Pope Francis on sin, confession and several other things

It was a story that received very little attention in the United States, other than in conservative publications and in the briefs that newsrooms devote to human-interest stories. But here is the top of a longer report in The Daily Mail (with characteristics of British news style intact):

Pope Francis has telephoned a woman who wrote to him to tell her he will baptise her unborn after she refused to have an abortion. …

Shop worker Anna Romano, 35, was on holiday when she received the call from the Argentinian pope, who was elected in March this year.

Anna, from Arezzo near Florence, central Italy, had written to Pope Francis earlier this summer to describe her turmoil at having discovered she was pregnant by a man, who unknown to her, was already married with a child and who demanded she terminate the pregnancy.

In her letter she described to the Pope her dilemma and said to him: ‘I have never been lucky with men, I married when I was young and then things didn’t work out and I got divorced. I then had a few brief relationships until I met a man who I thought was the man of my dreams.

‘In June I discovered I was pregnant through him and when I told him instead of being happy he told me he was already married, already had a child and to have an abortion. I told him that I would not have an abortion and told him to get out of my life.’

Anna added how she was ‘in a desperate and anguished state’ and that she was writing to Pope Francis because she had ‘no-one else to turn to, after being left humiliated and betrayed’.

Let’s assume that this episode was an example of Pope Francis demonstrating what he meant, in the Jesuit publications interview (full English translation here) that is rocketing around the world, when he said that the church needed to focus more attention on helping hurting people and less time — as opposed to no time — expounding its doctrines on moral theology. Let’s say that this episode represents the other half of what the church needs to be doing and saying on this issue.

If so, this symbolic action was hailed by the very conservative Catholics who, in waves of current press reports, are so upset about this pope’s soft approach to the hard social issues.

There is no question that Pope Francis is trying to establish a radically different tone in Vatican public statements. He is the master — similar to the young Pope John Paul II — of symbolic gestures that say more than words, especially in mass media.

However, he is also talking about the fact that the church is a hospital for wounded sinners, such as himself, and that all sinners should be “contrite” — in other words, repentant — and take their wounds into confession, where a spiritual father can help them seek healing.

While saying all of this he has made no attempt to liberalize the content of the teachings that are so controversial to, let’s say, the editorial board of The New York Times.

Now, most people who follow Catholic news carefully — readers on left and right — will agree that John A. Allen, Jr., of the progressive National Catholic Reporter is probably the most consistent, informed news scribe on the planet. So how did he open his report on this remarkable and newsworthy interview?

n a wide-ranging interview for 16 Jesuit publications around the world, including America magazine in the United States, Pope Francis once again has waded into hot-button questions such as homosexuality, abortion and the role of women, not breaking with traditional doctrine but trying to shift the church’s emphasis from condemnation to mercy.

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” Francis says. “Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

The pope also warns against a “restorationist” mentality in Catholicism and insists that “thinking with the church” cannot mean solely thinking with the hierarchy. Francis also pointedly says, “I have never been a right-winger.”

Notice how many of the crucial elements of the interview are mentioned, showing the wide range of its contents. The bottom line: This is not an interview that is about one or two soundbites. Also notice that Allen, in the lede, noted the pope’s commitment to the content of church doctrine.

Later, referring to the pope’s call for a balance between politics and pastoral work on gay issues, Allen summarizes another crucial part of this massive text:

In saying these things, Francis argues, he’s doing no more than rephrasing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which denounces homosexual acts but says homosexual persons are to be treated with “respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

Francis also defends himself against criticism that he hasn’t taken a sufficiently tough line on the culture wars, especially abortion. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he says in the interview. “I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that.”

He indicates, however, he’s not likely to change approach. “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” Francis says, “especially because the teaching of the church on these matters is already clear.”

Now, if there is anything to debate about these words it is this: Has the Catholic church been obsessed with these issues, at the daily level of pulpit and even the national bishops conference, or are these the topics that draw press coverage time and time again?

In other words … Well, here’s the lede on the New York Times story:

Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.

Yes, the Times piece, in one line, notes that the pope did not edit or modify any doctrines, but failed to note the degree to which he actively affirmed — even on gay issues — the content of the church’s catechism, one of the building blocks of the Pope John Paul II-Pope Benedict XVI era.

And then there is the missing pastoral context for one of the interview’s most important quotations:

The pope’s words are likely to have repercussions in a church whose bishops and priests in many countries, including the United States, have often seemed to make combating abortion, gay marriage and contraception their top public policy priorities. Francis said that those teachings have to be presented in a larger context.

“I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” Francis said. “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

Now, anyone who has covered a meeting of the U.S. bishops knows that — on public policy — they spend far more time on issues such as economic injustice and immigration than on Sexual Revolution debates. But never mind.

