Saturday, April 12, 2008

An almost fanatical devotion to the pope

Where are you turning for your Papal Visit 2008 pregame coverage? For official information, you can turn to the USCCB, or to our very own archdiocese. If it's scuttlebutt you want, surely you've bookmarked Whispers in the Loggia. and those in the mood for commentary can try Beliefnet... Or, if you're of a more secular bent, you can try your luck with our mainstream-media friends. Here in town, the New York Times is offering "complete coverage." How are they doing so far? Well...

This morning I read this article ("Candles, Clergy, and Communion for 57,000," by Sewell Chan) about the preparations for BXVI's major public appearances in NYC, especially the mass at Yankee Stadium on April 20. I was mainly interested in the promised "Graphic: Communion at Yankee Stadium." What can I say, I'm a sucker for frivolous visual aids. (And my parish could certainly use a communion-distribution chart. They could publish it in the bulletin, for people to study while they're not putting anything in the collection baskets.)

Anyway, click on the jpeg to enlarge, scroll on down to the bottom and check out the delightful communion-wafer flow chart. you have to love that adorable little cartoon pope extending his cartoon hands over all those cartoon patens. But take a look at the text accompanying that image and see if you can spot this article's Major Error (you knew there would be one!). If you are now or ever have been Catholic, it won't take long... Everybody got it?
"During the public Mass, the pope will consecrate -- symbolically transubstantiate into the body of Christ -- about 26,000 wafers..."
Perfunctorily catechized eight year olds could tell you what's wrong with that sentence. For the non-Catholics (and journalists) now reading: "symbolically transubstantiate" is a total oxymoron (not to mention a heresy). If it's "symbolic," transubstantiation has not occurred. Either the substance has changed or it hasn't. On a purely logical level, you have to marvel at the absurdity of using a word like "transubstantiate" in a supposedly explanatory aside: if you know what "transubstantiate" means, you don't need the explanation, and if you need the mass explained to you, the word "transubstantiate" is not going to clear anything up. But on a fact-checking level: "symbolic"! My pre-Vatican II-Catholic-school-educated readers are all sitting on their hands right now, because the use of the word "symbolic" in connection with the Catholic eucharist has awakened a sense memory of zealous and ever-vigilant nuns who defended the faith with rulers when necessary. The whole point of the Catholic mass is that, once consecration happens, there's nothing "symbolic" about "The Body of Christ." (As Flannery O'Connor supposedly said, If it's just a symbol...)

Does the Times need to accept Catholic doctrine and present it as fact? Of course not. But the Times needs to be accurate, informative and objective. I can think of several ways that sentence could have been worded to make it accurate, informative and objective, but as it stands, it's none of the above.

I'm not promoting any conspiracy theories about the Times or the MSM being out to get Catholics, or religious people in general (since I'm sure Catholicism isn't the only system of belief that gets misrepresented on a regular basis). And I'm not trying to make a point about the Times's reputation as the Paper of Record, and whether it's deserved. I just know that when I read an article about any topic I know something about that gets a very basic fact very wrong, I despair a little bit. How many errors am I accepting without question in articles on subjects I know nothing about?

Earlier this week I spoke at length to a journalist from the Times who's writing an article about my parish (more of the papal-visit frenzy). Perhaps I shouldn't have jumped at the chance to be misquoted. This reporter let us know upfront that religion is not her usual beat, and I have no idea whether she's a practicing Catholic herself. But I figured I might as well give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she'll be at least as careful as the reporters who do cover religion regularly, and still make basic errors like the one noted above. (See also the recent article regarding the Pope's revision of the Tridentine-Rite Good Friday liturgy -- which referred to "Good Friday Mass." Correction later appended.) So I did my best not to say anything misleading, and crossed my fingers.

Also this week, the Times asked readers to submit questions about the pope's visit, some of which were then answered by their "national religion correspondent" and their "Rome bureau chief." The latter, Ian Fisher, fielded a question from "Paul S." about how he prepares for his duties: "How many of [the pope's] books have you read to familiarize yourself with his background and manner of addressing the world today? ...From what persons and sources have you sought clarification or insight into the mind of Pope Benedict? ...How many times have you attended [Benedict's semi-regular Wednesday] catechesis or reviewed the Wednesday sermon on the Vatican’s webpage?" The original question is much longer (and I think the original question posted online was longer still); Fisher interprets its tone as basically hostile (correctly, I suspect) and answers it defensively, noting that he keeps his own annotated set of the collected works of Ratzinger on his desk, because it's his job to read that stuff. He adds:
"Forgive me if I am wrong, but your question seems to carry the slightest hint of confrontation – the suggestion that the people who cover him, and maybe us in particular, have not jumped in deep enough. With a body of work so large, I think one could spend a lifetime digesting it and still not understand everything. But I can assure you we have made the effort – and then quite a bit more. Which does not mean we will not get things wrong. But those mistakes are made in good, forgive me, faith."
Fair enough. No doubt covering events in Rome is a complicated beat. But if you want to know why "Paul S." and others end up suspicious, take a look at that "symbolically transubstantiate" thing. Mistakes like that don't happen because somebody skipped a paragraph in one of Ratzinger's theological tomes. That's carelessness.

Anyway. The exception at the Times is the redoubtable and always readable Peter Steinfels, who wrote this excellent installment of his "Beliefs" column about -- no, seriously -- the distressingly shallow media coverage that is likely to attend this papal visit. You can also find it if you scroll down far enough on their "complete coverage" page, provided your irony tolerance is sufficiently high.

ETA a little more genuine praise -- behind their falsely polarizing and misleadingly reactionary headlines, the folks at Slate do a commendable job covering the Catholic beat. Check out Melinda Henneberger's recommended reading list and Michael Sean Winters's article "'God's Rottweiler' Becomes the Church's Beloved German Shepherd'" to get a deeper sense of what we're all about to see on the 24-hour news networks. (The latter oversimplifies the Good-Friday-Liturgy issue to serve its Slate-y purposes, but you can't have everything.)

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