Pope Benedict XVI

While Catholic Twitter rages, Cardinal Sarah takes a sobering look at modern church

While Catholic Twitter rages, Cardinal Sarah takes a sobering look at modern church

The West is in spiritual decline.

The Catholic church is besieged by scandal.

Society has become more secular and less religious, a collapse that can be solved through prayer.

Those are some of the takeaways from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book “The Day is Now Far Spent,” in which he pulls no punches about what he thinks currently ails Europe, the place where Christianity once prospered. Sarah’s diagnosis for what ails the world, but primarily the West, is deeply profound — controversial to some even — and his solutions are equally noteworthy.

“Christians are trembling, wavering, doubting,” Sarah says in the 349-page book. “I want this book to be for them. To tell them: do not doubt! Hold fast to doctrine! Hold fast to prayer! I want this book to strengthen Christians and priests.”

This book is a major statement by a cardinal whose work on theology and liturgy was at the heart of the Pope Benedict XVI era. His voice is hard to ignore and, for journalists, represents an orthodox critique of current trends, but one with more clout than angry voices in the latest storm in Catholic Twitter.

The book, translated from French and released by Ignatius Press, does just that. Before he can offer hope, Sarah outlines what he calls “the crisis of faith.” In a series of interviews with French journalist Nicolas Diat, Sarah discusses how seeking salvation is something that has been lost these days.

“Doctrinal and moral confusion is reaching its height,” Sarah writes. “Evil is good, good is evil. Man no longer feels any need to be saved. The loss of the sense of salvation is the consequence of the loss of the transcendence of God.”  

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As Pope Benedict XVI re-enters the fray, experts take broad look at U.S. Catholicism

As Pope Benedict XVI re-enters the fray, experts take broad look at U.S. Catholicism

Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden emergence from the cloister may well prove to be the religion story of the year.

The media speculated on how things would work six years ago when Benedict broke precedent to abdicate instead of serving as pope till death, to be  succeeded by Pope Francis. Benedict largely maintained silence, lest Catholics think they had two popes. That period ended with a flash last week when conservative Catholic outlets released Benedict’s remarkable 6,000-word  analysis of the Catholic Church’s unrelenting scandals over priests’ sexual abuse of underage victims.

Benedict, who said he cleared the publication with Pope Francis, evidently felt he must plunge into the debate because he thinks the reigning pontiff’s February summit meeting on the sexual-abuse crisis was a flop and the church has not solved this severe and enervating crisis (nor did it when Benedict himself was in charge). Media on both the Catholic right and left said Benedict and his allies are setting up a  clash with his more liberal successor on the causes and cures of the scandal. 

Benedict sees alienation from God as the heart of the matter, with relaxed attitudes toward sin and sex from secular culture that infiltrated the priesthood from secular culture, while “homosexual cliques … significantly changed the climate” in seminaries.

Meanwhile, Francis and his allies stress the need for internal structural reforms in the church. (For what it’s worth, The Guy suspects both pontiffs are correct on the Catholic emergency.)    

What should reporters be doing in the wake of Francis’s summit,  Benedict’s breakout, and ongoing news?

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Friday Five: Pope emeritus news, Beto O'Rourke's holy dirt, Israel's election, religious press awards

Friday Five: Pope emeritus news, Beto O'Rourke's holy dirt, Israel's election, religious press awards

If you’ve read GetReligion for any length of time, you know we advocate fair, balanced journalism that strives to show respect for believers on both sides of hot-button debates.

Occasionally, we feel like nobody respects the American model of the press anymore.

So I was pleased this week to read an interview with a college newspaper editor-to-be who stressed the importance of seeking comments from his university’s administrators. He said:

We’re not working for them; we’re working for the student body. We have to be brave and report on what’s happening, even if they don’t cooperate. But we should always give the chance to give their side of the story.

