Benedict said it first, but it didn’t make headlines.

Benedict said it first, but it didn’t make headlines. September 29, 2013

I’m a little late on this, but everyone is still talking about Pope Francis’ recent interview.  Allow me to start by saying that I think Pope Francis’ comments, and the ensuing media narrative that Pope Francis is charting a new liberal course for the Church while Pope Benedict was a conservative focused on rules, is at best overhyped, and at worst outright deceitful.  While there is much to say about the content of Francis’ interview, he doesn’t differ from Benedict on fundamentals.

Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus, shares a similar view.  According to Anderson, the media narrative is that Pope Francis is charting a new course for the Church by focusing on mercy and salvation, rather than on rules.  But Pope Benedict said much the same thing.  From the article:

Though it garnered little media attention, Pope Benedict XVI made a similar statement in 2006. Asked why he hadn’t spoken about same-sex marriage, abortion, or contraception in a speech, he [Benedict] noted that “Catholicism isn’t a collection of prohibitions; it’s a positive option.”

With neither pope has the full story been told. Furthermore, as Francis went to great lengths to point out in his encyclical Lumen Fidei, continuity is a hallmark of the papacy.

The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation.”

But the media’s narrative of Francis is something else. We are told he is a progressive, taking the Catholic Church in a profoundly new direction — uninterested in Church teaching on moral issues.  Benedict, we are told, is conservative, doctrinaire, and old-fashioned — focused on moral issues.  Neither narrative is true, because each leaves out half of the story.

The article goes on to point out the several times Francis has recently spoken out in support of traditional teachings on life and marriage, and the several statements Benedict has made calling for love and mercy.  These men share the same love of God, and the same desires to pass on Christ’s love and guide His Church.  But the great similarities, the beautiful continuity between these servants of God isn’t interesting to our media.

In another piece, the Catholic News Agency highlights more similar statements from Benedict about this topic.

“We should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of multiple, minor details,” he said, “but rather, should always keep our eyes in the first place on the greatness of Christianity.”

“If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions,” Benedict said.

“We give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith,” adding that we must never be diverted from that highlight.

Again, these are statements made by Benedict during his papacy.  But somehow, Francis, saying much the same thing, has garnered media headlines that he is a liberal Pope charting a new course for the Church.  Instead of digging in and writing a real story, the media are quick to apply labels more appropriate for American politics, and in doing so, they characterize both men falsely.  This narrative of the repressive, rule-oriented Benedict and progressive, mercy-oriented Francis is wildly overdone.  It is lazy, and at times a deliberate lie.  There are certainly differences between Benedict and Francis, and the media has every right to highlight those and write about them.  But they also have a duty to write the truth.  And the truth is that there is a beautiful continuity between these two men.  What an amazing testament to the power of the Holy Spirit.


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  • Kat0427

    Bravo – thanks for putting this so well, Kellie!

  • Elaine

    Very well said! I got a kick out of this Catholic Vote article dealing with the media’s treatment of Pope Francis:

  • Juris Mater

    You’re right… although I don’t completely understand the Holy Father’s decision to address his flock through a media interview so early on in his papacy. We are all eagerly trying to get to know him, and to love him, and the media always spins things, so why give them the opportunity at this point? And also, with all due respect, he gave the media some good fodder to work with. So yes, blame the media. But the Holy Father also allowed the secular media this golden opportunity to translate and spin one of his earliest addresses to us.

    I’m very much looking forward to Archbishop Chaput’s lecture tomorrow night at St. Charles Seminary in Philly. I know he’s choosing his message in a way that will reassure faithful Catholics who feel thrown under the bus after the media interview.

