Several months ago, your GetReligionistas created our "What is this?" logo to salute a question that we have found ourselves asking over and over during the past decade.
Here's the deal. So you are reading something in a newspaper or online source that is supposed to be producing old-school hard news. Then you hit a passage or two that, simply stated, are wildly opinionated or built on what appears to be secret information, without a source that is shared with readers. In other words, you hit a patch of blatant opinion in the middle of a "news" article, like a patch of black ice on a highway that at first glance appears to be safe.
So you look at the top of the "news" article, trying to find evidence of a columnist logo or an "analysis" tag line. But it's not there. That's when you say (all together), "What is this?" There should probably be "!!!!" marks in there, too, or worse (as in What *& %^ #* is this?!).
Want to see an instant classic? Here's one, from an Agence France-Presse story -- drawn from Yahoo! -- sent to team GetReligion by an stunned reader (who thought some of the adjectives were way over the top). Let's look at the passage in context. Remember, this is drawn from a news report about the second anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, not a commentary or analysis piece:
Vatican II is considered to be one of the defining moments in the history of the Catholic church -- the point at which the clerical hierarchy accepted that some centuries-old ways of thinking and acting had to be jettisoned if the institution was to remain relevant as the sixties began to swing.
Yes, "jettisoned." Now, name a core Catholic dogma or piece of moral doctrine jettisoned by Vatican II. Right. I thought so. Let's continue:
Fifty years later, the Church is facing a similar set of dilemmas and is beset by divisions over how to respond to them and close the gap between what it officially preaches and how many of its followers actually live their lives in the early 21st Century.
Deep divisions over how the Church should relate to homosexual, divorced and co-habiting believers were aired at an inconclusive, sometimes rancorous, synod of bishops in October-November 2014. They will be revisited when senior clerics re-assemble in Vatican City this October.
Francis, the first pope to hail from Latin America, is regarded by most of the world as having been a huge success in his two years at the helm of the Church. His easy charm, decisive approach to issues such as paedophile priests and his pleas for a more merciful and worldly approach on questions like homosexuality and divorce have endeared him to a much broader public than his conservative, dour predecessor Benedict XVI could reach.
Once again, this is supposed to be a news piece, as opposed to a work of analysis. Yet it rolls on and on, with paragraph after paragraph of unattributed material. At one point, "conservative theologians" are quoted simply as "they," as in:
They fear his populism may provide cover for an edging away from long-established doctrinal stances, especially on the issues at the centre of the synods on the family.
Yes, "What is this?"
Now, there is another issue at play here, one that has received attention from veteran journalists (think John L. Allen, Jr., at Crux) and a few websites. The bottom line: These two popes have very different public styles (Big Ben is apparently much more formal in public than in private), but there has been little difference of substance on doctrinal matters (yes, as opposed to liturgical matters). Pope Francis is, for example, constantly quoting the pope emeritus -- even when making observations that some journalists think are very, very, Francis-like.
Thus, I will share a piece of my "On Religion" column tribute to some of the Benedict vs. Francis materials found online these days.
The goal: Name that pope.
Start with this quotation: "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion."
Name that pope: That's Pope Francis, believe it or not.
Round two: "It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church's pastors wherever it occurs."
Name that pope: That's Pope Benedict XVI.
Round three: "If we refuse to share what we have with the hungry and the poor, we make of our possessions a false god. How many voices in our materialist society tell us that happiness is to be found by acquiring as many possessions and luxuries as we can! ... Instead of bringing life, they bring death."
Name that pope: Benedict, again.
Round four: "Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. ... Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church's effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. ... It is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life."
Name that pope: Francis, of course.
So, Catholic readers and Godbeat pros: Have you noted any similar examples of highly editorial language being used to describe these two popes? Please share your "What is this?" moments in our comments pages.