You may have heard that last week Pope Francis said that gay Catholic priests were a-okay.
He didn't say that, of course. What he said was this:
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.
The substance of the pope's statement is very different from most of the mainstream accounts of it, which concluded that Francis was changing Church policy.
This isn't the first time Pope Francis has espoused catechism and had the press think he was saying something they liked. During a homily in May, the pope took on the spiritual disposition of atheists, saying:
"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ — all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!
"'Father, the atheists?'" Francis said as if asking himself. "Even the atheists. Everyone!"
This had the effect of causing some members of the media to wonder aloud if theymight be on track to meet St. Peter. (Or, more to the point, if they thought the pope thought that they might reach the pearly gates. Since, for the most part, they discount the possibility that such gates exist.) Only Francis wasn't overturning catechism here, either. Every Good Friday Catholics pray that non-believers will be given salvation by God's Grace and the Holy Spirit. In fact, before he was created cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger wrote rather incisively on just this question.
So why is Francis read by liberals as if he's remaking the Catholic Church into something more pleasing to them—despite the fact that the Church of Francis is the same as the Church of Benedict? Because Ratzinger was the bad, conservative pope. And Francis is the good, liberal pope. Just ask the press.
Part of this is the embarrassingly shallow understanding of religion on the part of most journalists who cover it. I never tire of this story from Father Neuhaus:
With notable exceptions, reporters are people of good will working hard to write a story that will please their editors. It is true that they are not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. These days most of them have gone to journalism school, or j-school, as it is called. In intellectual rankings at universities, journalism is just a notch above education, which is, unfortunately, at the bottom.
An eager young thing with a national paper was interviewing me about yet another instance of political corruption. "Is this something new?" she asked. "No," I said, "it’s been around ever since that unfortunate afternoon in the garden." There was a long pause and then she asked, "What garden was that?" It was touching.
What prompts me to mention this today is that I'm just off the phone with a reporter from the same national paper. He's doing a story on Pope Benedict's new encyclical. In the course of discussing the pontificate, I referred to the pope as the bishop of Rome. "That raises an interesting point," he said. "Is it unusual that this pope is also the bishop of Rome?" He obviously thought he was on to a new angle. Once again, I tried to be gentle. Toward the end of our talk, he said with manifest sincerity, "My job is not only to get the story right but to explain what it means." Ah yes, he is just the fellow to explain what this pontificate and the encyclical really mean. It is poignant.
But another part of the story is the reductionism inherent in journalism. To boil a piece down to 800 words, reporters need clearly defined sides. To the mainstream press, Pope Benedict seemed conservative, which meant that he might as well have been a Republican, which meant that he was small-"e" evil. For now, at least, they think Pope Francis is progressive, so he must be a Democrat. Which means that he must be good. And just like that, the press has a frame for everything Francis says and does.
Catholic writer Elizabeth Scalia intriguingly suggests that Francis knows what he's doing and is using the press to get the Good News out to the world. She may be right.
Yet even if this read is correct, the press isn't a cheap date. Francis has been pope for less than a year and he's tickled just about every liberal pleasure center, short of devoting an encyclical to the benefits of Obamacare. And already there is press antagonism. Even as the media thought that Francis was welcoming gay priests, The Week ran a cartoon deriding him for not allowing women in the priesthood, too.
And as Francis was making his way across South America, NPR ran this amazing story about the Catholic Church's persecution of a Brazilian priest. I don't want to spoil it for you, but the nub of it is that the Catholic Church excommunicated a priest just because he preached that the Church should sanction open marriages, gay marriage, premarital sex, and divorce—and said "The Catholic Church is one of hypocrisy." You’ll never guess which side NPR came down on.
Trying to win over the press is a mug's game. Even for the pope.
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