Journalists editing Pope Francis: Who are we to judge?

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Sometimes, in this tricky world of media criticism, it’s hard to pay attention to what someone said without focusing too much on which person, from what group, did the alleged media criticism.

So in this case, let’s read some of the words in a specific op-ed essay before we get to the issue of who wrote them.

This is a short piece, so we can actually parse most of the actual contents. Let’s begin at the beginning:

Not a day goes by without a pundit or editorial writer opining on what Pope Francis said about some controversial issue. While every pope, as well as every religious and secular leader, properly has his remarks subjected to scrutiny, Pope Francis is having his words sliced and diced far beyond anything his predecessors were accustomed to. Quite frankly, the goal of many commentators is to make the pope’s statements appear to underscore their own ideological agenda.

Frankly, there is a lot of that going on out there. This is almost as big a problem on the right, when dealing with papal statements on, oh, capitalism (hello, Rush Limbaugh) as it is on the left (hello college of cardinals at The New York Times editorial pages). However, since the Times is much more important than Limbaugh, when talking about mainstream journalism, let’s proceed on that tact.

Nothing excites the passions of those on the left today more than gay rights. Their obsession is shown with Pope Francis’ comment, made over the summer, “Who am I to judge?” …

What Francis said was, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” The difference between what he is quoted as saying, and what he actually said, is not minor. Those who parse his words agree, which is why they parse them. It is important to note that the pope did not offer two sentences: his one sentence was chopped to alter his message.

We will get to the full papal transcript in just a minute. However, based on my own reading of waves of coverage of this pope and this statement in particular, I believe that this is an accurate statement about how this one papal phrase is being yanked out of context.

Yes, the statement is important and, yes, the tone of the statement is important. But so is the content of the full quote.

Here is the paragraph of this op-ed that I thought would most interest GetReligion readers, especially those working in mainstream newsrooms:

A Lexis-Nexis search discloses that there are 907 articles that cite the phrase, “Who am I to judge” and “Pope Francis.” When letters to the editor and duplicates are filtered out, the final tally is 799. Of that number, 494, or 62 percent of the total, contain just the words, “Who am I to judge?” Only 305, or 38 percent, report the entire sentence. Moreover, it is becoming more common to distort what he said, not less.

I know. The wording is not very precise. I wish that the author had drawn a few bright lines between news articles in mainstream publications, editorials, columns, op-eds and analysis pieces in advocacy-model news websites. Frankly, when it comes to journalism ethics and craft, what happens at The New York Times is more important than what happens at The Huffington Post.

Anyway, this short piece was written by William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the United States, a media critic who rarely settles for using a fly swatter when a baseball bat will do. Nevertheless, the numbers in that Lexis-Nexis search are troubling.

The mainstream media editing of this quote is even more disturbing when the full context of these words is considered. Here is the entire, verbatim exchange — from an informal press conference on the papal flight returning from Buenos Aires — translated into English at Zenit.org.

REPORTER: I would like to ask permission to ask a somewhat delicate question: another image has also gone around the world, which is that of Monsignor Ricca and news about your privacy. I would like to know, Holiness, what do you intend to do about this question. How to address this question and how Your Holiness intends to address the whole question of the gay lobby?

POPE FRANCIS: In regard to Monsignor Ricca, I’ve done what Canon Law orders to do, which is the investigatio previa. And from this investigatio there is nothing of which they accuse him, we haven’t found anything of that.

This is the answer. But I would like to add something else on this: I see that so many times in the Church, outside of this case and also in this case, they go to look for the “sins of youth,” for instance, and this is published. Not the crimes, alas. Crimes are something else: the abuse of minors is a crime. No, the sins.

But if a person, lay or priest or Sister, has committed a sin and then has converted, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is important for our life. When we go to confession and truly say: “I have sinned in this,” the Lord forgets and we don’t have the right not to forget, because we run the risk that the Lord won’t forget our [sins]. That’s a danger. This is important: a theology of sin. I think so many times of Saint Peter: he committed one of the worst sins, which is to deny Christ, and with this sin he was made Pope. We must give it much thought.

