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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5Q+1: CNN Godbeat pro on his remarkable Lampedusa story

When one of the best religion journalists on the planet produces one of the most gratifying stories of his life, news consumers are in for a real treat.

Enter Eric Marrapodi, co-editor of CNN’s Belief Blog.

His 4,500-word  “Stepping-stones to Safety” story — featuring a family fleeing Syria’s war — ran over the weekend.

The gripping lede:

Lampedusa, Italy (CNN) – Abdel clung to his pregnant wife, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter as they sailed across an open stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.

They were in a dilapidated fishing boat with limited provisions and almost no sanitation, sharing a cramped space with some 400 other Syrians.

Abdel prayed quietly and recited verses from the Quran for two days and two nights as the boat swayed and motored precariously along the 180-mile route from Libya to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

If they could make it, his young family would be one step closer to freedom.

He knew thousands had died making the same voyage.

Abdel prayed for safety. He hoped land would come soon. He worried his wife, 8 1/2 months pregnant, might give birth before they reached land.

Abdel and his family risked their lives to flee Syria for Italy.

Marrapodi agreed to respond to a few questions from GetReligion about his extraordinary report.  (If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to do so now. We’ll still be here when you get back.)

What’s the inside scoop on this story? How did it come about, and how long did it take to report, write and edit it?

I’d been hearing about Lampedusa and the refugees there for a long time. After Pope Francis made it his first visit outside of Rome, I knew I had to get over there. I was fortunate to be part of an extraordinary group of journalists who won Henry Luce Foundation grants for international religion reporting through the International Center for Journalists. ICFJ connected me with another grant winner, the wonderful Elisa Di Benedetto, who is an Italian journalist.

We met in Rome and flew to Lampedusa and Catania. We were on the two islands for a week total at the end of September. Because it was more of an evergreen story, we worked on the writing and the editing for months to get it right. We also had a lot of fact checking and following up to do.

It was a real challenge and a real joy to report.

Tell me about your travel experience. How big a journalistic adventure did you enjoy?

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Pope Francis doesn’t always sound like Mr. Nice Guy

Dear reporters:

You’re full of you-know-what.

Sincerely, Pope Francis

Not quite the missal you’d expect from the man who enjoys the media-crafted image of a mild, friendly, non-judgmental granddaddy. But there’s another side to Pope Francis.

Like when he described journalists in vivid terms:

“Sometimes negative news does come out, but it is often exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal. Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia, which is a sin that taints all men and women, that is, the tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive aspects.”

Coprophilia? Coprophagia?

Yep, they are real words, and not nice ones. The first is a love of feces. The second is consuming it. So in the Holy Father’s eyes, journalists tend to love the stuff.

This picture of a potty-mouthed pope is a far cry from the benign view of Francis pushed in much of the media, as Laurence England says on CNN. He notes that writers often contrast the nice-guy Francis with his “mean-spirited, judgmental and arrogant predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.”

England, for one, finds those caricatures “laughable”:

[Benedict] was ever the gentleman. Even his criticisms of trends in modern society that run contrary to the church’s teachings on life, marriage and the family were delivered in courteous language.

And when Benedict did say something likely to be deemed offensive, he was often extremely careful about the way in which he said it.

In fact, he was much more careful not to offend than his successor on the throne of St. Peter.

Only recently have some stories come to grips with the reality of a sharp-tongued pontiff. “The pope is actually the vicar of snark,” says a well-researched story in The Week. Like England’s piece, The Week says Pope Benedict XVI was nicer than his public image, and Francis is not quite as nice:

Pope Benedict was a warm and often misunderstood scholar … Even when much of what he offers is criticism, it comes with a light and inviting touch.

The unnoticed part of the “new tone” in the church is that Francis is practically an insult comic. Where Benedict sought to condemn errors in the abstract, Pope Francis makes it personal and attacks tendencies within certain groups of people, usually in highly stylized papal idioms.

Those “papal idioms” can sound abstract, as The Week notes. People won’t get their backs up at insults like “Pelagians” or “Christians of words” or “querulous and disillusioned pessimists.”

Probably not, but Laurence England found more common invective among Francis’ quotes:

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10 years of GetReligion: State of the Godbeat 2014

By Julia Duin

Ever since the Washington Post dumped its massive On Faith blog, there’s been more chatter about where the religion beat is headed these days. True, On Faith has found a new — and more attractively designed — home, but has anyone else noticed the Post spinning off other specialty blogs to new homes?

