A Pope Francis story, from the other side of the notebook

Like many GetReligion readers, I was somewhat rattled by that recent Washington Post story about the mainstream press and its love affair with what it thinks Pope Francis is saying about the doctrines of the Catholic church.

Wait a minute. That’s not what the story was about. It was about the state of conservative Catholic nerves in the freewheeling age of Francis.

To refresh your memory, that story started out like this:

Rattled by Pope Francis’s admonishment to Catholics not to be “obsessed” by doctrine, his stated reluctance to judge gay people and his apparent willingness to engage just about anyone — including atheists — many conservative Catholics are doing what only recently seemed unthinkable: They are openly questioning the pope.

But, but, when did the pope say that Catholics were not to be “obsessed” with doctrine, period? Yes, I know that he said the church needs to take a more balanced approach to the defense and advocacy of some doctrines (such as the right to life), focusing on balancing mercy and pastoral care with its proclaiming of ancient truths.

Oh, and conservatives never questioned the actions or decisions of the Blessed John Paul II? One word on that thought: Assisi. And the poet and former actor John Paul II wasn’t interested in communicating with people outside the church? Really?

Still, it was clear to many readers that the Post team tried to provide some sense of perspective after that rather apocalyptic lede. The story did say this, after all:

Never mind that the pope has also made clear his acceptance of church doctrine, which regards gay sex and abortion as sins and bans women from the priesthood. Behind the growing skepticism is the fear in some quarters that Francis’s all-embracing style and spontaneous speech, so open as it is to interpretation, are undoing decades of church efforts to speak clearly on Catholic teachings. Some conservatives also feel that the pope is undermining them at a time when they are already being sidelined by an increasingly secular culture.

That’s close. Doctrinally conservative Catholics are primarily worried about the mainstream press misinterpreting the pope’s words or yanking them out of context. However, the Post noted that concern, too.

I was also struck by this rather blunt statement from a major Catholic voice here inside Beltway-land:

“When [abortion rights group] NARAL sends you a thank-you note, it’s clear something got miscommunicated,” said Robert Royal, president of the D.C. think tank Faith & Reason.

Francis is “a remarkable man, no one would deny that,” Royal said. “But I’m not sure if he cares about being accurate. He gets into an [evangelizing] dynamic with people and that seems to be the most important thing. … In some ways it makes people very anxious. If you do this, what’s the next thing?”

Thus, I found it interesting when Royal published his own critique of the Post piece at The Catholic Thing website. Those interested in media coverage of religion will need to read it all, since it is always interesting to hear from someone on the other side of the reporter’s notebook.

For example, calling a Catholic “Traditionalist,” as in the movement, is not the same thing as saying someone is a traditional Catholic on doctrinal matters. The devil is in the details. God, too.

Also, Royal’s essay is interesting because he seems to have kept a precise record of what he actually said in the interview. Here is a sample of his thoughts:

… (The) most troubling misrepresentation lies on either side of an ellipsis. At one point, we talked about how there have been good and bad popes. I even joked that Benedict XVI, careful theologian that he is, refrained from saying that the Holy Spirit wholly dictates the choice, since we had the Borgias, etc.

“There are better and worse popes and God allows them.” Four dots later I’m portrayed as saying that “I’m getting used to it,” implying that I’m getting used to having a “bad” pope. What came in between, and throughout the interview, but left off the page, was my balanced account of Pope Francis to date: an extraordinary man who has a rare gift for touching people. But in the heat of the moment, when he’s thinking on his feet, occasionally formulates things poorly. He’s said as much himself. I was “getting used to” a great pope who has a tendency to leave some things unclear — the root of the recent controversies.

The Post reporter claimed — and still does — that she doesn’t understand my point since I “blamed” the pope for the misunderstandings that have arisen.

What I really said is that “conservatives,” loyal and respectful as we are whoever is pope, should not simply explain these problems away. Francis can and should be defended. … Still, there are unclear statements. And half-expressed thoughts. It’s not “bad translations.” Similar controversies have arisen in the Italian press. And there are many people, as a result, who think the Church has already changed teachings on homosexuality, abortion, divorce, and the usual modern litany.

They’re wrong, of course, wildly so.

Read it all. There is more to come in this dialogue, I am sure.

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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.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    “Never mind that the pope has also made clear his acceptance of church doctrine, which regards gay sex and abortion as sins and bans women from the priesthood.”

    Because those are the only doctrines held by the Catholic Church. What about paedo- versus creedal baptism, the number of sacraments, the Apostolic Succession and the filioque in the Creed, amongst other matters?

    The more of these kind of stories I read in the papers, the more I sympathise with Chesterton when faced with “The Usual Article”:

    “How many men in the time of their passing get comfort out of the thought of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Predestination, Transubstantiation, the doctrine of eternal punishment, and the belief that Christ will return on the Seventh Day?” The items make a curious catalogue; and the last item I find especially mysterious. But I can only say that, if Christ was the giver of the original and really comforting message of love, I should have thought it did make a difference whether He returned on the Seventh Day. For the rest of that singular list, I should probably find it necessary to distinguish. I certainly never gained any deep and heartfelt consolation from the thought of the Thirty-Nine Articles. I never heard of anybody in particular who did.


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