made by Pope Francis the media superstar are often more complex when viewed in context. This is the latest piece noting that, yes, this pope is in fact Catholic. Here is how this piece was framed in the morning memo from Religion News Service:

... Catholic theologian George Weigel says the Francis Effect is overdrawn. The pope is pretty conventional on a bunch of Catholic issues. That may be true, but he did just buy 400 Roman homeless sleeping bags as part of his birthday celebration. So maybe another way to look at it is that he’s a doer, not just a talker.

Uh, what is unconventional -- in terms of basic Christian doctrine -- about a shepherd providing aid for the poor?

Meanwhile, back to Weigel's "Francis filtered" piece. The metaphor here is that once journalists decided that Francis was learning to the left on doctrine, that narrative spread like bamboo. Here's a key chunk of his pro-Francis piece:

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To the AP, there are no 'liberal' Catholics — just 'rank-and-file' faithful

To the AP, there are no 'liberal' Catholics — just 'rank-and-file' faithful

Readers of the Associated Press's coverage of the release of the Vatican's report on its probe of American religious sisters will note a curious juxtaposition, one that has, alas, become all too familiar in AP reporting on Catholic issues. Here are the relevant paragraphs; the italics and boldface are mine:

The probes also prompted an outpouring of support from rank-and-file American Catholics who viewed the investigations as a crackdown by a misogynistic, all-male Vatican hierarchy against the underpaid, underappreciated women who do the lion's share of work running Catholic hospitals, schools and services for the poor.
Theological conservatives have long complained that after the reforms of the 1960s Second Vatican Council, women's congregations in the U.S. became secular and political while abandoning traditional prayer life and faith. The nuns insisted that prayer and Christ were central to their work.

Got that? The faithful who saw the probe of the sisters "as a crackdown by a misogynistic, all-male Vatican hierarchy" aren't liberals--they're just "rank-and-file American Catholics." On the other hand, those complainers who knock women's congregations for "abandoning traditional prayer life and faith" are "theological conservatives" who apparently don't even deserve the title "American."

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Your non-weekend think piece: Australian scribe Scott Stephens yearns for serious religion news

Your non-weekend think piece: Australian scribe Scott Stephens yearns for serious religion news

Care to read some provocative thoughts on the state of religion-news coverage, care of pastor and theology teacher Scott Stephens, who is now the Religion and Ethics editor at ABC Online, way down under? I hope so.

You see, Stephens once stuck his finger in the eye of the mainstream press with a blunt working hypothesis that he says has guided his journalistic work ever since. It went like this, and he has unfolded it a bit:

The more widely reported the remarks of a significant religious leader are, the less consequent they are likely to be.
I've since come to the conclusion that the likelihood of this hypothesis being true increases exponentially if the religious leader in question happens to be the pope.

The perfect example of this (no, no, no, this was before the dogs go to heaven row), he argues, was the remarks by Pope Francis on the Big Bang, science, evolution and faith -- all of which were completely compatible with the statements of earlier popes. The key is that most journalists seem to have decided that the pope's words are "newsworthy" to the degree that they can be framed in such a way as to confirm the "putatively progressive agenda they've assigned to him." Wash, rinse, repeat.

Now, Stephens has flipped his theory inside out

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Take the Pope Francis and the cardinals journalism test: Which story is news? Which is analysis?

Take the Pope Francis and the cardinals journalism test: Which story is news? Which is analysis?

It is getting harder and harder to explain to many GetReligion readers why we see a bright red line between basic hard-news journalism and advocacy/analysis journalism.

In the latter, select journalists are allowed to make obvious leaps of logic, to use "editorial" language that passes judgment, to lean in one editorial direction (as opposed to being fair to voices on both sides) and to use fewer attributions telling readers about the sources that shaped the reporting. In other words, analysis writing offers a blend of information and opinion. Reporters who are given the liberty to do this tend to be experienced, trusted specialty reporters.

In the past, editors tended to be rather careful and let readers know what they were reading -- flying an analysis flag or logo right out in the open so that readers were not confused. (For example, I am a columnist with the Universal syndicate. By definition I do analysis writing every week.)

The problem is that the line between hard news and advocacy journalism is increasingly vanishing and editors have stopped using clear labels. Your GetReligionistas are constantly sent URLs for stories that are clearly works of advocacy journalism, in which no attempts have been made to quote articulate voices on both sides of hot-button issues, yet they are not clearly labeled as analysis. We are left asking, "What is this?"