I was particularly pleased to read that interview because it was with my son Keaton, who will serve next school year as editor in chief of Oklahoma Christian University’s Talon. Before taking on that gig, he’ll intern this summer with The Oklahoman, the major daily here in Oklahoma City. But that’s enough dad bragging for one day!

Let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: GetReligion contributor Clemente Lisi delves into “How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis.”

Lisi’s timely post is, of course, tied to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI breaking “six years of relative silence with the release of an outspoken letter on the clergy sex abuse scandal,” as NPR characterizes it.

It took awhile for the mainstream press coverage of this document to arrive, so GetReligion will keep paying attention to that. Meanwhile, see additional coverage from the National Catholic Reporter, BBC News and the Washington Post.

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Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

What we have here are two interesting stories, which appear to be connected by a bridge of New York Times paranoia. It’s that latest addition to a growing canon of work attempting to connect Donald Trump to a vast right-wing Catholic conspiracy to bring down the compassionate, progressive Pope Francis.

The first story is a legitimate profile of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, whose life has taken her from the heights of glitterati fame to where she is now — a Catholic philanthropist with very conservative Catholic beliefs and a willingness to work with the rich and the poor.

The second story is — brace yourself — about Stephen K. Bannon and his ongoing efforts to promote his own power and prestige, primarily by spinning conspiracy theories that make cultural progressives go nuts. (Click here for a GetReligion post about a previous chapter in this drama and here for another.)

That leads us to the New York Times opus with this headline: “The ‘It’ ’80s Party Girl Is Now a Defender of the Catholic Faith.”

This is a story that I would think made Bannon very, very happy.

At the same time, it is a story in which Princess Gloria makes one or two comments about Bannon, but then basically shows herself to be a conservative Catholic who greatly admires the now retired Pope Benedict XVI. Yes, the does have questions about some of the actions of Pope Francis and, yes, she admires Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. You know what that means in mainstream press circles.

Let’s tiptoe into this, looking at the key summary statement and, then, the statement of Gray Lady theology that frames this whole two-stories-in-one train wreck.

Princess Gloria — once christened “Princess TNT” for her explosive years as a hard partying, art-collecting, punk-haired aristocrat — has grown into the sun queen around which many traditionalist Roman Catholics opposed to Pope Francis orbit. Her Regensburg castle is a potential “Gladiator School” for conservative Catholics on a crusade to preserve church traditions.

Her Roman palace overlooking the ancient forum is a preferred salon for opposition cardinals, bitter bishops and populists like Stephen K. Bannon. Many of them are hoping to use the sex abuse crisis that amounts to the greatest existential threat to the church in centuries to topple the 81-year-old pontiff, who they are convinced is destroying the faith.

Now, for that blast of Times theology. The key is that the following shows, once again, that the journalism issue here is NOT an anti-religious bias. No, the key to this piece of advocacy journalism is that there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and that the Times team gets to decide who is who.

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CNN thinks about some of the strategic silences in comments by the two popes in Rome

CNN thinks about some of the strategic silences in comments by the two popes in Rome

Here is an understatement: Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have certainly given journalists a lot to think about in the past year or so.

They have both made news with what they have said or written.

Both have also made headlines with what they have declined to say, with the questions they have refused to answer. Pope Francis? Click here. Pope Emeritus Benedict? Click here. Yes, a lot of this has to do with the life and affairs of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Now, Daniel Burke of CNN has taken those silences into think piece land: “The silent Popes: Why Francis and Benedict won't answer the accusations dividing their church.”

The overture is long, long, long and opens up all kinds of doors that journalists are thinking about right now:

(CNN) One rarely leaves his monastery high on a hill in Vatican City. The other speaks freely -- too freely, critics say -- but has vowed silence on this matter, for now.

Two men, both clad in white, both called Holy Father, and now, both facing questions about a crucial facet of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis: What did they know, and when?

Amid the onslaught of news about the scandal, it can be easy to overlook the historical novelty and high drama of this moment in the life of the church: For the first time in 600 years, there are two living popes, one retired and one active, whose fates may be intertwined, even as many of their followers are at odds.

