Religion News Service monkeys around with that Pope Francis evolution speech

If the mainstream media had a mantra these days, it would be "The Pope Is Just Like Us!" A recent variation on the meme of Francis as an earth-shattering revolutionary is the press's guiding interpretation of the pope's address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences.

As Catholic blogger Damian Geminder observes, MSNBC Community Editor Daniel Berger had "the most popular article on for much of Tuesday, featuring this completely-not-sensationalistic-and-totally-journalistic headline"

No need to give details here on where the MSNBC spin goes off the rails, as Geminder has done a serviceable (albeit highly polemicized) job. So too has Time's Elizabeth Dias, whose story bears the catchy headline "Sorry, But Media Coverage of Pope Francis Is Papal Bull." 

I have praised Dias here before; her work is excellent proof that one does not have to personally sympathize with orthodox (i.e. Catechism-carrying) Catholics in order to do responsible reporting on church issues. Perhaps the New York Times' Ross Douthat had her in mind when he sent out this tweet:

The core observation of Dias's piece is that

the media has gone bananas in its coverage of Pope Francis.

Dias' words, while borne out by articles such as Berger's, are exemplified most dramatically by the truly bizarre hijinks that the pope's evolution speech sparked at Religion News Service. Granted, the story by Josephine McKenna avoids the "going rogue" angle, but what it did say was far more irresponsible. As you can see from this archived version, it gave a bungled translation that had the pope denying God is a "divine being":

Francis said the beginning of the world was not “a work of chaos” but created from a principle of love. He said sometimes competing beliefs in creation and evolution could co-exist.
“God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life,” the pope said. “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

Got that? Pope Francis, according to RNS, said, "God is not a divine being." 

If that were a true quote, then, as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler observed on Twitter, it would be headline-worthy indeed:

But what did the pope actually say? The word that RNS translates as "divine being" was the Italian "demiurgo," meaning "Demiurge." Perhaps it's not the most familiar word to your average religion journalist, but a quick online search would have turned up Merriam-Webster's definition, which begins:

1. capitalized
a :  a Platonic subordinate deity who fashions the sensible world in the light of eternal ideas
b:   a Gnostic subordinate deity who is the creator of the material world

Here is the key line of the pope's address as it was spoken:

E così la creazione è andata avanti per secoli e secoli, millenni e millenni finché è diventata quella che conosciamo oggi, proprio perché Dio non è un demiurgo o un mago, ma il Creatore che dà l’essere a tutti gli enti.

 And here is the quote in the ZENIT news agency's translation, with a bit more context:

When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However, it was not like that. He created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time that He assured them of his continual presence, giving being to every reality. And thus creation went forward for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today, in fact because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities. The beginning of the world was not the work of chaos, which owes its origin to another, but it derives directly from a Supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big-Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it. The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

The context makes it obvious that the pope is not intending by any stretch of the imagination to deny God is a "divine being." He is, rather, denying that God is a demiurge, i.e. lower-case "builder-god" who merely fashions creatures out of primordial stuff and then leaves them to their own devices. For RNS to not only put the words "God is not a divine being" in the pope's mouth but also refuse to correct its mistranslation would therefore be simply irresponsible.

But that is exactly what RNS did -- for forty-eight hours, even as Mohler and others questioned its translation. Not only that, Mohler reported on his radio show yesterday that McKenna staunchly stood by her mistranslation even while acknowledging that "demiurge" was an "acceptable" alternative:

I looked at this story again and again; I read it over and over again, but there is no doubt that this is exactly what RNS reported – that the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church said just Monday. And furthermore, I waited to see if RNS might almost immediately publish some kind of clarification or retraction – it didn’t come. So I asked my office directly to be in contact with reporter to ask if this was a translation issue. Just late yesterday that reporter, Josephine McKenna, reported back saying that she was happy with her translation even though she’s unsure what the Pope intended; in other words, quite explicitly, [she's] sticking by her story. She’s even sticking by her translation.
Now we have at least two huge new stories here. The first new story is that the Pope said such a thing. Now let’s just grant for a moment that the Pope almost surely did not mean what the context here seems to imply that he met; what the words themselves even more clearly seem to imply. There must be something else behind this and in the total context of the Pope’s address it appears that what he meant to say was that God the creator, as revealed in Scripture and Christian tradition, is not some kind of blind impersonal mere deity but an intelligent creator who had a plan for his creation. But that’s not what he said, at least not according to the translation and the report offered by Religion News Service.
But that leads to the second big news story here. How can it be that a news organization with the scale and scope and reputation of Religion News Service can put out a news report saying that the Pope on Monday declaring that God is not a divine being and there appears to be almost no conversation about it and no demand for clarification? At least, not until we asked for clarification and later yesterday we had a second clarification from the reporter who said that the word ‘demiurge’ used in some other translations would be acceptable. But she continues to stand by her original translation.

As I wrote yesterday on Twitter, McKenna's position simply doesn't make sense. If the translation "God is not a demiurge" is "acceptable," then her translation "God is not a divine being" is not. She can't have it both ways.

A journalistic question: Why is RNS so tied to having the pope say "God is not a divine being" that it let its mistranslation stand? What were they thinking?

As of this morning, the translation has finally been corrected -- sort of. It now reads:

“God is not a demiurge [demigod] or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities," the pope said.

So, we now have the right translation -- but, as though RNS couldn't leave well enough alone, they added a new misinterpretation. A Demiurge is not a demigod. They are two different things.

Honestly, if an interpretation were needed, how hard would it have been for the RNS editors to add the parenthetical "[subordinate builder-god]," or to put an explanatory sentence into the body of the story? Do they really think readers are so stupid as to not grasp the concept? Most of all, why did it take the agency two days -- and a public shaming -- to fix the error?

UPDATE, 10/31/14: See the comments section below for a response from RNS Editor-in-Chief Kevin Eckstrom.  

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