Monday, March 29, 2010

'Pope not intimidated by petty gossip' is a media fabrication

The allegations about Pope Benedict XVI's handling of sexual abuse cases, discussed below, have produced astonishing press misrepresentations which have traversed the world. There is a building narrative about the "intransigent pontiff indifferent to abuse claims."

This false narrative needs to be halted both by those who care about the Catholic Church and by those who care about the credibility of the press.

The latest grave problem focuses on the Pope's supposed remarks about intimidation and petty gossip.

The problem apparently originates in coverage of Pope Benedict's Palm Sunday address. A Reuters piece written by Phil Pullella and linked by Drudge, titled Pope signals won't be intimidated by abuse critics,

Pullella's slant begins on the third paragraph:

"While he did not directly mention the scandal involving sexual abuse of children by priests, parts of his sermon could be applicable to the crisis he and the Roman Catholic Church are facing,"

That "could be" then becomes a basis for a load of inflammatory speculation as the Reuters writer presents himself as a reliable interpreter of these "signals."

His next paragraph reads:

"The pontiff said faith in God helps lead one 'toward the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.'"

The implication, of course, is that the Pope thinks the abuse allegations are "petty gossip" used to "intimidate" him. This is the hook most major media, including Reuters, used to attract readers and spin the story.

But looking at the whole address gives a much different picture.

Unsurprisingly, the Pope's comments are about Jesus Christ. The source for the quote about intimidation and gossip is at the close of the third paragraph:

But this external rout is above all an image of the interior movement of existence, which occurs in the following of Christ: It is an ascent to the true height of being human. Man can choose an easy path and avoid all toil. He can also descend to what is lower. He can sink into lies and dishonesty. Jesus goes ahead of us, and he goes up to what is above. He leads us to what is great, pure, he leads us to the healthy air of the heights: to life according to truth; to the courage that does not let itself be intimidated by the gossip* of dominant opinions; to the patience that stands up for and supports the other. He leads us to availability to the suffering, to the abandoned; to the loyalty that stands with the other even when the situation makes it difficult.

Without taking the grossest journalistic license, these comments are clearly not specific to the headlines of the day. The reporter made the common error (and trick) of treating the leading media narrative as the narrative at the forefront of his subject's mind.

Now bad headline writers, including the Drudge Report, think Pope Benedict dismissed the NY Times report as "petty gossip" intended to intimidate.*

This malpractice is a despicable form of misrepresentation.

But it gets worse. Now media outlets are asking those poor victims of sexual abuse how they feel about the Pope's comments, as spun by Reuters.

NBC News said the phrase "stunned" Boston victim Gary Bergeron, who responded:

"'Intimidation' is what we felt decades ago, as we started coming forward.’Petty Gossip' is what our claims were called."

So thanks to the media, a victim of sexual abuse now suspects the Pope is uncaring and intransigent because of a phrase that didn't even address the issue.

The papal curia has the public relations sense of a brick. It can be self-serving for them to see these reports as an organized (or unorganized) smear campaign.

But at this point, it's getting easier to agree with that diagnosis.

Media manipulation in this case won't help expose and correct genuine wrongdoings. Indeed, it will only confirm the curia's perception of a hostile and inaccurate press.

The media's own inaccuracy in reporting Pope Benedict's remarks is confirming their reputation as purveyors of "idle gossip." What an ironic twist!

* It is questionable whether the Pope even meant "gossip." Other accounts translated "gossip" as "chatter," which makes more sense to me. The Italian, "chiacchiericcio," derives from the root verb I learned to use in phrases such as "to chat on the internet."

The Munich allegations against Pope Benedict: unproven and poorly reported

The NY Times' recent story about Pope Benedict focused on records indicating that a sex abuser priest named Fr. Hullermann was transferred while the Pope was Archbishop of Munich 30 years ago. That monstrous cleric abused again and again.

As the allegations of oversight mount, some editorialists see a death knell for Benedict's papacy. But as with Reuters' claims that the Pope is "not intimidated by petty gossip", we see an article with a few facts clothed in uncertainty.

