We expend a lot of energy decrying pontification on cable news, in the op-ed pages of the major papers, in the blogosphere, etc. But when the pontification is literal—as it is in the case of an article in the Times of London, headlined “Pope says world financial system ‘built on sand’”—delicacy and, above all, accuracy should be the order of the day.
Which makes the headline the Times chose for its article particularly baffling—since “world financial system ‘built on sand’” is not, actually, what the Pontiff said. Here’s Benedict’s general mention of the world financial system, which he made while opening a council of bishops in the Vatican earlier today, per the Times article itself:
“He who builds only on visible and tangible things like success, career and money builds the house of his life on sand.”
He added: ”We are now seeing, in the collapse of major banks, that money vanishes, it is nothing. All these things that appear to be real are in fact secondary. Only God’s words are a solid reality.”
The message here? Money is, in light of other realities, worthless. So to build one’s life around it is to build upon a shaky foundation. The Pope’s mention of building “the house of his life on sand” is a direct allusion to this passage from the Gospel of Matthew.
So, while the Times’s headline—which was picked up, verbatim, by Drudge this afternoon—may be in the neighborhood in terms of Benedict’s message, that’s about as far as it goes. Per the paper’s own roundabout logic, since the Pope said money “is nothing,” its headline for this particular article could just as easily have been, “Pope says Wall Street doesn’t exist.”
Which, you know: Not accurate. And not cool. Because, whatever one’s faith, a good rule of thumb when it comes to reporting on the Pope is this: Don’t put words in his mouth.Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.