While traveling to Rio de Janairo to preside over his first World Youth Day, Pope Francis declined to do a formal interview with the press pool. “It’s true I don’t give interviews. I don’t know why. . . It’s tiresome. But I enjoy your company.”
On the return to Rome, the Holy Father–perhaps feeling energized by a spectacularly successful event that saw an estimated three million souls gather for Mass at Copacabana Beach–surprised the media with an 80-minute Q-and-A that resulted in screaming headlines, some relieved exhalations and more than a few clenched jaws in the pews.
What did Francis say? Well, at this writing, the official Vatican transcript is not available, but according to reports, the Pope endorsed The Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will — well, who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society. The problem isn’t this (homosexual) orientation — we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby.”
While it is true that, as newsman and Vaticanista John Thane quickly noted, Francis’ remarks were not meant to be “specifically about gay priests”, secular headlines implied otherwise. They were made in answer to a question about the so-called “gay lobby” within the Vatican and specifically concerning one of Francis’ own appointees, whose past had been raised by some as a cause for concern. To this, Francis replied,
“I did what canon law requires, which is to conduct a preliminary investigation. We didn’t find anything to confirm the things he was accused of. . . I’d like to add that many times we seem to seek out the sins of somebody’s youth and publish them. We’re not talking about crimes, which are something else. The abuse of minors, for instance, is a crime. But one can sin and then convert, and the Lord both forgives and forgets. We don’t have the right to refuse to forget. . .it is dangerous. The theology of sin is important. St. Peter committed one of the greatest sins, denying Christ, and yet they made him pope. Think about that.”
As Mollie Hemingway pointed out at Get Religion, any pope discussing gay-anything will always be a headline generator. In this case, nothing Francis actually said about homosexuality was new. In fact, in these two quotes Francis is doing nothing more than pronouncing long-standing Catholic teaching on homosexuality, sin and the mercy of God.
Let that sink in for a moment. The pope is teaching the church, and the press is accurately quoting him, in screaming headlines that everyone will read.
It is very true that the secular press will do as much as they can to frame a pope’s words in ways that will suit a preferred narrative. Recall that Pope Benedict’s remarks on the use of condoms in very specific circumstances initially generated headlines that the pope had “approved” the use of condoms in a more general way. Spinning and framing is what takes up most of the time of the mainstream press.
That being so, some Catholics have taken to social media, voicing concerns that Pope Francis is being “used” by the press in order to serve their own, gay-sympathetic agenda. Wrote one terribly irate man on Facebook: “When someone says something that everyone else has said and receives a different response, that tells you that the response is about the messenger, not the message. Francis hasn’t broken through the media hostility to Catholicism–rather, they think (wrongly, I presume) that he’s an ally in their fight against Catholicism.”
Perhaps they do believe that; perhaps some of them really are “using” Francis. But how do they know he is not “using” them right back?
In The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu, we read, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”
Francis is doing most of that. Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, who was already despised by the press as Cardinal Ratzinger, Francis is the surprising, not-quite-known entity with whom the press are still unfamiliar, and thus only marginally prepared to counter. He declines interviews and then unexpectedly pops in for one, and then discusses the reality of church teachings through a subject the press cannot resist covering.
The hyperventilations that accompany the news on any given day miss the fact that God takes the longview of things; what seems urgent to us is the merest puff of a moment within the movement of his will, toward his eventual ends. If the press thinks they are moving a ball forward by quoting a pope who is teaching Eternal Truths, so what? Why should that trouble anyone? Just as a priest need not be in a state of grace to celebrate a licit mass, the motivations of a reporter who repeats our teachings do not matter; they are incidental to the action of the Holy Spirit, who exploits them to work God’s own will. In this way, victory is assured.
God’s timeline is not ours, nor his ways our ways. But, writes Sun Tzu, “To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.”