It has been nearly a month since a former papal diplomat published a dramatic letter asserting a "homosexual networks" and widespread cover-ups within the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

The diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, demanded that Pope Francis resign for allegedly lifting sanctions that his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, had placed on an American cardinal accused of sexual misconduct.

Whether those sanctions actually existed is a question that Francis and Benedict seem uniquely qualified to answer. But neither the 91-year-old German scholar, nor the 81-year-old Argentine Jesuit has said a word about them.

Supporters of both popes cast their silence in spiritual terms, forms of discipline and faith that truth will be revealed, eventually. Others say Benedict and Francis are loath to descend into a mudslinging fight with a former employee. Some wonder if more mundane strategies may be at work, too, such as self-preservation.

Yes, this piece mentions McCarrick. It also contains the word “seminarians,” a subject that has been avoided by many mainstream reporters.

Burke makes it clear that some Catholics are mad at Francis. Some are mad at Benedict. Some are mad at both popes, for different reasons.

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New York Times offers bizarre twist on Benedict XVI letters, while Crux sticks to the facts

New York Times offers bizarre twist on Benedict XVI letters, while Crux sticks to the facts

So here is the journalism question I offer to you today: What does a letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI written on Nov. 23, 2017, have to do with the written testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, which exploded into public view at the end of August, 2018?

If you look at this as a matter of logic, the answer is clear: Nothing.

Well, I guess one could argue that Benedict could have had a prophetic vision of what Vigano was going to do. But I think that’s a bit of a stretch. How about you?

Anyway, in this case it really helps to report the contents of the Benedict letter and look for the news contained therein.

That’s what the team at Crux did, under this recent headline: “Benedict XVI hits back at critics in leaked letters.” Note: The retired pope is speaking to his own critics.

Now hold that thought, while we look at the amazing and bizarre New York Times report about the same Benedict letters. The headline proclaimed: “In Private Letters, Benedict Rebukes Critics of Pope Francis.”

You see, everything has to be about conservative Catholics attacking Pope Francis. Got that? Here is the overture, which opens with — you got it — the Vigano letter:

ROME — The remarkable letter last month calling on Pope Francis to resign for allegedly shielding an abusive American cardinal also served as a public call to arms for some conservative Catholics who pine for the pontificate of the previous pope, Benedict XVI. For years now, they have carried his name like a battle standard into the ideological trenches.

Benedict apparently would like them to knock it off.

In private letters published on Thursday by the German newspaper Bild, Benedict, who in retirement has remained studiously quiet through the controversies over Francis’ fitness to lead the church, says that the “anger” expressed by some of his staunchest defenders risks tarnishing his own pontificate.

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Good news and bad news: The role of online journalism in the Catholic sex-abuse scandal

Good news and bad news: The role of online journalism in the Catholic sex-abuse scandal

“Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.”

Those words by Saint Catherine of Siena appear most fitting this summer as the Catholic Church in the United States grapples with allegations of widespread sex abuse by priests going back several decades.  

In July, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after it was revealed that the 88-year-old former head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., had allegedly abused a teenage boy for years starting in 1969. It was also made public that McCarrick had been accused in three other sexual assault cases involving seminarians.  

Last month, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a shocking report filled with decades of allegations regarding sexual abuses by clerics with children and teenagers — and cover-ups by bishops — that reopened a wound within the church regarding pedophilia and homosexuality among the clergy. It also sparked debate for reform regarding whether priests should be allowed to marry like clergy in other Christian denominations.  

The incidents came on the heels of sex-abuse scandals that rocked the church in Chile and Australia.

If that wasn’t enough, a whistleblower named Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released an 11-page letter (full text here) on August 25 describing a series of events in which the Vatican — and specifically Pope Francis —  had been made aware of McCarrick’s immoral behavior years ago.

