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Media misunderstand Pope and Catholicism

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'For Lent, I'm giving up."

That's how Tim Stanley began a blog post on the Telegraph website last week following the surprise announcement of that Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down.

"How can anyone of faith not feel like surrendering after this week's largely bad media coverage of the papal abdication?" he asked.

For Stanley, much of the coverage could be summed up this way: "Elderly Homophobe Quits Misogynistic Institution Because He Can't Hack It."

What bothered him in particular was the way many in the media seemed to be lecturing the church about its need to modernize -- to get with the times by being more welcoming of homosexuality, to admit women as priests and to just generally become more accommodating of all things more liberal.

The problem, he said, is most journalists don't get religion, and especially don't understand the Roman Catholic Church.

Arguing that Catholics have to adapt their theology to be more attractive to modern people "is to misunderstand how religion works," he said.

"It's also to miss what makes faith so attractive to those who do bother to show up on a Sunday. In a world where everything seems to be up for negotiation, religion offers stability and certainty."

Plus, he added, "the tenets of faith" are not like political party platforms, which are up for debate at conventions.

That's not how things work in the Catholic Church, he noted. "It can shift the altar a few feet or revise its opinion on the movements of the stars, but it cannot rewrite essential doctrine."

Understanding this "requires putting aside prejudice and trying to understand the mindset of the true believer," he concluded. "Alas, a lot of journalism tends toward aggressive critical analysis rather than empathy."

Another major storyline that emerged amid the Pope's resignation was the terrible abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. At times, it seemed to dominate it.

Some reports in the media suggested Benedict was resigning because of the scandal, with at least one going so far as to intimate that his departure was all just a ploy to avoid prosecution.

Melinda Henneberger took issue with this view. Writing in the Washington Post, she said "It's simply not true that he protected predator priests. While I fault Benedict for many things, his record on abuse is far more mixed than that."

When others in the Vatican were writing off reports of abuse as an anti-Catholic media plot, then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger "spoke publicly of the need to remove clerical 'filth' from the church, in reference to predator priests," she said.

Someone else who argued for a more balanced view of Benedict's papacy was John Millbank, research professor of politics, religion and ethics at the University of Nottingham, England.

More than any other pope in recent memory, he wrote in the journal Religion and Ethics, Benedict insisted "on the co-belonging of faith and reason," he said, and also produced, in Caritas in Veritate, "the most radical and far-reaching social encyclical of the postwar period," in which he proposed "a non-capitalist market founded on reciprocal exchange."

At the same time, he noted, Benedict sponsored new initiatives of debate with Islam and fresh overtures to the Eastern churches, and spoke out against the "commodification of sex."

I, too, was disappointed by some of the coverage. I was sorry there was almost no mention of his emphasis on evangelism and outreach, his belief in the fundamental dignity and freedom of every human being, or that even the decision to leave reflected well -- it showed he cared more about the future of the church than about hanging on to position and privilege.

At the same time, I was also surprised and amazed by the amount of media coverage. The story led the TV and radio news for two days and was front-page news in many newspapers.

That was quite extraordinary, considering how little religion coverage there is in the media these days, especially on TV and in radio, and also considering how irrelevant organized religion is for many people today.

Why was there so much coverage? Maybe it's because of the size of the Roman Catholic Church -- over a billion people around the world.

Maybe it's because of the robes and liturgies and all the modern-day anachronisms of the church. There aren't many occasions today to catch a glimpse of imperial splendour from a bygone time. If nothing else, it makes for great TV.

Maybe it's because of all the Vatican secrecy and intrigue -- we all love a good mystery -- and the media love nothing better than uncovering secrets.

Or maybe it's because faith still holds a deep attraction for many, even in our increasingly secularized society. A new poll by Leger Marketing found 36 per cent of Canadians still consider themselves "very" or "somewhat" attached to religion. In Quebec, 36 per cent of people feel that way, up from 26 per cent in 2010.

Whatever the reason, for several days this month, we were treated to non-stop religion coverage -- some of it good, some of it bad, some in between. But whatever it was, it was there. And for that, we can thank Pope Benedict, too.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 J13

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