Hey WPost: What did Pope Francis say about abortion?

It is a serious understatement to note that Pope Francis has made more than his share of news during the honeymoon months of his papacy. Mainstream reporters have rushed to cover almost everything this charismatic leader has had to say.

The “almost everything” clause is, however, rather important.

It was news, for example, when the pope said that the church has been unbalanced in its approach to promoting it’s teachings on the sanctity of life, stressing public-square politics over pastoral care. Yes, the word “obsessed” was worthy of big headlines. However, days later, journalists on this side of the Atlantic ignored his ringing words at a global conference focusing on abortion and other family life issues. So some pronouncements on abortion are newsworthy and others are not.

Now, Pope Francis has released an important “apostolic exhortation” — the title is Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) in which, in very popular language, he addresses a wide range of topics, everything from global economics to improving the preaching in local pulpits.

So what is grabbing the headlines? Consider the top of this The Washington Post report:

Pope Francis on Tuesday sharply criticized growing economic inequality and unfettered markets in a wide-ranging and decidedly populist teaching that revealed how he plans to reshape the Catholic Church.

In his most authoritative writings as pontiff, Francis decried an “idolatry of money” in secular culture and warned that it would lead to “a new tyranny.” But he reserved a large part of his critique for what he sees as an excessively top-down Catholic Church hierarchy, calling for more local governance and greater inclusiveness — including “broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”

The 50,000-word statement is the latest sign that Francis intends to push the church in a new direction.

Viewing the document through a DC Beltway lens, the Post team also jumped — appropriately, I think — on the fact that Pope Francis used a strikingly American term during his discussion of the weaknesses of unfettered capitalism. His content was very similar to similar statements by the Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but in this case the style is crucial.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Francis wrote in the papal statement. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

“Meanwhile,” he added, “the excluded are still waiting.”

Although Francis has previously raised concerns about the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the direct reference to “trickle-down” economics in the English translation of his statement is striking. The phrase has often been used derisively to describe a popular version of conservative economic philosophy that argues that allowing the wealthy to run their businesses unencumbered by regulation or taxation bears economic benefits that lead to more jobs and income for the rest of society. Liberals and Democratic officials have rejected the theory, saying it is contradicted by economic evidence.

This is certainly a very important section of “The Joy of the Gospel.” However, it is very, very interesting to note that the Post article — after the earlier media firestorm about this pope’s words on abortion — completely ignores the strong passage in the new document about abortion and related issues. The passage even, like the “trickle-down” reference, includes a word that can be seen as linked to political and theological battles in America and elsewhere.

This passage is long, but it’s important to consider the words of Pope Francis in context (full text in .pdf):

213. Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.

Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.

Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative.

Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.

It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.

Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.

Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. …

214. Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question.

I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”.

It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.

On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?

It’s crucial to note two things in this remarkable passage. First of all, Pope Francis — being totally orthodox — directly links the ancient church’s teachings on abortion to its work on human rights and treating the poor and needy with dignity and compassion. These issues cannot be pried apart. Thus, the abortion passage is linked to the newsworthy passages on economic justice.

Second, surely it is not a coincidence that Pope Francis — using direct quote marks, “scare quotes” even — states: “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”

Doesn’t that “progressive” term sound as Beltway-esque these days as the “trickle-down theories” remark?

To it’s credit, The New York Times team managed to include this section of “The Joy of the Gospel” in its report, even if this information was slotted at the very bottom of the report. Also, the Times did not link the abortion passage to the headline-grabbing statements on economic justice.

After months in which many have parsed his comments for hints of change, the pope used the document to reiterate church teachings on abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women. On abortion, he said, “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations,” who may seek abortions because of rape or extreme poverty.

Nowhere in the document did Francis speak explicitly of homosexuality or same-sex marriage. However, he said the church should not give in to “moral relativism,” and cited with approval a document written by the bishops of the United States on ministering to people with “homosexual inclination.” The pope said the American bishops are right that the church must insist on “objective moral norms which are valid for everyone” — even when the church is perceived by supporters of gay rights as promoting prejudice and interfering with individual freedom.

Echoing his predecessors, Francis said that ordaining women to the priesthood “is not a question open to discussion.” He acknowledged that “many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests,” and said, “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church.” But he offered no specifics on doing so.

The Los Angeles Times briefly — very briefly — mentioned the pope’s reaffirmation of church teachings on abortion and connected them to the “obsessed” media storm:

(Pope Francis) also warned that he would not be changing the church’s viewpoint on abortion, gay marriage and female priests, although he did call for women to be given more decision-making clout within the church. On the Vatican’s opposition to abortion, Francis says the church “cannot be expected to change her position on this question.”

