Since the beginning of this current pontificate, the cool, considerate men and women of Catholic media have urged many of us not to jump to early conclusions regarding breaking news and alleged troubling quotes from Pope Francis. It is more important to get the story right than it is to be first, my former editors at the National Catholic Register would often tell me.
It is hard to argue with that mantra when journalistic media, particularly Catholic journalistic media, have an obligation to present the truth of events. In this age of global communication and agenda-driven secular media parsing every papal action and quote for their own ends, Catholic journalistic media must hold itself to a higher standard.
It is immensely troubling, therefore, that many of the primary sources of Catholic journalism completely misreported the events surrounding the gift of the hammer and sickle crucifix of Bolivian President Evo Morales to Pope Francis on Thursday July 9, 2015. Worse, even as facts about the events themselves were clarified, and subsequent to additional clarifications from the Holy See spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, some of Catholic media outlets refused to correct what was shown to be a false narrative, leaving stories with erroneous reporting on their websites without correction for days after updated information was available.
In any situation like this, it’s important to understand the timeline of events:
Following the publication of video of Pope Francis smiling while holding the gift of the troubling crucifix early on Thursday morning, initial reactions from Catholics could largely be characterized as confused and negative. Criticism began mounting, with many suggesting that the Pope should have rejected the blasphemous object.
On the video, when the gift is first presented to him, Pope Francis appears to register some slight surprise at the crucifix. He quietly says something, shaking his head slightly, but because of the poor audio quality, it is unclear what the Pope said. Later that same morning, some suggested after examining the video that what the Pope might have said was “No está bien eso,” or “that’s not right.” Soon after, an article at Romereports.com suggested the same comment by the Pope. Catholic social media fired back at those criticizing the pope’s response, wielding this new development. Critics were accused of jumping the gun.
But as we moved later into the day on Thursday, better quality audio of the incident became available and it quickly became clear that instead of saying “No está bien eso,” that the Pope actually said, “No sabía eso,” or, “I didn’t know that.” It became clear that the Pope was not rejecting the item, but rather reacting to something President Evo Morales had said to him. Coupled with his subsequent reactions – all smiles – it was obvious that the Pope had indeed accepted the gift without rebuke or concern.
This sequence of events was largely confirmed later on that same Thursday, July 9, when Holy See spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Pope had expressed “I didn’t know” in reaction to the gift because he was unaware the crucifix was a replica of the one carved by Jesuit Father Luis Espinal Camps.
All of this occurred on that Thursday. By the end of the day, a clear and verifiable sequence of events of events had emerged, a sequence of events that made clear the Pope happily received the gift, and in no way rejected or expressed any concern about it. These facts, confirmed by the Holy See, were widely known and discussed across Catholic social media by Thursday afternoon.
So it came as quite a shock to me when on Friday, reports began to emerge on prominent Catholic media outlets reiterating the erroneous reports that the Pope expressed dissatisfaction at the blasphemous object saying, “That’s not right.”
Particularly egregious in this regard was my former employer, the National Catholic Register. Their first story about this went up on Friday, July 10, a day after the basic and verified facts were known and widely available and discussed. The story they published was a HARRIS/CNA/EWTN NEWS report entitled “’This Is Not Okay’: Pope to Bolivian President on ‘Communist Crucifix.’” The lede of that report embraced without caveat that the known false narrative and quote.
Because of my former relationship with the editorial staff, I contacted them and let them know of the false headline and the false reporting, asking them to immediately fix it. Instead of retracting the story, they instead chose to retitle it with the equally false title “Pope Francis Apparently not Amused by ‘Communist Crucifix’” The lede of the story remained the same with the false quote, maintaining a narrative they now knew to be false.
The National Catholic Register knowingly maintained a false narrative about this story throughout the weekend and through the first half of Monday, even after being notified by me and several commenters of their errors and with the truth about the matter, which by then had been available for 96 hours. During that period, thousands of readers read this story and were mislead by the Register.
It was only after the Pope’s interview on his plane on Monday, when the Pope confirmed in no uncertain terms what we had already come to know on the preceding Thursday, and after again being contacted by myself and others (including Steve Skojec of 1P5) that the National Catholic Register amended the title and contents of the original story to reflect reality.
While the National Catholic Register published the contents of the Pope’s plane interview and amended the original story, they failed to issue any retraction or acknowledgment of their willfully erroneous reporting. They included an editorial note about the story having been updated, but not a correction.
When pressed on this issue by me via email midday Monday before amending the erroneous article, the editor in chief for the Register, Jeanette DeMelo, first excused their actions saying that it was a ‘developing story.’ Later, in email she excused herself, the other editors, and the publishers of the National Catholic Register by asserting that the story was a Catholic News Agency report.
The bottom line is that publishing an erroneous story and then knowingly maintaining it after it was repeatedly brought to their attention calls into question the judgment of the editorial staff at the National Catholic Register and the credibility of the outlet. This was not a matter of difference of opinion, but rather of known facts. The misleading headline and lede left in this story, which was accessible from the front page of the Register website, caused not a little confusion for Catholics trying to get to the bottom of what really transpired.
It seems obvious that the story was left unchanged intentionally. Less obvious are the motives for such a choice. Was the headline, which provided cover for actions by Pope Francis that many Catholics ultimately found objectionable and offensive, left in place to mitigate the damage the story might do to the pope’s reputation? Is there any reason to believe that a story with a negative headline about the Holy Father would have been left unchanged for four days after the reporting it contained was demonstrated to have been false? As Catholics, we all want to give the benefit of the doubt to the Vicar of Christ, but when facts emerge that contradict the narrative we prefer, are we not obligated to present the truth?
Journalistic and Catholic integrity demand a public retraction of the story and an explanation of this unprofessional behavior. Without it, the National Catholic Register risks forfeiture of any claim that it is a reliable Catholic news outlet.