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Theological Bias, or, What’s our news department thinking, anyway!?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 11, 2014

We get the darnedest emails. In this case I’m referring to the one which accused us of cherry-picking what we wanted, rather than what happened, in our coverage of Pope Francis’ advice to students at the Gregorian University in Rome. Our headline was: “Do theology on your knees, Pope tells students at Gregorian University”. But, our correspondent insisted, what the Pope really said was that theology is “fruitful only if is done with an open mind and on one’s knees.”

Of course the correspondent knew what the Pope “really said” only because the fuller quotation was in the first paragraph of our story. So what’s the beef? Is it possible that the reader sees a conflict between keeping an open mind and being on one’s knees? Is it possible that the bias is in the eye of the reader rather than the writer?

Oh yes, it is.

News 101

Let me pause for a moment to outline a couple of points from news writing 101. News is written in the classic “inverted pyramid” style. The headline tells the whole story in a broad sweep. The first paragraph tells it again just a little bit more completely. Subsequent paragraphs add details that flesh out the story. The details become less and less central to the story with each succeeding paragraph.

The inverted pyramid style was developed for two reasons: first, respect for the reader’s valuable time; second, accommodation of the editor’s need to fit news copy to a specific space. Many people read only the first paragraph or two of a story, and many more scan only the headlines. With the inverted pyramid, they don’t need to go on a mining expedition to get the main lines of a story. This reason is always highly relevant, no matter what the medium.

The second, for those outside the business, might be less obvious, and its relevance is somewhat media-dependent. It matters wherever there are space constraints (such as newspapers and magazines) or time constraints (such as radio and television broadcasts). Worrying about the editor’s needs is less important on the web. But suppose, the layout editor in a newspaper needs to fit a story that is seven inches long into, say, four column inches; or the program editor for a newscast needs to fit a five minute story into a minute and thirty seconds. How does the editor handle this quickly and easily? He simply cuts up from the bottom, chopping off what is by definition the material least central to the main story line.

Now, irresponsible news people do skew stories by writing headlines that distort the obvious import of an event. This sort of ideological tampering is quite common. The reporter’s or editor’s message often eclipses the message implicit in the story. For religious stories, the fault is sometimes relatively innocent, as when the stories are written by people who are not equipped to understand the meaning apart from their own non-religious categories. But it is often malevolent, as when there is an editorial desire to downgrade the popularity or credibility of an organization, a person, or even an idea. Sometimes if you read the whole story (which relatively few people do), you do get the real picture. But sometimes it is even worse: The truth of the situation is kept out of both the headline and the story.

Theology 101

With all this in mind, let us return to the words in our headline, “Do theology on your knees”, and try to place them once more in opposition to the fuller statement in the first paragraph, “fruitful only if it is done with an open mind and on one’s knees.” The relevant question is this: Under what conditions could the headline be construed as deliberately misleading? And the relevant answer is: Only if you read “an open mind” as conflicting with “on one’s knees.”

And that is why I suggested at the outset that the bias, in this case, is in the mind of the beholder.

If the Pope had told students that theology is fruitful only through some combination of prayer and the restriction of speculation to what is compatible with contemporary attitudes, a headline that singled out prayer would be dramatically misleading. It really would be cherry-picking what we know our news department would prefer to hear. But he did not do that. What he said was that theology cannot be fruitful unless students free themselves of irrelevant preconceptions and proceed prayerfully.

This can be construed as two very different sorts of counsel only if we assume—as I know from other correspondence that our emailer does assume—that Revelation is essentially irrelevant to theology. If theology is made up out of whole cloth from our own religious sensibilities, then the advice to keep an open mind becomes contradictory to the advice to stay on one’s knees. The one says “think whatever you want”; the other says “submit yourself to what God thinks”.

But when Pope Francis says to keep an open mind, he obviously means a mind unconstrained by cultural prejudice and personal rebellion so that it can be open to what God has revealed, which is (after all) the very data of the discipline of theology. This data includes everything guaranteed by the Holy Spirit: Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church. Attention to this bedrock data as Divinely given is in marked contrast to the method of theologians who think they must suspend their faith in Revelation, and interpret everything in purely human terms. To the contrary, each scholar must be guided by the data proper to his discipline. A Catholic theologian must engage Revelation with the same conviction that a physicist brings to matter. Revelation is the fundamental and indispensable data of the theologian’s craft.

And how does a theologian overcome all those unfortunate tendencies which warp or close his mind and impede his ability to grasp the meaning of this Revelation? He does so through prayer. This is not a mere exercise. It is faith seeking understanding. An open mind and prayer are, in fact, inseparable.

So let us raise the question again. What was our news department thinking when it produced such a “one-sided” headline? Actually, quite a lot.

An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 12, 2014 11:41 PM ET USA

    Noticed the "second incident" regarding "another" "Catholic" High School. Your Catholic Bishops don't seem to be doing too well, Jeff... No one seems to enjoy "enforcement," bishops, theologians, ordinary laity, whatever... I suppose we will just keep patting ourselves on the back for having a Church with "perfect teaching.."

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 12, 2014 9:40 AM ET USA

    Sounds obvious to me...(Ave) So why cannot theologians/intellectuals ENFORCE IT... Why can't they "taste" the cyanide/strychnine in the Kool-Aide, grab the offending theologian/intellectual by the lapels, drag him back behind the woodshed and do what needs to be done??

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