Pope Francis's defense of doctrine sends the Associated Press spinning

Associated Press - What is this?

A colleague offers the following capsule summary of Associated Press reporter Nicole Winfield's latest report on Pope Francis, in which the pontiff's defense of traditional church teaching seems to baffle the Vatican correspondent:

Francis is a RADICAL -- no, no, sorry about that--he is now a conservative who sounds just like Benedict -- NO, WAIT -- he really is a liberal at heart, but he is being FORCED by those evil, evil right-wing conservatives to cave--he is at WAR with his own CDF chief (you know, the one he re-confirmed -- but never mind) -- AT WAR, I TELL YOU!

I thought he was exaggerating -- until I read the actual story. "Pope Reinforces Traditional Family Values" is a classic example of the kind of story that makes us at GetReligion ask, "What is this?" Is it meant to be hard-news journalism, or is it meant to be advocacy or commentary? And if it's commentary, or analysis, why is it not labeled as such? Why is the AP selling it to news outlets as straight reporting?

Here's the lede:

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis is seeking to reassure the church's right-wing base that he's not a renegade bent on changing church doctrine on family issues -- weeks after a Vatican meeting of bishops initially proposed a radical welcome for gays and divorced Catholics.

Give the AP credit at least for not beating around the bush. Winfield, or her editor, is telling us upfront that, in the AP's eyes, Catholics who uphold church doctrine are "right-wing." The AP well knows that "right-wing" is a loaded political term. As I wrote in this space when USA Today labeled the late Rev. Benedict Groeschel "conservative,"

Basically, is someone a conservative for defending church doctrines? So moderates are for changing doctrine and liberals are for changing doctrine really fast? What do these words mean, in debates about doctrine?

The AP story continues:

Francis on Monday opened an interreligious conference on the "complementarity" of men and women in marriage and sex. He said marriage between a man and woman is a "fundamental pillar" of society and that children have the right to grow up with a mother and father.
It was the second papal speech emphasizing church doctrine in as many days: On Saturday, Francis pronounced some of his strongest words yet against abortion, euthanasia and in vitro fertilization, sounding more like his predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, than the Argentine Jesuit who famously said "Who am I to judge?" about gays.

It really does sound as though Winfield is trying to wrap her head around the fact that the pope is Catholic. I have written in this space before about the befuddlement that takes place among mainstream news reporters when Francis doesn't fit the "progressive" image that they have carved out for him. We see that clearly as the AP fumbles to explain the pope's straying off his supposed liberal talking points:

Vatican officials concurred that the interventions could be read as a response to the conservative backlash that erupted after the recent meeting of the world's bishops on family issues. 

What officials? The AP doesn't say. I haven't seen any other news outlet report a similar comment from "Vatican officials." And why is the AP characterizing Francis's statements as "interventions," as though the pope violently inserted them into his own papal discourse, like some bizarre right-wing version of Tourette syndrome?

The rest of the story includes the bizarre reference to the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that was noted by my colleague:

The conference is being organized by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose conservative prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, helped lead opposition to Francis' radical agenda at the synod.

So the AP is now pitting the "conservative" prefect of the CDF against the pope's "radical agenda." Seriously, what is this? Pope Francis himself confirmed Muller in his job. To claim that the pope's own doctrinal head is locked in an ideological battle with him is a serious charge. And how can Pope Francis have a "radical agenda," if he speaks in favor of traditional Catholic doctrine on marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and IVF? If this story is truly intended as reporting, and not analysis, then the AP's spin machine has officially gone off the rails.

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