If only it were true

luther5This week I've been on a bit of a tear about the shoddy coverage of the Vatican's supposed reissue of the Seven Deadly Sins. But I absolutely can't let pass another horrible example of media malfeasance. Reporter Richard Owen, who was responsible for much of the "deadly sin" silliness, filed the following report from Rome:

That Martin Luther? He wasn't so bad, says Pope

Pope Benedict XVI is to rehabilitate Martin Luther, arguing that he did not intend to split Christianity but only to purge the Church of corrupt practices.

Pope Benedict will issue his findings on Luther (1483-1546) in September after discussing him at his annual seminar of 40 fellow theologians -- known as the Ratzinger Schülerkreis -- at Castelgandolfo, the papal summer residence. According to Vatican insiders the Pope will argue that Luther, who was excommunicated and condemned for heresy, was not a heretic.

The only problem with the story is that, well, it's completely untrue. (So, all my fellow Lutherans, put down the lager and take off your party hats.) Anyway, the lack of truth didn't stop Owen from speculating on why the made-up event is happening:

The move to re-evaluate Luther is part of a drive to soften Pope Benedict's image as an arch conservative hardliner as he approaches the third anniversary of his election next month.

Ah, yes. I love how Pope Benedict's image -- constructed by the mainstream media -- is "arch conservative hardliner." Anyway, Carol Glatz of Catholic News Service completely dismantled Owen's story:

Rumors that the Vatican is set to rehabilitate Martin Luther, the 16th-century leader of the Protestant Reformation, are groundless, said the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi. . . .

Vatican officials said the topic of the pope's annual summer gathering of former students this year has not yet been decided. Of the two topics under consideration, Luther is not one of them, one official told Catholic News Service.

So how did this happen? Reuters Philip Pullella -- whose work I praised in the deadly sins debacle -- laid out the sequence of events. It's instructive:

It all appears to have started on March 2, when ApCom, an Italian news agency, ran a three paragraph article, here in Italian, merely saying that the pope and some of his former PhD students (the so-called Ratzinger- Schlerkreis), would discuss Luther during their yearly summer encounter in August at the papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

APcom said the seminar would discuss whether Luther "wanted a rupture . . . or intended to reform the Church but without traumas".

On March 5, two days after the APcom report, the Turin newspaper La Stampa ran a story with the headline "Ratzinger reforms Luther. 'He had many Catholic ideas. The theologian pope summons his students for a seminar of study on the heretic." The article, seen here in Italian, quoted Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, as saying the choice of topics was meant "to favour a climate of encounter with Protestants."

The day after the article in La Stampa, the Times of London reported that "Pope BenedictXVI is set to rehabilitate Martin Luther, arguing that he did not intend to split Christianity, but only to purge the church of corrupt practices."

From there, the story took off, was repeated by some news organisations around the world, was the buzz on the blogs, and even prompted an editorial critical of the pope by the Financial Times, called "Papal Indulgence - Cosmetic changes cannot hide Benedict's dogmatism".

The Vatican finally weighed in on March 8, squelching the story. Pullella's account is a warning to reporters against taking stories from other news outlets without independently checking their facts. Unfortunately, the shoddy reporting he catalogues continues to damage public trust in the media.

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