Few careful observers would still expect much in the way of journalistic professionalism from the publication that used to be Time Magazine, particularly when it comes to religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular.
In its latest issue, Time proclaims its “Person of the Year”, accompanied by a list of “People Who Matter on Our World”. As one might expect, many of the people on the latter list are athletes, actors and singers who, I imagine, “matter” to the kind of people whose world consists of the office of a mainstream magazine and who live in the cultural cocoon of New York City. Hence the presence on the list of such giants as Ben Stiller and Justin Bieber.
At least they recognized that the Holy Father “matters”. After all, he only heads the largest single religious group in the world, and his words are instantly transmitted to virtually every nation on earth and studied closely by people of all faiths.
But when you look at the inaccurate and tendentious profile they present of the Holy Father, it’s hard even to get past the first sentence without a strong constitution. As the head of the child protection program of the Archdiocese, I was particularly astonished at the number of easily-proven falsehoods the story contained on that issue alone.
Let’s look at what they have to say, as they present what they consider to be the “Highs” and “Lows” of the Holy Father, but which are actually a series of “lows” in journalistic professionalism. The text of Time’s story is in italics, my analysis follows in bold:
Highs: While the Pope remains firm on his decree that ordaining women as priests is a grave crime (the same designation given to pedophilia),
Immediate Fail. It is strictly true that in a revision of some provisions of the Code of Canon, the crimes of invalid ordination and clerical sexual misconduct were both classified as “grave crimes”. But does anyone with any sense at all think that they are considered to be on an equal plane of seriousness? After all, the United States Code classifies both assassinating the President and defacing coins as felonies — the civil equivalent of “grave crimes” — and nobody in their right mind would consider them to be on the same level.
What is most astonishing is that anyone would consider that decision to be significant enough to include as the first item among the “Highs”. After all, there was only the little matter of the Pope’s Apostolic Visit to the United Kingdom, which drew huge crowds and confounded the professional atheists. Or the new document he issued on how to read and interpret the Bible, which will influence theology for the next generation at least. Or the new book-length interview with a journalist — an unprecedented move for a Pope. Those don’t even get mentioned.
he was willing to loosen up — albeit ever so slightly — on another firmly-held edict. But while headlines around the world claimed Pope Benedict XVI endorsed the use of condoms, what the Pope actually said was a bit different. He still strongly disapproves of condom use as contraception, and said only that a male prostitute may choose to use a condom to prevent the spread of the HIV infection.
This minor comment by the Holy Father in the book interview is far from the most significant thing he said this year, by any rational standard. And the characterization of the Pope’s comment is so far off the mark that one can only conclude in charity that the reporter didn’t read anything other than the wire reports about it.
The Holy Father said nothing remotely close to “a male prostitute may choose to use a condom to prevent the spread of the HIV infection”. Instead, he was clear that condoms were never a “real or moral solution” to the problem of HIV, that a life of virtuous sexuality was the only real answer, and that the only thing to be said in favor of the use of a condom was that it might reflect the first glimmers of the awakening of a person’s conscience.
As an attempt at journalism, this must set some kind of record: telling us that the media got the Holy Father wrong, and then going right ahead and getting it egregiously wrong anyway.
Lows: Accusations of sexual abuse first from Ireland and later mainland Europe smashed any remaining perception that predatory priests were an American anomaly and thrust the Vatican into its greatest crisis since the 2002 revelations of abuse in the U.S.
There is no doubt that sexual abuse and misconduct by clergy members were a personal low point for the Holy Father, who grieved for the victims and for the scandal caused to the Church. But this completely misses the most significant story about clerical sexual abuse in 2010, and the thing that “mattered” the most — the Holy Father’s strong response to the crisis, particularly in Ireland. His Letter to the Catholics of Ireland is a masterpiece of leadership, containing moral clarity, genuine contrition, and a commitment to rooting out the problem.
But the Holy Father did even more — he ordered an independent review of Irish dioceses and seminaries, and undertook a review of procedures for dealing with clerical misconduct that would apply worldwide. Those are real, concrete, and significant steps that “matter”, and will continue to “matter” for decades.
The scandal brought the church’s standing to a new low among believers in Europe and, in March when allegations surfaced in Germany, turned the spotlight on the Pontiff himself. It seems 30 years ago, during a brief tenure in Munich, the Pope, then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, had transferred a known abusive priest to his own archdiocese, ostensibly for therapy. But just days after his arrival, the priest was allowed to serve among the flock and subsequent sexual assaults occurred.
This is really a new low for unprofessional and tendentious journalism. The case referred to was never more than a tissue of unproven accusations on the flimsiest of evidence. There has never been any evidence that the Holy Father (who was Archbishop of Munich at the time) participated in any way in the decision to transfer that priest to a new parish. It’s just flat out false, as any review of the evidence would show.
Indeed, all the persons who were involved in the actual decision have stated unequivocally that the Pope was not involved. Even the New York Times, a consistent enemy of the Church that is always willing to cast Her in the worst possible light, couldn’t uncover any evidence other than that the Pope was copied on a memo about the transfer. That’s all.
While Benedict has done a number of substantial things to deal with the crisis, including meeting with abuse victims and accepting the resignation of high-ranking clerics, he remains silent on his time in Germany.
This grudging, backhanded concession that the Pope has done “a number of substantial things to deal with the crisis” is really, really rich. No man in the entire worldwide Church has done more to combat the stain of clerical abuse than the Holy Father. For years he worked to strengthen penalties and improve procedures on the handling of the cases. All parties recognize that he has been diligent and strong in the cases that he personally oversaw as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He has met with a number of victims in his Apostolic Visits, and has issued statement after statement condemning the sin and asking for the forgiveness of the victims.
In fact, if anyone would like a lesson on the proper way to respond to the problem of clerical sexual abuse, the Holy Father is a good model.
A few mistakes in a story like this is understandable. But this many shows nothing short of a flagrant disregard of the truth that can only stem from hostility.
In this issue of Time Magazine, professionalism doesn’t seem to “matter”. But slandering the Holy Father — that seems to “matter” very much.