Here is a rather simple test for reporters with experience on the religion beat.
In terms of Catholic tradition, which of the following two forms of communication by Pope Francis has the greater level of authority?
* A formal papal encyclical distributed by the Vatican.
* A comment made during an informal airplane press conference, as Shepherd One flies back to Rome after an overseas trip.
Like I said, it isn't a tough question if one knows anything about the papacy.
Ah, but how about the content of an off-the-cuff Pope Francis one-liner about abortion, "culture wars" and politics? Do those words have more authority, less authority or the same level of authority as a a papal address, using a carefully prepared manuscript, delivered to an Italian conference for Catholic doctors focusing on the sanctity of human life?
That's a tougher one. I would argue that the papal address had more authority than the one-liner. However, if one uses an online search engine to explore press coverage of these kinds of issues -- in terms of gallons of digital ink -- you'll quickly learn that I am part of a small minority on that matter.
Now, I was talking about religion-beat pros. What happens when political editors and reporters try to handle issues of papal authority, when covering tensions and changes in today's Catholic church? Frankly, I think things get screwed up more often than not under those circumstances. But, well, who am I to judge?
If consistent, logical, dare I say "accurate" answers to these kinds of journalistic questions are important to you, then you need to read a new essay -- "Pope Francis and the media’s ongoing fallibility" -- posted by The Media Project. The author is veteran New York City journalist Clemente Lisi, who is now my colleague on the journalism faculty at The King's College in lower Manhattan.
Here's some material gathered from the top of this piece:
Did you hear what Pope Francis said about (fill in the blank)? ...
One of my tasks while working as an editor at the New York Daily News as recently as last year was to scour the wire services -- primarily The Associated Press and Reuters -- each morning to see whether Pope Francis had “made news.” He usually had. Whether it was about economics, climate change or immigration, Pope Francis often came through on Sundays and during holidays, something reporters commonly refer to as “slow news days.”
The biggest confusion amid all this press coverage is the notion of papal infallibility regarding what the pontiff says in public. Both Catholics and non-Catholics typically have a warped sense of what it means. Those in the media have an even more confused notion.
Papal infallibility, unlike what the mainstream media would have you believe, is not every time the pope opens his mouth.
Take those papal remarks about, readers everywhere were told, the immigration policy and the state of Donald Trump's soul. Could the term "papal infallibility" be applied to that case?
I believe the correct answer is, "Non modo."
The bottom line, after Lisi walks journalists through some strategic pieces of church lingo -- such as ex cathedra -- is this:
Not all papal statements are created equal. What the pope writes in an encyclical has one degree of importance as does what he says to crowds in St. Peter’s Square. Both carry a lot more weight than the soundbite you saw on CNN, but none of them should be considered infallible.
Later, Lisi adds:
My experience in major newsrooms in New York, both large newspapers and at a major TV news network, showed me that few of my colleagues understood the intricacies of the pope’s duties. Nonetheless, these very people were often tasked with having to explain to millions that very thing or weigh the importance of such comments. Very few news articles bother to include an explanation of papal infallibility. There needs to be an honest discussion regarding infallibility during news coverage regarding the pope. Not everything the pope says is heaven-sent wisdom. Unfortunately, most of these newsrooms lack the budgets to have a religion reporter on staff or the open-mindedness to hire people of faith to work for them.
Read those last lines again. You can see why I think that GetReligion readers need to click here and read it all.