Doing right by the pope — and by the readers

Doing right by the pope — and by the readers February 13, 2014

What a pleasure it is to see a writer do it right. So it’s a pleasure to read John L. Allen Jr.’s interview with Cardinal Sean O’Malley in the Boston Globe.

Allen, an associate editor of the Globe, brings years of skill and experience in having covered the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter in interviewing the archbishop of Boston.

The story, which Allen wrote along with religion reporter Lisa Wangsness, picks the brain of Pope Francis via the man who, as it says, “is widely considered to be Pope Francis’ closest American adviser.” The journalists set a balanced tone right from the first three paragraphs:

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley says he shares in the sense of wonder at how swiftly Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention and softened, with his sometimes startling words and personal gestures, the image of the Roman Catholic Church.

But he cautions that those with high expectations that the shift in tone presages major changes in church teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and other flashpoint issues are likely to be disappointed.

“I don’t see the pope as changing doctrine,’’ O’Malley said in an interview with the Globe, though he said the pontiff’s focus on compassion and mercy over doctrinal purity has reverberated powerfully throughout the church.

That’s another sign of an original reporter. Allen is aware of the tone in many secular media, anticipating liberal changes in the Roman Catholic Church. But unlike many colleagues, he chooses reporting over parroting.

He is also scrupulous in telling us what limitations he accepted for the interview. One is not to bring up a flap at a local Catholic school, where someone wasn’t used to provide food service after revealing that he’s gay. That’s analogous to Bob Costas’ agreement to confine his Wednesday interview with President Obama to matters related to the Winter Olympics.

Nor does Allen assume everyone knows O’Malley’s prominence in clerical circles. He offers this crisply written background:

O’Malley’s read on Francis carries special weight.

He is the only American cardinal Francis knew well before his election. O’Malley has traveled widely in Latin America, and once stayed at the Buenos Aires residence of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. They conversed comfortably in Spanish, a language O’Malley speaks fluently.

The 69-year-old archbishop is the only American on the pontiff’s all-important “G8” council of eight cardinal advisers, who will have their third session with Francis later this month to ponder reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and other matters.

He adds later that it was O’Malley who announced in December that Francis was forming a commission to deal with sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

The interview offers some tantalizing tips on future developments under Francis. One is to boost women’s leadership, even at the Vatican level:

O’Malley said it is at least possible Francis might name a woman to serve as the head of a major decision-making department in the Vatican, such as a hypothetical new “Congregation for the Laity.” Some theologians believe that only clerics can exercise power in the name of the pope.

O’Malley says Francis also wants to streamline the process of getting marriage annulments. But Catholics who have divorced and remarried may come away unhappy: O’Malley offers little hope for allowing them to receive the sacraments. Francis is “concerned” for them but won’t likely change the Church rules, O’Malley says.

The Globe article strays a bit off focus when it starts to quote O’Malley’s own opinions, rather than how he understands those of Francis. Five paragraphs dwell on the cardinal’s reaction to U.N. criticisms of Church teachings. Perhaps Allen still thought of O’Malley as speaking the pope’s mind on the matter.

But Allen and Wangsness notice something that many other media miss: Even a change in style can foster a change in substance.

O’Malley also said that Francis’ eloquent concern for the poor is having an effect, not only pushing bishops and priests to lead simpler lives but also stimulating parishes across the country, including in Boston, to expand programs of service and outreach.

Francis, he said, has opened a new window into the church.

“If people only think of the Church in terms of the sex abuse crisis or the culture wars, and that makes our job very challenging,” he said.

“But when they say, ‘Oh, the Church is about announcing the Good News, about God’s love for us, that God wants us to be touched by his mercy and his love and that we have to take care of one another,’ that’s the Gospel we all want to preach,” he said. “Francis has done it so well, which makes it easier for all of us.”

A helpful hint: When you scroll down the Globe page, a huge subscription promo may fill nearly half your screen. To shrink it, click the green Collapse button, which may sit in the lower-left or upper-right-hand corner.

Photo: John L. Allen Jr., via Wikimedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (

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