A press litany: Will Pope Francis just hold that Vatican line?

A press litany: Will Pope Francis just hold that Vatican line? March 14, 2013

As always, the gospel according to The New York Times — in an early version of its instant Pope Francis analysis — was spot on, with this headline: “Argentine Pope Will Make History, but Backs Vatican Line.”

And the lede? More of the same:

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, to be called Francis, will break ground as a Jesuit and Latin American. But his views on gay marriage, abortion and other issues make him a conventional choice to lead the church.

In place of the word “conventional,” one could substitute words such as “Catholic” or “orthodox,” with a small “o.” The same thing is true in the headline, where one can strike the word “Vatican” and replace it with something more timeless and accurate.

From this point of view, the key is that the Vatican, the papacy, the catechism and the actual written teachings of centuries of church councils are merely one approach to what it means to be a Catholic. These institutions have no unique, defining Catholic authority, one that would make the “Vatican line” something that Catholics would need to consider anything other than optional.

By this morning, that basic Times story had evolved and collected a few more details:

BUENOS AIRES — Like most of those in Argentina, he is a soccer fan, his favorite team being the underdog San Lorenzo squad. Known for his outreach to the country’s poor, he gave up a palace for a small apartment, rode public transportation instead of a chauffeur-driven car and cooked his own meals.

The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (pronounced ber-GOAL-io), 76, will be called Francis. Chosen Wednesday by a gathering of Roman Catholic cardinals, he is in some ways a history-making pontiff, the first from the Jesuit order and the first pope from Latin America.

But Cardinal Bergoglio is also a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues — leading to heated clashes with Argentina’s left-leaning president. He was less energetic, however, when it came to standing up to Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. He has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them, during a period when as many as 30,000 people were abducted, tortured or killed by the dictatorship.

From there, members of the Times community are led into a lengthy discussion of just about everything that they need to know about the new pope that might in any way hint at his beliefs about political issues and the Sexual Revolution. The editorial college of cardinals at the Times have dogma to defend, as well.

The quick mainbar at Time takes a similar, but more muted approach. There’s lots of politics, but, as a kind of throwback to the Time approach of old, the emphasis is on the global view.

I did, as an Eastern Orthodox layman, wonder a bit about this historical summary:

The accession of a new Pope is always cause for wonderment — if only because the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church has managed to survive more trials than almost any other kingdom in history. No other institution can claim to have withstood Attila the Hun, the ambitions of the Habsburgs, the Ottoman Turks, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, in addition to Stalin and his successors. Every new Pope faces fresh crisis and challenges. And in the 21st century, he does so at the head of a spiritual empire that touches more than 1.2 billion souls and whose influence crosses borders and contends with other great powers.

No other institution, other than the papacy, has survived Attila, the Ottomans, Hitler, Stalin, etc.? Speaking only as a member of an Antiochian Orthodox parish, I am sure that our patriarch in Damascus (a deadly serious place right now, once again) would consider that editorial statement questionable, at best.

Let’s continue, since the story then offers a pretty solid description of some of the issues dividing traditional and liberal Catholics. The key, and rarely used, word is “doctrine.”

Francis, the first New World Pope, faces some old and vexing problems. He must confront headlines reminding him of the church’s failures in dealing with the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. He must reform the Vatican’s finances by way of a bureaucracy that originated in medieval times and is burdened by aristocratic privilege and the Machiavellian instincts of feudal Italy. He must respond to the opposing demands of a divided flock — with many Catholics in North America and Europe asking for more-liberal interpretations of doctrine even as many in the burgeoning mission fields of Africa and Asia warm to the conservative comforts of the faith.

But here is the meat of the Time report, an editorial summary of the issues that appear, at first glance, to have played a key role in this papal election.

This is long, but important. Look for similar data in your news publications of choice.

He will deliver much-needed oxygen to parts of the Catholic empire. Just before the conclave convened, he celebrated his 55th year as a member of the Society of Jesus — popularly called the Jesuits. That itself is a matter of rejoicing for the order — even though Bergoglio is on the conservative end of the often liberal Jesuit scale. The order has seen its once formidable influence wane as the star of Opus Dei rose during the reign of John Paul II. …

More important is the great burst of energy that may sweep into Latin America. Mexico and Brazil have the largest Catholic populations in the world. Colombia is not far behind. The church has grown vastly more Latino over the past hundred years. But the Catholic Church has also enjoyed a 500-year monopoly on the region. Latin America, unlike Europe, never had a Protestant Reformation. Now that is changing, and Roman Catholicism is losing ground to the combined forces of secularism and Pentecostal Protestantism. From Tierra del Fuego to the U.S. border with Mexico, the Catholic Church has been hemorrhaging worshippers to evangelical congregations. According to Latinobarómetro, in 1996, Latin American countries were 81% Catholic and only 4% evangelical. By 2010, Catholics had dropped to 70%, and evangelicals had risen to 13%. Brazil could once boast of 99% adherence to Rome. Today, Catholics number 65% to an evangelical surge of 22%.

