A Roman Easter Rashomon

Marge: "You liked Rashomon!"

Homer: "That's not how I remember it."

The Simpsons, Thirty Minutes over Tokyo, (16 May 1999).

The title of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film, Rashomon, has entered the English-language as a term to describe the conundrum where eyewitness accounts to an event are true but contradictory.

Set in 12th-century Japan, Rashomon  describes a chance meeting in a forest between a bandit, a samurai and his wife. A sexual encounter takes place followed by a death -- but the plot revolves around whether this was a rape and if the death was murder or suicide. The film shows four conflicting accounts of the incident: from the perspective of the bandit, the samurai's wife, the dead samurai speaking through a spirit medium, and a passing woodcutter.  As each narrates their version of the event, the film shows images of the incident that demonstrate truthfulness of the four characters' accounts. But unlike a traditional mystery where falsehood is unmasked, and truth revealed, Rashomon presents each account as being true. What is truth?

I share this nugget of Japanese film lore as one explanation of the reporting of Pope Benedict XVI's Holy Thursday chrismal mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope took a verbal stick to a dissident priests' movement and gave them a mighty whack, or the pope held out an olive branch to a dissident priests' movement and invited them to enter into dialogue. Are one, both, neither accounts true?

The English-language press reports Pope Benedict XVI denounced in harsh terms the Pfarrer Initiative (pastor initiative), a reform movement founded in 2006 by Austrian Roman Catholic clergy that has called for abolishing priestly celibacy and permitting the ordination of women priests.

Some of the stories are quite strong. The Daily Mail's article was entitled "Pope denounces rebel clergy who question church teaching on celibacy and ordaining woman."

A number of newspaper ran the story from the Associated Press. Most newspapers along with the television networks ABC and CBS used the headline supplied by the AP: "Pope denounces dissident priests on celibacy".  The New York Daily News picked up the tempo with "Pope Benedict XVI slams priests who question church on celibacy." The Washington Post chose "Pope denounces dissident priests who question church teaching on celibacy, ordaining women" for its title, while across town the Washington Times ran with "Pope rips into dissident priests on celibacy".

The pope "rips", "slams", "denounces" rebel clergy -- strong stuff. All that is needed to complete the picture are Batman art cards -- "Sock, Bam, Pow, Biff, Boom."

The BBC and the New York Times followed this general line but used the less harsh but still strong verb "rebuke." "Pope Benedict XVI rebukes Austrian dissident priests" and "Pope Rebukes Priests Who Advocate Ordaining Women and Ending Celibacy."

However, the Irish Times did not follow the herd on this one. The story submitted by its Rome correspondent was entitled "Pope chides Catholics who query key beliefs." The Italian newspaper La Stampa also broke ranks with its story "Disobedience is not a way to renew the Church, Pope tells dissident priests."

The report in the Vatican's semi-official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, on the pope's homily entitled "Pope to priests: Be configured to Christ" is even further from the AP's perspective.

The lede in the AP story is that the pope

issued a blistering denunciation Thursday of priests who have questioned church teaching on celibacy and ordaining women, saying they were being selfish in disobeying his authority.

The article offers a quick summary of the Pfarrer Initiative and then pulls quotes from the pope's homily.

... Benedict said the dissidents claim to be motivated by concern for the church. But he suggested that in reality they were just making “a desperate push to do something to change the church in accordance with (their) own preferences and ideas.”

“We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date,” he said. “But is disobedience really a way to do this?”

He said Jesus always followed true obedience to God’s will, not “human caprice.”

And he rejected the dissidents’ idea that the church had been “fossilized” since the Second Vatican Council, saying that on the contrary, the growth of new religious movements in recent decades showed the vitality and true renewal of the church called for by the 1962-65 Vatican II.

These are accurate quotes from the pope's homily, but the truth of this report conflicts with the truth of the Italian reports. L'Osservatore Romano states the pope accepts the

"possibility as well that the signers of this summons were motivated 'by concern for the Church', and ... invites us to reflect on how it is possible to realize this configuration to Christ  “in the often dramatic situation of the Church today”. The temptation to disobedience, the Pope explained, seems to be merely “a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas”.  Maybe because Christ “seems too lofty and too great for us to dare to measure ourselves by him”.

The Austrian press  reports the leaders of the Pfarrer initiative did not take the pope's words to be a harsh rebuke but an invitation to discussion. Mgr. Helmut Schueller said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the homily according to an account printed in the Weiner Zeitung. "It is important to note the Pope has threatened no consequences. We are part of the church for him," the Kurier quoted Mgr. Schueller as saying in response to the homily.

So which is it?

Singling out the Pfarrer initiative for criticism in the context of a holy week homily is unusual. The notice given to this is warranted, however, the "rips", "slams", "denounces" rebel clergy line taken by the AP and other papers misses the point of the pontiff's homily.

The pope accepts the dissident clergy are acting according to the lights of their own conscience, but he rejects the notion that disobedience is the way to achieve a moral good. “A priest never belongs to himself,” the pope said, but must conform his life to Christ and in service to the church. “We preach not private theories and opinions, but the faith of the Church, whose servants we are.”

Are Mgr. Schueller and his compatriots in Austria being disingenuous then by saying they are pleased by the pope's comments. I think not. What they hear is the pope's disagreement with their views, but not a call for their silence. While the AP reports the pope rejects criticism the church has become fossilized, the Pfarrer Initiative clergy hear him to be saying their concerns have merit. The reasons for their concern are being heard. It is the way they are seeking to address these concerns that is being criticized.

Is this an example of the Rashomon effect -- with the Austrian clergy, the Italian newspapers and the English-language newspapers hearing the same words but hearing a different truth? Or has the press blown it by focusing on one portion of a homily to the exclusion of the full message?

What say you GetReligion readers? Read the pope's homily for yourself and tell me what you think.

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