A press litany: Will Pope Francis just hold that Vatican line?

As always, the gospel according to The New York Times -- in an early version of its instant Pope Francis analysis -- was spot on, with this headline: "Argentine Pope Will Make History, but Backs Vatican Line." And the lede? More of the same:

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, to be called Francis, will break ground as a Jesuit and Latin American. But his views on gay marriage, abortion and other issues make him a conventional choice to lead the church.

In place of the word "conventional," one could substitute words such as "Catholic" or "orthodox," with a small "o." The same thing is true in the headline, where one can strike the word "Vatican" and replace it with something more timeless and accurate.

From this point of view, the key is that the Vatican, the papacy, the catechism and the actual written teachings of centuries of church councils are merely one approach to what it means to be a Catholic. These institutions have no unique, defining Catholic authority, one that would make the "Vatican line" something that Catholics would need to consider anything other than optional.

By this morning, that basic Times story had evolved and collected a few more details:

BUENOS AIRES -- Like most of those in Argentina, he is a soccer fan, his favorite team being the underdog San Lorenzo squad. Known for his outreach to the country’s poor, he gave up a palace for a small apartment, rode public transportation instead of a chauffeur-driven car and cooked his own meals.

The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (pronounced ber-GOAL-io), 76, will be called Francis. Chosen Wednesday by a gathering of Roman Catholic cardinals, he is in some ways a history-making pontiff, the first from the Jesuit order and the first pope from Latin America.

But Cardinal Bergoglio is also a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues -- leading to heated clashes with Argentina’s left-leaning president. He was less energetic, however, when it came to standing up to Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. He has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them, during a period when as many as 30,000 people were abducted, tortured or killed by the dictatorship.

From there, members of the Times community are led into a lengthy discussion of just about everything that they need to know about the new pope that might in any way hint at his beliefs about political issues and the Sexual Revolution. The editorial college of cardinals at the Times have dogma to defend, as well.

The quick mainbar at Time takes a similar, but more muted approach. There's lots of politics, but, as a kind of throwback to the Time approach of old, the emphasis is on the global view.

I did, as an Eastern Orthodox layman, wonder a bit about this historical summary:

The accession of a new Pope is always cause for wonderment -- if only because the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church has managed to survive more trials than almost any other kingdom in history. No other institution can claim to have withstood Attila the Hun, the ambitions of the Habsburgs, the Ottoman Turks, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler, in addition to Stalin and his successors. Every new Pope faces fresh crisis and challenges. And in the 21st century, he does so at the head of a spiritual empire that touches more than 1.2 billion souls and whose influence crosses borders and contends with other great powers.

No other institution, other than the papacy, has survived Attila, the Ottomans, Hitler, Stalin, etc.? Speaking only as a member of an Antiochian Orthodox parish, I am sure that our patriarch in Damascus (a deadly serious place right now, once again) would consider that editorial statement questionable, at best.

Let's continue, since the story then offers a pretty solid description of some of the issues dividing traditional and liberal Catholics. The key, and rarely used, word is "doctrine."

Francis, the first New World Pope, faces some old and vexing problems. He must confront headlines reminding him of the church’s failures in dealing with the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. He must reform the Vatican’s finances by way of a bureaucracy that originated in medieval times and is burdened by aristocratic privilege and the Machiavellian instincts of feudal Italy. He must respond to the opposing demands of a divided flock -- with many Catholics in North America and Europe asking for more-liberal interpretations of doctrine even as many in the burgeoning mission fields of Africa and Asia warm to the conservative comforts of the faith.

But here is the meat of the Time report, an editorial summary of the issues that appear, at first glance, to have played a key role in this papal election.

This is long, but important. Look for similar data in your news publications of choice.

He will deliver much-needed oxygen to parts of the Catholic empire. Just before the conclave convened, he celebrated his 55th year as a member of the Society of Jesus -- popularly called the Jesuits. That itself is a matter of rejoicing for the order -- even though Bergoglio is on the conservative end of the often liberal Jesuit scale. The order has seen its once formidable influence wane as the star of Opus Dei rose during the reign of John Paul II. ...

