Checking in with the pope's editor

index phpWe are nearing the end of the media blitz accompanying Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Latin America (Amy Welborn has, of course, lots of handy links). To my surprise, I still think the most important news came at the very beginning. The heart of the matter can be found in a paragraph that, at first, I thought The New York Times got completely wrong and that I now -- brace yourselves -- think the newspaper of record got precisely right.

Let's flash all the way back to that very first report by Ian Fisher and Larry Rohter focusing on the pope's blunt words about politics, abortion and the sacraments. Here's the key, right near the top:

On the plane from Rome, Benedict appeared to go further than the Vatican had before on the contentious issue of Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights. He seemed to suggest that Mexico City legislators who recently voted to allow abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy had excommunicated themselves.

"Yes, the excommunication isn't something arbitrary -- it's part of the code" of church law, the pope said in Italian, in response to a question during the first full-fledged news conference of his two-year pontificate. "The killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with going into communion in the body of Christ."

What leapt out at me was the use of "appeared" and "seemed" in the summary paragraph ahead of Benedict's actual words. As a rule, journalists try to avoid interpretive words of this kind because they interject an element of editorializing or, at the very least, strong subjectivity. The reporter might as well say "appeared to me" or "seemed to me" and be done with it.

But then I read on and, as I did so, I thought about the reality of this journalistic challenge.

First of all, brilliant academic people are skilled at creating good sound bites, and this is certainly true of Benedict XVI, as it was for John Paul II before him. Second, if there is anything in the world that the typical Vatican diplomat detests it is a direct, logical statement that adds a note of clarity to a tense situation.

Sure enough, the pope's headline-grabbing statement was followed -- a few lines later -- by this:

The pope's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, quickly issued a clarification that played down his words, but then issued a statement approved by the pope that seemed to confirm a new gravity on politicians who allow abortion.

"Legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist," the statement said, and politicians who vote that way should "exclude themselves from communion." ...

Father Lombardi's initial clarifying statement said the pope had intended to refer to current Vatican policy, as expressed in a document on the Eucharist that Benedict issued in December. In that document, Benedict said that certain values, including protecting human life from conception to natural death, were "not negotiable" and that Catholic politicians had a "grave responsibility" to promote such laws.

So, you see, the Times was just playing the odds, which is an appropriate thing to do when Vatican diplomats are involved in press relations. So, you see, there really wasn't a major news story here that would affect politicians in the United States and around the world. It just seemed that there was a major story, based on the words of this papal statement.

In fact, the Los Angeles Times quickly followed up with an amazing little piece noting that, by the time the pope's remarks were transcribed and distributed, some of his words had actually disappeared -- including a very crucial pronoun. Tracy Wilkinson should receive an award for the crisp, ironic, lede of the papal tour:

The pope, it turns out, has an editor.

Fallout from comments Benedict XVI made ... about abortion and excommunication has been so intense that the Vatican has simply changed the record.

It all began when the pope, in a news conference aboard his flight to Brazil, appeared to endorse the excommunication of Roman Catholic politicians who vote to legalize abortion.

... (W)hen the transcript of the news conference appeared ... on the Vatican's official website, the pope's comments had been altered.

For those who understand Italian, the transcript is here. Has anyone seen an English translation? That would have been nice, of course. Here is the crucial change, as described in the Los Angeles Times story:

In the 25-minute news conference, Benedict was asked if he agreed with excommunication for Mexican lawmakers who last month legalized abortion in Mexico City. "Yes, this excommunication is not something arbitrary," he answered, before going on to explain that such punishment is part of church law.

The transcript on the Vatican website removes the "Yes, this" and begins, "Excommunication is ..." -- making his remarks seem more generic and unconnected to the case in Mexico.

So, the clarity vanished, with that little word -- "this."

Nothing much to write about, it seems. Peace, peace.

Photo from the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo's papal tour press site.

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