Can we give reporters a break on the pope and the Lord's Prayer?

Can we give reporters a break on the pope and the Lord’s Prayer?

No, Pope Francis did not propose changing the Lord's Prayer this week. He expressed a preference for the French translation of one line over the English, which is another kettle of fish. Still, can we give over-taxed reporters a break, and accept that sometimes, the nuance is on us?

News Analysis

ROME – There’s an old joke about the news industry, which I heard decades ago from Spanish layman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, when he was still the Vatican spokesman under St. Pope John Paul II. (Navarro-Valls, who was a Catholic giant as well as a personal friend, passed away in June.) It goes like this:

Three guys are in a boat – a doctor, a lawyer and a businessman. Conversation turns to the local newspaper, and the doctor says, “You know, it’s really a great paper, it’s just too bad its coverage of medicine is such a joke.” The lawyer says, “I really like it, if it weren’t for the terrible courthouse coverage.” The businessman adds, “Yeah, I learn a lot from it, but I wish they’d get a reporter who knows something about finance.”

Granted, the joke isn’t exactly belly-laugh material, but the point is that the more you know about a subject, the less likely you are to be satisfied with general-interest reporting on that topic. It’s almost always going to strike you as superficial, ill-informed, and sometimes even downright embarrassing.

(Navarro, by the way, always told that joke not as a dig at reporters covering the Vatican, but out of sympathy. He understood full well that reporters themselves might understand 100 percent of a story, but often could cram only 10 percent of it into a 500-word news piece, and this inevitably would draw scorn from the insider crowd.)

Navarro’s wisdom came to mind again this week, as I watched reaction to Pope Francis’s recent interview with an Italian Catholic TV station, in which he commented on the Lord’s Prayer, play out at a distance.

(I was actually in Kenya last week, covering stories about a suffering and poor but resilient church in Mombasa and Lodwar, so I was temporarily missing in action from the real-time commentary on the latest papal fracas.)

In a nutshell, Francis commented on the line “lead us not into temptation” in the English version of the prayer, saying he doesn’t care for it. Here’s a sampling of the headlines we saw from major secular news outlets:

  • “Pope Francis suggests rewording the Lord’s Prayer” (Los Angeles Times)
  • “Pope Francis proposes change to the Lord’s Prayer” (New York Daily News)
  • “Pope Francis calls for Lord’s Prayer to be changed” (The Independent)

Anyone who knows the score would look at those headlines and let loose a sigh of despair. (What they do next is a sort of personality test – most of us would just shrug and move on, but a cranky few would start firing off snarky tweets.)

The problem, of course, is that each of those headlines is fundamentally inaccurate. This pope, and almost certainly no pope ever, would propose changing a prayer that comes from Jesus himself and is at the very core of the Christian faith.

What Francis was talking about instead is a change to the translation of the Lord’s Prayer in English, based upon the phrasing in certain other languages. (As hard as it may be for some Americans to believe, the Our Father was not originally pronounced in English. Jesus likely spoke it in Aramaic, the Semitic language of the Palestine of his day, and it was recorded in the New Testament in koine Greek, meaning the popular Greek of that time.)

Further, Francis wasn’t “proposing” anything either, in the sense of an already formulated and worked-out idea being laid before some decision-making body with the authority to make such a decision.

It probably would be more accurate to say that Pope Francis was thinking out loud, reflecting on the way the Our Father is translated. His beef was that the English version of “lead us not into temptation” could be understood to mean that God causes people to sin, or at least induces us into it.

Instead, he suggested a wider use of the new translation adopted by the French church on Dec. 3, which says, “Do not let us fall into temptation.” Presumably, the idea is that such a formula better captures the idea that when sin occurs, it’s the result of the free will of a human being, not God’s cajoling us into it.

Biblical scholars and liturgists have been arguing over such matters for decades, and while not everyone would agree the new French version is the best possible translation of the Biblical original, most would concede it’s at least within the scope of its meaning, and that the pope’s theological concern is utterly defensible.

The likelihood that this wasn’t the pope previewing a coming mandate, by the way, is augmented by the fact that he recently issued a decree restoring authority over many translation matters to local bishops’ conferences, on the premise they know their own language best. Presumably, Francis wouldn’t miss the irony of a Spanish-speaking pope telling English-speaking bishops how they have to render perhaps the most basic prayer of all into the local argot.

So, yes, there’s probably less than meets the eye here, and yes, some media outlets may have glossed over those nuances. On the other hand, just this once, we might try not to be the guy in the boat, and to give always-overtaxed reporters a break … probably, most of the time, the news, especially when it comes to something as complicated as the Catholic Church, is always going to be a “nuance-optional” business.

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