I have often wondered: Which comes first in the writing process in America's most powerful newsroom, the copy that goes in the International Herald Tribune over in Europe or the copy that goes into the New York Times itself? Here is why I ask. First, click here to read the New York Times version of a major story out of Rome from reporter Ian "Crow's Ear" Fisher. (OK, that's a cheap shot, but hang in there with me.) The headline says, "Ideals Collide as Vatican Rethinks Condom Ban," and the dateline says May 1.
Now click here to read the International Herald Tribune version of the same story, with a May 2 dateline and this headline: "The Vatican wrestles with a fraught topic."
Do you see a major difference right up front? How about you GetReligion readers who are members of ancient, liturgical churches or those of you who have studied church history?
Now, there are all kinds of interesting issues to discuss in these two versions of the same story, but let's just stick with the lead. First there is that version in the Times, which it appears was written first:
ROME, May 1 -- Even at the Vatican, not all sacred beliefs are absolute: Thou shalt not kill, but war can be just. Now, behind the quiet walls, a clash is shaping up involving two poles of near certainty: the church's long-held ban on condoms and its advocacy of human life.
The issue is AIDS. Church officials recently confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI had requested a report on whether it might be acceptable for Catholics to use condoms in one narrow circumstance: to protect life inside a marriage when one partner is infected with H.I.V. or is sick with AIDS.
Now compare that with the first paragraph in the May 2 version, taken from the Tribune:
ROME Even at the Vatican, few things apart from the reality of God are absolute. Thou shalt not kill, but there is still just war. Now, behind the quiet Vatican walls, a clash is shaping up between two poles of near certainty: the church's long-held ban on condom use and its more recently focused advocacy for human life from the womb to old age.
I read the Tribune version online before I saw the Times. What jumped out at me was the phrase, in the Tribune, about the Roman Catholic Church's "recently focused advocacy for human life from the womb to old age."
That has to be a mistake, I thought. They'll correct it in an updated edition.
But, unless I am mistaken, this strange phrase is in the newer version of the story. Right?
First of all, I have no idea what "recently focused advocacy for human life" means. Does this mean it is a new doctrine? A doctrine that has been changing and evolving? So the ban on condoms is, according to the New York Times, older than the church's opposition to abortion, let's say, or euthanasia?
The problem, of course, is that the pro-life stance in Christianity -- East and West -- is ancient, ancient, ancient. Here is a sample from the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. It dates back to the first century of the church, with some changes and additions in the centuries immediately after that. But we are talking about one of the oldest and most authoritative documents in church tradition, outside the canon of Scripture.
... "You will not murder. You will not commit adultery." You will not sodomize young boys. You will not have unlawful sex. " You will not steal." Do not practice magic. Do not practice sorcery. Neither murder a child by abortion, nor will you destroy what is born. You will not strongly desire your neighbor's things. You will not make oaths. "You will not bear false testimony." You will not say bad things. You will not remember bad things. You will not be double-minded or double-tongued, for the double-tongue is a snare of death. Your message is not to be false or empty, but being filled with practice. You should be neither greedy nor a swindler, nor hypocrite, nor malicious, nor high-minded. You will not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You will not hate any people, but you will reprove some, and you will pray for some, and some you will love more than your life.
Obviously, there are lots of things in there that will offend the editorial board of the New York Times.
But don't get me wrong. This is a big story, with Pope Benedict XVI opening up discussion of a hot topic, in the name of protecting people who have AIDS and are having sex inside the sacrament of marriage. This is a kind of "Nixon goes to China" story, with a conservative pope raising eyebrows in the world's largest flock.
But I would trust the Times coverage of this story more if it did not include such a confusing statement right there in the lead, one that seems to fly in the face of, well, two millennia of church history.