In another example of the Catholic-beat team at Crux offering some timely media criticism, the omnipresent John L. Allen, Jr., has produced a follow-up analysis about that the highly symbolic media storm surrounding White House mastermind Stephen "Darth" Bannon and his alleged campaign to undercut Pope Francis.
My original piece on this controversy -- "Looking for on-the-record Vatican voices in the New York Times shocker about Darth Bannon" -- focused on journalism issues in this case, in particular the lack of actual inside-the-Vatican voices about this giant inside-the-Vatican political conspiracy. Here is the thesis statement from the Times piece, followed by a quick replay of my concerns:
Just as Mr. Bannon has connected with far-right parties threatening to topple governments throughout Western Europe, he has also made common cause with elements in the Roman Catholic Church who oppose the direction Francis is taking them. Many share Mr. Bannon’s suspicion of Pope Francis as a dangerously misguided, and probably socialist, pontiff.
The key word is "many," as in "many" sources inside the structures of the Catholic Church.
Later, the Times team adds, making that "many" claim once again:
For many of the pope’s ideological opponents in and around the Vatican, who are fearful of a pontiff they consider outwardly avuncular but internally a ruthless wielder of absolute political power, this angry moment in history is an opportunity to derail what they see as a disastrous papal agenda.
Obviously, Trump is a strange hero for Catholics who really sweat the details in moral theology. Now -- other than one think-tank voice with ties to Cardinal Raymond Burke -- one searches in vain for concrete sources for the information on this story, let alone "many" sources inside the halls of Vatican power.
In his analysis essay, Allen is reacting to the waves of media commentary about the Times piece, very few of which did anything in the way of adding factual information about this alleged drama. It was enough that the Times printed what it printed. That means it's all true. Carry on!
Allen makes a number of points, some of which are linked to the journalism mechanics (and ethics) issues that drove my post. Let's start with this:
First, so far as we know, there has only been one face-to-face encounter between Bannon and Burke, which came before Trump’s election and even before the release of Pope Francis’s controversial document Amoris Laetitia … in other words, before the raw material of any potential alliance was actually in place.
Amen. As I noted in my piece, the timeline for this conspiracy was flawed from the start. Have Times editors a correction on that error?
Let's read one more very interesting point. I confess that I know next to nothing about inside-baseball Vatican affairs. Allen, however, has the experience necessary to make this rather complicated point:
Second, there’s no clear evidence Bannon and Burke have become BFFs, beyond a suggestion from Ben Harnwell, the Rome-based head of a conservative group called the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, that they’ve kept in contact.
Even if the two men do occasionally swap emails, in itself there would be nothing extraordinary about it. I’ve covered the Vatican for twenty years, watching scores of American politicians wash through Rome, all hoping to establish contacts - either because they see the Vatican as an important global player, or because they think there could be domestic political value to being seen as having Catholic friends in high places, or both.
American politicians tend to seek out the Vatican’s fellow Americans, first because many don’t speak other languages, and second, because those are the people they’re likely to know about. Generally they gravitate first to Americans they believe might share at least some of their views, which makes Bannon reaching out to Burke, whose combative rhetoric on Islam is well known, completely natural.
From a very different point of departure, Bernie Sanders did the same thing when he came to Rome, as have John Kerry, John Bolton, Newt Gingrich, and any number of others I’ve watched in action.
There's much more to read and ponder in this piece. By all means, check it out.
In the end, Allen notes that there doesn't seem to any significant evidence of an earthshaking conspiracy here. More than anything else, this media storm centered on people in Rome doing what people do when they are in Rome.
Bottom line: We don’t need a new “axis of evil” to account for what’s happening, simply the usual clash of competing ideologies and worldviews. That may not make anyone feel better, but it at least has the virtue of being closer to reality.
However, the Times piece was a massive hit in the community defined, in large part, by the worldview of the Times. Thus, several people sent your GetReligionistas links to this very interesting letter to the editor that the Times team decided to publish.
To the Editor:
Re “Vatican Traditionalists See Hero in Trump Aide” (front page, Feb. 7):
Stephen K. Bannon’s rendezvous with Cardinal Raymond Burke, Pope Francis’ harshest critic, and other Vatican conservatives may come as a surprise to many American Catholics. To those who have tracked Cardinal Burke’s attacks on Pope Francis, the collaboration makes perfect sense.
Since his election, Francis has worked to make the church more relevant: to refugees and immigrants, lapsed Catholics, the L.G.B.T. community, Muslims and other marginalized groups. Cardinal Burke and others have attacked the pope, publicly questioning his letter on the family, “Amoris Laetitia,” his warnings against unadulterated capitalism and his hope for the protection of the environment in “Laudato Si’.”
Mr. Bannon’s collaboration with these papal antagonists will only widen the disdain the Trump administration holds for the pope’s expansive views on embracing the poor, welcoming the refugee and building bridges, not walls, derived from the pope’s relationship with a higher authority.
THOMAS L. GALLAGHER
The writer is chief executive and publisher of the Religion News Service.
Oh, and there was this, too:
Correction: February 16, 2017
A letter on Wednesday about the Trump adviser Stephen Bannon and the Vatican misstated a word in the name of the letter writer’s organization. It is the Religion News Service (not Religious).
Worried about issues of Times sourcing, logic and even plausibility?
Not so much.