The Pentecostals clearly have fervor. Their evangelical, charismatic spirit is dynamic, loud and vibrant. In São Paulo, a Pentecostal church is building a $200 million, 10,000-seat megachurch that replicates Solomon’s temple, with rocks imported from Israel so locals will feel closer to the Holy Land. Even self-acclaimed Catholics across the entire region are identifying not just as Catholic but also as born-again. Latino converts overwhelmingly say they want to know God personally, and they want to do so in their own cultural context.

For a church that has had few defenses against this uprising, it is impossible to understate Bergoglio’s significance.

What is missing in that wave of information? I would, for example, like to know something about the new pope’s relationship with Catholic traditionalists, as well as more than a nod at the world of Catholic charismatics.

However, I guess, we will need to look to the usual suspect — John L. Allen, Jr. — for that kind of depth. His pre-conclave profile of then Cardinal Bergoglio remains the essential story to read, on the day after. Note, in particular, his information on the new pope’s place in the divided world of the Jesuits. Read it all.

In the end, however, the media coverage that I found the hardest to handle was, of course, the hours of opinion/news poured out in the world of niche television — especially CNN. I did not have the stomach for reports on the old big three — ABC, NBC and CBS. I found it interesting that, by mid-evening, the CNN talking head doing the most to stick to the facts was Anderson Cooper. He constantly, for example, kept reminding people that Pope Francis was NOT the first non-European pope. I was still hearing that clunker as late as 7:30 p.m., EDT.

In terms of substance, I thought the most interesting issue was the attempt, in the live coverage, to make theological sense of the layers of symbolism surrounding the introduction of the new pope. What did it mean, for example, that he wore the simple white robes and avoided the mandated touch of ermine? And what about that touching moment of silence, just before he offered a papal blessing for the assembly?

In television land, most journalists reported that the pope had said, in an act of humility and implied egalitarianism, something like this: Before I bless you, I want you to bless me.

Sort of. While the humility was striking, the truth was a bit more theologically complex and orthodox. Here is one full translation of what Pope Francis said, a translation similar to what other Catholic leaders heard him say:

“And now I would like to give the blessing, but first I want to ask you a favor. Before the bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me — the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer — your prayer for me, in silence.”

Catch the important difference there? Who is doing the blessing, through the prayers of the people?

As I final note, I did think that it was interesting to watch the many liberal or ex-Catholics wrestle — live, on the air — with their emotions and beliefs.

In particular, the views of CNN’s Erin Burnett served as a good summary of much of the evening’s coverage on that network.

At one point, she expressed her opinions on a key issue “as a Catholic” and then immediately added, “Yes, I am Catholic.”

But in her closing mini-sermon, she talked about her Catholic upbringing, but made it clear to all why she had left the fold.

She was raised Catholic, she stressed, using past tense. She was confirmed and took First Communion, and keeps a photo of that younger version of herself on her desk.

However, she added, “I do not practice now. I’m ecumenical. And I’m not alone.”

The key to the day, she made clear, was whether the new pope would be willing to change the church’s ancient doctrines on a litany of moral and social issues dear to her heart — all of them related to sexuality and gender.

Her benediction: “I bet that a lot of people might return to the church if it changed. After tonight’s celebrations are over, the big question will be whether Pope Francis will be that change.”

That was as good a summary of the television news coverage as I heard all day, the defining message from so many in the mainstream press.

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33 responses to “A press litany: Will Pope Francis just hold that Vatican line?”

  1. Extra! Pope STILL Catholic!
    And the usual references to doctrine as “the Vatican position”, no more valid than other “positions”.

    Oh, does the “Vatican Line” have anything to do with the Vatican Rag?

