A couple of weeks ago I came across the following, written by Oscar Wilde some 125 years or so ago:
In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising. Somebody – was it Burke? – called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time, no doubt. But at the present moment it really is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism. In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs for ever and ever. Fortunately, in America journalism has carried its authority to the grossest and most brutal extreme. As a natural consequence it has begun to create a spirit of revolt. People are amused by it, or disgusted by it, according to their temperaments. But it is no longer the real force it was.
It’s worth pondering in light of nearly any and all journalism, news (or “news”), and punditry today, even if Wilde didn’t happen to be a perfect prophet. After all, news itself has become news; in a certain way, for better or worse, much of “news” is simply discussion and debate about “news”, to the point that journalism and opinion don’t just overlap but become uneasy mates. In some cases, the opinion turns upon its mate, leaving only faint traces of journalistic remains scattered among the dense underbrush of innuendo, suggestion, implication, and overt subjective assertion.
A case in point is a February 7th New York Times‘ article titled “Steve Bannon Carries Battles to Another Influential Hub: The Vatican”. Bannon, of course, has become the focal point of those on the left who are intent on branding President Trump a “fascist”, which is (along with “communist”) the word used by lazy, unlearned people who wish to silence or even destroy their political enemies (an online search for “Bannon” and “fascism” turns up endless examples). The piece opens with this:
When Stephen K. Bannon was still heading Breitbart News, he went to the Vatican to cover the canonization of John Paul II and make some friends. High on his list of people to meet was an archconservative American cardinal, Raymond Burke, who had openly clashed with Pope Francis.
In one of the cardinal’s antechambers, amid religious statues and book-lined walls, Cardinal Burke and Mr. Bannon — who is now President Trump’s anti-establishment eminence — bonded over their shared worldview. They saw Islam as threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values, and viewed themselves as unjustly ostracized by out-of-touch political elites.
“When you recognize someone who has sacrificed in order to remain true to his principles and who is fighting the same kind of battles in the cultural arena, in a different section of the battlefield, I’m not surprised there is a meeting of hearts,” said Benjamin Harnwell, a confidant of Cardinal Burke who arranged the 2014 meeting.
First, what is an “archconservative” cardinal? The term is political, of course, because the Times, like almost all big media outlets, simply cannot think or exist outside of political categories. Cardinal Burke, by any sane and knowledgeable measure, is a thoroughly orthodox Catholic when it comes to Church belief and practice. (Note also that the piece refers to Cardinal Burke twice as “Mr. Burke”. Strange.)
Secondly, is it really so outrageous to believe that Islam—mindful even of all the different divisions and groups within Islam—desires to conquer the West, especially given old history, new history, and the statements that come from a wide range of Islamic groups and leaders?
Thirdly, lest ancient history be too easily forgotten, Cardinal Burke was named prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in July 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI (the same pope whose first encyclical melted minds over at the Times). He was removed from that post in September 2014 by Pope Francis, in a surprising move that took place shortly before the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops met in the fall of that same year. The chronology is notable because the recent Times piece, as quoted above, suggests that a Cardinal Burke-Bannon conspiracy was underway in April 2014, quite some time before Cardinal Burke was suddenly demoted. As Terry Mattingly states in a helpful piece at Get Religion:
The timing of the meeting is fascinating and, for journalists, a bit problematic. They key is that Bannon is in Rome to attend the canonization rites for Pope John Paul II (who for some reason loses his papal title in the lede) – which took place on April 27, 2014.
Meanwhile, the much-discussed public clashes between Cardinal Burke and Pope Francis began the following October, during the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The red-flag on that whole affair was a Times piece – “Pope Demotes U.S. Cardinal Critical of His Reform Agenda” – that ran on Nov. 8, 2014.
So in what sense was Cardinal Burke already “openly” clashing with Pope Francis at the time of the St. John Paul II rites, months before the conservative cardinals public actions at the synod?
