Only one vision of the complex lives of two Vatican II saints

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So, what was that remarkable “day of the four popes” all about anyway? Prepare to be shocked, shocked, at the framing of this amazing event.

Here is the archetypal opening of the pre-event report in The Los Angeles Times:

One helped revolutionize the church, becoming an enduring icon among progressive Roman Catholics who view religion as a vehicle for justice and peace.

The other figured in a societal revolution outside the church, earning the adulation of conservatives by battling communism and contributing to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

So, St. John Paul II — many are already replacing that numeral with “the Great” — was not working for peace all of those years in the pressure cooker that was Eastern Europe, before and after the Nazis and Communists? He was not seeking justice when he talked about the Culture of Death and defined that in terms of Catholic doctrines protecting the sacred nature of the lives of the weak, the poor, the defenseless, the unborn and the elderly? His goals — even in the towering Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) — were merely geopolitical?

And the world-shaping agenda of St. John XXIII is best understood in terms of its impact on issues that matter only to “progressives”? He was not trying to reach out to a changing world on behalf of mission and evangelism, too?

Most of all, must professionals in the mainstream press insist on seeing this historic event strictly through a lens that assumes the savvy Pope Francis was merely trying to play a smart political hand? As a longtime GetReligion reader — yes, a Catholic — noted in a personal email:

There are not two visions here — there’s only one, that of Christ — but it’s impossible for these guys to see it because they only see the world through politically-tainted wrap-around glasses, without even the slightest possibility of a peek of the larger reality ever coming through.

However, there is the key Los Angeles Times passage, when it comes to describing the template that shaped most of the coverage (I would love to hear about exceptions, in our comments pages):

Some observers see Francis as keenly aware of the political minefield surrounding canonization, especially for those candidates whose legacies remain heavily contested. This has led to conjecture that Francis’ move was largely an act of reconciliation, aimed at healing deep divisions between Vatican II enthusiasts and those who favor John Paul’s more conservative approach to church doctrine. Some view the dual canonization as a means of freeing Francis from the ideological constraints of the two camps. …

Whether the canonizations will foster greater unity among conservative and progressive strains in the church is not clear. Francis, for all of his popular appeal and admiration for John XXIII, has not shifted from traditional Catholic doctrine on hot-button issues such as contraception, abortion, gay marriage, married priests and ordination of women.

So the only path to unity is, of course, to shift forward on 2,000 years of Catholic teachings on moral theology and sacraments. Yup. That will certainly produce unity. Note the implication that this is the path that St. John XXIII would have pursued, if he had been allowed to live longer and finish his work. Right?

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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:

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The Atlantic slips — somehow — inside mind of Benedict XVI

During the annual pre-Easter season of snarky or mildly negative religion stories, I think that I received more personal emails about the Pope Benedict XVI vs. Pope Francis story in The Atlantic than any other item (even more than the Mrs. Jesus media blitz, if you can believe that).

Quite a few readers wanted to critique some of the alleged facts in the story or note some of its inconsistencies. For example, at one point Benedict is portrayed as an all-dominating doctrinal bully. Flip a few pages and readers are then told that he was a totally hands-off leader who, when it came to governing the church, “didn’t interfere even when he was pope!” Yes, the exclamation mark is in the text.

Most of the emails missed the point. You see, “The Pope in the Attic: Benedict in the Time of Francis” isn’t really a work of journalism.

Oh, the author makes it clear that he went to Rome and, apparently, he even drove around and talked with some people. But the result isn’t a work of journalism built on clearly attributed information. No, this is something else — it’s a work of apologetics.

Do you remember that famous Peggy Noonan quote about Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” a show for which she served as a consultant?

A reporter once asked me if I thought, as John Podhoretz had written, that “The West Wing” is, essentially, left-wing pornography. I said no, that’s completely wrong. “The West Wing” is a left-wing nocturnal emission — undriven by facts, based on dreams, its impulses as passionate as they are involuntary and as unreflective as they are genuine.

That’s kind of what we are dealing with here, especially in the passages in which essayist Paul Elie all but claims to have read the mind of Benedict, perhaps while driving past his abode (I am not making that part up, honest). This piece is a love song to all of the Catholics who suffered so much during the terrifying reign of the soon-to-be St. John Paul II and his bookworm bully, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Here’s a sample, right up front:

Pope Francis lives only a few hundred meters down the hill, in the Casa Santa Marta: the guesthouse where the cardinals stay while electing a new pope. He arrived there for the conclave of 2013 as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. After his election, he surprised everyone by taking the name of Francis, the saint of radical simplicity — and then by refusing to move into the palace, and staying on at the guesthouse instead. All the world acclaimed the act as if he had pitched a pup tent in St. Peter’s Square.

Benedict was as surprised as anybody. In a stroke, the Argentine had outdone him in simplicity.

