Mar 4, 2013

Finding Tübingen on a map

From the USA Today:
Back in 1968, when Rev. Joseph Ratzinger was a theology professor in the Bavarian town of Tubingen, a neighbor's cat visited him daily. 
'It even accompanied him to his lectures and to Mass. It was a black cat, a very intelligent pussycat,' the older brother writes.
That's a very nice story about the cat. Dubious, but nice nonetheless. It's very difficult to check the facts on such things.

It's not difficult at all, on the other hand, to check facts about where a city is located. The very simplest fact in this newspaper story is where Tübingen is. Most newsrooms are connected to the internet. If the USA Today's offices aren't, perhaps they could invest in a world atlas.

Supposedly newspapers care about these things, details and accuracy, since it's a matter of credibility. If you can't be trusted with an easily verifiable detail, why should a reader trust any other detail in your story? Saying that Tübingen is a Bavarian town is sloppy.

It's not in the state of Bavaria, nor in the region. Nor is it even particularly close. This is akin to saying New York is a plains state, or that Louisiana is in the Southwest. Pope Benedict is a Bavarian. Maybe the cat was Bavarian. The town where Ratzinger supposedly had a cat listening to his lectures is not Bavarian.

Tübingen is in the state of Baden-Württemberg, in the region known as Swabia. This is relevant because Bavaria is strongly Catholic. Swabia is predominantly Protestant, with a strong tradition of Pietism. The town itself has both a  Protestant seminary and a Catholic seminary, which is unusual in Germany, and is known, historically, for the "Tübingen School" of theology, which pioneered higher criticism, the hermeneutic so important to the religious liberalism and modernism that Benedict has commitment much of his life to opposing.

That means there were three ways that Tübingen was an alien place for Ratzinger (at least three, not even counting what was going on in German universities in '68 or his fraught relationship with Hans Küng). In the standard narrative of his life, his time in Tübingen is pivotal.

He probably could have really used a friendly cat, if the one in the story didn't actually exist.

It's easy to say that it doesn't matter. What's a detail like geography? But if it doesn't matter, then context doesn't matter, and facts don't matter, and understanding stuff doesn't matter. And then why have journalism at all? This is almost certainly an overreaction on my part, but there's a fine line between overreacting and just giving a damn.

The cat thing is cute, though.