Papal visit takeaway: Why did Pope Francis need to hug hicks and old-school nuns?

Papal visit takeaway: Why did Pope Francis need to hug hicks and old-school nuns?

So what do you think we talked about during this week's extra-long "Crossroads" podcast? 

Might it have had something to do with the thousands and thousands of words that your GetReligionistas contributed to the tsunami of cyber-ink about the Pope Francis media festival in the Acela zone between Washington, D.C., and New York City? #Duh

That was going to be the case no matter what happened in the days after his departure. But then the pope talked with reporters on the flight back to Rome and said all kinds of interesting and even controversial things. Click here for my Universal syndicate column on that. Click here for the transcript of that presser.

And then the mainstream media's all-time favorite pope met, to one degree or another, with you know who. How is that sitting with the chattering classes? This Slate piece by Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart -- creator of the "Tiny Butch Adventures" series -- was not typical. But it collected and openly stated so many themes found elsewhere. These chunks contain the key thoughts:

I woke up this morning to reports that during his recent U.S. visit, Pope Francis met with Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk best known for refusing to issue lawful marriage licenses, interfering with the ability of her deputies to issue lawful marriage licenses, and making unauthorized changes to the lawful marriage license formsfor her county. When I saw this news, my heart sank. In one 15-minute meeting, the pope undermined the unifying, healing message that many queer people and our supporters were so eager to have him bring.

This blow hit me particularly hard because I had written so hopefully about the pope’s address to Congress. 

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Kryptonite update: Gray Lady keeps using political labels in Pope Francis coverage

Kryptonite update: Gray Lady keeps using political labels in Pope Francis coverage

Faithful GetReligion readers know that we have, through the years, stressed that reporters are not responsible for the headlines that top their stories. Sadly, it is very common for a simplistic or even inaccurate headline to warp readers' perceptions of the content of a story before they even read it. Reporters are not amused when that happens.

In this online age, reporters at major newsrooms -- The New York Times is about as major as things get -- are also not in charge of writing the promotional materials posted to promote their stories or, in many cases, sent to readers who have signed up for daily email digests describing the contents of the newspaper. The odds that an online editor understands the story as well as the reporters? Not very good.

So with all that in mind, let's note the wording, in the Today's Headlines digest shipped by the Times, of the blurb describing the newspaper's story about the controversial secret meeting between Pope Francis and Rowan County clerk Kim Davis of Kentucky. That promotional summary stated:

Pope Francis' meeting with Kim Davis cheered conservatives troubled by his words on poverty, the environment and immigration, and dismayed liberals who said it negated much of the good will he had built up on his trip.

OK, once again we see a pitch-perfect -- in a negative sense -- use of the flawed, inaccurate political labels that many mainstream journalists keep using when covering this papacy, as well as the Catholic Church and prominent religious institutions in general. This problem existed with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but things have gotten even worse with Pope Benedict. You see, many journalists have developed an image of this pope based on their own interpretations of a few off-the-cuff remarks he has made, as opposed to his writings.

In this blurb, who are the "conservatives" who have been "troubled by his words on poverty, the environment and immigration"? Are they Catholic doctrinal conservatives or activists linked to the Republican party?

When one looks at this statement from a doctrinal point of view, it is simply ridiculous.

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Carly Fiorina visits Bible Belt territory and is too serious for the humble natives?

Carly Fiorina visits Bible Belt territory and is too serious for the humble natives?

cult, noun ...

: a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous

: a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much


If you pay close attention to the cult of American political reporting -- "cult" in the second definition shown above -- you know that it has its own unique rituals that are repeated time and time again. This is especially true during its high holy days, which are the two years that precede a presidential election.

One of the cult's most important rites comes whenever a relatively unknown individual suddenly pops out of a pack of candidates -- usually through a strong performance in a debate, or a surprisingly solid showing in a poll or primary -- and emerges as a "frontrunner." Of course, the priests of the political-reporting cult are in charge of determining whether said candidate has or has not achieved "frontrunner" status.

This rite of passage immediately leads to the next, crucial, ritual in which the candidate -- Carly Fiorina in this case -- is placed under a much more intense spotlight in order to judge his or her worthiness in the eyes of the priesthood. This is especially important in Fiorina's case because (a) she is a Republican, (b) she is a woman and (c) her ascent is linked to taking a strong stand in opposition to an institution held sacred by the cult (as in Planned Parenthood).