But, returning to your more concrete question: in this case, I’ve done the investigatio previa and we found nothing. This is the first question. Then you spoke of the gay lobby. Goodness knows! So much is written of the gay lobby. I still have not met one who will give me the identity card with “gay”. They say that they exist. I think that when one meets a person like this, one must distinguish the fact of being a gay person from the fact of doing a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. That’s bad. If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in such a beautiful way, it says, Wait a bit, as is said and says: “these persons must not be marginalized because of this; they must be integrated in society.”

The problem isn’t having this tendency, no. We must be brothers, because this is one, but there are others, others. The problem is the lobbying of this tendency: lobby of the avaricious, lobby of politicians, lobby of Masons, so many lobbies. This, for me, is the more serious problem.

So, GetReligion readers, what is the actual topic of this exchange? What is the pope’s larger point? How would you express it?

Hint: Based on my reading, it appears that the pope’s remarks center on contrasting the struggles of a humble sinner seeking a relationship with God with that of a public activist in a lobby trying to make a political point.

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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

    You are correct and it is summed up in this phrase of the Pope’s: “The problem isn’t having this tendency, no…The problem is the lobbying of this tendency…” Therein lies the issue and therein lies the phrase the media have conveniently ignored because it doesn’t fit their agenda. And since most people are only going to know about what the Pope actually said through their outlets, they’re controlling the conversation in the direction they want it to go. So it makes you wonder how many people are embracing a hologram of the Pope that the media have constructed.

  • James Scott

    I am resolved no matter what the Pope says or how he says it the Media will spin it to fit their narrative.

    Pope Francis is their Liberal John XXIV fantasy. Today they are shouting “Hosanna!” and dreaming how he will condemn capitalism and allow women priests and gay marriage. But at the end of the day sooner or later reality will hit them & they will all shout “GIVE US BARABBAS!!!!”.

    All this has happened before.

    • Howard

      Who can say? If he were to die today, he would become more and more of a “liberal saint” in the retelling. How many in the media or in politics today doubt that John Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., would have supported “gay marriage”? They certainly did not in real life, and it’s doubtful either would have had he lived a full life, but the myth has become to the man as Santa Claus is to Saint Nicholas.

      • wlinden

        And there would be another outburst of conspiracy literature insisting he was murdered by Them. (Already “liberals” are expressing fear of this.)

      • Trevor Plug

        I don’t think he would become a “liberal saint”. Happily, we who are
        chronologically close to his hypothetical death do not have 16 centuries
        to wait, for mythology to arise. Instead, we will be left with his
        corpus of written and spoken word, and we can finally take a moment to
        digest it properly.

        • Howard

          [Wow, I've got to start going back and reading the first post. I see now I had already brought up the St. Nicholas bit, which I had forgotten. My reply is now edited down sharply to remove confusing redundancy.]

          We didn’t have to wait 16 days after his elevation to the papacy for his mythology to arise. I’m afraid one does not have to be dead to have people mistake a cartoonish caricature for reality, though. Politicians “live and die” by these caricatures (“man of the people” or “bumbling idiot”, for example), and usually it is only a caricature that is addressed in opinion pieces.

  • David Brainerd

    Its becoming increasingly clear that this pope has a terminal case of diarrhea of the mouth. He needs to take the advise of Francis of Assisi, or whoever it is that really came up with the Adage, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” If ever there was anyone who should not be using words, its Pope Francis…because he always gets them wrong.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      And it seems rather apparent that you didn’t read what he said. As Lori Pieper pointed out, the Pope clearly stated that these are sins being discussed. And as I stated earlier, he also made it clear that he’s against the homosexual lobby and all the other lobbies. So this is not a case of “constipated brain and diarrhetic lips” as my late father-in-law used to say, but the very filtering ears of the media.

      • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

        Thank you Thomas. I should also point out that whoever did make up that cute little saying about “using words if necessary,” it certainly wasn’t St. Francis. He evidently preached quite a few blistering sermons in words on occasion, and was very outspoken. Then there were his letters. . . . His papal namesake is actually a lot like him!

  • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

    What is most amazing to me is that no one has ever quoted the lengthy first part about sin and forgiveness, where it’s clear that the sins being talked about are homosexual ones. (Msgr. Battista Ricci has been accused of homosexual sins dating a decade or more ago, and the “gay lobby” in the Vatican was supposedly covering up these things in his record).

    Pope Francis is saying the sins could be forgiven, the “lobby” activities are a different story. Why did no one write a story saying the Pope said that homosexual actions are a sin and that they need forgiveness by God? The distortion is a travesty, and is no so esconced in people’s minds that it’s almost impossible to get the truth into the light. Talk about the power of the press!

    • Paul Sho

      The Church should annex the power of the press for her purposes. How to do it? By reiterating the key points she wants to get across to the people.

      If the papacy feel homosexual acts are grave sins let them reiterate and not throw up the hands and say, “O, the Press!”
      PS: I don’t believe the press is misinterpreting the present papacy; I believe the present papacy is deliberating engaging in doublespeak so as to water down the church’s teaching on homosexuality.

      This are testing times. cf Revelations 12, 13, 17 & 18. cf http://www.prophetamos3m.com

      • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

        Paul, it wasn’t the Pope saying “O the press!” — it was me. I think we are entitled. Also Francis made it abundantly clear up above that homosexual acts are sinful. Did you even read what he said?

        • Paul Sho

          Fair enough.

          Now let’s hear him reiterate it over and over again till it gets through the skulls of people at the Advocate Magazine.
          In this way the gay activist magazine will likely vote the pope ‘villain of the year’ for 2014. Now that will be something.

          • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

            Thanks for at least admitting you were wrong in your perception.

            Unfortunately, it makes little difference to people like those at the Advocate. They had the same text available to them that we do, and obviously failed to read it honestly. I think dishonesty is playing a large part in what is going on with the media and the Pope. Ultimately, they are responsible for it, not Francis. Though I think he will probably be a lot more careful in his interviews now, especially when he sees how treacherous some in the press are. Remember he seldom gave interviews as a bishop, and evidently had little experience in the matter.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    It is clear that large quarters of the media are reporting on Pope Francis in a manner to promote certain agendas of theirs. And the NY Times makes it an easy job for them.
    The Times power comes because every media outlet from weekly local journals to national news networks lets the Times set their agenda for them by always reporting on Times stories and story spins as THE day’s important news realities-even if the Times is never mentioned directly.
    Most editors and reporters and news broadcasters admittedly don’t let a day go by without checking on what the Times considers are the big stories of the day and how the Times spins them.
    This is real (but mostly unquestioned) power.

  • Paul Sho

    Terry Mattingly what about if a priest is gay and has NO goodwill and is NOT seeking the Lord? What happens then? That is the question that needs to be addressed.
    As a popular catholic TV internet outlet reported some days ago, a certain diocese in the USA had a Christmas party in which the majority of priests attending came along with their sexually active boyfriends.
    Bergoglio, what now?

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Obviously, that Christmas party isn’t Pope Francis’s problem, but the bishop’s.

      • Howard

        It may not be the Pope’s immediate responsibility, but it is his problem, as it is a problem for every Catholic.

  • Rene

    The expression “who am I to judge?” is not the only one that has caused dismay among many faithful Catholics. It is true that the press is using his expressions to further their agenda. I believe it is also true that Pope Francis needs to be more careful when he opens his mouth, because many, including Catholics, get their information through the secular media. Many today are thoroughly confused about what Pope Francis stands for, and this is not healthy for the Church. As the Vicar of Christ on earth, he has the solemn responsibility of speaking clearly to a confused world.