  2. A very important person once said, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” In another place this same person promises to be with a group of people throughout all ages and commands them to go to all nations baptizing them and teaching the fullness of his doctrine. The Catholic claim is that these words of Jesus have a fair bit to do with that Peter guy and the other apostles, whose successors are the humble fellow wearing white last night and the bishops in communion with him (cf. Lumen Gentium 20, 25). It is valuable and honest to have Catholic journalists who no longer practice their faith tell us the framework in which they understand the Church: as an entity they will, well, not “follow” per se but “affiliate with” so long as the Church not, I suppose, “teaches” but “holds” doctrines the individual already accepts. This undoubtedly represents the views of many readers/viewers. But this view stands in a particular relation to the Catholic claim — specifically as a rejection of it. To say “I will be Catholic when the Catholic Church endorses the Sexual Revolution” is to reject Catholic moral teaching, but it also is to reject a Catholic theological teaching, that God sent a particular group of people out to teach authoritatively in his name down to our day. When the frame of a story basically omits this context, what results is an untruth, and sometimes even an implicit commentary on this important theological claim of Catholicism.

  3. Agree that Anderson did an admirable job. Erin seemed to be smoldering within, just waiting to get to a segment she called something like A Catholic Girl Speaks. I was wondering what that would be since she had already said she left the faith. Perhaps she had a college age girl from her location in front of St Patrick’s in NYC who would give us her opinions. Nope, turns out the Catholic Girl was her. She claims to be Catholic when it suits her and then claims to have left when that butresses her opinions. Additionally, it was palpably obvious that she was looking for more negative comments than she was getting from the people going in and out of St Patrick’s.
    Besides Anderson, another cable person who surprised me in doing a really good job was Shep on FOX. He said he wasn’t Catholic, but he sure does have a great sense and feel for Catholicism. I’m sure Anderson isn’t Catholic, either. Proves you don’t have to be an insider to cover a religious story with respect and understand what’s going on. They are probably better explainers because they intuit what non-Catholic viewers might consider interesting and see the global picture better than some parochial Catholic commentaters who only see the disagreements in their own back yard.

    But who foisted Fr Cutie on Anderson? He seemed almost embarassed to bring Cutie into the conversation and never gave him much air time. It must have been a producer’s great idea.

    • Didn’t see that coverage myself, but I do wonder if the idea was to ask Fr. Cutié if he would still have been a Roman Catholic if only married clergy were permitted, or what. I imagine the idea was to get the Hispanic/Latino view on Pope Francis, and what it might mean for the Church, and would this stem the decline, or would the expectations be for a liberalising pope?

      Strikes me that it would have been kind of embarrassing to ask “So do you still want to be Roman Catholic, and the only reason you’re an Episcopalian is because you were photographed canoodling on the beach?”, so maybe that’s why Cooper didn’t give much time to his guest 🙂

  4. JULIA (and other Catholic readers):

    Fox folks kept saying that the pope would be “inaugurated” on Tuesday.

    Is that the right word?

    • Vatican Radio site is calling it the “inaugural Mass of the pontificate”, if that’s any help 🙂

  5. Re: “inaugurated”. It had been a coronation ceremony for centuries until Paul VI gave away his tripartate crown and there are no more coronations. So now I think there is no good settled word for it because the Pope is actually Pope as soon as he accepts. Since that was done in conclave out of the sight of the people, perhaps it’s now just a formal public marking of his start. I’ve seen it called “installation”, but that’s not quite right, either. Benedict decreed that the Cardinals will again promise their obedience to Pope, this time in public.

    Good question. I’ll try to find what the event is called on the Pope’s calendar.

    • To be more exact, it was a “coronation” until Paul’s successor, Pope John Paul I, renounced the tiara, and decided to call his installation “the inauguration of his service as Supreme Pastor.” The centuries-old liturgical ceremonies were completely rewritten at that time. But in order to do this, John Paul I had to ignore the instruction about the Pope being crowned, which Paul VI specifically included in his 1975 constitution on electing the Pope. It was only struck out later by John Paul II.

      Sorry for the geekery, but John Paul I somehow always fails to get the credit he deserves for this, one of the most noteworthy aspects of his very short pontificate.

  6. Before I find the Pope’s agenda, you might enjoy reading this USCCB blog by Sr Mary Ann Walsh about how she is arranging interviews and coverage for US media. Interesting to see the hub bub all over the North American College with Charlie Rose watching TV with sister and other reporters wandering around looking for an over-80 Cardinal they want to interview. Meanwhile sister ducks into the kitchen for a quick capuccino. Since this site is about how media covers religion, this is a peek at how the sausage is made.