Want to see what I mean?

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Tin foil hats at NYTimes as fake JP2 quote on animals becomes conspiracy fodder

Tin foil hats at NYTimes as fake JP2 quote on animals becomes conspiracy fodder

The problems with the New York Times story "Dogs in Heaven? Pope Francis Leaves Pearly Gates Open" begin with the fact that the article itself is a mutt. Although reporter Rick Gladstone uses a recent quote from Pope Francis as a news hook, the body of the piece reads like a domestic rewrite of the U.K. Guardian's Nov. 27 article "It’s a dog’s afterlife: Pope Francis hints that animals go to heaven."

Both the Times and Guardian's main point may be gathered from the satirical headline of Mark Shea's excellent rebuttal to the Guardian"Pope Discusses New Heaven and New Earth for Very First Time in Catholic History." The Times, however, adds a new, conspiratorial wrinkle: John Paul II said that animals had souls, but the Vatican failed to "widely publicize" this, perhaps because it contradicted Pius IX, under whose pontificate the doctrine of papal infallibility was defined.

You can't make this stuff up. Or, rather, you can, and Rick Gladstone, or his editor, has done so.

Saith the Times:

The question of whether animals go to heaven has been debated for much of the church’s history. Pope Pius IX, who led the church from 1846 to 1878, longer than any other pope, strongly supported the doctrine that dogs and other animals have no consciousness. ...
Pope John Paul II appeared to reverse Pius in 1990 when he proclaimed that animals do have souls and are “as near to God as men are.” But the Vatican did not widely publicize his assertion, perhaps because it so directly contradicted Pius, who was the first to declare the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1854.

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The Huffington Post offers a surprisingly nuanced look at a celibate priesthood

The Huffington Post offers a surprisingly nuanced look at a celibate priesthood

Without looking -- who would you suppose would do a better job in reporting on the gay subculture among Roman Catholic clergy in Ireland? The Belfast Telegraph or The Huffington Post?

One was named the Best Regional Newspaper of the Year in 2012 by the Society of Editors and has print run of approximately 100,000. The other is an online news aggregator and blog that also runs additional news content. One is steeped in the traditions of Anglo-American journalism while the other pursues an advocacy approach to news – with the dividing line between opinion and reporting sometimes blurred.

An observer of the Ulster newspaper scene might hesitate before awarding the prize to the Belfast Telegraph, for it along with the News Letter are “Unionist” newspapers, while the third daily, the Irish News, is a “Nationalist” newspaper. Perhaps a residual anti-Catholic sentiment might creep into the Belfast Telegraph’s reporting?

The two outlets treatment of the same story may surprise some, for in its coverage of a recent book on clerical celibacy in the Irish Catholic Church, the Huffington Post is less shrill, more nuanced, and finely balanced.  No, really.

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Say what? Associated Press twists Francis's admiration for theologians into 'near disdain'

Say what? Associated Press twists Francis's admiration for theologians into 'near disdain'

Today at GetReligion, it's deja vu all over again.

Once again, a story on Pope Francis by Associated Press reporter Nicole Winfield has us asking, "What is this?" As I wrote the last time around:

Is [the article] meant to be hard-news journalism, or is it meant to be advocacy or commentary? And if it's commentary, or analysis, why is it not labeled as such? Why is the AP selling it to news outlets as straight reporting?

This time, the AP article is on Francis's address to the International Theological Commission, "Pope to Theologians: Listen to the Ordinary Faithful." It begins:

Pope Francis urged the Catholic Church’s top theologians on Friday to listen to what ordinary Catholics have to say and pay attention to the “signs of the times,” rather than just making pronouncements in an academic vacuum.

If this is meant to be straight news story, then the first question is, did the pope really say that? And the answer is no -- at least, not exactly. He did mention the "signs of the times." However, having read his entire speech, the claim that he decried "making pronouncements in an academic vacuum" strikes me as pretty far-fetched. 

Moreover, Francis's reference to the signs of the times was actually in reference to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes. In context, it does not seem to mean what Winfield takes it to mean. As a Twitter user noted, it's not about blowing with the wind, but rather about evaluating contemporary voices "in light of the word of God":

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