More important is the great burst of energy that may sweep into Latin America. Mexico and Brazil have the largest Catholic populations in the world. Colombia is not far behind. The church has grown vastly more Latino over the past hundred years. But the Catholic Church has also enjoyed a 500-year monopoly on the region. Latin America, unlike Europe, never had a Protestant Reformation. Now that is changing, and Roman Catholicism is losing ground to the combined forces of secularism and Pentecostal Protestantism. From Tierra del Fuego to the U.S. border with Mexico, the Catholic Church has been hemorrhaging worshippers to evangelical congregations. According to Latinobarómetro, in 1996, Latin American countries were 81% Catholic and only 4% evangelical. By 2010, Catholics had dropped to 70%, and evangelicals had risen to 13%. Brazil could once boast of 99% adherence to Rome. Today, Catholics number 65% to an evangelical surge of 22%.

The Pentecostals clearly have fervor. Their evangelical, charismatic spirit is dynamic, loud and vibrant. In São Paulo, a Pentecostal church is building a $200 million, 10,000-seat megachurch that replicates Solomon’s temple, with rocks imported from Israel so locals will feel closer to the Holy Land. Even self-acclaimed Catholics across the entire region are identifying not just as Catholic but also as born-again. Latino converts overwhelmingly say they want to know God personally, and they want to do so in their own cultural context.

For a church that has had few defenses against this uprising, it is impossible to understate Bergoglio’s significance.

What is missing in that wave of information? I would, for example, like to know something about the new pope's relationship with Catholic traditionalists, as well as more than a nod at the world of Catholic charismatics.

However, I guess, we will need to look to the usual suspect -- John L. Allen, Jr. -- for that kind of depth. His pre-conclave profile of then Cardinal Bergoglio remains the essential story to read, on the day after. Note, in particular, his information on the new pope's place in the divided world of the Jesuits. Read it all.

In the end, however, the media coverage that I found the hardest to handle was, of course, the hours of opinion/news poured out in the world of niche television -- especially CNN. I did not have the stomach for reports on the old big three -- ABC, NBC and CBS. I found it interesting that, by mid-evening, the CNN talking head doing the most to stick to the facts was Anderson Cooper. He constantly, for example, kept reminding people that Pope Francis was NOT the first non-European pope. I was still hearing that clunker as late as 7:30 p.m., EDT.

In terms of substance, I thought the most interesting issue was the attempt, in the live coverage, to make theological sense of the layers of symbolism surrounding the introduction of the new pope. What did it mean, for example, that he wore the simple white robes and avoided the mandated touch of ermine? And what about that touching moment of silence, just before he offered a papal blessing for the assembly?

In television land, most journalists reported that the pope had said, in an act of humility and implied egalitarianism, something like this: Before I bless you, I want you to bless me.

Sort of. While the humility was striking, the truth was a bit more theologically complex and orthodox. Here is one full translation of what Pope Francis said, a translation similar to what other Catholic leaders heard him say:

"And now I would like to give the blessing, but first I want to ask you a favor. Before the bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me -- the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer -- your prayer for me, in silence."

Catch the important difference there? Who is doing the blessing, through the prayers of the people?

As I final note, I did think that it was interesting to watch the many liberal or ex-Catholics wrestle -- live, on the air -- with their emotions and beliefs.

In particular, the views of CNN's Erin Burnett served as a good summary of much of the evening's coverage on that network.

At one point, she expressed her opinions on a key issue "as a Catholic" and then immediately added, "Yes, I am Catholic."

But in her closing mini-sermon, she talked about her Catholic upbringing, but made it clear to all why she had left the fold.

She was raised Catholic, she stressed, using past tense. She was confirmed and took First Communion, and keeps a photo of that younger version of herself on her desk.

However, she added, "I do not practice now. I'm ecumenical. And I'm not alone."

The key to the day, she made clear, was whether the new pope would be willing to change the church's ancient doctrines on a litany of moral and social issues dear to her heart -- all of them related to sexuality and gender.

Her benediction: "I bet that a lot of people might return to the church if it changed. After tonight's celebrations are over, the big question will be whether Pope Francis will be that change."

That was as good a summary of the television news coverage as I heard all day, the defining message from so many in the mainstream press.

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