  7. On Tuesday, 19 March—the Feast of St. Joseph, patron of the Church—the Mass to inaugurate the new papacy will be held at 9:30am in St. Peter’s Square. No tickets will be issued for that Mass. All who wish may attend.

    From the official Vatican Press Office.

    Looks like the word “inaugurate” is being used to mean a solemn ceremony to mark “the start” or “the beginning” of the Papacy or some such and not a swearing in like we use the term in the US for our presidential inaugurations. The Interregnum was actually over the minute Francis accepted the job.

  8. I think I posted that NBC did an admirable job on Nightly News. It was respectful without being obsequious. ABC just had a bit that did include Fr. Thomas Reese and he was kind about his confere, who is certainly a different kind of Jesuit. The local reporter did announce that the bishop of Dallas would offer a special Mass for the pope at “the Guadalupe Cafe”, aka the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 🙂

    It would be nice if reporters could decide whether the Catholic Church is an irrelevant, declining relic of the middle ages or a mighty force whose bishops can stop dictators when they aren’t leaping tall buildings with a single bound.

    • Nightly News did OK, until their reporter in Buenos Aires said that “… Catholics here have been waiting for a Pope from Latin American for over 20 centuries … ”

      Considering that the Americas were discovered by Columbus in 1492, and the missionaries arrived not long after, I think he needs to recheck his math.

  9. Clearly too many of those chosen to cover these papal events for the MSM are non-Catholics grinding an ax or estranged Catholics grinding the same ax (To be an ex-Catholic or” former” Catholic, I believe, one has to officially abjure the Faith and few have done so–once part of the family, always part of the family). Although, overall, there seemed to be a few more voices sympathetic to traditional Catholicism being talking heads on TV this time around.
    It is as if someone who loathed or hated baseball were assigned or hired to cover the World Series .

  10. I swear, next American election, I will write a blistering piece about how the new Democratic candidate “holds the Democrat line” and is dishearteningly conservative on “Democrat values” instead of sweeping in on a wave of complete change by tossing out all the old policies and introducing debt slavery, compulsory service down the mines and the requirement that every single person on American soil have an ID chip installed (regardless of age, gender or nationality, whether you live there or are just visiting).

    Then maybe the papers will understand how their headlines are so skewed.

  11. “He has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them” … it might have been nice if the Times went on to note that these accusations were NEVER PROVEN, and that he may have actually saved their lives behind the scenes.

  12. The accusations about the “dirty war” and Francis’ failure to stop the Argentinian dictators sounds very similar to the accusations against Pius XII who couldn’t stop Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini.

  13. What really gauls me is that the NYT “forgot” to mention that Amnesty International investigated the allegations about Abs Bergoglio. Their report concluded that the alleglations were all lies. I know better than to expect NYT to be supportive of The Church, but to print that there were allegations and omit that they were shown false is not only bad journalism, it is vicious journalism.

    • It also cheeses me off that when politicians (such as the current Argentine president) refuse to be influenced in policy decisions or implementation by the direct intervention of the hierarchy, this is a good thing and the proper separation of church and state, but if the hierarchy don’t explicitly hold a press conference and mass public rally saying “Murder and torture are wrong”, then it’s their fault the regime survives because otherwise it would collapse if the church told everyone “Don’t support them”.

      I rather imagine somebody somewhere sometime might just have preached a sermon or taught a confirmation class and mentioned the Fifth Commandment “Thou shalt not kill” but somehow the junta – while being devout Catholics completely under the sway of the clergy – missed that bit.

      • Martha, I don’t know if holding one or many mass rallies would bring the downfall of a government. Look how long the Vietnam war went on and recall the re-election of Nixon all dispite the years of protests. In a country ruled by a government that had no hesitation to murder its own citizzens, calling for a mass protest rally would be equal to asking people to commit suicide. I don’t know about you; I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

        Beyond that, though, is the fact that a priest needs to be pastoral to everyone. To encourage violence is to commit the errors of the medieval Church.. Calling for protest would have only provoked a violent response from the government. I know that it’s counter-intuitive, but Christ calls us to lead people to peace by being peaceful. It’s not about being a doormat. Rather, it’s about demonstrating that despite the threat one will not respone with violence but with courage. It’s said of Mother Theresa that one day she took a child to a local shop and asked for a bit of food for the hungry child. The shopkeeper spat in her face. As she wiped her face she said to the shopkeeper, “Thank you. Now, perhaps something for the child?” That is what “turning the other cheek” is. That’s leading by being peaceful.

