Let your Ja's be Yes

(COMMENTARY) “German Cardinal Endorses Homosexual Heresy” states the headline of a Sunday story in the Daily Caller. It is a wonderful headline crafted to drive readers to the religion section of the well-respected online political news portal. But is it true?

Written by the Daily Caller’s religion reporter, the article appears to deliver on the claims made in headline. The lede states:

A German Catholic cardinal publicly approved heresy Saturday, declaring that priests are permitted to bless homosexual unions despite official church doctrine to the contrary.

Working from Catholic media reports, the article cites Cardinal Marx’s words, translated into English, and then places them against the formal teaching of the church to substantiate the charge of heresy.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx said that “there can be no rules” concerning the question of whether a priest can bless a homosexual relationship in the name of God and such a decision should be made on a case by case basis and left up to priests, according to Crux Now. Despite Marx’s assertion that there can be no rules, his approval directly contradicts the Catholic Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality and marriage.

The article offers further quotes from the interview, sourced through the English-language newsite Crux Now, to hammer home the claim of false teaching, and then notes recent statements by two other prominent German Catholic clergy. The article then moves in for the kill with this quote.

When asked to clarify whether he was in fact approving the idea of blessing homosexual couples, Marx simply replied “yes.”
“It’s about pastoral care for individual cases, and that applies in other areas as well, which we can not regulate, where we have no sets of rules,” Marx added.

The reporter closes out the article by placing the cardinal’s remarks in the context of the teachings of the Catholic Catechism, citing the church’s belief that “under no circumstances can” same-sex sexual relations “be approved” for homosexual relationships are “intrinsically disordered.”

An open and shut case it would appear. If the cardinal said what he is alleged to have said he appears to have drifted far from received teachings of the Catholic Church. Intrigued by these statements I looked up the interview in its English translation and found it printed on the website of the Catholic News Agency - a well respected independent Catholic news portal.

The English translation of the cardinal’s interview with Bavarian state radio matches the claims in the Daily Caller report. Step two, was to listen to the interview in the original German. And, here a problem arises. While the cardinal was imprecise in his language, he did not say “Yes” when asked if he was saying he approved the idea of blessing the relationships of same-sex couples. He said “Ja."

Is not “Ja” yes in German. Yes, and no.

“Ja” can mean yes, or affirmative, but is meaning is found in the context of the sentence. “Ja” can be modified by a suffix. “Jawohl”, is an emphatic yes - beloved of stage Germans - comes with the clicking of heels and a Mein Herr. An unmodified or unaccented “Ja” serves as a modal adverb, and connotes “surely”, or “I know." Its unmodified or unaccented presence at the beginning of the sentence in conversation does not indicate agreement with the point made by the previous speaker, but merely affirms that you are listening.

If we listen to the Marx interview then through German ears, rather than through the filter of English print, the story is turned on its head. The cardinal did not say what the Daily Caller claims he said.

CNA has a disclaimer printed with the English transcript.

Questions have been raised regarding CNA's characterization of the cardinal's remarks as an "endorsement." Our headline is intended to reflect that Cardinal Marx directly answered in the affirmative ("yes") to the question of "bless[ing] homosexual couples in the Church," saying that such a decision must be made by "the pastor on the ground," in each "particular, individual case." While CNA does not retract our headline, we appreciate the questions that have been asked, work to avoid sensationalism, and will continue to scrutinize our texts and headlines for fairness and accuracy

In preparing this article my editor alerted me to stories by Rod Dreher and Dwight Longenecker who have raised some of the concerns I have mentioned. I commend these pieces for your review. However, the thrust of this particular story is not what the cardinal should have said -- Longenecker notes the cardinal fell short of the Biblical imperative “let your yes be yes and your no be no," or the merits of the underlying issue, but the failure of journalism made by the Daily Caller.

From the outset this article was flawed as its purpose was not to report the truth, but to tell a story. A story is not a narrative - a story seeks to convey an idea while a narrative seeks to present the unfolding of events.

The center of the story was the mistaken interpretation of “Ja." Here was a hook upon which an article could be written trashing Cardinal Marx by claiming the cardinal has given an emphatic “yes” to same-sex blessings. From this core concentric rings of quotes and catechism are layered to make the case stated in the headline - Cardinal Marx is a pro-gay heretic. The quotes used to substantiate the charge in the lede the cardinal had given permission for his clergy to bless same-sex unions, is an interpretation or “spin” of his imprecise words about the church’s need to offer pastoral support to same-sex couples. He did not give permission to his clergy to bless gay unions - but if you begin with a Ja that turns to Yes you can hang that charge on the cardinal.

Journalism, as it should be practiced, is not a form of advocacy. But an attempt to unearth meaning of an event or issue through the presentation of facts, context, background - the who, what, when, where or why. It seeks not to assert a claim and then martial evidence in support of the claim - that is what opinion or advocacy journalism seeks to do.

What we have in this piece is a writer out of his depth. Unskilled in language, relying on second hand sources, unaware of the nuances of “church speak” - the German version is even worse than the English variety - and eager to score a hit - the truth is tossed to one side. 

Let me acknowledge my prejudices, while I am taking the liberty of lecturing others. The collapse of journalism is increasing exponentially in the age of Donald Trump. Over the course of the Twentieth century the journalistic profession had its ups and down - but the trend line was in favor fairness, accuracy and integrity.

The poet and critic T.E. Hulme - who with Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were the most influential modernist poets of the Twentieth century - described the state of play of language and truth at the start of the last century.

Poetry was  “direct language” because it “arrests your mind all the time with a picture.” Prose, on the other hand, was an “indirect language” made up of images once fresh, but now decayed into conventions and clichés.

“One might say that images are born in poetry,' Hulme wrote, ‘They are used in prose, and finally die a long lingering death in journalists’ English.” (Collected Writings: 55).

Journalism was the enemy, a utilitarian way of writing that transmitted information (or disinformation) with little interest in intellectual subtleties or style. Hulme, Eliot and Pound sought to carve out a new place for poetry as the privileged expression of the modern mind. Anglo-American journalism over the past 100 years has sought to do the the same for the newspaper. If we look at what we have in this story - that noble enterprise has failed.