Perhaps unwittingly, the piece lets the front paws of the cat out of the bag when it states, “Until now, Francis has marginalized or demoted the traditionalists, notably Cardinal Burke, carrying out an inclusive agenda on migration, climate change and poverty that has made the pope a figure of unmatched global popularity, especially among liberals.” Put another way, the problem with Cardinal Burke, in the eyes of the Times and Co. is not that he’s a heretic (since he isn’t) or a schismatic (because he isn’t), but because he’s not in tune politically with an overtly political pontificate that has increasingly shown itself friendly to a wide range of left-wing, secular perspectives and assumptions.
Thus: “Yet in a newly turbulent world, Francis is suddenly a lonelier figure. Where once Francis had a powerful ally in the White House in Barack Obama, now there is Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon, this new president’s ideological guru.” (As I recently remarked to a friend, I sometimes think Francis acts more like a politician than a pope, while President Obama, during his two terms in office, acted more like a pope—that is, a religious figure leading a religious movement—than a politician.)
Mattingly points out that the piece provides no real sourcing or quotes to back up its central assertion about Cardinal Burke and Bannon (and Trump) working to undermine and battle Pope Francis. “At this point, it is clear that the Times needs to provide information proving that these Roman Rad Trans exist and that they have had extensive contacts with Trump, through Bannon. We are not talking about journalists and chattering-class folks. We are talking about actual source inside church structures. Right?
As bad as the Times piece is, it is a Valentine’s card compared to an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post by Emma-Kate Symons, titled, “How Pope Francis can cleanse the far-right rot from the Catholic Church”. Even accounting for it being an opinion piece, it is one of the most vile, slanderous pieces of trash I’ve ever read in a mainstream news publication, which is saying something. For example, from the top:
Pope Francis needs to take tougher action against the United States’ most influential Catholic in Rome, Cardinal Raymond “Breitbart” Burke. The renegade cleric is not only undermining Francis’s reformist, compassionate papacy, and gospel teaching as it applies to refugees and Muslims, but the rebel prince of the church is also using his position within the walls of the Vatican to legitimize extremist forces that want to bring down Western liberal democracy, Stephen K. Bannon-style. Simply put, the Vatican is facing a political war between the modernizing Pope Francis and a conservative wing that wants to reassert white Christian dominance.
Burke was reduced to a ceremonial patron role at the Knights of Malta after a power struggle at the ancient chivalric order, won by the pope last month, following a spat over its humanitarian wing’s alleged distribution of condoms. Losing the leadership battle and prestige at the secretive society headquartered in Rome — Francis is appointing his own special delegate above Burke — was seen as a papal rap on the knuckles for the cardinal leading the charge against Francis’s writings on communion for divorcees. But the virulently anti-Islam (“capitulating to Islam would be the death of Christianity”), migrant-phobic, Donald Trump-defending, Vladimir Putin-excusing Burke is unrepentant and even defiant, continuing to preside over a far-right, neo-fascist-normalizing cheer squad out of the Holy See.
I’d bet that some skinheads have been shown more respect and fairness in the pages of the Post. What, then, is her source for much of this? The New York Times piece discussed above, of course! This is the very definition of typical news nepotism, a combination of echo chamber thinking, obsession with politics and cult of personalities, and laziness. Far-right? Neo-fascist? White Christian dominance? I’d say this is hysterical, but hysterical seems mellow compared to this sort of vacuous, shrieking rot. For example: “Burke, like Bannon, who says Islam is ‘the most radical’ religion in the world, makes no distinction in his clash-of-civilizations frenzy between the Muslim faith’s diverse currents and interpretations, and violent jihadist movements derived mostly from Saudi-style Salafism.”
