New York Times trips on pope's 'Lord's Prayer' story, but Houston Chronicle recovers

If it is possible to be simultaneously perceptive and as dense as odium, which I believe is the most dense material on the planet, then The New York Times is our winner.

Someone decided to head a report on something Pope Francis is thinking about in this manner: "Lost in Translation? Pope Ponders an Update to Lord’s Prayer." Yes, the word "update" appears in the first paragraph, too, but I wonder if it's the right word to use.

More on that in just a moment. Meanwhile, take in the opening of this story:

ROME -- It has been a question of theological debate and liturgical interpretation for years, and now Pope Francis has joined the discussion: Does the Lord’s Prayer, Christendom’s resonant petition to the Almighty, need an update?
In a new television interview, Pope Francis said the common rendering of one line in the prayer -- “lead us not into temptation” -- was “not a good translation” from ancient texts. “Do not let us fall into temptation,” he suggested, might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does.
“A father doesn’t do that,” the pope said. “He helps you get up right away. What induces into temptation is Satan.”
In essence, the pope said, the prayer, from the Book of Matthew, is asking God, “When Satan leads us into temptation, You please, give me a hand.”

My first journalism problem is that word "update." We are, after all, talking about the meaning of words taken from scripture, words ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth, no less. I'm not at all certain the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is into "updating" Scripture.

It may seem like a minor point, but words do matter. What I believe the pope is suggesting is perhaps a revised translation, but that's not an update, is it? Is the actual issue a matter of translation?

Writing at the Crux website, veteran Vatican journalist John L. Allen, Jr., is more charitable than your humble correspondent, asking: "Can we give reporters a break on the pope and the Lord’s Prayer?" It's worth your taking the time to read the whole item. Here's an excerpt:

In a nutshell, Francis commented on the line “lead us not into temptation” in the English version of the prayer, saying he doesn’t care for it. Here’s a sampling of the headlines we saw from major secular news outlets:
• “Pope Francis suggests rewording the Lord’s Prayer” (Los Angeles Times)
• “Pope Francis proposes change to the Lord’s Prayer” (New York Daily News)
• “Pope Francis calls for Lord’s Prayer to be changed” (The Independent)
Anyone who knows the score would look at those headlines and let loose a sigh of despair. (What they do next is a sort of personality test -- most of us would just shrug and move on, but a cranky few would start firing off snarky tweets.)
The problem, of course, is that each of those headlines is fundamentally inaccurate. This pope, and almost certainly no pope ever, would propose changing a prayer that comes from Jesus himself and is at the very core of the Christian faith.

I herewith plead guilty to being "cranky." And to also unleashing snark here. But crankiness aside, I'll repeat: words matter. Allen notes this, and you might wish to, as well.

The other journalism issue that pops up is that with the names of three New York Times reporters atop the story and four more Times-persons as having "contributed reporting" to the piece, the only reactions we get are from either Catholic pundits or -- wait for it! -- one Southern Baptist:

Some conservative evangelicals were also quick to respond.
“I was shocked and appalled,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a phone interview. “This is the Lord’s Prayer. It is not, and has never been, the pope’s prayer, and we have the very words of Jesus in the New Testament. It is those very words that the pope proposes to change. It is not only deeply problematic, it’s almost breathtaking.”

Does someone mean to suggest that with a grand total of seven reporters, The New York Times couldn't find a single rank-and-file Catholic to comment on this? Manhattan is liberally dotted with Catholic parishes. Was there not one to which a Times reporter could go and get comments? Perhaps there was: St. Malachy's Church, known as The Actor's Chapel, is a Catholic outpost precisely half a mile from the Times' offices. Is that not close enough?

This kind of reportorial myopia isn't the kind of thing one expects from the nation's premier daily newspaper.

By contrast, the Houston Chronicle angled its coverage heavily towards the reaction of Space City residents: its piece has the comments of four -- count 'em! -- parishioners in its piece, "Houston-area Catholics ponder Lord's Prayer tweak proposed by Pope Francis." Two examples:

"People don't like change," said Donald Willams, a 40-year-old lifelong Catholic attending Holy Rosary Church near Midtown. "The religion has been around more than 2,000 years and to make such a drastic change in the prayer - something people like me have been saying since I was 3 years old - it's going to rock the church to the core, I think." ...
On Sunday morning, Nina Garcia, a 38-year-old Catholic who was born into the faith and attends the Catholic Charismatic Center near the University of Houston, said the proposed change seems like an improvement.
"I like the second wording better, it's more clear," she said.

Although the Chronicle article contained one glaring error -- saying the prayer was also known as "Our Lord's" instead of as the "Our Father" -- the reporter sounded an important note: they went after the local reaction, and from parishioners, not professional pundits.

For what it's worth, I believe "tweak" in the Texas headline is more accurate than "update," although, as they say, your mileage may vary.

My bottom line: The New York Times poured an amazing amount of resources into an interesting story, but failed to "bring it home" by not speaking with everyday Catholic lay people to gauge their reaction.

That's something one solitary reporter in Houston managed to do, and the Texas journalist deserves credit for committing an act of, yes, #Journalism.

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