The NY Times article's second paragraph shows only that the then-Archbishop Ratzinger was "copied on a memo" that informed him the priest would be returning to pastoral work. (Of course, before e-mail and digital records, being CC'd meant something very different than today.)

The article continues:
An initial statement on the matter issued earlier this month by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising placed full responsibility for the decision to allow the priest to resume his duties on Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy, the Rev. Gerhard Gruber. But the memo, whose existence was confirmed by two church officials, shows that the future pope not only led a meeting on Jan. 15, 1980, approving the transfer of the priest, but was also kept informed about the priest’s reassignment.

Sounds pretty damning. But then the NY Times takes away that certainty:

"What part he played in the decision making, and how much interest he showed in the case of the troubled priest, who had molested multiple boys in his previous job, remains unclear."

The fateful diocesan council meeting is also described as "a busy day" and its minutes "include no references to the actual discussion that day, simply stating that a priest from Essen in need of psychiatric treatment required room and board in a Munich congregation."

To the claim that the relevant memo was unlikely to have ended up on the archbishop's desk, the NYTimes said the judicial vicar of Munich "could not rule out that Cardinal Ratzinger had read it."

The paper adds:

"Father Gruber, the former vicar general, said that he could not remember a detailed conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger about Father Hullermann, but that Father Gruber refused to rule out that 'the name had come up.'"

So we repeatedly hear that it is unclear whether the Pope was informed, but that very uncertainty is being presented as evidence he was in fact informed, especially in sensationalistic rewrites of the NY Times story.

One letter cited by the Times supposedly has a "clear subtext" about the pedophiliac priest's problems and a "clear hint" about this unnatural lusts for boys. But the clarity is only obvious in retrospect, and subtext is precisely what got the Reuters writer in trouble.

It is obvious that damaging circumlocution and "protocol-speak" can infect a chancery, confusing the unwary and providing maneuvering room for a guilty party to cover great flaws. But this does not excuse a journalist's inability to nail down the facts.

The worst story would be that the Pope was informed and was inclined to incompetence, indifference or cover-up.

The Times doesn't show evidence of that, yet it chose to run the damaging story anyway.

The story may have been intended to flush out more sources or to provoke a response from the Vatican. (Or to sell papers, of course.)

Yet it's doubtful the NY Times would have run this story ten years ago. Casting doubt on the actions of a high profile figure requires very good reasons and very solid facts. Since these facts are still in doubt, the best the NY Times can do is hope that an unknown source steps forward or the media firestorm rages on to protect their shoddy reporting from close examination.

Public outrage is often a dial that can be turned up and down. When writers aren't clear about both the facts and their presentation of the facts, that outrage serves neither truth nor justice.

St. Augustine on the culture of a failing empire

As the flaws of the Western Roman Empire became too great to sustain, St. Augustine wrote:

'So long as it [the republic] survives,' they say, 'so long as it prospers, rich in resources, self-confident in victory, or, better still, secure in peace, what difference does it make to us? What matters is that there is money to be made to support our lavish style of life, and to give the stronger their hold over the weaker; that the poor treat the wealthy with compliance, to ensure their daily bread--the poor depending on the patronage of the wealthy for a quiet life, the wealthy calling on the poor for support to boost their public standing. Popularity should accrue not to those whose policies promote public welfare, but to the big providers of public entertainment.

Law should not be rigorous; low indulgences should not be proscribed. Rulers should not bother themselves with getting virtuous subjects, simply quiescent ones. Territories should view their rulers not in the light of moral educators, merely as economic managers and purveyors of satisfactions. It does not matter if they do not seriously respect them, so long as they treat them with a calculating and subservient fear. No one should be liable to court proceedings if he has not infringed or done harm to the property, real estate, or physical safety of another person without consent; but everyone should be free to do with himself, his dependents, and consenting associates exactly what he likes.

Sexual satisfactions should be freely available on the open market for those who want them, especially those who cannot afford to maintain facilities privately. Domestic architecture should be expensive and ornate, to accommodate large and lavish parties where anyone may game and drink all day and night, if he pleases, till he brings it up or sweats it out. The sound of dancing should be heard in every neighborhood, and theaters should be humming with excitement at their coarse amusements and their various brash entertainments.

