Marriage & Family

John L. Allen, Jr., notes some behind the scenes tension about the people's pope

John L. Allen, Jr., notes some behind the scenes tension about the people's pope

So the pope's quiet little tour of the deep blue zip codes in North America's media corridor is done and now, largely behind closed doors, the 2015 Synod of Bishops in Rome is up and running.

If you read the headlines, this gathering is essentially about the moral status of homosexual relationships, attempts to modernize church teachings on divorce and, oh yeah, there is that whole family crisis thing that Pope Francis has been talking about so much (cue: yawns in offices of elite editors).

There are huge, complex topics on the docket at the Vatican right now and reporters, sitting outside the closed doors, are doing what they can to follow the action.

Naturally, one of them is Vatican veteran John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux. We give him a lot of ink around here because, frankly, he produces a lot of ink and many of this analysis pieces contain more on-the-record information than other scribes' hard-news features. And every now and then he writes something really unusual, showing readers what is going on in his mind as he looks at the bigger picture.

Consider the Crux essay that just ran under this headline: "Pope Francis is playing with house money in betting on the 2015 Synod."

The basic thesis, as I read it, is that Pope Francis is letting lots of loud, even tense, debates play out -- because he knows that in the end he has the only vote that matters. Does that sound like the "people's pope"? Meanwhile, it seems that the "teflon pope" strategy is evidence that Francis believes he can live in his own papal narrative, in part because -- at this point -- the mainstream press remains convinced that he is steering his church toward compassionate, pastoral "reform" -- which means changing many of those bad doctrines.

This led to a series of very blunt tweets from Ross Douthat of The New York Times, who is both an active Catholic and a doctrinal conservative: 

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Holy smoke! We're talking big Catholic news from the Archdiocese of Chicago!

Holy smoke! We're talking big Catholic news from the Archdiocese of Chicago!

We've all done it.

You are writing a story about a complex topic -- on religion or some other tough topic -- and you crank out what seems like a perfectly normal summary paragraph. You read over the story several times. So does your editor.

Things look normal. Then a reader sends you an email that basically says, "What the heck were you thinking?" Maybe this reader uses stronger language than that.

So you read said paragraph once again and the scales fall from your eyes. You immediately think, "What the heck was I thinking?" Maybe, silently, you use stronger language than that.

Palm. Face.

When it comes to religion stuff, GetReligion readers often send us the URLs for stories of this kind. Consider, for example, the following story from The Chicago Tribute. The editorial train wreck in this hard-news story, focusing on a local Catholic scandal, doesn't take place until the very end. Still, here is the top of the story for some context:

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Washington Post digs into ISIS 'ideology' -- not theology -- and the lives of women

Washington Post digs into ISIS 'ideology' -- not theology  -- and the lives of women

No matter what else is going on in the world, the Islamic State is still out there attacking cities and seizing territory, constantly striving to create its new version of a heaven on earth, which in this case is called a "caliphate."

By definition, a caliphate is an Islamic state led by a "caliph." So what precisely is a "caliph"?

A typical definition offered by a Western dictionary defines this term as:

* an important Muslim political and religious leader
* a successor of Muhammad as temporal and spiritual head of Islam -- used as a title

So a caliph is both a political and religious leader, quite literally a man who is claiming to be a "successor of Muhammad."

Now, with that in mind let's look at a key passage in a new Washington Post story -- " 'Till Martyrdom Do Us Part" -- about the lives of woman inside the territory controlled by ISIS. This includes women who have volunteered to be part of the Islamic State, as well as those who have been kidnapped. This story is part of an ongoing Post series about life inside the caliphate.

Let me stress that this feature is quite well reported, which is amazing in light of the restraints under which reporters are working when attempting to cover the Islamic State. Much of the attributed information is based on ISIS social media and, I found this amazing, Skype conversations with people living inside the caliphate.

Then there is this summary material that serves as a kind of thesis statement:

In the Islamic State’s ideology, a woman’s place is in the home, tending to her husband and producing children.

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Kryptonite think piece: John L. Allen, Jr., on Vatican signals on religious liberty

Kryptonite think piece: John L. Allen, Jr., on Vatican signals on religious liberty

Even as the Synod of Bishops on the family gets under way in Rome -- with discussions of divorce and gay rights in the air -- it's impossible for Pope Francis and his handlers to avoid talks about you know what and you know who.

