Covering the funeral of Antonin Scalia, while ignoring what the Mass was really about

In the end, here was the question that loomed over the funeral Mass of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia: Was this a political event? The answer is easy to find, simply by glancing at the coverage offered by several elite newsrooms.

That answer: Of course this was a political event. What would the alternative be? Actually covering the words and symbols of the event itself, which in this case would have led to news reports containing the doctrines at the heart of the Christian faith?

That would never do. That wouldn't be "real," since Scalia was clearly a powerful player in the world of law and politics -- the "real" world.

You know that this inside-the-Beltway prejudice against religious faith being "real" was on the mind of Father Paul Scalia, the preacher and celebrant. As one of the justice's sons, you know that he was more than aware of his father's convictions about the content of funeral rites and the sermons preached in them (and thus mentioned this subject in his funeral sermon). Click here for Antonin Scalia's thoughts on that.

Readers had a chance to know what the family was thinking because of the opening lines of Father Scalia's sermon, which directly challenged the Beltway mindset. If anyone saw these words reported in a mainstream news story, please let me know. I know that this is long. That's the point:

We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more, a man loved by many, scorned by others, a man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth. It is He whom we proclaim. Jesus Christ, son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried, risen, seated at the right hand of the Father. It is because of Him, because of His life, death and resurrection that we do not mourn as those who have no hope, but in confidence we commend Antonin Scalia to the mercy of God.

Scripture says “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” And that sets a good course for our thoughts and our prayers here today. In effect, we look in three directions: to yesterday, in thanksgiving; to today, in petition; and into eternity with hope. We look to Jesus Christ yesterday -- that is, to the past -- in thanksgiving for the blessings God bestowed upon Dad. In the past week, many have recounted what Dad did for them, but here today, we recount what God did for Dad; how He blessed him.

We give thanks, first of all, for the atoning death and life-giving resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our Lord died and rose, not only for all of us, but also for each of us. And at this time we look to that yesterday of His death and His resurrection, and we give thanks that He died and rose for Dad.

This sermon contained some anecdotal material about Justice Scalia as a man and as a leader and that was valid material to include in the coverage, of course. Of course. Of course. Of course.

That wasn't the key journalism issue for me. The key issue, for me, was whether the primary messages contained in the service should have been completely edited out of the news coverage. That was especially the case since the Scalia family made it so clear that this was first and foremost a religious rite.

This put elite journalists in an awkward position. They had to ignore the main themes of the funeral Mass, even as they were dared -- by the family -- to cover the main themes of the rite.

So how did the New York Times team open its report?

WASHINGTON -- With pageantry, spirituality and a touch of his own trademark humor, Justice Antonin Scalia was honored on Saturday as a capital riven by his death briefly set down its political weapons to mourn what his son called “the country’s good servant.”
The nation’s leaders, including justices, judges, lawmakers, current and former vice presidents and a presidential candidate, gathered for a mostly solemn two-hour funeral Mass.

Ah! The key is "spirituality" (as in "spiritual, but not religious"). If you look that term up online, here is an example of the definitions that you will find.

Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience -- something that touches us all.

The problem, of course, is that this wasn't the funeral service of Justice Anthony "mystery of human life" Kennedy. This was the funeral of Justice Scalia, a man whose life was dedicated to the pursuit of very specific truth claims, both in the law and in his Catholic faith.

To be blunt: The last thing this funeral Mass was about was "spirituality." So search the Times story and look for the role that terms such as "Christian" and "Catholic" played in its contents. What about "Jesus," you ask? Forget about it.

The strongest religious language in the Times piece linked a kind of vague, Americanized faith with a nod to current fights over religious liberty.

He was remembered as much for his faith and family as his jurisprudence, as one of his sons, the Rev. Paul D. Scalia, delivered an eloquent homily that emphasized the late justice’s devout Catholicism. He made only one passing reference to the legal philosophy that animated his father’s long career, a belief in the Constitution as the framers originally intended it, including the presence of religion in public life.
“God blessed Dad as is well known with a love for his country,” Father Scalia told the crowd in the cavernous Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. “He knew well what a close run thing the founding of our nation was and he saw in that founding, as did the founders themselves, a blessing -- a blessing quickly lost when faith is banned from the public square or when we refuse to bring it there.”
“So,” the son went on, “he understood that there was no conflict between loving God and loving one’s country, between one’s faith and one’s public service.”

Justice Scalia's conviction that funerals should focus on the Christian Gospel, not the life of the deceased, did receive a nod in this story -- as part of a wonderful personal anecdote.

Noting the justice’s disdain for eulogies, Father Scalia offered a largely theological talk, but sprinkled in a few personal anecdotes about his famous father. He noted that Justice Scalia once accidentally found himself in his son’s confession line. “He quickly departed it,” Father Scalia noted. “As he put it later, ‘Like heck if I’m confessing to you.’ The feeling was mutual.”

How did The Washington Post handle this journalism Catch-22? If anything, the newspaper of Beltway-land was even more secular in its approach.

In particular, note the following paragraph from its story. How do you think Justice Scalia himself would have responded to the central image here, an image repeated more than once in the report?

Scalia was an icon. That was obvious Saturday from the size of the crowd. Attendees at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception included a cardinal, numerous archbishops and bishops, scores of priests, the vice president, the surviving justices, many senators, and judges and lawyers from across the country.

Well now. Did the contents of this Mass portray Scalia as an "icon"?

Later, the Post team did include this summary of the material it had decided to omit from the story -- before launching into a long, long treatise on why the justice was one of the most controversial legal minds of our time.

Although the service lacked eulogists, it held subtle hints of Scalia’s legacies. Just on the biological side of things, there was the sprawling Scalia family. Clarence Thomas, his close ideological ally, did a reading from the Bible, as did Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, the organization for conservative legal thinkers that Scalia long supported.

You get the point. Clearly, journalists had to give readers a sense of who Justice Scalia was as a figure in the news and in history. As I stressed earlier, I totally get that.

The question for me is whether it was possible, in a hard-news report, to have actually covered some of the contents of this funeral Mass in a story about the funeral Mass. This issue is especially important, since since the family of the deceased -- led by the priest/son in the pulpit -- issued such a direct challenge for those in attendance to realize that this Mass was, first and foremost, not about the public figure named Antonin Scalia.

FIRST IMAGE: From the NBC News video coverage of the funeral Mass.

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