Journalists editing Pope Francis: Who are we to judge?

Sometimes, in this tricky world of media criticism, it's hard to pay attention to what someone said without focusing too much on which person, from what group, did the alleged media criticism.

So in this case, let's read some of the words in a specific op-ed essay before we get to the issue of who wrote them.

This is a short piece, so we can actually parse most of the actual contents. Let's begin at the beginning:

Not a day goes by without a pundit or editorial writer opining on what Pope Francis said about some controversial issue. While every pope, as well as every religious and secular leader, properly has his remarks subjected to scrutiny, Pope Francis is having his words sliced and diced far beyond anything his predecessors were accustomed to. Quite frankly, the goal of many commentators is to make the pope's statements appear to underscore their own ideological agenda.

Frankly, there is a lot of that going on out there. This is almost as big a problem on the right, when dealing with papal statements on, oh, capitalism (hello, Rush Limbaugh) as it is on the left (hello college of cardinals at The New York Times editorial pages). However, since the Times is much more important than Limbaugh, when talking about mainstream journalism, let's proceed on that tact.

Nothing excites the passions of those on the left today more than gay rights. Their obsession is shown with Pope Francis' comment, made over the summer, "Who am I to judge?" ...

What Francis said was, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" The difference between what he is quoted as saying, and what he actually said, is not minor. Those who parse his words agree, which is why they parse them. It is important to note that the pope did not offer two sentences: his one sentence was chopped to alter his message.

We will get to the full papal transcript in just a minute. However, based on my own reading of waves of coverage of this pope and this statement in particular, I believe that this is an accurate statement about how this one papal phrase is being yanked out of context.

Yes, the statement is important and, yes, the tone of the statement is important. But so is the content of the full quote.

Here is the paragraph of this op-ed that I thought would most interest GetReligion readers, especially those working in mainstream newsrooms:

A Lexis-Nexis search discloses that there are 907 articles that cite the phrase, "Who am I to judge" and "Pope Francis." When letters to the editor and duplicates are filtered out, the final tally is 799. Of that number, 494, or 62 percent of the total, contain just the words, "Who am I to judge?" Only 305, or 38 percent, report the entire sentence. Moreover, it is becoming more common to distort what he said, not less.

I know. The wording is not very precise. I wish that the author had drawn a few bright lines between news articles in mainstream publications, editorials, columns, op-eds and analysis pieces in advocacy-model news websites. Frankly, when it comes to journalism ethics and craft, what happens at The New York Times is more important than what happens at The Huffington Post.

Anyway, this short piece was written by William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the United States, a media critic who rarely settles for using a fly swatter when a baseball bat will do. Nevertheless, the numbers in that Lexis-Nexis search are troubling.

The mainstream media editing of this quote is even more disturbing when the full context of these words is considered. Here is the entire, verbatim exchange -- from an informal press conference on the papal flight returning from Buenos Aires -- translated into English at

REPORTER: I would like to ask permission to ask a somewhat delicate question: another image has also gone around the world, which is that of Monsignor Ricca and news about your privacy. I would like to know, Holiness, what do you intend to do about this question. How to address this question and how Your Holiness intends to address the whole question of the gay lobby?

POPE FRANCIS: In regard to Monsignor Ricca, I’ve done what Canon Law orders to do, which is the investigatio previa. And from this investigatio there is nothing of which they accuse him, we haven’t found anything of that.

This is the answer. But I would like to add something else on this: I see that so many times in the Church, outside of this case and also in this case, they go to look for the “sins of youth,” for instance, and this is published. Not the crimes, alas. Crimes are something else: the abuse of minors is a crime. No, the sins.

But if a person, lay or priest or Sister, has committed a sin and then has converted, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is important for our life. When we go to confession and truly say: “I have sinned in this,” the Lord forgets and we don’t have the right not to forget, because we run the risk that the Lord won’t forget our [sins]. That’s a danger. This is important: a theology of sin. I think so many times of Saint Peter: he committed one of the worst sins, which is to deny Christ, and with this sin he was made Pope. We must give it much thought.

But, returning to your more concrete question: in this case, I’ve done the investigatio previa and we found nothing. This is the first question. Then you spoke of the gay lobby. Goodness knows! So much is written of the gay lobby. I still have not met one who will give me the identity card with “gay”. They say that they exist. I think that when one meets a person like this, one must distinguish the fact of being a gay person from the fact of doing a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. That’s bad. If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in such a beautiful way, it says, Wait a bit, as is said and says: “these persons must not be marginalized because of this; they must be integrated in society.”

The problem isn’t having this tendency, no. We must be brothers, because this is one, but there are others, others. The problem is the lobbying of this tendency: lobby of the avaricious, lobby of politicians, lobby of Masons, so many lobbies. This, for me, is the more serious problem.

So, GetReligion readers, what is the actual topic of this exchange? What is the pope's larger point? How would you express it?

Hint: Based on my reading, it appears that the pope's remarks center on contrasting the struggles of a humble sinner seeking a relationship with God with that of a public activist in a lobby trying to make a political point.

Please respect our Commenting Policy