Yes, Vatican 'Lettergate' story is complicated: Kudos to AP for getting the crucial details

Back when I was breaking into Godbeat work (soon after the cooling of the earth's crust), one of the first pros that I met was the late George Cornell of the Associated Press. I interviewed him for my graduate project ("The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets") at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and then we stayed in touch.

How hard was it to be the AP's religion guy in that era? Basically, he told me, his job was to cover all the religion news on planet earth, other than the Vatican (which was its own beat).

How would you like that task? Of course, our own Richard Ostling knows all about that, since he worked for the Associated Press after his era at Time magazine. However, he had some timely assistance from pros like Bobby Ross, Jr.

The bottom line: AP religion-beat specialists have a tough row to hoe. It's one thing to do good work. It's something else to do good work on complex stories when you're facing a global news storm almost every day, while working with wire-schedule realities in terms of time and space.

With that in mind, I would like to point readers toward Nicole Winfield's hard-news report on the "Lettergate" scandal at the Vatican, a very important story with multiple layers of politics, intrigue and theology. I kept waiting for a hole and, in the end, the only thing I had second thoughts about was what pieces of the puzzle went where. Here is the overture:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Stung by accusations of spreading “fake news,” the Vatican ... released the complete letter by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis after coming under blistering criticism for selectively citing it in a press release and digitally manipulating a photograph of it.
The previously hidden part of the letter provides the full explanation why Benedict refused to write a commentary on a new Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis’ theological and philosophical background that was released to mark his fifth anniversary as pope.
In addition to saying he didn’t have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project had launched “virulent,” ″anti-papist” attacks against his teaching and that of St. John Paul II. He said he was “surprised” the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume “The Theology of Pope Francis.”
“I’m certain you can understand why I’m declining,” Benedict wrote.

Whoa. So which angle of this story should get the most attention?

Well, the "fake news" angle -- the doctored photo -- is hotter than hot. At the same time, there are the growing tensions between Pope Francis and those (like Ross Douthat of The New York Times) who fear that, with vague winks and nods, he is letting his supporters blur important lines in centuries of Catholic moral theology.

Is Rome inching into Church of England territory? That's a hot story, too, and at the center of it all is this historic era with two popes -- one on the throne and one alive, and thinking, in semi-private.

Winfield -- kudos again -- wove these two angles together as long as possible. This next section is long, but essential.

The so-called “Lettergate” scandal has embarrassed the Vatican’s communications operations and fueled the growing chasm between supporters of Francis’ pastoral-focused papacy and conservatives who long for the doctrine-minded tenure of Benedict.
A Twitter hashtag #releasetheletter went viral among Catholic conservatives as the scandal widened.
The Secretariat for Communication, in particular, was accused of spreading “fake news” for having omitted key parts of Benedict’s letter and -- as The Associated Press reported -- digitally blurring a photograph of the document where Benedict started to explain why he wouldn’t comment on the book.
Photojournalism industry standards forbid such manipulation of a photo, especially if it alters the content and meaning of the image, as it did.
Many commentators noted the irony of accusations that the Vatican’s communications office was spreading “fake news,” since Francis dedicated his annual message for the church’s social communications day to fighting “fake news” and the distortion of information. Francis has frequently criticized journalists for only giving half of the story.

Will this story have legs? Well, Monsignor Dario Vigano -- head of the Vatican communications office -- just resigned. So as journalists like to say, "Stay tuned."

What angle of the story was pushed to the end?

No one will be surprised that the roots of this clash run back to Germany, where Catholic progressives are pressing for modernization of Catholic tactics on issues like divorce and gay marriage.

Benedict’s harsh criticism of German theologian Peter Huenermann, who penned one of the 11 books, laid bare the differences in theological approaches of the two popes. ... Huenermann ... has joined leading European progressive theologians since the 1980s in penning open letters attacking the policies of John Paul and Benedict.
Left unsaid is who was responsible for selecting Huenermann to write one of the 11 books in Francis’ anniversary anthology, given the author’s past attacks on the retired pope, who lives just across the Vatican gardens from Francis.

Yes, I would like to know more about the details of Huenermann's attacks on St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. However, one can only fit so much information into an AP story. This story handled the crucial details in a relatively short format. That's amazing enough. Bravo.

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