Extraordinary Synod

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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New York Times pre-thumbsucker on Francis and family COULD be ... what?

New York Times pre-thumbsucker on Francis and family COULD be ... what?

So, journalists and news consumers, how do you feel about newspaper headlines published before major events that pivot on the word "could"?

As the clock ticks toward the family synods document by Pope Francis, journalists are rushing -- in what are often billed as news stories, as opposed to editorial commentary -- to tell readers all about the blockbuster doctrinal revelations that COULD be in the document.

Take this New York Times headline, for example: "How Pope Francis’ ‘Amoris Laetitia’ Could Affect Families and the Church."

In what could be an important moment for his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is scheduled to issue a major document on Friday regarding family issues. It is titled “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love.”
In the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, the pope could change church practice on thorny subjects like whether divorced Catholics who remarry without having obtained annulments can receive holy communion. He might address debates over same-sex relationships, cohabitation and polygamy, an issue in Africa. Or, he could sidestep such divisive topics and stick to broader philosophical statements.

For those who are paying close attention, that would be "could," "could, "might" and "could."

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Got news? So this powerful cardinal claims he helped oust Benedict and elect Francis

Got news? So this powerful cardinal claims he helped oust Benedict and elect Francis

As Pope Francis-mania rolls into its final hours in the Acela zone, The National Catholic Register -- part of the Eternal Word Television Network operation -- has tossed a genuinely unsettling story into the news mix, along with its stack of glowing papal news reports. This shocker contains one or two crucial facts that cannot be denied, yet ultimately stands on the word of one very controversial cardinal.

The problem is that this cardinal has very little incentive, at this moment in time, to making an outrageous claim -- that he was part of an organized coup that all but forced Pope Benedict XVI to resign. The goal of the coup was to elect the man who became Pope Francis.

So, we have one of those "Got news?" stories that jumps straight into, you got it, conservative social media and news -- alone. The question is whether a similar story linked to a less popular pope would have, because of the timing, received major play in the American mainstream press. 

Here's the top of the National Catholic Register report by Edward Pentin, which apparently echoes coverage in La Stampa in the Italy. Read carefully. You are looking for the one word, and one word alone, that should matter to mainstream reporters evaluating this material:

Further serious concerns are being raised about Cardinal Godfried Danneels, one of the papal delegates chosen to attend the upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family, after the archbishop emeritus of Brussels confessed this week to being part of a radical "mafia" reformist group opposed to Benedict XVI.
It was also revealed this week that he once wrote a letter to the Belgium government favoring same-sex "marriage" legislation because it ended discrimination against LGBT groups.

A quick comment: Passive voice in two straight paragraphs is NOT how a reporter builds credibility with savvy readers. But read on:

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USA Today recycles that out-of-context Chaput quote and other pope riffs

USA Today recycles that out-of-context Chaput quote and other pope riffs

Oh great. Here we go again, back into the media debates about whether the archbishop of Philadelphia really said, during a speech in New York City (full video here), that Pope Francis was working with Satan to destroy the Catholic Church.

So, once again, what did Archbishop Charles Chaput actually say? Back to the transcript:

Audience member: I would be very grateful for your comments on the recent Synod on the Family in Rome.
Chaput: Well, first of all, I wasn’t there. That’s very significant, because to claim you know what really happened when you weren’t there is foolish. To get your information from the press is a mistake because they don’t know well enough how to understand it so they can tell people what happened. I don’t think the press deliberately distorts, they just don’t have any background to be able to evaluate things. In some cases they’re certainly the enemy and they want to distort the Church.
Now, having said all that, I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.

So, who did he say caused the confusion in the "public image" of the synod and its work?

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Francis's feast is media's famine: Key detail omitted from coverage of Vatican wedding

Francis's feast is media's famine: Key detail omitted from coverage of Vatican wedding

In the media's rush to draw conclusions from the mass wedding at the Vatican last Sunday, where some of the couples being wed had been cohabiting, one point seems to have been overlooked by nearly everyone: Pope Francis's choice of date for the nuptials.

On the Catholic calendar, the Church is currently in the midst of what is called ordinary time. During all of this July, August, and September, there is only one Sunday in which a feast takes precedence over the normal Sunday liturgy.

Pope Francis had his pick of Sundays to preside over the mass wedding, and he chose that very Sunday. It would seem, then, that he wished that the couples would, from then on, remember that feast every year as the one upon which they were married. There is something about the nature of that feast that Pope Francis wanted the couples to associate with their vows.

What feast was it? The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

I believe the pope's choice of date is significant. Currently the media is abuzz with speculation concerning the upcoming Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, particularly with regard to a push among certain cardinals to permit Holy Communion for civilly divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Much of the debate concerns the question of how much the Church should expect members of the faithful to sacrifice. This was also an issue at the time of the contraception debate during the 1960s. At that time, those favoring relaxation of doctrine argued that it was simply too difficult for Catholic couples to follow the Church's ban on artificial methods of birth control. Pope Paul VI responded with Humanae Vitae, in which he quoted Jesus' words in Matthew 7:14: "the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life."

Perhaps Francis is indicating a similar attitude to that of Paul VI by officiating at the mass wedding on the feast marking Jesus' self-sacrificial outpouring, and by making the Cross the center of his homily.

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