B16: Is the pope still pope? (updated)

The papal visit is over, which means that we have only one major media ritual left to survive -- a final wave of "what it all meant" features. It's hard not to note that these stories will serve as logical bookends to those "what his visit will mean" features that ran just over a week ago. Please know that I am not knocking these journalistic rites. After all, I plan to write a wrap-up column myself, this week.

The surprise of the trip was the drumbeat of references by Pope Benedict XVI to the clergy-abuse scandal, highlighted by the meeting with victims -- from Boston no less -- during his stay in Washington, D.C. This did not, of course, cancel out any of the themes that the pope was expected to emphasize, and did, such as religious liberty, a belief in absolute moral truths, unity on essential Catholic doctrines and a defense of attempts to instill a sense of Catholic identity on Catholic campuses. He touched all of the bases that he was expected to touch.

Here at GetReligion, we were only able to touch a few of the stories written and aired from coast to coast. For example, there was that New York Times news feature about the significance of his visit to cat lovers. Click here, if you decide that this was an essential angle of the visit. (The Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc is smiling.)

In general, I think that the coverage of the pope's visit has been pretty good, which is a comment about the media coverage and about Benedict's ability to make his subjects rather clear. It was a serious visit, with content as well as massive photo ops. However, there is something about pope news that brings out one of my least favorite tools of modern journalism -- the dreaded scare quotes.

The final New York Times report on the Yankee Stadium Mass included some classics. It covered the contents of the sermon (text here), but there must have been some uncomfortable moments at the editing desk. This starts right in the lede:

Before a crowd of nearly 60,000 people at Yankee Stadium, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday ended his first visit to the United States as leader of the Roman Catholic Church with a reminder to the faithful that "obedience" to the authority of the church, even in a country that prizes individual freedom, is the foundation of their religious faith.

What is the precise meaning of those quote marks -- framing the word "obedience"? Is this a statement that the pope does not know what the word means, that significant numbers of Catholics cannot agree on what the word means, or that the Times disagrees with the pope's definition of the word? Or, perhaps, the newspaper's editors have decided that this term is irrelevant in the modern world?

There are many other interesting wordings to discuss, given the time. Here's another key one:

But at Yankee Stadium on a cool, brilliant Sunday afternoon, with an adoring audience of people waving yellow cloths, one of the colors of the Vatican, Benedict acted chiefly as pastor to America's 65 million Catholics, laying out in simple terms their obligations to a church that represents what he has called the "one church" established on earth by God.

"Authority. Obedience. To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays," the pope said in his homily during the Mass, held on an acre-size platform built over the Yankees infield, "especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom."

Clearly, Benedict understands that there are conflicts over the meaning of words like "obedience." Otherwise, he would not be preaching this sermon. But the really interesting language here, for me, is the part about "a church that represents what he has called the 'one church' established on earth by God." What in the world is the meaning of the words "he has called," in terms of the facts of history? One does not have to accept that Rome is or was the "one church" established by Jesus Christ. People will debate that 'til the end of time. But it is crazy to suggest the "one church" claim is a mere personal opinion of this one man.

There are three levels to the language issues in this kind of story.

At one level, journalists are making sure that readers understand that just because the pope says something does not make it true for everyone.

On another level, journalists seem to be making sure that readers understand that just because the pope says something does not make it true for Catholics. To put that another way, just because the pope says something doesn't mean that Catholics have to believe something. That's the reality in the day in which we live, of course.

Pope Benedict Easter Vigil 2007But many of these scare quotes seem to have another purpose. Often, they seem to promote the idea that there is no historical reality, no consensus of belief, about some of the claims that the Catholic Church -- a voluntary association, not a democracy -- makes about its own doctrines and disciplines. People do not have to agree with those claims, but it is not factually accurate to pretend that they do not exist.

To cut to the chase: The pope is not just another Catholic. The word "obedience" does have meaning -- a defined meaning -- in Catholic thought. One does not have to agree with it, but the definition is there. The "one church" claim is not a matter of papal opinion. It's a serious claim made, and debated, through the centuries.

Journalists are supposed to do their best to cover the divisions and debates within religious bodies -- like the post-Vatican II Catholic church. But journalists are not supposed to deny -- whatever the motive -- the factual contents of centuries of church history.

Let me be clear. Skepticism is a good thing. But it's wrong to mangle history and the facts. Here's an example from one of the final Washington Post pieces about the visit:

Benedict's stops in Washington and New York dramatically raised American Catholics' familiarity with -- and affection for -- their 81-year-old pontiff. Experts said it was too early to know if it would also affect the depth of their faith or their trust in an institution rocked by sex abuse scandals. The visit made Benedict a more familiar and less authoritarian figure, they said, but the chasm between American Catholics and the pope is wide, particularly regarding subjects like same-sex unions and married priests.

In that last sentence, wouldn't it be more accurate to say that the chasm between "some" or "many" American Catholics and the pope is wide? Are all American Catholics united in their opposition to their church's teachings on these topics? Are active, daily- or weekly-Mass Catholics more or less likely to accept the church's teachings on this kind of topic?

You know what conservative Catholics think. They think that there is a wide chasm between the pope and ex-Catholics and liberal Catholics who work in major newsrooms, when it comes to these kinds of controversial topics. It would be good if our major news organizations went out of their way not to give journalism-bashers many reasons to think that way.

UPDATE: Sigh. From the Times website. What a world.

Articles most frequently e-mailed by NYTimes.com readers.

1. Cat Lovers Appreciate Soul Mate in Vatican 2. The Way We Live Now: Why Bother? 3. Message Machine: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand 4. Roger Cohen: Of Wine, Haste and Religion 5. Finding Your First Apartment

Please respect our Commenting Policy