The pope makes it clear that sinners — including himself — need healing and he points toward a pastoral setting as one of the key places that healing must take place. That setting is confession. And what do sinners do in confession? They repent of the sins that cause wounds, the sins that stand between them and, in church doctrine, true healing and a willingness to embrace salvation.

Notice this confession quote and, when you read the full interview, pay attention to the context:

This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

Sincere regret. An appeal for grace and forgiveness. A desire to make progress, in terms of relationships with others and with the church.

Sounds like confession to me. Is the pope suggesting that this woman had nothing to confess, that sin was not involved in the events that weigh on her conscience? That does not appear to be the case.

So the keys to all of these big stories in the mainstream press: Do they refer to the sin and confession content in the interview, as well as the controversial words about politics, the hierarchy, etc.? And when in doubt, read John A. Allen, Jr. Or, I will add, this let-the-quotes-speak summary by Elizabeth Tenety at The Washington Post.

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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.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    What is clear from reading these secular media stories is that most people equate mercy, tolerance and inclusion with acceptance and affirmation of the sin. What they do not seem to get is exactly what you pointed out, tmatt — mercy presumes that there is something to be merciful about, it presumes there was some wrong done. But the secular culture (of which the media are a huge part) is so intent on wanting to change the Church that it ignores that fact and makes the equation mercy+tolerance+inclusion=acceptance+affirmation of sin.

    • Nils

      And that’s why what he says has to be clarified for people. I have friends who were raised Catholic but are of the very liberal stripe who see the Independent headlines and say “Oh, I love this Pope!” because they see him (through those headlines) as promoting a more liberal socio-political ideology (“The Pope says nonbelievers can go to heaven?! Yay!”). And then I, a confessional Lutheran, find myself in that odd place of having to clarify and defend the Pope’s statements as they apply to the Roman Catholic catechism….
      …y’all can thank me later….

      • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

        As Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohey, said to Michael Oher’s high school football coach, Burt Cotton, in The Blind Side, “It’s later, Burt.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76nhIfp9gr0 Thank you, Nils.

      • Julia B

        I’ll thank you now.

  • Susan Windley-Daoust

    I appreciate the even-handedness analysis you are trying to employ here…but I can’t help but cheer for a more conservative Catholic paper’s blogger headline: Go home, New York Times, You’re Drunk. Makes some good points too. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/steven-greydanus/go-home-new-york-times-youre-drunk?fb_action_ids=10151892077830609&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map={%2210151892077830609%22%3A232808780206522}&action_type_map={%2210151892077830609%22%3A%22og.likes%22}&action_ref_map=[]

    • Jay

      “Well. Clearly someone’s obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and contraception. But I don’t think it’s the Church.”

      Best line in the whole thing :)

    • Julia B

      I saw that headline this morning and nearly choked I laughed so hard.

      And the ugly comparisons with Benedict are so offensive. The dean of Italian Vatican watchers has some really eye-opening quotations from Benedict that never made the US papers. Hard to distinguish his words from something Francis would say.

      My guess is that Benedict’s manner did him in with the press. He’s a quiet professor who read written statements instead of orating and making lots of eye contact, but his message was not that much different than Francis. This interview with Francis was handled marvelously with a lot of effort put into a great and accurate English translation. Too bad Benedict didn’t have that kind of English translation committee. The Jebbies certainly take care of their own.

      http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/francesco-francis-francisco-27992/

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    The Church is supposedly obsessed with “sex” issues. Compare the media coverage of the magazine interview with the much lesser media coverage of the pope’s encyclical on Faith.

    • FW Ken

      Heck, compare the media coverage with what the pope said. Out of 12,000 words, the attention is laser-focused on a very few.

    • wlinden

      “John Morris says the Lepchas are obsessed with sex. (The Lepchas says John Morris is obsessed with sex.)” — John Sack, REPORT FROM PRACTICALLY NOWHERE.

  • FW Ken

    My favorite article so far has been from The Telegraph.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/the-pope/10320928/Pope-Francis-Catholic-Church-could-fall-like-a-house-of-cards.html

    The best line:

    “In another characteristically startling admission he declared himself a sinner.”

    They used “he declared himself a sinner” twice they were so shocked.

  • Rachel

    I agree with Pope Francis about the “obsession” with sex issues. If one were to listen to Catholic radio (most of it is EWTN feed), watch EWTN, read the National Catholic Register, and any other orthodox Catholic media, one could get the impression that they are obsessed with abortion/homosexuality/contraception. I think that as a Catholic, my Church does tend to project that these are the only issues that are important. Of course they are but they aren’t the only important issues. As for as the US Bishops conferences, hardly anyone pays attention to them so their voices are not as loud.

    • tmatt

      And what is your response to the JOURNALISM issues in the post?


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