You know, beyond all doubt, that this rite has begun when something bizarre happens -- such as a Washington Post Style section reporter heading deep into the American South to observe this candidate in the wild. (However, in this case Fiorina was in Charleston, S.C., so the reporter may have been able to do an architecture or food feature on the same trip.)

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A radio talker’s new online faith-friendly sideline -- 'Life. Explained'

 A radio talker’s new online faith-friendly sideline -- 'Life. Explained'

News and commentary sites about religion continue to proliferate, adding to journalists’ headaches on how to parcel out their limited reading time.

Among others, the Religion Guy’s spot checks include www.religionnews.com from the venerable Religion News Service, led by interim editor Yonat Shimron, a Godbeat vet out of Raleigh, N.C. Then there is  Nicholas Hahn’s www.realclearreligion.org, and of course our own www.getreligion.org.

A standout mainstream media site is "Acts of Faith," at The Washington Post (edited by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey).

Then for gobs of opinionated comment representing all imaginable viewpoints there’s  www.patheos.com. (Full disclosure: The Religion Guy writes “Religion Q and A” items for the “Public Square” section of Patheos.com to provide a bit of non-sectarian information there. Those pieces are also posted by GetReligion.)

The latest entry comes from tart-tongued Laura Ingraham, 52, the most-listened-to woman in the conservative talk-radio universe. Her www.lifezette.com went online in July.

Despite the name, this is not a website focused on “pro-life” issues, though that outlook is evident in some of the postings. The site’s slogan is “Life. Explained.”  

Good. Luck. With. That.

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Pope Francis exits U.S. stage: Time for thumbsuckers explaining what it all meant

Pope Francis exits U.S. stage: Time for thumbsuckers explaining what it all meant

The pope has come. The pope has gone. Now it is time for mainstream journalists to tell us what it all meant, to show readers the big picture and to reveal larger truths about what Pope Francis said and, maybe, even about what he should have said.

There's more to this process than news, of course.

About a decade ago, New York Times editor Bill Keller -- yes, the man who soon after his retirement offered the "Kellerism" doctrines -- told an audience of young journalists that his newspaper had changed its credo. He told them: "We long ago moved from 'All the News That's Fit to Print,' to 'All the News You Need to Know, and What It Means.' "

The theologians at the great Gray Lady got started even before the pope was gone, offering a "thumbsucker" analysis piece on Sunday A1 (even thought it was not labeled "analysis") that said the "pastoral" tone used by Pope Francis was a loss for conservatives, who wanted him to defend doctrine. The Times team did note that the pope offered no comments that supported the doctrinal left, either. Thus, the bottom line: Compassion is the opposite of doctrinal orthodoxy. Click here for my earlier post on that.

The thumb-sucking process continued in American papers yesterday. The Times weighed in, once again, with a piece stressing that the pope showed a "deft touch" when handling issues in American politics (since we all know that politics are what ultimately matter):

... Mostly Francis demonstrated a nuanced political dexterity, effectively sidestepping the familiar framework of American debate while charting his own broader path. He advocated “life” but emphasized opposition to the death penalty, not abortion. He made strong stands for religious freedom -- a major issue for American bishops -- but refocused the concept on interfaith tolerance and harmony.

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Quotes and video: Ross Douthat on Fiorina, Planned Parenthood and her media critics

Quotes and video: Ross Douthat on Fiorina, Planned Parenthood and her media critics

I need a break from @Pontifex posting for, well, a few hours at least.

So let's do an evening think piece on a different media storm, the one that has in recent days surrounded Carly Fiorina and her GOP debate comments challenging President Barack Obama and others to actually watch some of the Planned Parenthood sting videos that (a) they seem to deny exist, (b) they dismiss because of editing (while the unedited videos are even more horrific) or (c) haven't addressed in public in the first place.

Journalists know that it really matters how truth claims are stated. For example, with my reporting students I always talk about the implications of the following statements.

Millions of people believe that God hears their prayers and sometimes people are healed. Again, it's absolutely true that millions of people believe that. Is it true that this happens? Hard to prove. Ah, but what if Ivy League medical studies show that prayer is positive for your health? That still doesn't prove something, but it is another level attribution linked to a source of authority. Alas, I have heard journalists in real newsrooms say that they would never quote any of that because they know that healing is a fraud. End of story.

