What happens when an American journalist with a typically dualistic “conservative vs. liberal”, politics-are-everything perspective tries to understand Pope Benedict XVI? He becomes a bit befuddled, as does Gerry Stern, in a piece posted by USA Today titled, “Benedict still a mystery after 3 years as pope”:
I have a suggestion for other befuddled journos out there:
Okay, a few suggestions:
1) Questions assumptions. Part of the paradigm that’s being constructed in B16-coverage is that JPII was a “Rock star” who was beloved by many and B16 is more of a…mystery. It might be fruitful to consider the possibility that
some, if not many of those who were truly inspired by John Paul II are, indeed not mystified by Benedict and might even understand what he’s about. It’s just that anyone who would have taken the time to read at least some of JPII’s writings and learn from them was probably (I’m just guessing here) not going to shut down once JPII passed away, plug up their ears and sing “la-la-la” when B16 started to speak.
2) So, given that possibility…might we try to find some of these people?
I’m serious. This is not a joke post. This is for real, because this “no one really gets Benedict” meme is out there and getting reinforced by the day. You have to go beyond the rolodex of Catholic punditry, but you might try the following:
1) The books and other works of Benedict have sold very well in the three years since he was elected Pope. Talk to people at Our Sunday Visitor, Ignatius, Doubleday and the Vatican publishing house about this. People are buying works by and about him, and they are not all “Church insiders.” And they are not buying the books because they are befuddled by the mysterious Benedict and darned if they’re not going to figure the guy out.
2) Explore the Internet – the Papa Ratzinger Forum. The Pope Benedict XVI Fan Club Discussion Board, leaping over the ocean if you want, check out the Petrus news site. Look at this list of blogging Catholic clergy and religious and contact some of them about what they know about and think of Benedict.
3) Look at this thread – a modest thread from this blog (and I’d invite you folks to add to it!) in which readers discuss their own impressions of Pope Benedict.
The point is, claiming that “Benedict is still a mystery” doesn’t seem to me to be an assertion that belongs in a news article. It’s in the same category (or even worse) as claiming that “many believe” something without any evidence that, in fact, “many believe” that thing at all. (Just as the phrase “critics say” can function as a way of framing a story around a writer’s own opnion or agenda). I mean, how is “Benedict is still a mystery” a news story? Are there big questions being raised on Catholic blogs or in Catholic parishes or chanceries in which people are sitting around scratching their heads wondering, “Who is Benedict? I just don’t get him?” Are they publishing articles and holding meetings to address the mystery?
To begin a news article with the assertion that “Benedict is still a mystery” is not, in fact, news reporting. It’s the creation of a thesis and then finding voices to support the thesis. It would be fantastic if, over the next month, journalists could get back to basics, stop trying to create stories and simply report: This is who Benedict is. This is what he writes about. This is what he talks about. These are the ideas that have formed his intellectual life and spirituality.