So divorced man says his new wife says the pope said ….

Well, there is no question that the buzz-worthy story of the day is the further adventures of the modern shepherd who is now being hailed as the Cold Call Pope.

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:

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.

Stay tuned.

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

    The stories seem as accurate as I would expect – which is to say, first they were reporting that the woman was the divorced and remarried spouse. Now they’re correcting themselves that actually it’s her husband who was previously married.

    With that level of fact-checking and clarity, I am confident that the rest of their reporting is just as factually correct.

    *disengage sarcasm mode*

    Until we get full facts, we can’t say anything one way or the other, only speculate.

    (1) Was the first marriage also a civil marriage? In that case, the husband was not – in the eyes of the Church – validly married. Civil marriage between two Catholics, or between a Catholic and a non-Catholic partner, is not a valid (though it is a licit) marriage.

    (2) If he was married in a church ceremony, was the first marriage valid or was it null? Has he sought an annulment?

    (3) Do the couple intend to regularise their marriage now? That’s what is called convalidation of the marriage.

    (4) Are the couple living in continence now while waiting to regularise their marriage? In that case, the wife (if she has gone to confession and made a good confession and has been absolved) may indeed be permitted to receive Communion.
    Since the seal of the confessional can’t be broken and we don’t know the full circumstances, then whatever the pope learned during this phone call and whatever the reality of the situation is, it may (and that’s heavily hedged about with qualifications) be that this particular woman in this particular case is indeed able to receive the Eucharist and should not be denied by her parish priest.

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

    Here is something at last from the lady herself, Jacqui Lisbona, in an interview, which at last reveals what may be the key to the situation (from the Vatican Insider).

    Relató además que el año pasado ella buscó acceder de nuevo a la
    comunión y el sacerdote local no sólo le dijo que no podía comulgar,
    también le señaló que no podía acceder al sacramento de la confesión.
    “(Me explicaron que) cuando volvía a mi casa, volvía a estar en pecado”,
    añadió.

    She also said that last year she sought again to go to communion and the local priest not only told her that she could not receive communion, he also indicated that she could not have access to the sacrament of confession. “(They explained to me) that when I returned home I would be returning to a state of sin (literally returning to being in sin),” she added.

    http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/es/en-el-mundo/dettagliospain/articolo/divorziati-divorced-divorciados-33650/

    Confession, as much as Communion, seems to be the issue here. The only
    way Jacqui could receive Communion in her situation would be to confess
    her sinful relationship with a man the Church still regards as married to someone else, and then live as brother and sister with him. The priest evidently didn’t believe her contrition or firm purpose of amendment. In this case, once the Pope had been assured that she wanted to fulfill the right conditions, telling her “go to a different priest in another parish and confess and receive Communion there” would make sense, as would the statement that “some priests are more papist than the Pope.” This is about the only thing that would make sense of the situation. So I think Martha’s no. 4 is correct.

    The Pope does talk about mercy and pastoral care in regard to the divorced and remarried; here it refers to giving a penitent the benefit of the doubt.

    There have some bad translations of this and other information in the story. Language study for journalists would be a help! (I know Spanish quite well, and didn’t trust myself to Google, so be assured this translation is correct).

    • ltcomdata

      I second the Spanish translation there. I also second the comment.

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

        Thanks!

  • http://europa-antiqua-arca.blogspot.com/ clavdivs

    “This is a major story.”

    Respectfully, no, it isn’t. The pope had a private phone conversation with someone. That’s all that happened.

    • Daniel F. Crawford

      And. like any intelligent and pastorally sensitive priest, he acted toward her as an intelligent and pastorally sensitive priest. As part of their pastoral responsibility, priests sometimes act in ways that appear they are violating church law: some priests actually give communion in nursing homes to persons who are not Catholic; some even anoint them. They are not calling into question canon law. They are concerned about the spiritual welfare of people who should have representatives of Christ concerned about their spiritual welfare.

  • FW Ken

    The red flag for me is the claim that the pope declared her “absolved from all sins”. That cannot be done on the phone. Which means that the conversation was not under the seal of confession. Certainly it demands a pastoral privilege which the pope is maintaining.

  • wlinden

    Actually, it should be “CNN says divorced man says…”

  • FW Ken
    • wlinden

      Well, I guess that settles it. There can be no doubting what the Enemy of the Anglican Race says he says she says the Pope said, as all of them can be completely trusted not to alter anything.

      How about “Media Literally Plays ‘Telephone’ with Pope”?

  • James Stagg

    How do we know he really placed the call? Could it have been a prank? Seems like in the other (admitted) phone calls, he identified himself as “Pope Francis”. Maybe the reason Vatican sources don’t want to comment is that they haven’t checked with the “boss” about it……yet.

  • FW Ken

    As if things weren’t complicated enough, the pope goes and gives a talk about the indissolubility of marriage. It’s always instructive to compare reporting on Fantasy Francis vs. Catholic Francis, so let’s see how much press this story gets.

    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-emphasizes-indissolubility-of-christian-matrimony/#.U1roD7wWdBM.facebook


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