What is this? Seeing red over RNS piece on 'conservative' cardinals


Is it news reporting, or is it David Gibson?

David Gibson's latest article on the Vatican's upcoming synod of bishops, while presented as straight news, crosses the line into opinion in a way we at GetReligion have come to expect from the Religion News Service reporter, who consistently writes as a columnist.

Let's start with the biased labeling. It's "conservatives" vs. "reformers," folks (emphasis mine):

Public disagreements over whether the Roman Catholic Church can change its teachings on Communion for remarried Catholics are growing sharper on the eve of a major Vatican summit, with conservatives led by U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke making another push against loosening the rules.
In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday (Sept. 30), Burke, who currently heads the Vatican’s high court, singled out the leading proponent of reforms, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, and his claims that critics of his proposals are really attacking Pope Francis. 
Kasper has said that the pope supports his efforts to find ways to fully reintegrate divorced and remarried Catholics into church life. The proposals have become a prime focus of the upcoming Vatican meeting, called a synod, which will convene on Sunday for two weeks to consider changes in family life in the modern world.

As my GetReligion editor tmatt has noted, "reformers" is:

... a problematic term for use in doctrinal disputes because it automatically assumes that something needs to be reformed. This term pretty much settles the issue, telling readers precisely who the good people are in this story, which means that folks on the other side are the kinds of blokes who are opposed to "reform."

So it is in Gibson's piece: we have the conservative meanies against the proponent of "reforms" who wants to "fully integrate divorced and remarried Catholics into church life."

It's misleading to suggest that, for divorced and remarried Catholics, being unable to receive the Eucharist or the Sacrament of Penance means not being integrated into church life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1651, emphasizes rather that the divorced and remarried, even with the sacramental restrictions, "can and must" participate in church life:

"Toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner, priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons."

Gibson, however, does not acknowledge ways in which Burke and others are seeking to show compassion while upholding Church teaching. Instead, he quotes Burke's most inflammatory words and lays on a strategically placed zinger:

“I find it amazing that the cardinal claims to speak for the pope,” said Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, speaking from Rome. “The pope doesn’t have laryngitis. The pope is not mute. He can speak for himself. If this is what he wants, he will say so.”

“But for me as a cardinal to say that what I am saying are the words of Pope Francis? That to me is outrageous,” said Burke, who is reportedly set to be sidelined by Francis to a largely ceremonial post as patron of the Knights of Malta, a global church society based in Rome.

The unsourced datum that Burke is "reportedly set to be sidelined by Francis," coming right upon the heels of the cardinal's criticism of Kasper for claiming to speak for the pope, is a cheap shot, pure and simple. It's editorial writing, pure and simple.

There is an odd bit about "others on the [conference] call":

Burke’s comments were echoed by others on the call and represent the latest effort by church conservatives to try to head off any possibility that the bishops and cardinals meeting at the Oct. 5-19 synod would open the door to changing any Catholic teaching, especially on marriage.

Who are these mysterious "others"? Although Catholic World News gives some names, Gibson has told us only that Burke is speaking in a "conference call with reporters." Without any context, the reference to unidentified "others" and "church conservatives" comes off like bizarre conspiracy talk.

But wait -- there are more "conservatives" in the picture:

Earlier this week some 48 mainly conservative Catholic clergy and intellectuals — as well as prominent evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren – published an open letter to Francis and the synod delegates urging them not to dilute church teaching on marriage but to fight secularizing trends that they say have weakened marital standards. ... All told, as many as 10 cardinals aligned with the hierarchy’s conservative wing have written in opposition to Kasper.

"[Cardinals] aligned with the hierarchy's conservative wing"? What does that even mean? Does it refer to some aisle down the middle of the Sistine Chapel, like that in the House of Representatives?

What we are witnessing here is classic Kellerism, and I sense a bit of Saul Alinsky's Rule 12 thrown in: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Kellerism -- the doctrine of former New York Times editor Bill Keller -- would hold that the cardinals who are opposed to changing Church doctrine do not deserve to be given a fair hearing. Therefore, per Alinsky, they are the target that must be frozen in readers' minds as "conservatives," the polar opposite of "reformers." If that's the angle Gibson wishes to take in an opinion piece, it's his prerogative. But it's not news reporting, and it does readers a disservice to frame it as such.

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