Nothing new under the Vatican sun

That's some bad timing on Time's current cover story, pictured here and previously discussed by tmatt. Pope Benedict XVI delivered the concluding homily at the Vatican's big celebration marking the Year of the Priest. And while he had many interesting things to say, it's pretty clear that media outlets are all running with and highlighting the section of the homily in which he begged forgiveness for the sex abuse scandals that have been in the news recently. In our survey of the coverage, let's begin with Rachel Donadio's piece in the New York Times. I thought it was really good. It had a nice balance of quotes and perspective and gave the news straight up, without attempts to spin or analyze in one particular direction:

Addressing the sexual abuse crisis from the seat of the Roman Catholic Church before thousands of white-robed priests, Pope Benedict XVI on Friday begged forgiveness, saying the church would do "everything possible" to prevent priests from abusing children.

"We, too, insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again," Benedict told thousands of priests and the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square for celebrations marking the end of the Vatican's Year of the Priest.

The pope did not outline specific actions that the church would take to combat abuse, as many had hoped -- and as Benedict had pledged at an audience in April. Nor did his remarks go much beyond what he had already said in a letter to Irish Catholics in March and in a private meeting with victims of sexual abuse on Malta in April.

But it was the first time that Benedict had asked forgiveness for the crisis from St. Peter's Square, the heart of the church itself, and on an occasion focused on priests.

There's much more about the particulars of his homily and the reaction to the homily among the network of abuse victim activists.

Donadio is based at the Vatican. The Los Angeles Times actually sent reporter Mitchell Landsberg to cover the event and I'm not sure they got their money's worth. I know it's hard to cover religion in general, but the Vatican is one of those places where the complexity can really throw a reporter. Or maybe Landsberg just doesn't like the Vatican or something. His piece almost reads more like a Rorschach test of how he interpreted the speech rather than a news account of what happened.

Let's just begin with the headline:

Pope asks God for forgiveness but offers no apology on priest abuse

As tmatt previously wrote about Time's headline, what does that even mean? I noted in a column in the Wall Street Journal last week, the Pope has been hitting hard on the themes of sin, repentance and forgiveness. He has expressed regrets. He has worked to change the way the Vatican handles abuse claims and he's urged further reforms. He's sought forgiveness from victims. What does this headline writer mean when referring to an "apology"? I don't actually know. But it reflects the general tenor of the piece, which is in no way balanced.

Here's how Landsberg begins:

When Pope Benedict XVI announced the "Year of the Priest" that concluded Friday, he probably didn't have in mind the sort of year he got.

He acknowledged as much in a closing Mass, telling more than 10,000 assembled priests in St. Peter's Square that "in the very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light."

This is a cute beginning, sure, but I only highlight it to point out that it directly contradicts what Benedict actually said in the homily.

I don't want to quote the whole thing but Benedict basically talks about the intention of this year of celebration and then says, "It was to be expected that this new radiance of the priesthood would not be pleasing to the "enemy"; he would have rather preferred to see it disappear, so that God would ultimately be driven out of the world. And so it happened that, in this very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light -- particularly the abuse of the little ones, in which the priesthood, whose task is to manifest God's concern for our good, turns into its very opposite." And then he begs forgiveness and promises to do everything possible to prevent future problems. And then he talks about how the celebration was not ruined, but that these events served as a purification.

Since I started paying attention to actual papal homilies and speeches, I've found that the number of reporters who accurately represent the words of these texts is dangerously small.

Anyway, I could fisk this whole piece but let's just look at a few more lines:

Benedict had been widely expected to use the occasion to issue his most sweeping and detailed mea culpa to date for the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and perhaps to announce new measures to cope with it. The scandal has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in Europe this year, nearly a decade after it shook the American church to its roots.

But the pope did neither, blaming the problem on "the enemy," Satan, even as he begged forgiveness from God and from the victims of priest abuse, as he has several times recently. The latest comments failed to satisfy at least some in his audience, who called for greater accountability and more concrete measures to combat abuse.

OK, even before I read this piece, I'd grown tired of Landsberg's complete reliance on the passive voice. He has a problem with it. The previous day's story was about the Pope "rejecting" calls to end celibacy. The first paragraph spoke, passively, of speculation about ending celibacy. And the "rejection" was not a rejection but a reaffirmation that came in response to a priest's question about the importance of celibacy. The piece read like what you might expect of someone who didn't really understand Vatican culture or history. Unfortunately we've noticed some quality problems with Landsberg's work prior to that, too.

Anyway, back to this piece, we once again see this weak construction. Who widely expected him to use this occasion to detail a -- groan -- "mea culpa"? And it takes a complete ignorance of traditional Christian understanding of sin and Satan to explain his remarks on "the enemy" in the way he does. Again, Donadio did a better job. It goes on in this vein:

At one point, sounding much like the academic he once was, Benedict spoke of the development of monotheism, and seemed to criticize non-Christian faiths as well as the Enlightenment, the historical movement that brought revolutionary developments in science and philosophy.

Unless you're writing a personal essay, I really think the word "seem" should be avoided. Particularly if you're missing the point of a fairly easy to understand homily that is no more academic than any homily my pastors deliver on a random Sunday or mid-week service. It would almost be funny if it weren't, you know, appearing in a major daily paper. I honestly wondered if the reporter had never heard a traditional sermon before.

Okay, so Benedict talks about how the Old Testament repeatedly speaks of a personal God who looks after his people like a shepherd looks after his sheep. He merely notes the difference between this understanding of God and other ancient understandings of the deity. And he casually notes that this understanding reappeared during the Enlightenment -- the "clockmaker" God who sets everything in motion and then steps back. Apparently the mere discussion of differences such as these is not only considered criticism of "non-Christian" faiths but somehow noteworthy for a homily. Never mind, of course, that the 23rd Psalm on which the homily is based comes from Scriptures shared with a non-Christian faith.

And yes, Landsberg, thank you for explaining to us what the Enlightenment was. Of course, Benedict wasn't criticizing everything about the Enlightenment or even most things. Or even doing anything other than noting that all those "revolutionary" developments that journalists seem to think were brand new were actually nothing new under the sun.


Speaking of sun, the reporter writes up his piece as if it's a tourist report. He repeatedly mentions the weather in the square, using really dramatic language. Yet another reason why the New York Times piece was superior -- not one mention of weather. Second photo: Pope Benedict XVI's online home.

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