  • What’s so interesting about this is that Benedict’s statements were also at the beginning of his papacy…but, no coverage. And I do tend to agree that Pope Francis should have chosen his words more carefully and been more media savy. We should all have low standards when it comes to the media and have our guard up, especially faithful Catholics and Catholic leaders. But of course this doesn’t excuse a lack of truth in media coverage. In general one of my biggest complaints about the Church leadership is that they are not aware enough of the media. I think my point was simply that Pope Francis didn’t really say anything different from what Benedict said, and that we shouldn’t overreact to the poor media coverage. We shouldn’t feel “thrown under the bus,” so to speak, because that wasn’t his intent, and it certainly isn’t a good reading of what both he and Benedict said. That’s the reading the media wants us to take.

  • This article is very funny. Thanks for sharing!

  • Kat0427

    Interesting, JM, I had never thought about it this way before but I think that you’ve struck on something here…Pope Francis’ style is very candid and unscripted, and the media is having a field day with this. There is nothing wrong with his style and I think that many people find it refreshing, but the media can easily distort and take out of context his words. I had a similar reaction in terms of the faithful who are doing lots of hard work to strengthen family life, on behalf of the unborn, etc., wondering if they feel thrown under the bus as you say. At the same time, I think that Pope Francis feels a great responsibility to reach the masses, especially those on the fringes, and I wonder if he feels that granting a media interview early on will draw people back in. There has to be a balance here, and I like the way that you have articulated your reaction here.

  • Kat0427

    That is very funny, Elaine!

  • Juris Mater

    Being a Catholic has never required such a strong white martyrdom on family, life and moral issues–every faithful Catholic bears the weight of the culture of death every day, in small and large ways, and boy do we need our Holy Father’s support. It’s NOT the Church that’s obsessed with the fight against abortion, gay marriage, birth control, etc–our CULTURE is obsessed with these death issues and the Church is the only remaining body that won’t cave. Pope Francis seemed to acknowledge (wrongly) that the Church fixates/picks fights on these topics–we’re not the ones fixating. Please give us the chance to be a field hospital for sinners and to show the world corporal works of mercy by not penalizing our hospitals because our doctors won’t kill babies, penalizing our social services outreach because we won’t facilitate adoptions by gay couples, penalizing our schools because we won’t preach materialism and hedonism. We’re really not the ones picking the fights!

  • I think these are fair points. But I disagree that “being a faithful Catholic has never required such a strong white martyrdom on family, life, and moral issues.” I think that is overstating things, as every time and culture faces unique challenges to the faith. To take an obvious example, living in Nazi Germany was more difficult. And there are many other less obvious examples, but my general point is that of course the culture of death presents unique challenges to our faith, and we must struggle to live out the Gospel under these circumstances every day. And really, being a Christian is never an easy or cushy life. I actually read what Francis had to say as very challenging to those living out the faith, calling us to find new ways to evangelize, asking us to find a fresh approach to spreading the joy and saving grace of our faith –rethink our evangelization plan in terms of a field hospital. I do think it can be hard for people to hear this if what they really want is a pat on the back for a job well done, for fighting the good fight when they feel the world is against them. And instead of a congratulations, Pope Francis presented a challenge — do more, find a fresh approach. I think it is fair to debate the pastoral wisdom of that choice, but in doing so we must be careful not to get our feathers too ruffled, allowing the media spin to influence our hearts into a state of discouragement.

  • Juris Mater

    True that. Although I do want a pat on the back : )

  • Mike Miller

    Have to say I strongly disagree. To suggest that Benedict with all his papal finery is not substantively different than a trappings-eschewing Francis is at best myopic and at worst willful ignorance.

  • CM

    Everything JM said is correct. It’s not the Church’s obsession it’s the culture’s obsession and the Church stands out for Her beliefs. People who’ve stayed faithful don’t need a pat on the back we need a respite from the battle. We’re beyond exhausted and are at our breakung point. If you have children, you understand why we keep fighting, someone has to for their sakes.