Interview? Quote? A second-hand reflection from a key aide, even an anonymous aide? And then there is the thesis statement:

And so it has come to pass that, in his 88th year, he is living at the Mater Ecclesiae, served by four consecrated laywomen and his priest-secretary, with a piano and a passel of books to keep him occupied. Here he watches the Argentine, prays for him, and keeps silence — a hard discipline for a man who spent his public life defining the nature of God and man, truth and falsehood.

It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. It’s odder still that they live in such proximity. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church.

Dismantles? Pope Francis has dismantled orthodox Catholicism?

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Did Pope Francis have to go to confession?

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RACHAEL ASKS:

Who does the pope go to if he has to go to confession or is he exempt because he’s the pope?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The pope gets no pass because he’s the pope.

Pope Francis, who has shown a flair for the dramatic his first year in office, demonstrated this in highly unusual fashion during this Lenten season, which puts special emphasis on contrition for sin. On March 28, to the surprise of worshippers in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pontiff publicly kneeled before a priest with his back to the cameras and congregation and confessed his sins for about three minutes. The AP reported the priest seemed to chuckle so perhaps he was also surprised. Then Francis joined 61 priests along the sanctuary walls who heard confessions from penitents, something popes usually do on Good Fridays.

The doctrine of original sin says (and history sometimes proves) that the popes are flawed humans just like all the rest of us. A pope’s infallibility involves only his personal definitions of faith and morals.

Francis explained at a weekly “general audience” talk last November that “priests and bishops too have to go to confession. We are all sinners. Even the pope confesses every 15 days, because the pope is also a sinner. And the confessor hears what I tell him; he counsels me and forgives me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness.”

Francis appreciates performing this priestly function. In off-the-cuff remarks on Pentecost Eve last year he said he regrets he cannot do it more often. “When I go to listen to confession — and I can’t yet because to go out and listen to confession, well, I can’t leave this place. But that’s another issue … ”

Catholicism asks all parishioners to regularly confess in order to be in the proper spiritual state to receive Communion, and by all means to do so during Lent.

Confession must be done before a priest who alone can grant absolution on God’s behalf and prescribe deeds of piety and charity as “satisfaction” for sin, as opposed to Protestants’ individual or group prayer for forgiveness directly to God. Francis stated in the November talk that God himself wills that believers “receive forgiveness by means of the ministers of the community.”

Penance (also called the sacrament of reconciliation) is so central that it takes up 76 sections in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This includes the teaching, rejected by Protestants, that the church has the unique power to grant “indulgences” that remove partial or full punishment due to sin for either the living or the dead in Purgatory. Observance of Penance has declined this past generation more than with the church’s other six sacraments (Communion, baptism, confirmation, clergy ordination, marriage and the anointing of the sick).

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Archbishop sells his fancy digs; NYTimes digs a bit deeper

What we have here is a very solid New York Times story about a somewhat controversial issue in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.

Let me repeat that, for regular GetReligion readers who may have fainted.

What we have here, under the headline “Bishops Follow Pope’s Example: Opulence Is Out,” is a very solid story about the trend among Catholic prelates to down-size their lives a bit, when it comes to the cost of their housing. In fact, I have only one minor criticism and that focuses on an interesting, but perhaps not essential, angle that this fine story could have mentioned.

But let’s focus first on the good news. The story opens with the decision by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta to sell his new $2.2 million, 6,000-square-foot mansion in the ultra-high-rent Buckhead neighborhood which, the Times properly notes, was being built on donated land with funds donated for this purpose.

Then there is this obvious news hook in the summary paragraphs:

… (As) Pope Francis seeks “a church which is poor and for the poor,” expectations for Catholic leaders are changing rapidly. So on Monday night, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory apologized, saying that laypeople had told him they were unhappy with his new house, and promising to seek guidance from priests and laypeople and to follow their advice about whether to sell it.

“What we didn’t stop to consider, and that oversight rests with me and me alone, was that the world and the church have changed,” he wrote in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Georgia Bulletin. He added, “The example of the Holy Father, and the way people of every sector of our society have responded to his message of gentle joy and compassion without pretense, has set the bar for every Catholic and even for many who don’t share our communion.”

The unhappy reaction of local Catholics to the archbishop’s new house in Atlanta is the latest in a series of lay uprisings since the new pope altered the landscape by choosing to live in a modest Vatican residence rather than the opulent apostolic palace, to travel in a Ford Focus and to denounce overspending by church leaders.

Now, the Pope Francis superstar factor cannot be denied here. It’s there and it’s very real. However, I think it’s crucial to note that other factors are playing a role in this trend.

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When you wish upon a trend … it’s no longer news

Sometimes, anecdotes are a wellspring for indepth reporting. Other times, it just leads to wishful thinking.

Here is what the Washington Post ran on March 27 as an attempt at background for the meeting of Pope Francis and President Obama:

FLORENCE, Italy – The power of the Catholic Church in Italy has compelled thousands of gay men and lesbians to live in the shadows, and the opposition of bishops helped make this the only major nation in Western Europe without broad legal rights for same-sex couples. But gay Catholics here now speak of a new ray of light from what they call “l’effetto Francesco.”

