Pod people: Pope steps down; many journalists fall down

Gentle readers, one cannot make some of this stuff up.

So, everyone knows that Pope Benedict XVI is elderly and has physical ailments.

So how tired and elderly is this man? Read the following passage from The Washington Post carefully. The story offers details from his dramatic final dramatic Mass, as pope, at St. Peter's Basilica.

Wait for it.

The pope has cited his failing body and mind to explain his decision, and ... he appeared fragile, if determined, while presiding over the solemn pageantry of the Catholic Mass. He was shepherded down the long aisles of the basilica on a wheeled platform, although he at times walked unaided. In the pews, young seminarians took notes and grew teary-eyed as the pope hobbled down the marble stairs of the altar for the last time. Asian, European and American tour groups fortunate enough to be in Rome for the occasion strained their necks to catch a glimpse from the rear of the church.

At the conclusion of the Mass, as cardinals and bishops watched, a short nun stood on her chair to wave at the pope as he began his last procession out of the basilica. He walked with a gilded cane in the shape of a cross. Cheers erupted from the benches as he passed, along with shouts in Italian of “long live the pope!”

What? He walked with the help of a "gilded cane" topped with a cross?

Might that have been his papal crosier (sometimes spelled "crozier"), the formal pastoral staff -- a symbol of this role as shepherd of his flock -- that is carried by a bishop? Might this be the golden staff, topped with a cross, that Benedict has always used, the one that would be seen in many, many photos (click here for sample) of this particular pope that originate in liturgical settings?

In other words, it would have been genuinely strange if Benedict had NOT been using his pastoral staff, as he always has.

Oh well. This is not the strangest thing that has every happened in mainstream news media reporting about this particular piece of liturgical equipment. Who can forget this classic, from the funeral of the Blessed John Paul II?

“The 84-year-old John Paul was laid out in Clementine Hall, dressed in white and red vestments, his head covered with a white bishop’s miter and propped up on three dark gold pillows,” wrote Ian Fisher of the New York Times. “Tucked under his left arm was the silver staff, called the crow’s ear, that he had carried in public.”

Right. His "crow's ear."

Obviously, the sudden decision by Benedict XVI to step down as pope has dominated the religion-news beat all week. Readers will not be surprised to know that it was the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast, as well. Click here to listen to that.

There was much to discuss. Still, it says a lot about the state of the news world in which we live that one of the best commentaries on the press coverage of this week could be found over at The Onion. Here's how it opens. Read The Onion and weep:

VATICAN CITY -- Citing his advancing age and deteriorating health, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the papacy Monday, saying he no longer possessed the strength and energy required to lead the Catholic Church backward.

According to the 85-year-old pontiff, after considerable prayer and reflection on his physical stamina and mental acuity, he concluded that his declining faculties left him unable to helm the Church’s ambitious regressive agenda and guide the faith’s one billion global followers on their steady march away from modernity and cultural advancement.

This was not the only commentary about the mainstream coverage of this stunner. Needless to say, many readers noted this headline in an analysis piece at The Telegraph:

Pope Benedict XVI resigns: the mainstream media just doesn't get God or Catholicism

Here's the start of that essay by historian Tim Stanley:

For Lent, I’m giving up. How can anyone of faith not feel like surrendering after this week’s largely bad media coverage of the papal abdication? The identikit headline seems to be, “Elderly Homophobe Quits Misogynistic Institution Because He Can’t Hack It”. And my favourite piece of instant analysis has to be The Guardian’s “Five Key Issues for the Catholic Church”, which details the things the next Pope must do to rescue the Church from oblivion. They include ordain women priests, conduct gay weddings and hand out condoms. So The Guardian’s ideal Pope is someone who isn’t a Catholic. The paper reports that Sinead O’Connor is available.

Some parts of the mainstream media don’t do God and don’t understand people who do. They see everything through the prism of politics – presuming that Christians fall into camps of Left and Right, that Bible-talk is ideological slang or that the tenets of faith are up for negotiation in the same way that party platforms are easily forgotten by the hucksters who ran on them. Some journalists need a crash course in Christianity.

Or how about this from "She the People" columnist Melinda Henneberger at The Washington Post? In this she addresses this particular pope's mixed record on sexual abuse by clergy. Was Benedict XVI uniquely to blame?

Though I won’t argue for his charm or pitch, ... it’s simply not true that he protected predator priests. While I fault Benedict for many things, his record on abuse is far more mixed than that. When many others in the Vatican were still writing off reports of abuse as an anti-Catholic media plot, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke publicly of the need to remove clerical “filth” from the church, in reference to predator priests. Then, as pope, in a move that upset the accused man’s many powerful friends, he did the almost unthinkable by moving against Marcial Maciel Degollado, the abusive priest who founded the Legion of Christ.

Meanwhile, conservative editorial folks at The New York Post also thundered on the state of the mainstream news coverage, in an essay called "The Clueless Media." Here is a key passage on the central issue, which is whether the work and life of the Catholic Church is best, is most accurately, described in political terms.

In any case, trying to understand the Catholic Church through the prism of contemporary US politics is a fool’s errand. Popes routinely infuriate American political conservatives, for example, with their withering criticisms of capitalism’s inequities and its effects on the poor. At the same time, they draw the line on such lefty talking points as gay marriage and abortion.

What the critics don’t realize is that the Church is simply being consistent. At root, Catholic theology is concerned with the fundamental nature of human beings and their place in God’s plan -- a plan not subject to change at the whim of the electorate or the urging of editorial pages.

I will offer one more. This piece from the left -- entitled "Can secular journalists argue theology with the pope?" -- ran in The Los Angeles Times. Michael McGough begins like this:

One of my least favorite pundits is the shrill and self-parodic conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin. But Rubin had a point when she criticized “liberal media types” for lecturing the Roman Catholic Church “about the need, you know, to get with the modern world and stop all that fussing about abortion, contraception and women priests.”

Rubin asked: “ On what basis do secular journalists assert the authority to lecture a religion on its tenets? Imagine instructing rabbis to lighten up on the Ten Commandments or evangelicals to stop being so, you know, literal. And it is inconceivable media elites would urge imams to alter their views. Yet with Catholicism, secular elites’ presumptuousness knows no bounds.”

Rubin didn’t mention her employer by name, but the Washington Post’s editorial about the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI contained this criticism of the soon-to-be-ex-pontiff: “The hallmark of Pope Benedict’s tenure, for better or for worse, was fierce resistance to [change]. He rejected calls by Catholic progressives for reconsideration of doctrines such as celibacy and the ban on women in the priesthood; at a time when acceptance of the rights of gays and lesbians is rapidly spreading across the world, he was outspoken in condemning homosexuality as 'unnatural' and 'unacceptable.'"

This essay has some especially interesting points to make about how journalists CAN frame criticism of religious institutions. In other words, it doesn't just focus on the bad. It's constructive.

Here at GetReligion, we like the constructive stuff. Let us know if you see more of it in print.

Meanwhile, enjoy the podcast.

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