Never mind that Cardinal Burke clearly distinguishes between various Muslim groups or movements, as when he says individual Muslims “are lovely people” and can speak “in a very peaceful manner about questions of religion.” Never mind that the vast majority of countries on the World Watch List for persecution are Muslim-dominated countries. As for his “frenzied” rhetoric, here is my summary of what Cardinal Burke said in an August 30, 2016 group interview about his book Hope For the World: To Unite All Things in Christ (Ignatius Press):
Cardinal Burke first said he thinks the common response in the West to Islam is “deeply influenced by a relativism of a religious order, with people telling me, ‘Well, we all worship the same God. We all believe in love.'” Such an approach, however, fails to really study and understand what Islam is and what Christianity is in comparison. There is, for Christians, serious metaphysics involved, because “God is the creator of both reason and the giver of revelation, by which he teaches us … is illuminated and we are given a divine grace” so that we can live according to the law inscribed in reality. This, he stated emphatically, is “not true in Islam”. He said that while he has been accused of taking an “extreme” view of Islam, he insisted that “everything I have ever said about Islam is based on my own study of the texts of Islam and also of their commentators.”
The key point, he said, is “I don’t believe it’s true that we worship the same God, because the God of Islam is a governor; in other words, fundamentally, Islam is sharia … and that law, which comes through Allah, must dominate every man eventually.” This law is not founded on love, he added, even if individual Muslims are gentle and kind people. The essential drive in Islam is to govern and control the world, whereas in Christianity, relying on right reason and sound metaphysics and true faith, “we make our contribution to society,” mindful that the Church is not intent on governing and controlling the world. Relativism is a key problem, said Cardinal Burke, because it undermines respect for the truth. Too often there are general statements—”We all believe in the same God” being very common—but “this is not helpful” and if it is not addressed, “it will be the end of Christianity”. Most people do not realize, he added, that there is not a natural law tradition in Islam, nor do Muslims understand conscience as Christians do.
Disagree if you wish—and reasonable people can surely part ways on various points—but hysterically implying that this is hateful or bigoted is nonsensical. Far too many reporters and pundits have, in recent years (and especially recent months) confirmed the observation of G.K. Chesterton in the early 1900s that much journalism is simply “bad journalism” and is “shapeless, careless, and colorless…” But it is even worse than that, because the examples above are deeply ideological and political in nature, with little or no concern for truth, facts, or clarity.
Wilde quipped about the press being the successor of the rack; I’d say that the modern press is, more often than not, simply an embarrassing and increasingly inept racket.
UPDATE: A reader sent a link to a February 9th Commonweal article, “White House, Red Hat”, by progressive rabble-rouser John Gehring that breathlessly (and amusingly) describes the New York Times piece as “a deep-dive report from Rome”, and concludes by asserting: “Bannon can network all he wants with Cardinal Burke and other Catholic operatives who share his dark populism and Islamophobia. But he stands against a determined pope and centuries of church teaching that will match him at every turn.” Dan Brown would be proud.
UPDATE #2 (Feb 11): Phil Lawler has an excellent post at Catholic Culture about all of the above. He writes:
But there’s something even more insidious about the vilification of Cardinal Burke. Take note, please, that among the various counts in the indictment against him, the only one that involves any conflict with Pope Francis is the debate over Amoris Laetitia. The meetings with conservative political figures are irrelevant to that debate, and the discussion of Church teaching on marriage has very little to do with Bannon’s political aspirations. So why are journalists making such an effort, stretching so very far, to invent a connection between the political debate and the theological discussion?
Let me offer an answer to my own question. The three-pronged conspiracy theory is being promoted by the Pope’s most ardent defenders. (If you doubt me, sign up for the Twitter feed of Father Antonio Spadaro, and notice how often he makes or encourages cheap shots at Cardinal Burke.) From there it is picked up by secular journalists, who do not understand the Catholic controversy and are much more comfortable framing issues in political terms. The goal of the conspiracy theorists is to discredit Cardinal Burke—in this case exploiting the negative image of Bannon and using guilt-by-association to transfer that image onto the cardinal. And why discredit Cardinal Burke? Because Pope Francis cannot and/or will not answer his questions.