Pope declares journalism doesn’t require facts
Luis EranaSalmeron | Friday, September 11, 2015
“In an unexpected but much needed statement from the Vatican, the controversial leader of the Catholic Church has officially decreed that it is now morally OK to publish made-up ‘facts’. He also has commanded all priests to forgive those who have sinned by pointing out the falsehood of said ‘facts’, but only if the mischievous rascals seek confession between 5:52 p.m. on Sept. 29 through 4:41 a.m. on Nov. 16 of the following year.”
I really hope at this point you realize I just made that up. Yet it appears people can really get away with publishing made-up facts nowadays, particularly regarding the Holy Father and the Church. Last week Pope Francis issued a statement that essentially said all Catholic priests would have the authority to absolve the sin of abortion during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy. Such statement, taken for what it really is, shouldn’t be a big deal for the general population, primarily because most priest already have said faculty. For those unfamiliar, when a person goes to confession he or she asks for forgiveness for the sins committed. Although the person is really asking God for forgiveness, the priest is an intermediary of sorts who listens, advises and gives God’s absolution. While all priests have such faculty, when it comes to very grave sins (like abortion, which is after all the sin of terminating another human life) it is up to the Bishop (the priest’s superior) to carry out the confession. Nevertheless the Bishop can pass down the authority to give absolution for an abortion to his priests, and as it turns out, many Bishops do so. All that Pope Francis did (as the superior of the Bishops) was say that during this year where the focus is mercy, all priests will have the authority to forgive the sin of abortion. It is important to note the Pope reiterated a) abortion is a very serious sin, and b) God forgives all sins and wants every person to find their way back to Him.
The day after the Vatican issued the statement, I saw a headline in a newspaper that said something like, “Pope Shifts Abortion Policy.” I simply laughed to myself thinking of the surprise people were in for when they read that in fact the Pope had reiterated the Church’s position on abortion as sinful and had only fine-tuned how people seek forgiveness for it. Nevertheless, over the next 24 hours I would come to realize this was no laughing matter. While I didn’t pay attention to that particular news article, I later ran into what Damian Thompson called “the worst piece of religious reporting ever,” referring to an article by Tom Kington in the Times. I am not familiar with either author, but after reading a couple of lines from Kington’s article I quickly came to agree with Thompson. The problem with Kingston’s article, titled “Pope offers forgiveness to women who had abortions,” was not that it was written uncharitably or in a hostile language (although arguably not the best qualities for a professional writer), but rather that it straight up had its facts wrong. Even the article’s subhead was severely misinformed, claiming the Pope “ordered” priests to absolve women; giving someone authority and ordering someone to do something are significantly different.
To make things worse, I soon ran into another article by Julia Hartley-Brewer in The Telegraph, which, as it seemed, wanted to give Kington’s “worst piece of religious reporting” a run for its money. Not only was her article tremendously opinionated for the News section of the journal (instead of being in the Opinions section) but it was, just like Kington’s, terribly misinformed. Hartley-Brewer produced lie after lie in what seemed an article written for The Onion instead of The Telegraph. The worst claim was perhaps saying women could be “forgiven by priests for the coming Jubilee Year as a once-in-a-Pope’s-lifetime offer.” She also stated that given the Holy Year starts in December, women will have to wait a few months before they can be absolved. To use Hartley-Brewer’s own words, “Honestly, I’m not making that last bit up.”
The problem here is greater than letting journalists get away with writing clearly-biased pieces. It’s the fact that they are publishing lies as facts. Treating any of the mentioned articles as opinion columns still does not absolve the writers from making false claims and using them as the starting point of their critiques. No matter if the piece is an opinion or a news story, it is unethical either way if the facts are made up. Nevertheless, let’s give these authors the benefit of the doubt and assume they genuinely thought what they wrote was factual; even so, the consequences are still very real. When people read these misinformed articles they themselves become misinformed. On Friday, a Viewpoint by an alumnus was published on a different topic, yet coincidentally he referenced the Pope’s actions as “[he] shattered another rigid practice by embracing those within our Church who were previously shunned — remorseful women who had sought atonement for their abortions.” While my fellow author was seeking to give an example of humbleness, he unfortunately referenced something that never happened. The Pope didn’t do away with any rigid practice of denying women forgiveness for abortion, because the Church has never had such policy (nor can it ever). Yet it is articles like those in The Times and The Telegraph that spread this damaging misinformation to the world. And keep in mind I’m only writing here about a single statement Pope Francis made. Just type “Pope Francis said” into Google. Or don’t, because you likely can’t trust most of what you find.
Luis Erana Salmeron is a junior living in Keough Hall. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.