Pope's (maybe) hell comment sparks firestorm, while NPR offers Easter spit-take (and more!)


First things first: Yes, your GetReligionistas received your messages and saw your many tweets about National Public Radio's amazing Easter correction. 

However, it's important to see the larger picture.

In terms of strange news and social-media -- Twitter in particular -- was this an amazing (Western) Holy Week  and Easter or what? Is the pope Catholic?

I'll deal with some of the tweets first, but it's important to know where we are going -- which is the larger story linked to what Pope Francis did or didn't say about hell, in his latest sit-down with his 93-year-old atheist friend, and journalist, Eugenio Scalfari of La Repubblica.

Hold that thought, because we have quite a distance to go before we get there. In my opinion, the most amazing part of that Holy Week story was the Vatican's sort-of denial that was issued to straighten out this latest Scalfari drama.

The now famous NPR correction was attached to a story about this Francis statement, under the headline: "Pope To World: Hell Does Exist." 

The Washington Post actually published an analysis piece about this correction, placing it in the context of decades of debate about media bias linked to religion. Here is the top of that piece:

An NPR report on Good Friday described Easter inaccurately and, in doing so, practically begged Christians to renew charges that the media is biased against them.
“Easter -- the day celebrating the idea that Jesus did not die and go to hell or purgatory or anywhere like that, but rather arose into heaven -- is on Sunday,” read an article on NPR’s website.
Easter, in fact, is the day when Christians celebrate their belief in the earthly resurrection of Jesus. Many Christians believe that Jesus did go to hell (temporarily) after being crucified on Good Friday. The Apostle’s Creed, recited in many churches, states that Jesus “was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell.”
Christians do not believe that Jesus “arose into heaven” -- not right away, anyway -- but rather spent 40 days on Earth, appearing to his disciples and hundreds of others, before ascending into heaven.

Now there's a great tip: When in doubt, Google the Apostles or Nicene creeds.

The corrected NPR story noted that Easter is the "day Christians celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection.” The Post report noted: "An NPR spokeswoman declined to say how the erroneous description of Easter reached publication."

If you followed this dust-up on Twitter (thanks for the GetReligion.org shout-outs), the most interesting discussions focused on "religious illiteracy" in newsrooms, as opposed to media bias. See this Rod "Benedict Option" Dreher piece: "Brown M&Ms and Religious Illiteracy."

As your GetReligionistas have said for 14-plus years, we know lots of great religion-beat reporters who are not traditional religious believers or religious believers of any kind. The key is whether reporters and editors know (or know how to look up) basic facts about major world religions. The important discussion, in this case, is about professional standards in journalism.

This past weekend, the NPR correction was just the start. Later on, there was this:

That tweet pointed to this:

Yes, Chuck Todd is Jewish. I know that.

However, most of the online commentary about this tweet focused on whether a major-league broadcast journalist should, or should not be, familiar with some basic facts about the world religion practiced, to one degree or another, by a majority of people in America. Would the Twitter-verse respond in a negative way if a Christian journalist tweeted out a bizarre commentary that messed up the meaning of Passover? I would say "yes," with good cause.

In terms of actual news and editorial content, NBC News also offered this feature to mark the most important day on the Christian liturgical calendar:

OK, moving on. Let's go back to the big Holy Week news, according to journalist Scalfari and, maybe, Pope Francis. Here is the top of the NPR report mentioned earlier (the one with The Correction):

Things got a little heated at the Vatican this week when an Italian journalist reported that Pope Francis denied the existence of hell.
Apparently, the fiery 93-year-old avowed atheist reporter, Eugenio Scalfari of La Repubblica, set the social media world aflame after writing in Italian that when asked about the fate of "bad souls," the pontiff responded, "Hell does not exist." The pope continued, according to Scalfari, saying (emphasis ours), "The disappearance of sinful souls exists."
The statements spurred Catholics and other believers to grab their virtual pitchforks to express their fury, which the Vatican has since tried to cool.

What did the actual Vatican press-office statement say? Can this -- translated into Beltway speech -- be considered a "non-denial denial"? (Click here for info on that term.) Here's the complete statement:

The Holy Father recently received the founder of the newspaper La Repubblica in a private meeting on the occasion of Easter, without, however, granting him an interview. What is reported by the author in today’s article is the fruit of his reconstruction, in which the precise words uttered by the Pope are not cited. No quotations in the aforementioned article, then, should be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.

Yes, there is no recording of this non-interview and, as those who follow Scalfari know, he never takes notes. But there is one remaining question: What did the pope say? Or, in a he said/he said standoff, what does Pope Francis now say that he said? It's hard to believe that Scalfari heard the pope offer something resembling the Catholic Catechism's take on hell and then ended up with these thoughts, as the journalist reconstructed them.

As you would expect, some news organizations went to town with this story. In the UK, The Sun connected these dots:

Vatican worshippers showered with falling chunks of plaster from ceiling of St Peter’s Basilica -- as Pope denies Hell exists

However, as is almost always the case, news consumers can turn to the omnipresent John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux for help in processing this kind of drama. I especially liked Allen's description of the press statement, in which he said the Vatican "washed its hands of the whole thing." A timely image.

Allen offers three important comments: 

First, there’s basically zero plausibility that Francis actually said what Scalfari cites him as saying on Hell, at least as quoted, since Francis has a clear public record on the subject -- he actually talks about Hell more frequently that any pope in recent memory, and he has never left any doubt that he regards it as a real possibility for one’s eternal destiny. ... 
Second, one has to wonder why, since the pope was quoted saying something that so clearly distorts a core matter of Catholic teaching, and that also seems blatantly at odds with his personal thinking, didn’t the Vatican issue a stronger denial?
Yes, Burke’s communique says the quotes can’t be trusted, but nowhere does he explicitly come out and say, “The pope didn’t say that and doesn’t believe it.” Why not? ...
Third, the real question is why Francis keeps putting himself in this position at all. There’s no law, after all, that says he has to talk to Scalfari, and even if he wants to keep doing it, he could make not publishing anything afterwards the price of admission. ... 
Further, Francis also has to know that for many people who trip across this story somehow, and who don’t know the background, personalities and context, the lone impression they’ll take away is that maybe Catholics don’t believe in Hell anymore.

Well, that's all for now -- until the next off-the-cuff theological remarks by this always headline-worthy pontiff. 

OK, a bonus. It's important to note that the NPR team did straighten out its Easter definition in time for this Holy Week feature: "Hot Agnostic Buns: A Proposal For A Pagan-Christian-Secular Easter Treat."

Saith the lede:

It's no secret that Easter, a Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, has deep ties to ancient pagan rituals celebrating the renewal of spring.

All better?

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