Should someone disapprove of this perfect contentment, he must expect to meet public hostility; and should someone attempt to reform or abolish it, the spirit of popular freedom must know what to do with him: shut him up, pack him up, beat him up! Religion ought to make a case for itself by guaranteeing and perpetuating these conditions of life for the greatest number of people. Let the gods have all the worship they want, and all the games that they want, to enjoy them with (and at the expense of) their worshipers, just so long as they ensure this satisfactory state of affairs against threat from enemy, plague, or disaster.'

-City of God Book II Chapter 20

Perhaps excepting the shameless worship of strength and the poor man's servile compliance before the wealthy, all these vices are clearly dominant today.

Materialism, hedonism, libertarianism, even therapeutic deism. These are not ideologies but vulturous habits of mind that come at times of cultural disaster.

Their only unity comes in alliance against reformist critics.

The West has seen them before. Let us hope their age is coming to an end.

(via the Distributist Review)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vatican now on Twitter

Joining the social networking trend of 2009, the Vatican has a twitter feed, according to Catholic News Agency.

Its account name is unpoetic but functional: News_Va_en

Having noticed the Italian-language announcement from Vatican Radio by way of Paolo Rodari, I was among the English-language feed's first twenty followers. However, I made the mistake of breaking the news via Twitter alone, not thinking to add a blog entry.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

White House tweets bad info on Catholic nuns in health care debate

Here's how Twitter can amplify the consequential media mess accompanying the health care debate.

NETWORK, a group claiming to represent 59,000 Catholic religious sisters, endorses the Senate bill.

The AP reports this endorsement, also reporting their claimed size.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs then tweets the AP story to 38,000 people, calling it an "IMPORTANT HEALTH CARE ENDORSEMENT." (caps his)

At least ten dozen people then repeat the press secretary's information via Twitter.

According to the (unreliable) stats for Gibbs' link, the link received 1,735 clicks and was tweeted 100 times. The AP story was shared 234 times on Facebook, where it collected 223 "likes" and 230 comments.

The Catholic bishops' spokeswoman then responds: “The letter had 55 signatories, some individuals, some groups of three to five persons. One endorser signed twice,” she added. “There are 793 religious communities in the United States.”

Let's see if either the AP or Gibbs follow up.

Associated Press: own your mistakes!

Secretary Gibbs: own your tweets!

(American Papist is also on the story. And technically the "nuns" are properly known as religious sisters.)

Twitter: @PressSec, @CnaLive, @AmericanPapist, @kevinjjones

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sen. Ted Harvey debates Kevin Miller's libertarianism

The Independence Institute’s Jon Caldara recently hosted a debate on social conservatism on his PBS KBDI 12 show Independent Thinking.

His two guests were State Sen. Ted Harvey, a Republican representing the south Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, and Kevin Miller of the National Freedom Initiative, a new think tank.

Miller’s argument, also presented in a November newsletter of the Centennial Institute, held that the national scene was not the proper venue for social conservative policies.

Harvey proved more sophisticated than Miller. In a discussion of prayer in schools, he zeroed in on the contradiction in a libertarianism that would have the federal government forbid localities from acting as they see fit.

Miller floundered at this point, departing from his initial federalism to argue against the specifics of school prayer. This made clear his individualist stand on some local matters as well.

Jon Caldara, a libertarian himself, sniffed out Miller’s superficiality by asking for specific instances of social conservatism on the federal level.

This led Miller to attempt to associate anti-drug laws with social conservatives specifically. Harvey parried by defining that position as a social issue that has broad appeal.
Miller, noting that people disagree on the definition of virtue, simply asserted a principle of freedom except in cases of harm to person or property.

Of course people disagree on the definition of virtue, but they disagree on the definition of “liberty” and “harm” as well. The harm principle risks creating a split between a libertarian public persona and a conservative private life. At worst, the public persona overtakes private conservatism to the point where, as the joke goes, your morals are so private you don’t even impose them on yourself.

One weakness for principled thinkers is a tendency towards ridiculous extremes. One is always ready with an answer, even when one should take into account the particulars of a situation or the possibility that one’s principles are incomplete. Miller tended towards this error, an inevitable risk for a viewpoint capable of full description in an e-mail signature.

