Coverage in The Guardian, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and the editorial board of The New York Times were the targets of my wit on last week's GetReligion podcast. Crossroads host Todd Wilkens and I discussed the media coverage of the Vatican's announcement that those who followed Pope Francis' tweets from the World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil would be granted an indulgence. My colleague M.Z. Hemingway looked at this topic last week in a post entitled "Media: Pope says retweets spring the soul!" that focused on the Telegraph. Mollie seemed to be having so much fun with the topic that Todd and I decided to join the party and focus on the Guardian story "Vatican offers 'time off purgatory' to followers of Pope Francis tweets". The subtitle was even better: "Papal court handling pardons for sins says contrite Catholics may win 'indulgences' by following World Youth Day on Twitter."
Wilkins opened the program by asking my expectations and reactions to the story. I responded that the Guardian story was "wonderfully awful." It played into the anti-Catholic animus that resides just below the surface of English life and would elicit a visceral response from some readers -- the liberal secularist left would find comfort in reading about the latest foolishness from those enamored with sky pixies. The Little Englanders (who don't normally take the Guardian as they place their full faith and credit in The Daily Mail) would respond with two words -- "bloody papists."
While the tone of the article was problematic, it was not in error. The Guardian did not make the mistake of conflating absolution and indulgences: forgiveness for sin over against the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin. But the article could have provided context, offering examples of indulgences granted for Bible reading, praying the rosary or adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
And, good Protestant that I am, I offered my view that indulgences were nonsense. And admitted to a liking for ridicule -- stating this was part of my repertoire in reporting on Anglican affairs.
But in this instance, if you did not believe in purgatory, indulgences could have no theological meaning. The disdain that was so close to the surface of the Guardian article, and animated my off the cuff remarks, had its roots in one of the significant divisions between Protestants and Catholics, Todd (a Lutheran) and I (an Episcopalian) observed.
Yet the misreporting of this story chronicled by Hemingway also had its roots in the lack of knowledge or interest in religion found in news rooms. I told Todd:
I would not be quick to say there is a vast left-wing conspiracy out there to smack down the Catholic Church. Where I think it comes from is an inveterate hostility found in 99 percent of news rooms against the Christian religion, against organized Christianity. You are going to find the greatest concentration atheists not in the Soviet Politburo but in the editorial offices of the New York Times. Their coverage is filtered through that worldview. So they don't understand what is going on. They don't understand the attraction of faith. They don't understand the mystery of faith and frankly ridicule is the easy way out.
While the Politburo reference dates me -- I believe this quip holds true.