Cardinal Raymond Burke

Your weekend think piece: Darth Bannon making earth move inside Vatican? Crux says look again

Your weekend think piece: Darth Bannon making earth move inside Vatican? Crux says look again

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.

The headline: "A dose of reality about the Steve Bannon/Cardinal Burke axis."

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.

I noted:

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!

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Looking for on-the-record Vatican voices in the New York Times shocker about Darth Bannon

Looking for on-the-record Vatican voices in the New York Times shocker about Darth Bannon

It would be hard to imagine a subject more intriguing to some editors at The New York Times than suggestions that the Darth Vader of the Donald Trump administration -- that would be Stephen K. Bannon -- was somehow working with forces close to the Vatican to undercut Pope Francis.

Thus, there has been quite a bit of online buzz about the rather BuzzFeed like feature (in terms of its sourcing) that Times editors ran under the headline, "Steve Bannon Carries Battles to Another Influential Hub: The Vatican." 

Catholic insiders -- on the left and right -- will be able to see more in the thin tea leaves of this piece than I can. I am primarily interested in journalism issues linked to how the piece was reported and presented. The bottom line: It is very rare to see such sweeping, conspiratorial language used in a news feature that -- on its key points of fact -- appears to have one crucial named source, other than quotes from other journalists. Hold that thought.

The intrigue, as you would expect, starts right where it should -- in the overture.

ROME -- When Stephen K. Bannon was still heading Breitbart News, he went to the Vatican to cover the canonization of John Paul II and make some friends. High on his list of people to meet was an archconservative American cardinal, Raymond Burke, who had openly clashed with Pope Francis.
In one of the cardinal’s antechambers, amid religious statues and book-lined walls, Cardinal Burke and Mr. Bannon -- who is now President Trump’s anti-establishment eminence -- bonded over their shared worldview. They saw Islam as threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values, and viewed themselves as unjustly ostracized by out-of-touch political elites.
“When you recognize someone who has sacrificed in order to remain true to his principles and who is fighting the same kind of battles in the cultural arena, in a different section of the battlefield, I’m not surprised there is a meeting of hearts,” said Benjamin Harnwell, a confidant of Cardinal Burke who arranged the 2014 meeting.

Harnwell appears to be the main source for this entire story. He is founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a foundation that -- as the Times piece notes -- is currently displaying prominent images of Bannon, linked to quotations praising Harnwell.

The timing of the meeting is fascinating and, for journalists, a bit problematic.

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Vatican conservatives rebel against Pope Francis, the pope hailed by news media

Vatican conservatives rebel against Pope Francis, the pope hailed by news media

Haven't we read this Washington Post story before? Every few months, someone big in the mainstream press writes this same basic story.

A quick summary: Conservatives hate Pope Francis because he is the liberal that we -- as in the mainstream press -- say he is, even though, dang it, he hasn't actually changed any of the loathsome doctrines that we think are so terrible. But we love this pope's quips, as opposed to his actual sermons and writings, and we'll keep printing those quotes over and over. Oh, and if your don't like the version of Pope Francis that we're describing, then you oppose this pope.

Or words to that effect. But the key is that conservatives inside the Vatican are planning a revolt of some kind. We know this because some of them are talking about "confusion" in the church, confusion that -- this is crucial -- has nothing to do with the media's consistent portrayal of the pope as a heroic liberal seeking doctrinal reform, although he hasn't changed any yet. And why does the pope keep urging everyone to go to confession? Doesn't Francis know that no one goes to confession anymore, because that would imply that sin is real?

The latest version of this parable, in The Washington Post, opens with a Vatican City anecdote in which the uber-conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke "appeared" -- no one actually heard the exchange -- to have reminded the pope that papal powers to change doctrine are limited.

Gasp. Someone arguing with a Jesuit? I have never heard of such a thing.

Burke’s words belied a growing sense of alarm among strict conservatives, exposing what is fast emerging as a culture war over Francis’s papacy and the powerful hierarchy that governs the Roman Catholic Church.

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RNS story on Burke's feminism comments is laced with snark

RNS story on Burke's feminism comments is laced with snark

If you were to ask me the easiest part of writing for GetReligion, I would say it is coming up with items for "What is this?" --  the label we give to stories that are presented as hard news, but are so biased as to be indistinguishable from commentary. 

Religion News Service, which lately has unfortunately become a reliable source for "What is this?" items, presents another example of the genre with "Cardinal Raymond Burke: ‘Feminized’ church and altar girls caused priest shortage." The story's facts are straight, but the language is charged in such a way that it manipulates the reader into making negative conclusions about the cardinal. 

Understand, I am not denying that many readers could take offense at the cardinal's comments. Personally, I'm with Madeleine Teahan of the U.K. Catholic Herald, who notes the disconnect between his identifying discipline and strength as "manly" qualities while painting men as passive victims of feminists. But if I wanted a commentary on Burke's interview, I would read a story in the "commentary" section of the news outlet (as is Teahan's). RNS, however, markets its piece under the news label (though it did in fact run a commentary on Burke's interview as well; more on that in a moment). 

The first two paragraphs of the story are factual, though there are the little digs that Catholics have grown accustomed to seeing in stories about Burke:

(RNS) Cardinal Raymond Burke, a senior American churchman in Rome who has been one of the most outspoken critics of Pope Francis’ push for reform, is roiling the waters yet again, this time arguing that the Catholic Church has become too “feminized.”
Burke, who was recently demoted from the Vatican’s highest court to a ceremonial philanthropic post, also pointed to the introduction of altar girls for why fewer men are joining the priesthood.

Right away, Burke is set in opposition to Pope Francis, who has "demoted" him. Readers are prepared to dislike him before they even read his comments.

 Then the comments come:

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Keep saying this: Politics is all that matters, even when covering Pope Francis

Keep saying this: Politics is all that matters, even when covering Pope Francis

I'm sorry, but it's "Kellerism" time again.

So soon? I am afraid so. This time, the virus hit The Politico in a rare news-feature venture by that politics-equals-life journal into the world of religion news.

The subject, of course, is the political impact of Pope Francis and why he will be good for the Democrats or, at the very least, why he will not have a positive impact on the work of conservative Catholics who in recent decades have pretty much been forced to vote for Republicans.

The double-decker headline says analysis piece from the get-go, even though the piece is not marked as analysis or advocacy journalism: 

How Will the Pope Play in 2016?
Francis’s softer brand of Catholicism kept his bishops out of the midterms -- and they’re likely to tone down their message next time too.

First, if you need some background info on retired New York Times editor Bill Keller and the statements in which he promulgated the "Kellerism" doctrines,  click here.  The key is that "Kellerism" journalism argues that there is no need to be balanced and fair in coverage of news about religion and culture, since urban, sophisticated journalists already know who is in the right on those kinds of issues.

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Fox News tries its hand at Vatican watching

Fox News tries its hand at Vatican watching

Fox News has waded into the murky waters of Catholic news analysis, seeking to explain to its viewers (and readers on its website) the church's battles over liberalizing its moral teachings.

It is encouraging to see a secular news outfit address these issues. Fox understands that these issues are of interest to its viewers. The conservative demographic that is the core of its viewership is also likely to find favor with the opinions proffered. Yet, the fulcrum of the argument in this piece is based upon an erroneous supposition.

The story entitled “Cardinal's demotion helps Pope Francis quell 'conservative backlash' -- for now” is founded on the notion that Cardinal Raymond Burke was dismissed from his post as prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura as a consequence of his vocal opposition to calls for a change in church teaching backed by Pope Francis at the recent Synod on the Family. 

Fox posits a cause and effect, but its theory is not supported by the facts.

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