If you get your theology from mainstream media, you may think you’ve learned that the Catholic Church has begun something of a reformation. “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control,” the venerable New York Times tells the world, and the author of this piece – the national religion correspondent for the paper – colors her announcement with parries designed to penetrate the heart of orthodoxy. [i]
The pope “sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church” [sic], he “criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized,” and there would “likely” be “repercussions in a church [sic] whose bishops and priests in many countries, including the United States, have often seemed to make combating abortion, gay marriage and contraception their top public policy priorities.” [In what world does this writer live?]
The same day as the New York Times’ piece, September 19, CNN’s belief blog told the world that Pope Francis was insisting that the “Church can't ‘interfere’ with gays.” [ii] “Pope Francis said the church has the right to express its opinions but not to ‘interfere spiritually’ in the lives of gays and lesbians;” “The church has sometimes locked itself up in small things….in small-minded rules.”
This is the fodder of modernists. The same day, one daily news web-zine columnist chortles that “Pope Francis Is a Liberal: It’s not just homosexuality or birth control. He’s profoundly anti-conservative.” [iii]
The Sunday Albuquerque Journal informs a largely Catholic state: “In recent years, many American bishops have drawn a harder line with parishioners on what could be considered truly Roman Catholic, adopting a more aggressive style of correction and telling abortion rights supporters to stay away from the sacrament of Communion... the new pope, Francis called the church’s focus on abortion, marriage and contraception narrow and said it was driving people away. Now, the U.S. bishops face a challenge to rethink their strategy.” [iv]
And from the fiscally conservative Wall Street Journal, the headlines are full of optimism: “Pope Signals Openness to Gay Priests: Pontiff's Comments Suggest Greater Acceptance of Homosexuality among Clerics,”[v] and “Pope Warns Church Focusing Too Much on Gays, Abortion: Francis Sets Out Vision of More Welcoming Church, Less Preoccupied With Doctrine.”[vi]
Juicy, juicy, juicy.
If one reads through these articles – and dozens more, from sources as varied as the Huffington Post, USA Today, and The Blaze - the message is the same. Oh, there may be a note somewhere toward the end of these articles that the Pope’s comments don't break with Catholic doctrine or policy but are simply a shift in approach, “moving from censure to engagement” but there’s a presumption that what isn’t censured may, perhaps, be excused…and what may be excused will, perhaps, in time, be accepted…even embraced. “He’ll pull the church to the left, not just on sexuality, but on every issue that pits tradition against freedom or progress.”[vii]
There are so many problems with this sort of news “reporting” that one hardly knows where to begin. But, let’s try.
1. The Church doesn’t operate the way the world thinks it does.
This is difficult for the secular media to understand because certainly individuals within the bureaucratic institution of the Church behave exactly the way they expect – pulling to the right and left.
However, those are only surface swells that belie the vast stillness beneath. The swimmer who has never dived below the waves has no inkling that his nausea is a passing zeitgeist. Underneath the push and pull of personal opinions and “strategies” to make those opinions dominate, however, is an unchanging moral force called Truth. It’s utterly indifferent to political persuasion, individual bias, or cockeyed optimism that “things will change.” Not these things.
Trying to manipulate the Church into “change” if one has no understanding of what is transitory and what is permanent is a futile effort. Pope Francis can change the bureaucracy – that’s transitory. He can and will express the Church’s consistent Good News to a new generation – the voice is new but the message is fixed and won’t “pull the church to the left” the right or anywhere other than where it always has been. Right here.
2. Therefore, saying (or writing) a falsehood doesn’t make it true.
Are the above reporters lying? Have they consciously and deliberately plucked tidbits from the Pope’s speeches and interviews and placed them in a reinterpreted context to leave the impression he means something else?
Deliberate or not, in their parsing of “liberal” points from his words, these commentators are frequently losing Pope Francis’ meaning. To say: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible…When we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context”[viii] doesn’t imply that abortion is a lesser priority than poverty or that the subject is too divisive for public discussion.
It might mean, for example, that the secular media needs to quit acting as if abortion, gay marriage, and contraception are the defining issues of the Church. They are no more defining issues than the presence of gravity. The only reason the Church discusses them at all is because people insist on doing these things to hurt themselves. Given an epidemic of leaping from tall buildings to prove man’s enlightened independence from the laws of physics, however, there will be an encyclical about the moral dimensions of physical forces, followed by intense homilies and earnest articles throughout Christendom. [ix]
Or it might mean that Pope Francis wants to shift the conversation away from the fact of the sin to the possibility of forgiveness, the latter already assuming the former. The evidence for this interpretation is what he says elsewhere in the interview, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.”
In fact, to read the entire interview – the context – serves as a wonderful corrective for all the political interpretations, right and left, about Pope Francis’ thought. Just as abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptives have a context within the larger picture of sin and redemption, rebellion and reconciliation, and trust in God as opposed to self-determination, so too the Pope’s words sit in the context of a humble, thoughtful priest who is suddenly asked to rise above his personal proclivity toward authoritarianism to shepherd the world with authentic and loving authority.
In this interview, he is not primarily setting down a concrete redirection of other people; he is reflecting on himself as the Supreme Pontiff: “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”
When the sinner – and who isn’t “the sinner” – has fallen, his fellow sinner can either help him up or walk by him in disdain. Would one expect the leader of Christ’s Church to say anything other than: “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner…preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this.”
But these are not the lines picked up by the media. They love that the pope refuses to “disapprove” (condemn) the “gay person” or the woman who has had an abortion but ignore that the Holy Father’s expressed love immediately leads him to consider how the Confessor must be a sensitive vehicle of God’s grace. They love that he is not always speaking about their sins but do not want to hear him say, in the next breath: “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church.”
In fact, the more closely one looks at Pope Francis’ words, the less one is concerned that he has any agenda except guiding the Church to do what the Church has always done, as well as it can be done.
If only reporters would do the same in their own spheres.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits Los Pequenos - a newspaper based in New Mexico. She is the author of the four volume 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing in Religious Bodies,' available at Amazon.
[i] Laurie Goodstein, “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control,” New York Times, 9-19-13.
[ii] Eric Marrapodi and Daniel Burke, “Pope Francis: Church can't 'interfere' with gays,” CNN Belief Blog, 9-19-13
[iii] William Saletan, “Pope Francis Is a Liberal: It’s not just homosexuality or birth control. He’s profoundly anti-conservative,” The Slate (a), 9-19-13.
[iv] Rachel Zoll (The Associated Press), “Pope challenges hard-line bishops,” Albuquerque Journal, 9-22-13.
[v] Stacey Meichtry, “Pope Signals Openness to Gay Priests: Pontiff's Comments Suggest Greater Acceptance of Homosexuality among Clerics,” Wall Street Journal, 7-30-13.
[vi] Deborah Ball and Jennifer Levitz, “Pope Warns Church Focusing Too Much on Gays, Abortion: Francis Sets Out Vision of More Welcoming Church, Less Preoccupied With Doctrine,” Wall Street Journal, 9-19-13.
[vii] “Pope Francis Is a Liberal…”
[viii] Pope Francis, interview with La Civilta Catholica, given to Antonio Spadaro, S.J., published 9-19-13; the English translation was published in America magazine as “A Big Heart Open to God,” 9-30-13.
[ix] With due respect to Erik Verlinde, a string theorist and professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, whose recent paper, “On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton,” argues that gravity is an illusion. One notes that he has yet to personally test this.