Monday, April 21, 2014

Smart Pope, Dumb Journalism

"The Pope in the Attic" is a long article in the current Atlantic Monthly, exploring the supposed weirdness of having the Pope Emeritus living a few hundred yards from a ... well, the real Pope.  It's one of the worst pieces of religious journalism we have ever seen in a reputable publication.

Paul Elie is trying, we think, to explore the confusion he imagines is created by having two living popes, each with his own style and each with his own supporters.  The problem is that, so far, this is a kind of non-story.

Oh, the Ratzinger Fan Club has made a lot of noise this past year, worrying publicly that Bergoglio's "humility" is a kind of arrogance that casts aside capital-T Tradition.  And Francis has certainly made a name for himself, not least with the fawning press, to the extent that Elie calls him a "rock star" on par with JPII.  But the Traddies are a fringe bunch, and even casual observers of the religious scene know better than to take the newspaper headlines -- including those making Francis a secular saint -- without many grains of salt.  At the end of the day, it is an odd situation, but it has yet to prove odd in any way that imperils or even affects the normal operation of the Vatican or the ongoing life of the Roman Church.  So ... there's no real story.

And even if there were, Elie doesn't report it, for the very good reason that he seems to have no sources.  There is no evidence that anybody of any significance was willing to speak to him about this, with the sole exception of the seemingly voluble Walter Cardinal Kasper.  Other than that a few polite remarks from Kasper, Elie seems to have nothing more than press-corps scuttlebutt and one Friday night drive through the Vatican City, during which he saw neither Francis nor Benedict.

So thinly sourced is the story, in fact, that Elie is reduced to simply making stuff up.  Several hundred words consist of nothing more than his own imagined version of Benedict's private prayers -- in the form of  monologue which politely criticizes his successor's much-ballyhooed reluctance to judge gay people. Need it even be aid that inventing from whole cloth the private prayers of anybody -- much less a priest, much less a pope, much less a man of Ratzinger's piercing intellect -- marks a new frontier in presumption.  Elie replaces journalism with speculative fiction.  And it isn't even informed speculation.

Anyway, the good news is that Terry Mattingly plans to handle this tomorrow at GetReligion.  He will no doubt do a better job than we can of explaining just why this story is so incredibly bad. [UPDATE:  Here's Terry's take. ]

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