Trust me, it would be easy to jump into the doctrinal implications of this story, because the stakes for the church and the papacy are very high. Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has already gone straight there:
Why is this such a big deal? Because if the pope himself told a Catholic to defy licit Catholic teaching on something as central to the faith as the Eucharist, the implications are enormous. To be sure, there are pastoral reasons why this mercy might be extended to people. “Father Bergoglio,” as the Pope reportedly identified himself on the call, might well have extended them. But the pontiff doing the same thing, and so casually, is potentially explosive. A pope simply can’t say, “Defy the church, don’t worry about it.” Well, he can say it, and he might have done; the papal spokesman declining to talk about it is hardly confidence-inspiring.
Meanwhile, I would like to try to focus on what GetReligion does — which is to look at the journalism element of this story. And what we see there is another side effect, in this 24/7 digital news age, of this pope’s highly personal approach to pastoral care. He wants to deal with people as a pastor — Father Bergoglio, indeed — instead of having to go through the numbing mechanisms of statecraft and lofty papal statements.
The problem, for journalists? This is highly newsworthy material and, well, journalists cannot listen in on these private pastoral calls. It’s like we are seeing white smoke above the Vatican and no one really knows where it came from or what it means.
The top of the CNN story is as good a place to start as any:
(CNN) – Pope Francis called an Argentine woman married to a divorced man and reportedly told her that she could receive the sacrament of Communion, according to the woman’s husband, in an apparent contradiction of Catholic law.
Julio Sabetta, from San Lorenzo in the Pope’s home country, said his wife, Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona, spoke with Francis on Monday.
OK, so the information isn’t even coming from Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona herself, with her offering her take on what she believes that the pope said to her (let’s hope she took careful notes). Instead, this information is coming through a man who is, to say the least, involved in this complicated situation — yet who did not hear the call at all.
That leads us to the alleged content of this call:
Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona wrote to the pontiff in September to ask for clarification on the Communion issue, according to her husband, who said his divorced status had prevented her from receiving the sacrament.
“She spoke with the Pope, and he said she was absolved of all sins and she could go and get the Holy Communion because she was not doing anything wrong,” Sabetta told Channel 3 Rosario, a CNN affiliate.
A Vatican spokesman confirmed the telephone call but would not comment on the conversation’s content.
So what did the pope actually say?
The bottom line is that no one actually knows what Pope Francis said. So who is supposed to straighten out this basic problem?
This is a perfect example of a syndrome that I have heard quite a few Catholics discussing. The problem is not that they consider this pope’s words and actions heretical, or anything like that. Instead, some Catholics believe that Francis is — at best — simply naive about how his actions and his words — alleged words or on-the-record remarks — will be framed in public media. Or is he intentionally flying trial balloons?
Meanwhile, what is the Vatican saying about what the pope allegedly said?
Over at The Daily Telegraph, the scribe known as @holysmoke simply stated:
Vatican declining to comment on "private conversation" re Pope and divorced woman.
— Damian Thompson (@holysmoke) April 23, 2014
In the CNN report, that translates to the following (including the quip of the day):
“It’s between the Pope and the woman,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a consultant for the Vatican press office.
Rosica said that any comments made by the Pope should not be construed as a change in church doctrine. “The magisterium of the church is not defined by personal phone calls.” …
“To draw any conclusions about this particular situation, that the Pope may be setting an agenda, is incorrect,” he said. “The Pope is first and foremost an esteemed pastor, and dealing with a human situation is always complex.”
And then there was this official non-response from Father Federico Lombardi in the Vatican press office:
Several telephone calls have taken place in the context of Pope Francis’ personal pastoral relationships. Since they do not in any way form part of the Pope’s public activities, no information or comments are to be expected from the Holy See Press Office. That which has been communicated in relation to this matter, outside the scope of personal relationships, and the consequent media amplification, cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion. Therefore, consequences relating to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred from these occurrences.
The folks at the Vatican press office are sharp enough to know that this kind of boilerplate material isn’t going to stop a tsunami of digital ink. This is a major story. The question is whether there is any way to responsibly report it.
Meanwhile, the facts in this woman’s story are important and could have shaped this mysterious conversation. Was her “civil marriage” valid in the eyes of the church? Was this a situation in which she simply needed to go to Confession and then return to Communion? Was the pope suggesting that a streamlined annulment process was possible, with his help?
There is no way to know the answers to those questions without knowing what the pope actually said, as opposed to what he is alleged to have said.