NPR’s botched coverage of the Vatican II anniversary

Imagine you read a story that purported to be about the 2004 election. The writer framed the story as being entirely about Howard Dean and John Kerry; he explained how Dean mounted a strong challenge, but was ultimately defeated by Kerry; he interviewed partisans for Dean and lukewarm supporters of Kerry. The story never once mentioned President Bush, interviewed no one to the right of Joe Trippi, and made several factually false assertions about what ensued. We would instantly recognize that there was something wrong with that story, wouldn’t we? That it was seriously biased if not outright delusional?

Well, figuratively-speaking, NPR ran that story this morning. The report by Sylvia Poggioli was staggeringly biased and deeply flawed; for even passingly-orthodox Catholics, it was a gauntlet of liberal platitudes and liberal theologians. Almost everything in it, starting, literally, with its first sentence, is wrong: “At Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, 50 years ago this week,” Poggioli intones, “the newly elected pontiff stunned the world by calling the first Catholic Church Council in nearly a century….” Fifty years ago this week, when he opened the council in St. Peter’s Basilica, John XXIII was not the newly-elected Pontiff. He was barely the newly-elected Pontiff nearly fifty-four years ago when, on January 25, 1959 (he’d been on the job for three months), he stunned the world by calling the council in the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls.

That cavalier attitude to the facts pervades Poggioli’s article:

  • “Before the Second Vatican Council, altars were turned so the priests celebrated Mass with their backs facing the congregation,” she says. That’s a tendentious but common-enough phrasing, but his following sentence, that “Vatican II decreed that altars should be turned around, and priests faced the newly recognized people of God,” is flat-out false. Vatican II said no such thing. It never even mentioned it.
  • “The Second Vatican Council,” she says, “allowed priests to celebrate Mass in the local language.” Vatican II said no such thing. Vatican II set out a norm that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” and only having stated that general principal allowed that vernacular translations of particular parts of the Mass, subject to the approval of the Holy See.
  • “One week, if you eat meat on Friday, you’re going to go to hell,” she uncritically quotes Fr. Tom Reese, SJ, as saying; “[t]he following week, you can have meat on Friday.” Vatican II said no such thing. It was Paul VI who changed that, in February 1966, three months after the council closed.

But if the report’s specific factual problems were problematic, it was the overall tone and approach that undid it. Ms. Poggioli uncritically presents the liberal view of the council as told by liberals, with a range of opinions that spanned the gamut between “the council was wonderful” to “the council didn’t go far enough.” Not a single bishop was interviewed. Not a single moderate or conservative theologian was interviewed. There was no context; no alternative views; the whole business was presented as if it was the moon landing—a moment of supreme unity on which everyone agreed that something wonderful had happened. That has not been the experience of a huge number of Catholics, who have an entirely different experience and understanding of the postconciliar era. For many, the story of that age is not the moon landing; it is a story in which a small elite of theologians and bishops proposed some radical ideas, which the council rejected, and after the council closed its doors, many of the rejected ideas were implemented anyway under the rubric of the “spirit of vatican II,” precipitating one of the worst crises that the Church has faced since the reformation. Tens of thousands left. Untold millions left in all but body, lapsing into a vague and ignorant indifference. The ancient liturgy descended into a laughing stock, plagued by sacrilegious abuses of stunning and sickening audacity as the liturgical unity of the latin rite disintegrated. The pain of the fallout for large numbers of faithful Catholics is completely ignored, yet there is apparently time to give one of the most notorious public heretics—a man whose license to teach Catholic theology was revoked, which takes a lot of provocation, sad to say—of the modern era a platform to get in a few more slanders against the Church.

I suppose that Ms. Poggioli might respond that she does say that “the changes provoked a backlash, and many Catholics today say the council’s renewal momentum has been stopped in its tracks.” And she has a few short paragraphs observing that there were people had anxieties and criticisms, and quotes some searing countercriticism of those critics. But this is like trying to fix the afore-described account of the 2004 election by inserting the observation that “of course, not everyone agreed that either Mr. Dean or Mr. Kerry was the ideal candidate for the Presidency, and the election was controversial.” Poggioli never bothers to interview one of those people who had concerns; she never bothers to describe their concerns. They are simply dismissed and convicted in absentia.

The Catholics who have reservations about the postconciliar era are likely not a majority, and I am not suggesting for an instant that the story’s fault is that it fails to tell the story purely through the biases of an alternative viewpoint. To omit it entirely, however, is journalistic malpractice. When a story is told wholly from the perspective of one side, and consults and gives voice only to extreme partisans for that side, it is almost impossible for the result to be “fair and balanced” (so to speak), and Ms. Poggioli utterly fails to shoulder that heavy burden.

This deeply-flawed story was beneath the dignity of NPR, which I had defended elsewhere this week as “a kind of bastion of culture and calm news coverage…, in some sense, a liferaft that is preserving a better way of doing things through an era in which those things are out of fashion.” It did not live up to that description today.