  • Katalina

    I disagree on the Christmas Party incident it is the Pope’s problem because he either does not know or care that this lifestyle is strongly accepted by many of the upper and lowers clergy. And for the record there is a Lavender Mafia even in the Vatican itself. This was reveled last spring by a Polish priest. I hope Francis addresses this issue very soon because it was ignored under John Paul and Benedict. Most of the clerical sex abusers were same sex clerics despite what certain reports have wrongly stated.

  • Sygurd Jonfski

    If the pope always started his doctrinal statements with “The Catechism of the Catholic Church says…”, much of this nonsense would be avoided. Unfortunately, his often excessive and imprecise verbiage is open to misinterpretation and manipulation.

    • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

      That is exactly what he did here – in his statement “Who am I to judge?” he appealed precisely to the Catechism! Each and every person in the media has that work readily available to them on the internet (on the Vatican web page). None seems even to have peeked inside it for clues. But they are bound to misinterpret Francis, no matter what he does.

      Of course, they did the exact same thing with Pope Benedict – the condom furor in his “Light of the World” interview, for instance. Have people forgotten so soon? But I don’t recall nearly as many Catholics scolding Benedict for his imprecision. But then Benedict already had the traditionalists’ hearts, so everything he did was fine with them. It only takes the suspicion that the pope is “liberal” (He’s a Jesuit and from Latin America, ergo he’s a Marxist Liberation Theologian and a dissenter on Church Teaching!!) and nothing he does can ever be right.

      • Sygurd Jonfski

        “That is exactly what he did here – in his statement “Who am I to judge?” he appealed precisely to the Catechism!”

        That’s exactly why I have written “If the pope always started his doctrinal statements with “The Catechism of the Catholic Church says…”

        I don’t think that the mistrust of the present pope stems from the facts you’ve mentioned. How can you fully trust a Supreme Pontiff who tells his faithful to make a mess in the Church and whose popularity is based on rather trivial PR gestures?

        • http://www.subcreators.com/blog Lori Pieper

          sorry for the misunderstanding. He has cited the catechism on other occasions, of course.

          • Sygurd Jonfski

            Yes but seldom at the very beginning of his statements.

        • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com/ JoAnna Wahlund

          Well, I trust Him because the Holy Spirit did. So….

          • Sygurd Jonfski

            Apparently, the Holy Spirit also trusted the Borgia pope, not to mention the many popes in the so-called “pornocracy” period. So…

          • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com/ JoAnna Wahlund

            I think that those popes didn’t trust the Holy Spirit. It’s a two way street. Pope Francis seems to be a very holy man, even with his idiosyncrasies.

          • Sygurd Jonfski

            “I think that those popes didn’t trust the Holy Spirit. It’s a two way street.”

            And you are basing this assumption on what part of the Magisterium?

          • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com/ JoAnna Wahlund

            You’re asking me where the Magesterium says that Popes should be faithful Catholics?

          • Sygurd Jonfski

            No, I’m asking you where did you get your idea of the “two-way street” from. Sounds to me like you just made it up.

          • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com/ JoAnna Wahlund

            It’s my own way of expressing the concept, but the concept itself has been around as long as the papacy.

          • Sygurd Jonfski

            Can you give us any references? In any case, you should read this: http://ideas.time.com/2013/03/11/does-the-holy-spirit-choose-the-pope/

  • Howard

    “However, since the Times is much more important than Limbaugh, when talking about mainstream journalism….” If that statement is not a tautology, it’s close. It’s like saying, “Limbaugh is much more important than the Times, when talking about talk radio.” It’s hard to say which is more important in shaping public opinion.

    • Howard

      “Frankly, when it comes to journalism ethics and craft, what happens at The New York Times is more important than what happens at The Huffington Post.” Because it has a wider circulation? Because it has a longer history? Because its profits are more enviable? Because its employees go on to teach in journalism departments at major universities? Because journalism professors are not current and rely on how things were decades ago? I am unsure what you say here is true, so it would be helpful if you explained your reasoning. Hopefully it’s not simply a belief that when it comes to journalism, there is the New York Times, and nothing else whatsoever is important, for no other reason than that it IS the Times.


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