I sure haven’t.

In late 2004, when I did an assessment for Poynter.org — “Help Wanted on the Religion Beat” — I mourned how major papers were increasingly hiring inexperienced journalists to cover religion news.

A decade later, it’s a big deal if anyone — experienced or not — is hired to a full-time job covering religion.

Journalism has seen a sea change in the past decade-plus due to the Internet taking over how news is produced, distributed and funded. Every beat is feeling the pain, as reporters in all specialties — and above a certain age — are losing their jobs. Whole newspapers have gone online only, or cut back to only a few days a week. Not only have religion beat reporters been shed like autumn leaves, all sections of the typical newsroom have been hit with layoffs and buyouts, including one Chicago newspaper that ditched its entire photo staff in one swoop.

Looking back, perhaps the worst cut of all was the closing of the six-page Saturday religion section at The Dallas Morning News, which had been rated as the country’s best for years. That was nixed in 2007 and its writers reassigned to other beats. At its peak, this section had four full-time religion reporters plus an editor, assistant editor, copy editor and a page designer. By the end of 2009, not one of these people remained. Word on the street was that the section wasn’t selling enough ads to pay for itself.

Happily for beat reporters, the electrifying papacy of Pope Francis has made the beat sexy again for the multitudes. When you see Francis’ image on the front covers of The New Yorker, Time magazine and The Advocate all in the same month — and in Rolling Stone a month later — know that lesser publications all want Francis-related stories and just might hire the right journalists to produce them.

Witness the Boston Globe’s recent surprise hire of John Allen to head up its new Catholic section. Also promising is the decision at The New York Times to move Michael Paulson — a former Globe reporter with oodles of knowledge on the Catholic beat who had been the politics and religion editor for the Times metro section — to national religion reporter status.

Further down the line, in terms of market size, results have been mixed. As of late last summer, some of the religion beat’s most experienced hands decided it was time to move on — marked by flurries of black flags at GetReligion. These were accomplished veterans who have years of institutional knowledge and contacts in the beat. Some had major questions about whether their jobs would still be there a year from now and wanted to control their exit rather than having someone else hand them the pink slip.

A few were replaced with experienced religion writers. One is Peter Smith, who left his post at the Louisville Courier-Journal for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has a tradition of solid religion reporting thanks to long-time scribe Ann Rodgers. Mark Kellner, news editor at The Adventist Review and freelance religion columnist at The Washington Times, started reporting this month on religion full-time for The Deseret News. And The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasted little time in filling the shoes of departing writer Tim Townsend with that of Lilly Fowler, a writer for a Los Angeles-based nonprofit who has an master’s degree in religion and has freelanced for Religion News Service (RNS). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has replaced its departing religion writer with Jean Hopfensperger, their philanthropy/non-profits reporter.

And a year ago this month, The Orange County Register hired Cathleen Falsani, who made her mark at The Chicago Sun-Times for her knack at interviewing celebrities from Bono to Barack Obama to Melissa Etheridge about their beliefs. She was brought on as a full-time faith and values columnist, only to be laid off Jan. 16 when the Register axed several dozen reporters.

Religion-beat jobs are either vacant or dead at The Nashville Tennessean, the Oregonian, the Washington Times (which laid me off in 2010 and has yet to find a replacement) and many other newspapers such as The Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and USA Today. The Seattle Times re-assigned its religion reporter, Janet Tu, to the Microsoft beat. With few exceptions, their replacements have been either no one or overworked GAs who produce uninformed and simplistic coverage.

One of the most egregious examples of leaving a crucial desk vacant is my old stomping grounds (back in the 1980s) at The Houston Chronicle, a Bible Belt city that has only just replaced its last religion reporter, Kate Shellnutt. In 2012, she left a cadre of outside bloggers to take her place. These days, Allan Turner — who has been at the Chronicle since 1985 — tells me that he is covering religion, along with some other beats. That’s 180 degrees from the days when the Chronicle employed two full-time religion news writers.

The major television networks still have no full-time religion reporters, with the exception of Lauren Green at Fox News. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has been faithfully doing important work for PBS for 17 years, but that program remains dependent on major funding from the Lilly Endowment and a few smaller grants.

Cutbacks in newspaper staffs have been a boon for RNS, which has become a major player in the secular media.

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