Reuters editors read mind of Pope Francis on abortion


So, GetReligion readers, it is time for short religion-news quiz.

Raise your hands (or click comment) if you have read the following Pope Francis quotation, or a variation on it, in the past year or so.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. … The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

Also, of course, there is the part where the pope stresses the need for improved pastoral care on hot-button issues — such as abortion — and adds that the church:

“… cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. … We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Lots of hands being raised out there in cyberspace, I am sure. In some ways, that “obsessed” soundbite — usually yanked out of context — was the religion-beat quote of the year.

OK, now here is a quote from that “obsessed” timeframe, the same basic news context. It comes from a Pope Francis speech to — wait for it — a gathering of Catholic physicians, specifically gynecologists:

“The culture of waste, which now enslaves the hearts and minds of many, has a very high cost: it requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker,” he said, according to a English translation offered by The National Catholic Register.

“Our response to this mentality is a categorical and unhesitant ‘yes’ to life. … Things have a price and are sold, but people have a dignity, worth more than things and they don’t have a price. Many times we find ourselves in situations where we see that which costs less is life. Because of this, attention to human life in its totality has become a real priority of the Magisterium of the Church in recent years, particularly to the most defenseless, that is, the disabled, the sick, the unborn child, the child, the elderly who are life’s most defenseless. …

“Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world.”

So, how many of you read those words from the days just after the “obsessed” quotation rocketed around our planet?

One more relevant quotation, this one drawn from the most careful, specific statement Pope Francis has made, his revelatory, book-length document Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). While addressing a wide range of topics, with statements to challenge both the mainstream left and the right, the pope stated on the right to life:

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. …

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 on this question. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations.” It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.

How many of you saw that crucial statement quoted in a mainstream media report?

Why must we march, once again, through this familiar and not-so-familiar territory? I wanted to cover that ground in response to the wave of emails I have received about that rather stunning Reuters report that moved the other day, the one that in several cases appeared with a headline that stated:

Pope, after conservatives’ criticism, calls abortion “horrific”

As one GetReligion reader put it, in an email: “Apparently Reuters possesses a mind-reading device.”

As you would expect, the story opens like this:

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis, whom conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church have accused of not speaking out forcefully enough against abortion, on Monday called the practice “horrific”.

The pope made his toughest remarks to date on abortion in his yearly address to diplomats accredited to the Vatican, a speech known as his “State of the World” address.

“It is horrific even to think that there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day,” he said in a section of the speech about the rights of children around the world.

As you would expect, the story uses a small piece of the “obsessed” quote and offers zero references to the pope’s other statements on abortion, including the obvious ones noted above. Instead, it claims — with no attribution — that he has “not spoken out against it as sternly or as repeatedly as his predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and the late John Paul II.”

Thus, in summary:

His stance favoring mercy over condemnation has disoriented conservative Catholics, notably in rich countries such as the United States, where the Catholic Church has become polarized on issues such as abortion.

Last year, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, spoke for many conservative Catholics when he said he was disappointed that the pope had not addressed “the evil of abortion” more directly. Conservative Catholic websites have criticized the pope in recent months for what they called his silence on abortion.

The Tobin quote is important, but the most common criticism heard in conservative Catholic circles these days is that the pope’s off-the-cuff soundbites have been allowed, as if the Vatican could control the press, to drown out his more substantive remarks on the subject.

If that is the case, then this Reuters report is an example of what keeps happening in the press, as opposed to being a news report about what the pope said in this instance (let alone his private motivations for saying what he said).

Mind reading or a news organization quoting sources so secret that they are not even anonymous?

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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.

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

    The original headline, since replaced, was even more ludicrous: “Pope, in nod to conservatives, calls abortion “horrific.”

    It gave rise to the following inspired hijinks over at Mark Shea’s blog:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2014/01/stupid-papal-headline-contest.html

    Just thought you’d like to know!

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Neither. It’s a case of “We know his agenda because it’s our agenda and we’re going to control that agenda no matter what the guy really says.”

  • Julia B

    What I see is a total misunderstanding of “mercy” in the context of a church that is really into personal confession and forgiveness of sins. The concept of “mens rea” familiar to lawyers plays a huge part in how the Catholic Church looks at sin. That means that the circumstance in which a sin occurs is relevant. In the case of abortion, for instance, was the woman pressured by boyfriend or parents, was she aware of how an unborn child develops, was she petrified of raising a child alone with no support, was she scared of the prospect of a really deformed child who would be difficult to raise in her circumstances, how much catechesis has she had on the subject of abortion, etc. etc. etc. A penitent sinner is treated as a whole person. It’s not black and white. Mercy for the stressed expectant mother – yes; deciding abortion is OK after all – no. There is no change in what Francis is saying.

    The press is also mistaken in implying that John Paul II and Benedict were talking about abortion all the time. They weren’t. And why do they limit the bad guys to the last two Popes? There have been Popes for almost 2,000 years. And most of them wore fancy robes and lived in ancient buildings. You would think that JPII and Benedict built St Peter’s and invented vestments.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    The only quote I’ve seen used even more is the one about “Who am I to judge?” (regarding gay issues), generally by people who seem to assume it means “Pope is not hung up on sex and thinks gays should have right to marry” – at least, that is the context where I’ve seen it used.

    As a side-note, Rocco Palmo once again has two fascinating links up on his Twitter feed – one from the Vatican Information Service about the meeting of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Archbishop Parolin, Secretary of State for the Holy See, which mentions amongst other topics discussed “matters of special interest to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops such as healthcare reform”, and one for John Kerry’s remarks to the press after the meeting, which mentions everything (including the linking of Pope Francis’ and President Obama’s names every chance he can get), except that one little part.


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