Vigano claimed Pope Benedict XVI had placed restrictions on McCarrick, including not allowing him to say Mass in public. Vigano alleges Pope Francis reversed those sanctions. In the letter, Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the United States, said Francis “knew from at least June 23, 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator. He knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.” 

Unlike in 2002 — when an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by prelates never reported to civil authorities — accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church these days are mixed with sacred and secular politics.

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Framing Pope Benedict XVI: What, pray tell, is the opposite of a Catholic 'reformer'?

Framing Pope Benedict XVI: What, pray tell, is the opposite of a Catholic 'reformer'?

At the moment, Catholic leaders and news consumers are in a kind of holding pattern during the crisis linked to the life and career of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Everyone is waiting to see if Rome's current strategy -- silence at the Vatican and the slammed doors (metaphorically speaking) in most Catholic offices -- is going to work. Will it inspire journalists to dig deeper or will pros in elite newsrooms retreat, since many may not want to hurt progressive Catholics (who are on the right side of history, after all)? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the coverage has slowed down a little, with most stories focusing on the kinds of background details that frustrate editors yet keep the chess match alive.

Take, for example, the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: "Pope Benedict, in retired seclusion, looms in the opposition to Pope Francis."

The old news is that there are currently two popes and this could -- repeat COULD -- change games of Vatican chess. More old news: The retired pope has, once again, remained silent. The potential news there? What does Benedict's silence mean, in light of the public testimony offered by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano? Inquiring minds want to know, and all that.

The answer to that question is certainly above my pay grade and, besides, this Post piece does a decent job exploring some of the theories linked to Benedict. No, what struck me about this feature is that it is a perfect example of what your GetReligionistas call the "frame game." Early on, big issues that loom in the background are framed in such a way that the whole editorial product leans to one side. Pay close attention to this crucial section:

Although many people hoped to hear from Benedict amid new allegations that a coverup of sexual misconduct reached the highest levels of the church, he has established that an ex-pope should maintain a vow of silence about church matters — even during crises and even though he is particularly well positioned to affirm or knock down the accusations.

Some Vatican watchers and insiders say the mere fact of Benedict’s 2013 abdication has made the modern papacy more vulnerable, emboldening voices of dissent. They say it’s hard to imagine a letter like the one released last week by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, provoking Pope Francis with a call to resign, without Benedict having created the possibility that modern popes might give up their seats before death.

Wait for it.

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Pope Francis speaks out on Catholic world's biggest story: No biggie, saith the press

Pope Francis speaks out on Catholic world's biggest story: No biggie, saith the press

The nearly 900-page Pennsylvania grand-jury report (.pdf here) about clergy sexual abuse cases contains all kinds of quotes that challenge notions about what journalists can or cannot include in news stories.

But journalists who have worked on this story for decades already knew that would be the case.

However, there is another passage in this secular document that bluntly addresses another side of this journalism puzzle. Thus, two questions: What words do we include in news reports? Do we speak clearly or do we allow parts of this subject to remain hidden in fog? We wrestled with these questions during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Here is the crucial statement that I'm talking about, in the grand-jury report. It focuses on the methods that many Catholic leaders uses to hide these crimes:

The strategies were so common that they were susceptible to behavioral analysis by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For our benefit, the FBI agreed to assign members of its National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime to review a significant portion of the evidence received by the grand jury. Special agents testified before us that they had identified a series of practices that regularly appeared, in various configurations, in the diocesan files they had analyzed. It’s like a playbook for concealing the truth:

First, make sure to use euphemisms rather than real words to describe the sexual assaults in diocese documents. Never say “rape”; say “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.”

This leads us to an interesting story from this past week, as in the letter from Pope Francis that addressed the Pennsylvania report. This letter received way less coverage than I expected. Hold that thought.

One of the things that I like to do, when reading documents of this kind, is call up the full text and then run some computer searches to see what terms the text contains and what terms are missing.

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