The pope captured attention in September when he complained that the Catholic Church had been “obsessed” with issues such as abortion, gay marriage and contraception, to the exclusion of other important matters.

Well, that isn’t exactly what the pope said last September. And what about the new remark addressing “progressives”? Oh well, whatever, never mind.

The key is that journalists at The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times gave some evidence that they read the complete papal document and gave readers an update on this pope’s thinking on some newsworthy topics that, a few months ago, were worthy of bold headlines.

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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.

  • Thinkling

    The strikingly American term “trickle down economics” that you refer to is apparently an artifact of an unscrupulous translator, one who apparently changed the entire meaning of that particular paragraph form the original Spanish.

    Not a journalistic point per se but it might help explain the observed (im)balance of coverage described here.

    Calling someone unscrupulous is a serious charge but I saw the original Spanish and the phrase for “by itself” in the original was omitted from the paragraph, completely changing its tenor from one of standard Catholic social theory to a fervent anti-capitalistic screed. I will see if I can dig up the comparisons.

    Good piece, showing another example of bad religious journalism, by which I mean religious journalism revealing more about the journalist than the religious story itself.

    • William Barto

      Here’s the Spanish: En este contexto, algunos todavía defienden las teorías del «derrame», que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo. I think that derrame means “spillover” and I think it is a bit strong to say that “trickle down” is an “unscrupulous” translation. Moreover, translating the colloquial “by itself” as “inevitably” is pretty much equivalent wording, wouldn’t you say? If anything, “inevitably” could be a more generous translation of the effect of “trickle down” economics, couldn’t it? I do not think this explains the unbalanced reportage at all. As Terry noted, the imbalance is because they do not like what the Pope had to say about abortion.

      • Thinkling

        Translation can be subtle, but I stand by my analysis (look up the entymological history of “trickle down”). To be fair, I suppose refining the translation may not in the end made any difference; poor journalism is usually way worse than poor translation.

        • jasonbmiller

          You’re still missing the point – this article is about abortion. This reveals more about your bias.

    • Arimathean

      The key to piece of information we need is the standard Spanish translation (if any exists) of the phrase “trickle-down economics”. Is “derrame” the established translation of that phrase or not? If not, then your point stands. I will ask my Argentine economist colleague about this.

      • Arimathean

        I checked the Vatican website. The term “trickle-down” appears on page 46 (paragraph 54, first sentence) of the the official English translation:
        http://www.vatican.va/evangelii-gaudium/en/index.html#46

        Here is what my Argentine colleague said:

        Yes, it is a good translation. I don’t know if “derrame” is the best, most common, most accepted word for trickle-down (I don’t think there is a single good translation), but it conveys the idea pretty well.

        Usually “derrame” would be applied to represent “spill”: a process that starts at some point in space or time and expands kind of freely to other places or times. Per se, it does not imply any vertical process (no sense of trickling “down”). But I think it captures the concept behind trickle down pretty well.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The real issue to me is how much they trumpeted his alleged statement regarding being “obsessed” with those hot-button issues and then, when he directly contradicts their allegation, it suddenly becomes, as you said, “Oh well, whatever, never mind.” So how do we hold their feet to the fire? How do we hold them accountable for giving us false information and then, when confronted with the truth, simply ignore it?

    • tmatt

      That’s easy. Do what all activist groups do. Request face to face meetings with editors. Once a month. Keep talking. Praise the good as well as criticize the bad. Encourage schools in your faith tradition to produce young journalists — real journalists, not PR pros.

  • R. Howell

    …to promoting it’s teachings on the sanctity of life…

    “it’s” with an apostrophe means “it is”

    “its” without an apostrophe means “belonging to it”.

    you’re welcome.

  • Julia B

    Here’s the official English translation of the whole thing at the Vatican website.

    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.html

    I, too, am leery of English translations of Vatican documents containing terms specific to US politics. Francis is not fluent in English and has repeatedly said so. And why would he be using US terms in a document for the universal church?
    Ideally, Cardinal O’Malley should look over English translations of Francis’ documents and speeches – he’s totally comfortable with Spanish and is a close friend of Francis.
    It kind of reminds me of corssword puzzles put together by young people who don’t really understand the context of words and phrases. Often the clues are off by a degree or two because the author doesn’t really get how the term is actually used.

    • jasonbmiller

      Why in the world would you suggest that O’Malley look at the translation? Archbishop Gomez would be much more suited, since he has a more intimate connection to Latin American cultures, hence the subtlety of some of the colloquialisms would not be lost.

