Thursday, July 8, 2010

Advance Warning: Inaccurate News Reports Coming

Over at Catholic Culture, Phil Lawler writes:

Sometime in the next few days the Vatican is expected to release new norms for the handling of sex-abuse complaints. Dozens of news reports will undoubtedly follow, saying that the Vatican has changed policies in response to public pressure. Those reports will be wrong.

The norms are changing. The policies are not.

According to reports that have leaked extensively this week, the Vatican will change a few norms of canon law, bringing the law into conformity with the policies already in use by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. To date these policies have been authorized– first by Pope John Paul II, then by Benedict XVI– as allowable exceptions to the canonical rules. Now they will become the rules. [Emphasis in the original.]

We’ve all seen how the press often does an awful job of reporting on Catholic news, so I’d be inclined to agree with Mr. Lawler and advise that you be prepared to hear talk around the water cooler about how the Catholic Church is “finally changing” the way it handles these things.

However, Reuters already has a story out, and it’s treated decently. The fourth paragraph, for instance, makes the whole thing perfectly clear …

“The special faculties have been transformed into law. They have been written in stone,” said one Church official familiar with the new rules, expected to be made public next Thursday.

But the paragraph which precedes that one may confuse many non-Catholics (and Catholics, for that matter):

The revisions will effectively make legal procedures about abuse cases known as “special faculties,” which were so far allowed only under exceptional circumstances, the global norms.

Part of the problem we’ve been dealing with in the past several months rests with the jargon. It’s always a bad idea to use jargon — of any type — outside its original setting, because it confuses people. In this case, it’s the use of the word “norms”, which seems very much like “policies”. Indeed, in most other settings the terms might be interchangeable, but from the point of view of the Catholic lexicon and in this context, is effectively similar to “law”. Non-Catholics cannot be expected to know this.

On the whole, Reuters seems to have treated this story quite fairly. The writer, Phillip Pullella, clearly has done his homework, and that would explain his use of the word “norms”, which he probably picked up from one of his sources. I don’t think it would be fair to fault him for that.


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