For his part, Harvey became stuck repeating the obvious fact that every law is a moral law. This was useful in parrying someone like Miller, but substantial defenses of individual matters are also necessary.

All involved in the discussion were too quick to claim social conservatives as natural allies of fiscal conservatism. They should read Lydia McGrew’s doubts about the existence of social liberals who are fiscal conservatives.

The Independent Thinking disputants seemed only half-conscious of the dominance social conservatism once enjoyed across party lines. Capitalist ideologues’ hatred for the traditional family is likely unknown to the parties.

The association of social conservatism with the Republican Party is in some ways an accident of history. Had feminists decided to stay with the Republicans, or had they not established dominance in the Democrats, social conservatism could have had better bipartisan prospects.

Miller’s National Freedom Initiative will work to keep social conservatives subordinate to libertarian concerns. This may be good for short-term Republican political prospects. However, this will hinder the long-term prospects for social conservatism.

Miller was more eager to make converts. Sen. Harvey’s hands-off attitude towards localities is useless if no one is willing to make positive arguments in favor of conservative ideals and customs.

Harvey himself realized this, saying “The reason why we have the problems we do is because the left has been successful in their virtue politics and the right has been… absent.”

Among the standard libertarian arguments repeated by Miller was the idea that social conservatives’ desire to “legislate virtue” provides an opening for left-wing attempts to give their own views the force of law. His Centennial Institute essay even suggests that the attempts to ban homosexual counterfeits of marriage could be a trap that allows “secularists” to pass laws branding “opposite-sex marriage as a ‘hate’ institution.”

This naïve libertarianism is an abdication of reason and politics. The fanatical secularist must be opposed on his own terms. Conservative laws may make secularists more zealous to overturn them, but they also create an obstacle to their progress. If they were still fighting public obscenity laws, they would be too distracted and powerless to shut down Catholic adoption programs.

The decline of social conservatism, not its non-libertarian principles, created the opportunity for leftist expansion. The collapse of the family and the decline of religion have taken place alongside the growth of the welfare state and the inability to self-govern.

Libertarians were accessories to these lamentable happenings, part of their long tradition of political obliviousness.

Some now support same-sex civil unions, or even “marriages,” as extensions of personal liberty. This allows liberals to pass a non-discrimination law at the city level barring government contractors from refusing benefits to civil partnerships. Then a few years later at the state level, they mandate that all businesses provide benefits to these civil unions.

In response comes a paltry libertarian protest, without the self-awareness that they helped bring this predictable government expansion to pass by rejecting conservative objections.

Without conservatism institutionalized in private organizations, businesses and governments, there are few bases of power to capably oppose cultural leftism. Harvey, though often a fine advocate for his cause, showed little awareness about building this institutional conservatism.

Miller showed strong, if unwitting, dedication to eroding its foundations. He has proposed that conservatives self-limit themselves when their liberal opponents show no such willingness. That is unilateral disarmament and a recipe for continued defeat in the culture wars.

Twitter: @joncaldara @TedHarvey @kevinjjones

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Is Hispanic family unity being targeted by banking interests?

A disturbing comment on an interview with Patrick Deneen:

My brother once worked for a bank in the American Midwest. He was present at a meeting in which the board, all serious, believing Christians, discussed the need to increase lending opportunities in the Hispanic community by breaking down family ties. The Hispanic habit of communal saving and paying in cash was incompatible with the growth of bank profits.

Latino family breakdown is a problem enough as it is. Writers like Heather MacDonald are keen to warn about the family problems of Hispanic immigrants, especially as their children or grandchildren assimilate to the toxic wasteland produced by the pop culture industries.

This comment suggests there are more subtle business pressures on the Latino family, pressures which may also have been applied to all families.

The American consumer economy constantly tries to remove private economic functions into the public market, where they can be monitored, taxed, and made more efficient in quantifiable terms.

But the family should not be a mere locus for consumption. The good habits and strong bonds formed in extended familial financial planning surely have an importance we don't recognize until they are gone.

I would appreciate any leads to material about the anti-family strategies of the banks, which may not even realize how destructive their work can be.