Hey! So who is calling the new pope ‘unorthodox’?

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So, a faithful GetReligion reader was working his way through a story printed by The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., when a most unorthodox turn of phrase reared up and slapped him in his Catholic face.

The story focused on the fact that the sudden death of the local Catholic shepherd, Bishop Joseph McFadden, was going to provide Pope Francis his first opportunity to oversee the full process of selecting a new diocesan leader.

The outcome would offer the experts another opportunity to see what makes this pontiff tick, in terms of church doctrine and tradition. Thus, in that context, the story noted:

A few weeks ago, Francis marked the 50th world day of prayer for vocations by ordaining 10 men to the priesthood to serve in the Diocese of Rome.

Francis, who is widely considered a reformer, has received early criticism in some circles for his lack of doctrinal orthodoxy. He has selected eight cardinals to find ways to reform the Church.

Now wait just a minute!

Yes, there are people who have raised questions about the new pope’s less formal approach to liturgy, especially in comparison with the very traditional Pope Benedict XVI. But very few Catholics have raised their criticisms to the level of doctrine. In terms of his actions in the past, Francis has been a very solid Catholic on issues of morality and doctrine.

What was going on here? Didn’t the team at The Patriot-News realize it was making a very, very serious accusation?

Thus, Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz sent a note to the reporter in question (while also copying your GetReligionistas). The note said, in part:

In your article headlined “Naming successor to Bishop McFadden: For Pope Francis it will be a first of sorts,” you stated the following: “Francis, who is widely considered a reformer, has received early criticism in some circles for his lack of doctrinal orthodoxy.” I would like to know who has made that criticism. I read widely in Catholic circles and I have yet to see anyone criticize him for lacking doctrinal orthodoxy. I have seen him criticized because of how he conducts his liturgy and because he has put aside many of the trappings of the papal office, but to my knowledge, no one has said that he lacks doctrinal orthodoxy.

You may not realize it, but that’s a huge statement. For a pope to be unorthodox in doctrine would be huge news.

To the newspaper’s credit, the story was quickly tweaked — with a correction at the end.

Thus, if you visit the newspaper’s website to read that particular story, this is what you will now find:

Francis is widely considered a reformer, which in some circles has been mistaken for a lack of doctrinal orthodoxy. Francis has put aside many of the trappings of the papal office and been criticized for how he conducts his liturgy but has shown no indication of abandoning doctrinal orthodoxy. He has selected eight cardinals to find ways to reform the Church.

That’s much better and, of course, every attempt to correct printed mistakes should be applauded. I also recognize that this is a short story about a local church development, not an in-depth look at the work of Pope Francis.

Nevertheless, the heart of the problem demonstrated in this case is the whole “in some circles” wording, a touch of journalistic fog that — in the age of online search engines — could easily be replaced with one or two phrases pointing toward real criticisms by real traditionalist critics who have real names.

So, this correction was a nice gesture. But the newspaper only needed to add one more sentence to complete the job. Maybe next time.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bison70

    It really just looks like [the reporter] should have used a dictionary to look up the word “doctrine”, in common usage doctrine [has a] foggy [meaning], and arguably includes liturgical practice. [Reporters should strive for exact language.]

    [Edited for clarity]

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Bison, no, I didn’t need to look up the word “doctrine.” It can be used in many different contexts, such as military “doctrine.” And that’s precisely why I objected to the reporter’s use of it. Doctrine in Christian usage has a very specific meaning and it’s even clearer in Catholic usage — and it doesn’t include liturgical practice.

      To say that a pope lacks doctrinal orthodoxy would be to say that he’s not teaching the faith that Catholics believe has been faithfully handed on from the time of Christ. As I told the reporter in a section that tmatt didn’t quote, “We’ve had immoral popes up the whazoo (see Showtime’s “The Borgias”), we’ve had incompetent popes, we’ve had arrogant popes. But so far, no popes have been doctrinally heterodox.” Now it’s likely that some of my Orthodox and Protestant brethren here will disagree with that (and yes, Mollie, that does include Leo X), but in Catholic understanding, that has not happened.

      Liturgical practice is, of course, tied to doctrinal orthodoxy, but simplifying the rites, wearing different vesture or even washing the feet of a Muslim girl on Holy Thursday does not equal doctrinal unorthodoxy. Bad liturgical practice can reflect doctrinal heterodoxy, but the Pope has not practiced liturgy badly; he’s only done it in a less formal manner than that of his predecessor. To equate the two is simply wrong.

      • Bison70

        I’m sorry for the confusion, but I was suggesting Ivey DeJesus, the writer of the original report in the Patriot-News, should have used a dictionary.

        A little research goes a long way in mediating mistakes like this. If I’m not sure of the exact definition of a word, I usually look it up before I even post on the internet. But apparently it’s too much to ask professionals to do the same.

        Look at the Easter “resurrected into Heaven” story. Nobody considered that awkward wording and maybe google for a more exact phrase? Apparently not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-OKeeffe/100002559433793 Martha O’Keeffe

    There seems to be a slight confusion on the part of the newspaper as to what or who constitutes those “some circles” making the accusations of lacking orthodoxy. So far that I’ve seen, it’s been a tiny minority of very ultra-Traditionalist types who made those kinds of comments early on, and frankly they wouldn’t be satisfied with the Archangel Gabriel himself unless he signed up to all their list of demands (Tridentine Mass everywhere right now the way we decide it should be said being the main one).

    So a bit more detail about who the people saying the new pope lacked orthodoxy are would have been helpful; as it stands, the phrasing doesn’t tell the uninformed reader whether that’s ten people scattered across twenty towns in America or a couple of hundred thousand worldwide.

    What I am anticipating reading is the coverage regarding Pope Francis and the LCWR; if this story as covered in Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s blog is correct, then the pope is not alone supporting the CDF in the recommendations they made following the Apostolic Visitation, he is firmly on the ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’ side when it comes to religious and consecrated life – something I will be very interested to see how the Nuns on the Bus and their media supporters interpret, seeing as how Francis has been (to date) contrasted favourably with Benedict as not being rigid, authoritarian, papal grandeur, pomp, etc. :-)

  • AuthenticBioethics

    The revision is better but it’s still off. The first sentence would have been better not mentioning doctrine or orthodoxy, although the end of the second sentence does help it. Yet, it also leaves it flat. It comes off as saying, “there’s a big controversy but it’s nothing controversial.”


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