Issues of religious liberty and gay marriage -- incarnate in the form of Kim Davis of Kentucky -- remain the glowing Kryptonite in the room for mainstream journalists and the Vatican public-relations team trying to deal with them.

Check out the top of today's John L. Allen, Jr., Crux story from the Vatican. With all of the global intrigue, what takes top billing?

ROME -- In the wake of bitter controversy surrounding a private meeting with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis during his trip to the United States last week, Pope Francis has a chance beginning Sunday to get back “on message” with the opening of a Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome.
The Oct. 4-25 summit of prelates from around the world is a critically important moment for the pontiff, one he’s been building toward for more than a year. If past is prologue, however, he may face a stiff challenge in steering it toward his desired outcome.
On Friday, the Vatican issued a brief statement on the encounter with Davis, saying it was not intended to endorse her position “in all its particular and complex aspects.”
Whatever one makes of how the meeting happened, or what it ultimately says about Francis’ views -- and theories on both matters abound -- the big picture remains intact and works to validate a fairly firm conclusion about this pope. To wit, Francis is positioned squarely in the middle of what Americans have come to know as the “culture wars.”

It really helps to back up a day or so and read the earlier Allen analysis of the Davis hug fallout.

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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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Media Kryptonite incarnate: Why such secrecy for pope's chat with Kim Davis? #DUH

Media Kryptonite incarnate: Why such secrecy for pope's chat with Kim Davis? #DUH

How many of you in GetReligion reader-land were, by the time Pope Francis departed our shores, totally fed up with the number of adults -- priests even, in church sanctuaries --  shooting photos and even selfies during the events?

I mean, was there ANYONE who came within a mile of this pope who didn't whip out a smartphone and raise it on high to record the moment?

Well, it appears that at least one person did not do the selfie thing. That would be Rowan County clerk Kim Davis of Kentucky. 

Of all the questions being asked about the secret Washington, D.C., meeting between Davis and the pope, the one that I find the most interesting is this one: OK, where are the photos? Who would pass up a selfie with Pope Francis? The photo issue has been, on so many levels, a fine symbol for how strange this story has been from the get-go, when the Inside the Vatican report started circulating last night.

Maybe Davis took a selfie. Maybe not. But if so, it certainly appears that someone -- either Davis or a Liberty Counsel pro -- was told to keep it under wraps.

Perhaps this cyber-silence was a condition of the meeting being held? Reports indicate that Vatican photographers did record the meeting, as they do almost anything that involves the pope. Is it safe to assume that Davis was told that official photos would be forthcoming? That would certainly be another nice gift (along with rosaries pictured here) for a Pentecostal convert like Davis to offer to her Catholic parents.

One thing is certain: The Jesuit pope and his handlers knew this meeting, this symbolic gesture linking religious liberty and same-sex marriage, was the ultimate Kryptonite for the vast majority of elite journalists camped in the Acela corridor between Washington, D.C., and New York City.

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Perceptive, intelligent roundup of Pope Francis' U.S. visit by Associated Press

Perceptive, intelligent roundup of Pope Francis' U.S. visit by Associated Press

Explaining without judging, observing without opinionating, reporting without pretending to know more than you do -- these all make for a delicate balancing act. But the Associated Press achieves it with its roundup on Pope Francis' visit to the U.S.

Written by Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll, along with fellow AP vet Nicole Winfield, the indepth interweaves the now-familiar themes Francis sounded during his hectic six-day tour, including climate, morality, church life, economics, history, immigration. Yet it does so without the guesswork and political noodling on which so many such stories have fixated.

Setting the tone early in the article is this perceptive passage:

From his very first appearance, he wove together issues that are rarely linked in American public life.
At the White House with President Barack Obama, he upheld religious freedom while seeking urgent action to ease climate change. Addressing Congress, he sought mercy for refugees, while proclaiming a duty "to defend human life at every stage of its development," a challenge to abortion rights. Standing on altars before the nation's bishops, he acknowledged the difficulties of ministering amid "unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society," a recognition of gay marriage.
But he urged American Catholic leaders to create a church with the warmth of a "family fire," avoiding "harsh and divisive" language and a "narrow" vision of Catholicism that he called a "perversion of faith."
The statements amounted to a dramatic reframing of issues within the church and a hope for less polarization overall in the United States.

The way the writers spotted the way Francis joined issues that are seemingly disparate -- that strikes me as laser-like discernment worthy of seasoned professionals.

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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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