      • Julia B

        Perhaps both would be better. I’m thinking of how to use English phrases and political terms and figures of speech. I’m fairly certain that Francis would not use the term “trickle down” – that is a US political term to berate a specific economic theory that the speaker disagrees with. Gomez came to the US as an adult and I’m not sure he is suitably conversant with the nuances of US political discourse judging from some things I’ve seen him say.
        Another US political phrase I’ve seen in strange English translations from the Vatican is “lobby” to mean a “special interest group”, or a “bloc” or a behind-the-scenes group of like-minded people who help each other out – not a “lobby” in the sense that we use it in the US. It is definitely a US term b/c it originated to describe people who hung around in the lobbies of hotels and the Capitol and even the White House way back when to pressure politicians. It’s perfectly legal in the US as the Constitution allows the people to petition their government. That is definitely not what is going on with the gay priests in the Curia. Whoever translated Francis’ reference to these folks doesn’t understand what the term “lobby” means.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Ah, I’ve about given up on mainstream news media. I was made aware of the new “Apostolic Exhortation” through my newsfeeds, all of which had headines in the vein of “Pope challenges/condemns capitalism”.

    I hit up Rocco Palmo’s site (thank God for him) and get a link to the actual document, and guess what hits my eyes when I start to read it? All about evangelisation! The bit about money doesn’t come until well into it!

    As for the point about women, they somehow neglected to mention that Francis is not stirring on women’s ordination (excerpt follows):

    “104. Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the
    firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with
    profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded. The
    reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives
    himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove
    especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in
    general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power “we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness”.”

    I’m not holding my breath for reporting. which doesn’t try to filter faith statements through the lens of politics, any time soon.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Thinking of omitted coverage: I read, BUT have yet to see a photograph of Russia’s Putin kissing an icon of Mary when he visited the pope. Maybe no picture was taken.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Ken–Thanks for the lead. There is a great picture of Putin and the pope, but unless I subscribe to the Houston newspaper I apparently can’t pull up the actual photo of Putin venerating Our Blessed Mother with a kiss. But since it is an AP Gallery it should pop up on some site, I presume.

    • FW Ken

      Strange, because I don’t subscribe to the Chronicle, but could see the gallery. Anyway, this should get you the picture:

      http://tinyurl.com/l4xtmy7

  • markkrite

    I notice in this piece a lot of quibbling about what Pope Francis “really” said or didn’t say in his ‘Apostolic Exhortation,’ but very little or nothing about the point of Mattingly’s article about the ‘exhortation,’ and that’s supposed to be concerning his, Pope Francis, and the Church’s position re abortion, i.e., legalized baby killing, an abomination before the Lord. Ever since the issuance of the Didache some 1,800 years ago, I don’t think the position of the Catholic Church could be more clear: that abortion is anathema for practicing Catholics, and, once again, an abomination before the Lord. Kind of end of story. So why not a reiteration of this timeless teaching by Mattingly? With the carnage resulting from the legalization of such an abhorrent practice, since 1980 more than 1 BILLION abortions have occurred worldwide. Wouldn’t that have become a useful stat to relate? And where’s the call to much more penance, prayer and self-abnegation on the part of the people who live in the way too affluent nations that by their relentless self-absorption, pursuit of wealth at any cost and mindless extravagance generate the conditions that result in such genocide? Too much food for thought? God help and protect us all from the machinations of lucifer, who’s behind so much of this (with too many people’s co-operation).

  • JohnStefanyszyn

    “Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems,” Francis wrote.

    Read more at http://global.christianpost.com/news/pope-francis-laments-victims-of-abortion-worlds-throwaway-culture-112599/#WQzEB55QXVTpo481.99

    Jorge Bergoglio, you turn to your first belief and way of life….that of freedom of self-rights to defend the unborn child….because…

    This same “freedom of rights” also dictates that the Catholics are entitled to religious freedom.

    However…

    This same “freedom “ also dictates that the Muslims are entitled to the same religious freedom.

    This same “freedom” also dictates that the Jews are entitled to their religious freedom.

    This same “freedom” also dictates that the atheists are entitled to their belief freedom.

    This same “freedom” also dictates that the homosexuals are entitled to their “equal” freedom.

    This same “freedom” also dictates that the woman who wants an abortion is entitled to her freedom to do so….for she believes that it is right in her eyes to do so.

    Bergoglio, you embrace the same “freedom” that Adam and Eve embraced so as to to be free to “know”….to establish good and evil in their own eyes….for each to do what is right in their own eyes…..the same “freedom” that satan embraces so as to place his way above that of the One Creator.

    It is not “freedom of self-rights” that will protect the unborn child….but only love for the One and Only Creator and love for the other….as Christ, Son of the Only God, showed us.

    Note…Christ will rule the earth as the One King in power according to the Will of the Only Creator and NOT according to man’s first love for “his freedom”.

    John Stefanyszyn

    …a bondman of the One Lord and King Jesus Christ.


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