Let's walk into this minefield very slowly and carefully.
This week, "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about the recent Synod on the Family at the Vatican and some of the themes that emerged out of it. Click here to listen to the podcast.
Truth be told, that primarily meant discussing the tsunami of news coverage about an interim report earlier in the week that was hailed by a major gay-rights group, and thus the elite media, as a "seismic shift" in Catholic attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, the divorced, cohabiting couples, etc. By the end of the week, following blasts of input from cardinals and bishops from around the world, the synod's more modest official report placed a heavier emphasis on affirming Catholic doctrine and, thus, drew far less coverage.
Once again, many Catholics were asking a familiar question: Is there some way for the Catholic church to let the public, especially the world's Catholics, hear the full sweep of what the pope is actually saying? The pope keeps talking about sin, penitence, mercy and salvation, with a strong emphasis on the symbols and language of mercy, and elite news headlines usually report him as saying something like, "Who knows what sin is, anymore, let's show mercy -- period."
After that, criticism of of what the press reported the pope as saying -- including attempts to note the content and context of whatever Pope Francis actually said -- is hailed in the same news outlets as criticism of the pope or a rejection of his alleged new direction for the church.
Rise. Cycle. Repeat.
Now we have a great example of this process to examine, in the latest clash between a news outlet and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who for years has been one of the most pointed critics of press coverage of Catholicism. For background, here are some links about an earlier clash with The New York Times, in which Chaput circulated a transcript of his actual words as a way of criticizing what the Times alleged that he said. Also check out this interesting 2009 Chaput speech and dialogue with reporters at the Pew Forum in Washington, D.C. As always, I will mention once again that I have known Chaput since his Denver days as a priest and campus minister, back in the mid-1980s. I consider him a friend and write about his work in the context of columns and commentary (such as this).
Thus, we have a headline on Religion News Service piece by the liberal Catholic columnist David Gibson that states, "Archbishop Chaput ‘disturbed’ by Vatican synod debate, says ‘confusion is of the devil.' "
Let's go to the transcript of part of the question-and-answer session that followed Chaput's Erasmus Lecture the other night in New York City (full video here). This is now being circulated online in an attempt to clarify what the archbishop actually said.
Audience member: I would be very grateful for your comments on the recent Synod on the Family in Rome.
Chaput: Well, first of all, I wasn’t there. That’s very significant, because to claim you know what really happened when you weren’t there is foolish. To get your information from the press is a mistake because they don’t know well enough how to understand it so they can tell people what happened. I don’t think the press deliberately distorts, they just don’t have any background to be able to evaluate things. In some cases they’re certainly the enemy and they want to distort the Church.
Now, having said all that, I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.
The archbishop then stressed what I have heard other Catholic insiders (left and right) express, which is that they really want to (a) talk to people who took part and (b) read the final translations of the key statements and documents. As opposed to what? As opposed to the tsunami of early "seismic change" reports.
Continuing in his answer to the synod question, Chaput added:
There’s no doubt that the Church has a clear position: on what marriage means and that you don’t receive communion unless you’re in communion with the teachings of Christ, that gay marriage is not a possibility in God’s plan and therefore can’t be a reality in our lives. There’s no doubt about any of that. I think when it’s all said we have to be charitable toward people who disagree with us and we certainly welcome into the Church sinners. I’m one, and they usually welcome me when I come to the parishes.
I think we have to be better at reaching out to divorced Catholics so they don’t think that they’re immediately excluded from the Church because they’ve been divorced and remarried. Some people think that even when they get a divorce they’re not welcome in the Church. So I think we need to work on that.
We have deep respect for people with same-sex attraction, but we can’t pretend that they’re welcome on their own terms. None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’ terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian -- you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality.
Now, that is pretty nuanced material that, to me, sounds a lot like some of the language in the final synod statements and the pope's final synod sermon.
So what was the substance of the Gibson analysis that prompted that Chaput and the devil headline? Here are the key passages, starting with the lede:
NEW YORK (RNS) Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leading culture warrior in the U.S. hierarchy, says he was “very disturbed” by the debate over church teachings on gays and remarried Catholics at this month’s Vatican summit, saying it sent a confusing message and “confusion is of the devil.”
Chaput is expected to host Pope Francis in Philadelphia next September for a global World Meeting of Families, and his criticisms tracked complaints by other conservatives who were upset with Francis for encouraging a freewheeling discussion among the 190 cardinals and bishops at the Vatican’s two-week Synod on the Family. ...
“I was very disturbed by what happened” at the synod, Chaput said. “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.”
So here is the question: What is missing from the Gibson analysis that played a central role in the full Chaput statement?
That would be the press coverage. When it comes to the confusion surrounding the synod, is the archbishop primarily pointing a critical finger at the synod or at the press coverage of the synod?
Let me stress that I am not saying that that readers need to agree with Chaput's analysis. I am asking a journalism question: In the quotes cited above, what did the archbishop actually say, in terms of the primary source of the confusion surrounding the synod and its work?
If the key was that the "public image" of the synod, to quote Chaput, was an image of confusion and that this "public image" of confusion was of the devil, then who or what was he saying was the primary source of the confusion seen by the public?
Again, you don't have to agree with him. But what did he actually say in his answer to this question about the synod, the answer that supposedly led to the headline?
Once again, was Chaput saying that Catholics and the public could not trust the synod, or was he saying that they should not trust the press coverage of the synod? One more time: you do not have to agree with him: But what did he say in his New York City remarks?