OK, back to candidate Fiorina. In her case, the accuracy of her statements depends, in part, on how one interprets key statements in connection with video images that are taking place at the same time. It also matters whether one admits that the videos exist. Here is what she said:

"I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.' This is about the character of our nation. If we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us!" 

Now to the think piece. Take it away, Ross Douthat of The New York Times:


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Pope wades into culture war; Washington Post avoids calling it

Pope wades into culture war; Washington Post avoids calling it

The freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins, according to the old saying. The stickler, of course, has to do with how far you reach and whether I move my nose.

Such issues are woven into the Washington Post's indepth on questions of freedom raised by Pope Francis' six-day visit to the United States, which he finished yesterday. The article's three reporters, with GetReligion alumna Sarah Pulliam Bailey as the lead writer, do a great job of covering the waterfront.

But they also take some perhaps unnecessary side excursions. And I get the sense that just maybe, they really, really wanted to make some definite conclusions.

The WaPo team quotes six well-chosen sources, including a pollster, two religious liberty experts, a philosophy professor, a constitutional law expert and a religion consultant with the ACLU. Yet they cover this broad topic in less than 1,100 words.

This story is cast in two ways. It drops in at three sites Pope Francis visited where freedom is especially important: Philadelphia, near the Liberty Bell; the White House, where Francis visited President Obama; and at the United Nations, where the pope called for an end to persecution of Christians.

The article also tries to weigh how much the pope was drawing on his own lights, and how much he was listening to American bishops. For the latter, of course, the battles swirl around gays and Obamacare:

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Thus saith The New York Times: Compassion is the opposite of Catholic doctrine

Thus saith The New York Times: Compassion is the opposite of Catholic doctrine

In the end, the Jesuit pope added to the debates, but did not openly address the key doctrines linked to marriage and sexuality that are causing so much tension in his flock, as in so many others.

Don't take my word on this. We have The New York Times saying on the record that the pope kept speaking in a pastoral tone, asking his shepherds to be more loving and compassionate as they strive to welcome wayward Catholics back into the sacramental fold. But did he actual show his hand in terms of the cards he may or not play on the truly explosive doctrinal issues, such as changing the contents of the Catholic Catechism on divorce and gay sex?

In a remarkably blunt sermon from the Times -- which ran above the fold on Sunday's A1, with no hint of an "analysis" label -- this was the ultimate word:

Those who know Francis said they did not expect his other remarks this weekend to give fodder to conservatives or, for that matter, directly address the issues in the church that liberal Catholics have championed.

So no words of support for the doctrinal right, but also no words of explicit support for those who want to change church teachings.

But wait, what was the headline on that story? 

A Pastoral Pope, Slipping Conservatives’ Grasp

And the crucial Times proclamation -- note the word "seemed" -- to support that? 

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Tears or fears? The pope, the speaker, prayers and some amazing quotes in a notebook

Tears or fears? The pope, the speaker, prayers and some amazing quotes in a notebook

Just when you thought this was going to be a quiet week (and weekend) on the religion beat, there was an earthquake in Beltway land.

Anyone who has lived in Washington, D.C., knows that the job of Speaker of the House may be the single most overlooked piece in the puzzle that is the U.S. government, in terms of the public failing to understand how much power resides in that office.

So Speaker John A. Boehner, one of DC's most public Catholic voices, hit the exit door only hours after fulfilling his dream of seeing a pope address Congress. This also happened, of course, in the midst of fierce infighting over morality and money -- to be specific, the mountains of tax dollars going into the coffers of an institution at the heart of what St. John Paul II liked to call "The Culture of Death."

All of Washington muttered, at the same time, this question: So, what's the link between the pope's visit and Boehner's exit?

At the very least, the timing became linked -- on multiple levels -- with the emotions of the Francis visit. I don't know what surprised me more, in the elite media coverage: the word "prayer" showing up high in such a blockbuster political story or The Washington Post admitting, in print, that The New York Times broke the story. 

Oh, and the Post almost had the scoop -- on the spiritual level. We will come back to that.

The Times managed to keep the pope out of the lede, but -- after the political necessities -- wrote faith into the equation.

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