        • But Richard, they should have done it because they were so powerful that the right-wingers in power would immediately have obeyed them, or if not, the soldiers would have thrown down their rifles and refused to fire on the crowds!

          I mean, it’s not like we ever saw an archbishop assassinated by right-wing idealogues!

          No, I’m sorry, Robert but you reveal your reactionary lackey running-dog instincts there by refusing to stand with the people and oppose repression regardless of the cost!

          • We’ve really gotten off the journalism track here, Martha, but I cannot ignore an ad hominem attack (sarcastic, ironic, or otherwise). You don’t know what protests I’ve marched in (or thsoe I chose not to march in) or what sort of subversive activities I support. Then again, maybe you’re confusing me with your friend Robert. 😉

            I was trying to stand up for a man unjustly attacked in/by the NYT. I was also stanidng up for an ideal–an ideal as practiced by Mother Theresa, Gahandi, and Absp Desmond Tutu, oh, and Christ.

            So we can quit cluttering up this blog, let us please carry on in

  14. Regarding your second paragraph, Martha, I rather imagine that many homilies about the 5th commandment were preached. Then again, neither of us was there so we don’t really know.

    As for the junta being under the sway of The Church, well I’d say the actions of the junta belie that idea.

  15. I think Martha is being ironic and sarcastic. It’s kind of like blaming the Pope for the spread of AIDS in Africa – the Pope should just insist that men not fornicate and commit adultery – that would fix the AIDS problem.

    I have to call your attention to the latest NBCc on-line article about how the new Pope is going to have to get used to all kinds of luxuries. In the process there is a kind of slamming of JPII and Benedict for going along with most Papal traditions. JPII did not wear the red shoes – I have a priest friend who was at the North American College and told us about JP walking over to watch soccer matches on TV with the US seminarians – drinking beer with them and putting his feet up on the coffee table – brown, clunky athletic shoes for walking, not red shoes. Benedict did not wear Prada – they were traditional red shoes worn by most Popes before JP made by Italian cobblers. And writing about the food in the Papal apartments – are salmon and/or strudle really rich foods? I’m sure Francis has eaten both. I can’t imagine a German not eating strudle now and then. The White House has quarters for the President and his family – how is the Pope’s situation different? The buildings were made in the Renaissance according to the tastes of that time.
    Why this need to trash Francis’ predecessors? Actually, Benedict was a rather simple person himself – there are lots of photos of him walking alone to work carrying his own briefcase before being elected Pope.
    And why the need to count the Popemobile as a luxury? Is this writer so young he doesn’t know that JP was actually shot and other people have tried to kill Popes? Napoleon captured a Pope who died in a French prison.

    • I thought the problem was that those priest-ridden (and mostly non-Catholic) Africans slavishly obeyed “the Pope’s ban on condoms” (because it was a bright idea that he just came up with) while they are ignoring “the Pope’s ban” on adultery and fornication. He probably arranged it by giving them CHICKEN DINNERS.

      I thought the Italians would be upset because Benedict was a beer drinker… but it does not seem to have bothered them.

    • There is also the fact that the Pope is Head of State of the Vatican City State, so he has the protocol to match.

      Does the President, when he moves into the White House, greet guests and visitors wearing a t-shirt and old runners, and order in a pizza or a bucket of delicious fried chicken, or does he (gasp) dress up in a suit and host a formal dinner served by (brace yourselves) domestic staff to the ambassadors and heads of state?

  16. This piece by Nicole Winfield at AP is driving me nuts:
    She states, without attribution, “Francis considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.” Really? How does she know? And wouldn’ t this go against what his predecessor was doing by getting the various charitable organizations to understand that they can’t just be social outreaches, but must be doing what they’re doing because they are commanded to by that Person known as Jesus Christ?

    Then there’s this summation: “Traditionalists had rejoiced with Benedict’s return to these elements of the pre-Vatican II church, arguing it was the true church and not the one spoiled by the council’s reforms.” As far as I know, that’s not what the traditionalists are arguing. What they are arguing is that one should not throw out all of those elements on the basis of Vatican II because Vatican II didn’t throw them out. It’s that hermeneutic of continuity and hermeneutic of discontinuity thing that Benedict kept talking about. If Francis decides to change that style because of his own personal preferences, then it will be because of those preferences, not because he believes Vatican II somehow ruptured the life of the rest of the Church.