The Francis Effect.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, at a time when the new pontiff is upending church conventions and opening new doors. In their first face-to-face encounter, the two leaders — who have sought to bring change to their respective offices — focused on issues ranging from growing inequality to the challenges of global conflicts.

But for the pope, perhaps no one issue illustrates his divergence from tradition more than early signs of rapprochement between the church and gay Catholics.

Oh, dear. Where to start?

With the dateline, I guess. The president met the pope, of course, at the Vatican. Which is, of course, in Rome. Which would, of course, make the meeting hard to cover from Florence, 174 miles away.

Second, the code word. Have you ever noticed that when a reporter doesn’t like a person or organization, he/she uses words like “power” and “powerful”? And when he/she does like them, the adjectives run more toward “respected” and “influential”?

Third, if gay rights, same-sex marriage or anything like it came up at the Francis-Obama meeting, no media — including the Washington Post — have reported it. The meeting was the flimsiest of newspegs on which to hang a story about the Church and gays.

But the story premise itself is flimsy, as the article acknowledges more than once. A few excerpts:

Francis’s shift so far has been one of style over substance; nothing in the church’s teachings on homosexuality has changed, and conservative clerics remain deeply skeptical of any radical move toward broad acceptance.

And:

Among the gaggle of conservative cardinals and bishops of the Italian church, little has outwardly changed since Francis’s arrival.

And then:

Gay activists in Italy say it is far too soon to tell whether Francis will truly usher in a new era here. And for each priest who is partaking in an opening, there are probably 20 others who are not.

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They didn’t even agree on what they disagreed on

Can you have a meeting of minds when you don’t agree on what you discussed — and neither do news media?

President Obama and Pope Francis met for the first time on Thursday, nearly all of it behind closed doors. And their post-meeting statements were so different, they were the focus of some media reports — though the reports themselves didn’t always match.

Here’s a close look at the mismatch between media from different U.S. coasts: CNN and the San Francisco Chronicle.

The habitually pro-Barack CNN produced friendly coverage, starting with the traditional exchange of gifts between the heads of state. In the short video clip, above, clicking cameras drowned out nearly everything except “It’s a great honor” and “I’m a great admirer.”

The network also seemed to soft-pedal disagreements in saying the president and the Vatican had “slightly different takes on the tenor of their discussions.” Yet it did show how different the takes were:

“… (I)t was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved,” the Vatican said in a statement. “In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection. …”

Obama, in a news conference that followed, told reporters that such issues were “not a topic of conversation” with the Pope and instead were discussed with Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

Whoa. The Vatican and the White House disagreed on what they disagreed on? Good time for follow-up questions. Why weren’t there any?

The CNN report also said where the two sides agreed:

According to the Vatican, the two men also discussed the issue of immigration reform and “stated their common commitment to the eradication of human trafficking throughout the world.”

On this point, the President and the Pope were simpatico.

“I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded,” Obama told reporters after the meeting.

Ghost alert, BTW: The CNN writer — and whoever edited his work — apparently missed where Obama got the phrase “the least of these.” It’s from Matthew 25, where Jesus talks about the needy: “Whatever you did for the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”

CNN then obediently quoted Obama on his newest campaign, “income inequality”:

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Dominican posts handy guide to Pope Francis press myths

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Every now and then a scribe at some other weblog (and we’re not just talking about once-and-always GetReligionistas such as M.Z. Hemingway) writes what amounts to a perfect GetReligion post. I mean, we may as well stick a guest byline on these things and put them right online here.

This is not one of those cases — but it’s very close.

In case you haven’t noticed, the mainstream press has pretty much gone crazy in the past week or so noting the one-year anniversary of Pope Francis, the new patron saint of pull quotes. Some of the articles have been pretty interesting and others have been — Well, who are we to judge? — rather warped.

What I have noticed is that much of the commentary from conservative Catholics (conservative in terms of doctrine) has been shaped by one simple reality. While the mainstream press seems to think that many conservatives are terribly upset about the new pope, what I have noticed is that most of them are actually rather upset about how the pope has been quoted out of context.

In other words, they are rarely upset about what this pope has actually said, when his words are taken in context. Instead, they are upset about how the pope is being quoted by you know who.

The bottom line: They are convinced that many, many mainstream journalists simply do not get Pope Francis. Journalists seem to be covering the pope that they wished existed, rather than the pope who actually exists.

This is not a new theme here at GetReligion, of course.

However, over at the Dominicana weblog, Brother Gabriel Torretta has written a post that pulls many of these themes together into one handy collection. It’s must reading for any journalist, or consumer of mainstream news, who wants to take a step back and look for patterns in the past year’s worth of mainstream-news coverage of Pope Francis.

The title of the piece: “Top Ten Myths About Pope Francis’ First Year.”

No, the No. 1 myth has nothing to do with gay priests and the existence of a gay “lobby” in the Vatican. We will get to that in a moment. Instead, Brother Gabriel’s top myth is rather theological in nature. Here is that complete item:

Myth #1: That the hermeneutic of continuity no longer applies now that Pope Francis is pope.

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