Cathy Grossman of USA Today talked to a lot of Catholics sources for her mini-profile of Pope Benedict XVI. Yet the one source she did not quote from, aside from one seven-word sentence, was the pontiff himself. Grossman's story dealt almost exclusively with American perceptions of Benedict -- his image, his persona, his public relations. Consider her lede:
When Shepherd One lands outside Washington, D.C., on April 15, the jet carrying Pope Benedict XVI to a six-day visit in the USA will deliver a complex and surprising man.
His image is cast in a stern adherence to orthodoxy. He has been true to that, but his first three years as leader of the Roman Catholic Church also suggest he is not exactly the harsh disciplinarian some fans had hoped for â€” or many critics had feared.
One thing hasn't been a surprise: Benedict, shy and scholarly, has not shown the public relations acumen of his predecessor, John Paul II, who radiated such charisma that not everyone saw his steely inflexibility on theology and traditions.
Leave aside the pejorative use of the terms "steely inflexibility" and "harsh disciplinarian." Grossman's initial focus is fair and accurate. The German pontiff is not well known. To the extent that he is, his reputation is that of "God's Rotweiller." Plus, Benedict's comments during his Regensburg lecture were perceived, incorrectly, as an attack on Islam. Any national reporter introducing Benedict to a mass audience should probably do the same as she did.
The trouble is, Grossman did not stop there. She continued writing about people's perceptions of Benedict:
But those who have watched the new pope closely say he probably has been a surprise to Catholics who expected him to appoint more conservative bishops and crack down swiftly on Catholic universities that conservatives see as having allowed students and faculty members to stray from Catholic teachings and values.
Biographer David Gibson quips, "The Catholic right is actually somewhat disappointed that he hasn't been tougher," while the left "is happy not to get a bull (edict) of excommunication in the mail."
Benedict's admirers hope people will come to see him as they do: kind, warm, intellectually open and engaging.
The roster of Catholic commentators that Grossman quoted from are smart and knowledgeable. (Did she talk with Ray Flynn? He is the former ambassador to the Vatican.) But I think that she relied on them too heavily. At some point, a reader wants to hear from the pope himself.
But other than a seven-word quote from his book Jesus of Nazareth, the story did not do this. I think this is problem. A reader should know how the main protagonist in the story perceives his message and its importance.
Yes, Grossman's story summarized Benedict's message for his visit:
To the laity and clergy, Benedict will promote authentic Catholic identity: More than going to Mass, it is understanding and fully living by Catholic values. To politicians and religious leaders, he'll emphasize the common ground in natural moral law that rests in reason.
And to all, he'll denounce "moral relativism," which "does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires."
Yet the reader is not told why Benedict is choosing this message. In the absence of this information, a reader would be better informed by reading Zenit.org or the Vatican News Service. And it's not as if the Pope does not have something to say.
By not quoting more from Benedict, USA Today sold him short. And it is easy to find his words, there are shelves full of his writings and websites packed with texts on a wide variety of subjects.