St. Patrick didn't drive errors out of journalism

Celtic cross

In his thought-provoking essay "Reclaiming St. Patrick's Day," Christianity Today's Ted Olsen talks about how Christians could emphasize the day by highlighting issues related to the great saint (e.g. fighting human trafficking, celebrating multi-ethnic communities and incarnational ministry). Here's how it begins:

If you've ever read an article about St. Patrick's Day, it probably talked about how little the celebration has to do with the actual Patrick.

I, for one, have grown tired of the annual rehashing of how he didn't really drive the snakes from Ireland and didn't really use the shamrock to explain the Trinity.

You know who hasn't gotten tired of that? The Christian Science Monitor. I've long been on record opposing the error-ridden "mythbusting" articles that run around Christian holy days, but even for that genre, this one ("St. Patrick's Day: Did Patrick become Christian for the tax breaks?") was a piece of work:

Patrick, in fact, isn't even recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as an official saint. Perhaps more jarring, he likely became a Christian for the tax breaks.

Um, how does one even respond to this? Let's just say that these things would be jarring if they were in any way true. Not only is St. Patrick recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as an "official" saint, he's recognized in Eastern Orthodoxy as well! And, well, he didn't become a Christian for the tax breaks. He wrote about his life in Declaration. Here are the first two paragraphs:

1. I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

2. And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

The odd thing is that the Monitor story actually explains a bit about these letters and never substantiates its claim about Patrick joining the church for a tax break with anything other than a link to the History Channel. The relevant bit is this:

Although his father was a Christian deacon, it has been suggested that he probably took on the role because of tax incentives and there is no evidence that Patrick came from a particularly religious family.

So Patrick's grandfather was a priest but Patrick's father only became a Christian for the tax breaks? I mean, as much as I love to believe the unsubstantiated, passive-voice claim from a network that runs more shows on ghosts than on, you know, history, I'm going to need a bit more convincing. Either way, though, the History Channel's claim isn't that Patrick became a Christian for tax purposes.

It turns out that the Monitor has appended a correction. And rewritten the offending paragraph. Now we have:

While recognized a saint, Patrick was never canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, as he died before the official sainthood process began. And in an odd path to the church, his father possibly became a church deacon for the tax breaks -- though the jury is out on Patrick's motivations.

The jury is still out on Patrick's motivations for becoming Christian? What does that even mean? I think the Occam's Razor answer as to why Patrick's dad came to the church -- considering that he was raised in the church by a father who was a priest -- has got to be "tax breaks," don't you? But apart from that silliness, the last phrase is just not true. There is no jury and it is not deliberating Patrick's motivations.

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