Thursday, December 22, 2016

Pope Francis and the BBC

School has closed for the summer holidays and I have time, for the first time in a while, to resume posting!  This post came about after a conversation in my parish a week or so ago.  I was unaware of any of the events that follow which points to just how few ripples this news story generated.

The Pope and the BBC

One of my favourite TV programs has been, and still is, The Golden Girls.  Its waspish humour, deft handling of issues that, for the 1980s at least, were considered somewhat “delicate” for mainstream entertainment, and dealing with the realities of four women of a “certain age” still gives me great laughs.  Estelle Getty’s character  - Sophia Petrillo – was probably the glue that held the show together.  Sophia had a great one liner that would launch her into one of her stories – “picture this … Sicily 1910 …” – and would often earn her the incredulous look of her daughter, Dorothy, Bea Arthur, and the remark, after a suitable pause, “ma, you’re making it up”.  She usually was.  However, what is funny on a sitcom, is not funny when it is presented as historical fact.

In July 2016 Pope Francis visited Poland to join with millions of young people in World Youth Day.  As a part of the journey he made a visit to the former death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 29 July. Francis followed in the footsteps of John Paul II and Benedict XVI who also stood in what is the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.  And like his predecessors, he stood in silence.

That evening in its regular news broadcast the BBC reported on the pope’s visit.  In language that points to the growing gulf between people of faith, good people of different faith, good people of little or no faith, well-meaning journalists under pressure to produce the seconds of “sound bite” for the editors, the news said quite clearly that the Pope’s silence at Auschwitz reflected the “silence” of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust.  I want to believe the journalist was, as David Alton described in a blog entry, simply lazy and had not done their homework. 

I have not heard the BBC report and have not been able to find it, a point the blogger Catholic Voices made reference to as they re-posted Lord Alton’s blog entry.

Reading the text version of the pope’s visit to Auschwitz I was generally impressed by the level of awareness of Catholic Christian practice, even if the reporter did seem impressed by the pope’s “white robes and skullcap”.

It was this sentence that caused considerable offence:

“Silence was the response of the Catholic Church when Nazi Germany demonised Jewish people and then attempted to eradicate Jews from Europe”

Several generations of gradual historical amnesia and sloppy reporting meant that many people were probably not aware of the import of the journalist’s words.  Certainly there was no worldwide upset.  Reactions, such as that of Anne and Ian Dawson, have been few and far between.

The contentious statement is bald, generalised and historically inaccurate.  It demonstrates a lack of basic knowledge that could have been remedied by some equally basic research work online.  I wholeheartedly agree with Lord Alton.  This is the mark of lazy journalism.

I mention Lord Alton because within twenty-four hours he had written a measured and restrained rebuttal of the BBC’s report, especially when he referred to the comment made by the same reporter immediately after the statement about “silence”.

The BBC’s reporter clearly didn’t see the irony of stating that the Catholic Church had remained silent in the face of a genocide only to then describe how Polish Catholics were arrested and killed for sheltering Jews and how Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was executed at Auschwitz after taking the place of another prisoner. Why was he in Auscxhwitz [sic] in the first place? He had been arrested for publishing a denunciation of the Nazis in his magazine, Knight, which had a circulation of around one million people. Hardly silence, then.

I can only agree.  Lord Alton continued outlining the very familiar and accessible history of the church and its condemnation of racism and anti-Semitism along with references to action during the war.  My only complaints are to do with the references to Pinchas Lapide’s unverifiable assertion regarding the rescue of 860,000 Jews and citing Gary Krupp’s work.  Since I have written a length on both Lapide and Krupp I suggest the interested reader look for themselves.

Lana Adler, writing in The Forward on the same day penned a more perceptive article than the BBC but remained firmly positioned in the “the Catholic Church has come a long way, but there is much more to be done” camp; a position that does have validity especially when dealing with the question of the Archivo Segreto Vaticano files on Pius XII.  Adler’s criticism is a timely reminder that the last major opening of files was in 2006 but also a challenge to historians to keep looking through material that is already available.

Formal complaints were made and on 9 December the BBC admitted the report was biased and unfair.  The Editorial Complaints Unit said in its judgement:

The reporter said “Silence was the response of the Catholic Church when Nazi Germany demonised Jewish people and then attempted to eradicate Jews from Europe”. In the judgement of the ECU, this did not give due weight to public statements by successive Popes or the efforts made on the instructions of Pius XII to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution, and perpetuated a view which is at odds with the balance of evidence.

Lord Alton wrote a response to the ruling under the heading BBC owes us the truth on the Church and the Nazis. And while much of his article is well written, I am not convinced by references, again, to Lapide and the oft-toted theories of KGB plots ordered from the Kremlin to smear the memory of Pius XII.

Is there anything to be learned from one line made by a harried and hurried journalist who had not checked their facts before speaking?  Yes, there is.  My senior history students will share their wisdom: “If in doubt, check it out!”  Or as Dorothy so often said to her mother, Sophia: “Ma, that’s not true, you just made it up!”


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