  • The articles I referenced were not about their clothes. And of course I stated that the two men have differences (see the last paragraph). But in the present case, Benedict did actually say what Francis has now said. And the media didn’t cover it. And then the media twisted what Francis did say, and acted as though it had not been said by the prior pontiff. So I’m not sure how you can “strongly disagree” with that point. I will read into what you wrote, and guess that you are making an ancillary point — that the two men have different styles. And to that I agree. But in regards to the actual doctrine, the real substance of the faith, I don’t know of a single difference. The Church is made up of many different people with many different gifts. Francis and Benedict brought/bring different things to the table. And being able to see beyond political categories, beyond our personal preferences in leadership style, to the real substance of what these men are saying, and to learn from both, that isn’t being myopic, it is seeing the big picture.

  • FYW

    I understand the dangers with how the media spins the words of our beloved popes, but I think that is why it is important to focus on the words of the Holy Fathers rather than on summaries or spins given by the media. That is why I was so much more interested in reading the text of the interview itself rather than summaries. The media never seems to get things right lately, whether with regard to Pope Francis’s words or any other more secular pieces of news. As Catholics, it is very important for us to focus on the actual words of the Holy Father rather than how the media portrays those words. (It never ceases to amaze me the commentary on the infallibility of the Pope…even Wikipedia gets it right! Ugh–for some reason the misstatements on that drive me crazier than anything else!). I think it is a positive that Pope Francis’s words are reaching a larger audience. Each Pope has his strengths, and yes, as Catholics, we know that the messages from both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have been consistent and that there is continuity to their teachings. And I happily inform those who express surprise over Pope Francis’s words that he is expressing what I was taught as a young Catholic and have believed from early on in my life. I think it is important for us to educate those who are less familiar with our faith and only see what is portrayed more widely and more publicly in the media.

    As for certain parts of his message…I was recently at a conference for the Council of Catholic Women in DC, and at 34, was by far the youngest woman there. In any case, the response to almost every discussion topic was about calling leaders out about their stances on abortion, gay marriage, etc. And at a certain point, I really felt like yelling out, what else is there about our faith?? How else can we reach out to women who have either left the Catholic Church for some time or perhaps who have never encountered the Catholic Church. Surely there is more to our message than these battles. They are important topics to be sure, but aren’t there any other topics in our minds, in our hearts, anything more to share?? I don’t believe that Pope Francis was trying to discourage those who are fighting the good fight and who have been convicted to focusing on these issues and battling them in the secular world. But I do believe he wanted to convey that there is much much more to the Church. Forgiveness, service, love. More that we as Catholics are called to fight for, to convey to the world, etc. Almost as a reminder to the world, but also a reminder to all Catholics that you are fighting the good fight, but not to get so bogged down in the anger and feeling of war against the world that you lose other ways of conveying the message of Jesus. I actually felt discouraged during the meeting that all I could feel was anger and disgust with the positions of the secular world and even of the people with those beliefs, so Pope Francis’s words really touched a nerve in me. He wants to remind us that no matter what we are fighting for, it should not be that our hearts get eaten with anger, hatred, or even frustration. That is not Jesus’s message or his approach. Of course I am not saying that everyone who feels a special heart to working against abortion or who are fighting to preserve the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman has those feelings in their heart. But sometimes, it does feel like there is almost nothing left on the agenda of some Catholic organizations, and I find that sad.

    I must be honest, I do feel revitalized by Pope Francis. I am a very emotional thinker and person. I had such strong emotions for Pope John Paul II. He brought an energy and fervor to me that are hard to explain. I am starting to feel similarly about Pope Francis. I must admit that Pope Benedict was off-putting to me. And there is no real reason for it. So I understand why the media and the public react so differently to each one. Hopefully the media cannot confuse the faithful and the faithful in turn help educate the public who seem really interested at this moment. I think Pope Francis is creating great opportunities, even if not in the most perfect way (but wait, I thought all popes are infallible in everything they do? ;P). Let’s hope we can make the best of them!

  • FYW

    *sorry, not very eloquently put and so many typos, but hopefully you can read through the jumble and get my meaning! =)

  • I loved what you had to say! Thanks for sharing!!!

  • AWOL_Mommy

    pat pat pat pat pat pat (one for each child and one for Mr. JM)