U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke leaves an audience led by Pope Francis to exchange Christmas greetings with members of the Roman Curia in Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Dec. 22, 2016. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
A couple of weeks ago I came across the following, written by Oscar Wilde some 125 years or so ago:
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:
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.
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.
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 Islammindful even of all the different divisions and
groups within Islamdesires 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:
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.
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?
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
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
popethat is, a religious figure leading a religious movementthan a
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:
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
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."
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):
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
commonbut "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 wishand reasonable
people can surely part ways on various pointsbut 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?
Read his entire post
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 Burkein 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.
Also, Fr. Z weighs in, remarking that "the surreal piece at WaPo [is] worthy of the Red Guard of China’s Cultural Revolution..." Read his entire post