The Corner


One Wrinkle in News Reports on Francis, Benedict, and the Viganò Letter

Pope Benedict XVI in Vienna, Austria, in 2007. (Church Handout/via Reuters)

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says that he imposed sanctions on former cardinal Theodore McCarrick but cannot remember their nature, according to Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register. The Register obtained the information from “an inside source close to Benedict,” Pentin writes. (“Source close to Benedict” I understand, but what is he or she “inside”? Let it go.) Pentin is clarifying a sentence that he wrote last week. We’ll get to that in a minute.

He wanted to revisit his earlier report after Benedict’s former secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, appeared to throw cold water on it. “Pope Benedict has not commented on the ‘memorandum’ of Archbishop Viganò and will not do so,” Gänswein told Die Tagespost, a German Catholic weekly. Can that be reconciled with Pentin’s report that Benedict confirmed at least part of Viganò’s account: that as pope he had placed measures of some sort against the disgraced cardinal?

In the rapidly expanding larger news story about churchmen helping churchmen cover up their sexual crimes and misconduct, this is but one wrinkle among many, but it’s worth trying to iron it out, if only to illustrate how ambiguity and imprecision in reporting on this issue mislead readers into deeper confusion than they were already drowning in. From Pentin’s original report, which the Register published last Saturday:

The Register has independently confirmed that the allegations against McCarrick were certainly known to Benedict, and the Pope Emeritus remembers instructing Cardinal Bertone [the secretary of state of the Holy See] to impose measures but cannot recall their exact nature.

My first thought when I read that was “You mean a reporter has Benedict’s phone number?” Or, in theory, Benedict could have communicated with Pentin in writing — but about Church politics, at this point in his life? Neither of those scenarios was plausible. How else, though, to explain this remarkable statement that Pentin was making? He’s a good reporter with a solid track record. I assume that he didn’t mean to create the impression that Benedict himself was his source. But create it he did.

To see how, parse the sentence. It has two independent clauses. Start with the first. The phrase “the Register has independently confirmed” raises an obvious question off the bat: Confirmed with whom? And then: Confirmed independently of whom? What does “independently” mean in this context?

The sentence’s second independent clause is where the implication that Benedict communicated the information directly to Pentin makes its entrance clearly. This second clause then provides a context in which the first clause might be interpreted and its ambiguity apparently lifted. We read, “The Pope Emeritus remembers instructing Cardinal Bertone to impose measures but cannot recall their exact nature.”

Says who? Pentin cites no source for the statement. So we go back to the first clause. Is the source mentioned there? It isn’t. The subjects of the main clauses in this compound sentence are the Register and Benedict. There are no references to mediating parties, to sources of information who are other than Benedict himself.

What we now know, after Pentin’s response to the Gänswein comments, is this:

A source close to the pope emeritus tells the Register that Benedict knew of the allegations against McCarrick and that Benedict remembers instructing Cardinal Bertone to impose measures but cannot recall their exact nature.

That’s not what Pentin wrote, but it’s what he meant. The difference between this version and the one he wrote over the weekend is only a few words. They would have saved him from being misunderstood, and us from misunderstanding him. It’s one thing to say, or to let readers wonder whether you’re saying, “Pope Benedict told me this.” Quite another to say “Someone told me that Pope Benedict told him that.”

And there are wrinkles within this wrinkle. Here’s one of them, briefly:

Pentin, as we saw, reports that an anonymous source close to Benedict says that the pope emeritus confirmed a key claim in Viganò’s testimony. Gänswein, another source close to Benedict, says no, Benedict has not commented on Viganò’s testimony and will not. Pentin responds: My source did not say that Benedict had comments on Viganò’s whole testimony, only that he had comments on some information that ended up in it.

Since his resignation in 2013, Benedict has been misrepresented by Catholics pushing their agendas, some of them progressive, others conservative. So when you hear that from his prayerful seclusion in the Vatican Gardens he has stepped out to weigh in on some issue that we happen to be fighting about on Twitter, be skeptical. Here’s an example from the progressive side: The Vatican’s communications department asked Benedict to write a letter about an eleven-volume series on Pope Francis’s theology. He did. He had some praise for the series, but the department doctored the publicity photo of his two-page letter to exclude his criticisms. That was in March.

From the conservative side: Two years ago, a friend in a Latin Mass community I belonged to sent me a link to an article titled “Pope Benedict XVI Forbids Catholics from Voting for Hillary!” It was pitched to single-issue pro-life voters. Its argument rested on a strong misreading of a memo in which Benedict, in his capacity as a senior Vatican official, shortly before he was elected pope, explained the conditions under which it can be permissible to vote for candidates for public office despite their “permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia.” The memo was addressed to the archbishop of Washington, D.C., at the time. That was McCarrick.

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