As he so often does, Deacon Greg Kandra looked at a news story about the Catholic church and summed it up in a crisp one-liner, a skill honed to a fine edge during his quarter of a century with CBS News. At his "The Deacon's Bench" blog (must reading for journalists on the Godbeat) he proclaimed: "BREAKING: The pope is still Catholic."
Pope Francis is Catholic? As opposed to what?
That's a big issue in the mainstream press, these days. Kandra's ironic headline pointed readers toward this Associated Press report from the recent papal stop in the Philippines, which began like this:
Pope Francis issued his strongest defense yet of church teaching opposing artificial contraception, using a Friday rally in Asia's largest Catholic nation to urge families to be "sanctuaries of respect for life."
Francis also denounced the corruption that has plagued the Philippines for decades and urged officials to instead work to end its "scandalous" poverty and social inequalities during his first full day in Manila, where he received a rock star's welcome at every turn.
The "sanctuaries" quote led into a very interesting passage that deserves close attention. You see, it is one of those doctrine-affirming statements that Francis often makes, yet these affirmations tend to draw minimal mainstream media coverage, especially in comparison with the waves of coverage that have followed some papal remarks that, when edited, seem to undercut orthodoxy.
Now, read the following material carefully. Then we will return to the passage that AP served up to introduce this long passage.
"Be sanctuaries of respect for life, proclaiming the sacredness of every human life from conception to natural death," Francis exhorted the crowd. "What a gift this would be to society if every Christian family lived fully its noble vocation."
He then deviated from his prepared remarks to praise Pope Paul VI for having "courageously" resisted calls for an opening in church teaching on sexuality in the 1960s. Paul penned the 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae," which enshrined the church's opposition to artificial birth control.
Francis noted that Paul was aware that some families would find it difficult to uphold the teaching and "he asked confessors to be particularly compassionate and understandable for particular cases."
But he nevertheless said Paul was prescient in resisting the trends of the times.
"He looked beyond. He looked to the peoples of the Earth and saw the destruction of the family because of the lack of children," Francis said. "Paul VI was courageous. He was a good pastor. He warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching, and from the heavens he blesses us today."
Well done. That's a solid summary. And as Kandra said: "The pope is still Catholic." Also note that the pope stressed that previous popes could take pastoral issues seriously, while restating Catholic teachings.
Now, how did AP frame those words?
Francis has largely shied away from emphasizing church teaching on hot-button issues, saying the previous two popes made the teaching well-known and that he wants to focus on making the church a place of welcome, not rules. But his comments were clearly a nod to the local church, which recently lost a significant fight when President Benigno Aquino III pushed through a reproductive health law that allows the government to provide artificial birth control to the poor.
Look at that first summary sentence, which has no attribution. However, you can hear echoes of previous press coverage of the "who am I to judge" snippet and other early Francis media storms.
Here is my question: Is it accurate to say that "Francis has largely shied away from emphasizing church teaching on hot-button issues"? Who said that? What is the source of that summary judgment?
Now, there are two qualifiers in that AP statement that may not have been there a few months ago -- "largely" and "emphasizing." In other words, this pope has been Catholic every now and then, but -- hurrah -- not too often. Also, he has not pounded away in his defense of doctrine, as was allegedly the practice of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Am I reading that right?
I simply want to know: Is this statement accurate?
Is this AP summary an accurate description of Pope Francis or is it an accurate description of the Francis encountered day after day in mainstream coverage, while many of his orthodox remarks, and actions, draw little coverage?
You can hear, in my questions, echoes of earlier GetReligion discussions of Catholic debates about this pope, especially among pro-Catechism Catholics. Some will recall this typology:
There may be a few -- repeat few -- who see him as a secretly liberal Machiavelli who is steering the Catholic boat toward icebergs in order to cause massive doctrinal changes. There are others who think he is fine, when you read him in context, and that the press is totally to blame for any confusion that exists. There are others who think he means well, but that he is naive when it comes to how his off-the-cuff papacy will be presented in the media. ...
So how do you cover all of that? Well, you quote people -- on the record whenever possible.
So here is that larger truth again: When reading coverage of Pope Francis, it is important to (a) look at the actual texts of his remarks online and (b) note which sections of the story are clearly attributed and which parts are paraphrased, without attribution. It is proper to view the latter with extra skepticism.
Meanwhile, some may wonder why this Pope Francis statement on birth control received mainstream coverage at all. I think we can see a hint why this happened, at the top of the following USA Today piece:
Pope Francis, after a visit to the largest Catholic nation in Asia, says Catholics may have a moral responsibility to limit the number of their children and need not reproduce "like rabbits.''
But the pope also reaffirmed the church's ban on artificial means of birth control and said Catholics should practice "responsible parenting."
Rabbits? Oh, that Francis. He is good when it comes to those soundbites. In this case, readers also were offered a bit of the substance on which to chew.