The usual: Covering Pope Francis the pastor, as if he is Pope Francis the politician

Does anyone remember the big religion-beat story of the week BEFORE Rowan County clerk Kim Davis went to jail in Kentucky?

I am referring, of course, to the alleged move by Pope Francis to liberalize or modernize or do something radical to his church's teachings on abortion.

Right. That story, the one discussed by our own Bobby Ross Jr., in this post and then Julia Duin in this update, the post featuring that must-see MSNBC headline. We then offered this bonus essay by a GetReligion reader, veteran Catholic scribe Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz. The key: Pope Francis was extending -- for one year -- the ability of priests around the world to hear the confessions of women who have had abortions, or women and men directly involved in performing abortions, and to absolve these sins without their local bishops being involved in the process.

As is often the case, the American press rushed to portray this as another:

(a) Brave move by media star Pope Francis (actually, the two previous popes had taken the same action at one time or another).

(b) Confrontation between a compassionate pope with culture-wars bishops in the United States (actually, many or even most American bishops had already extended this right to their priests).

(c) Subject sure to cause tensions with ugly Republicans during the pope's upcoming visit to the Acela Zone between Washington, D.C., and New York City.

All of this was discussed, this week, in my "Crossroads" podcast chat with host Todd Wilken. Once again, the key to understanding the pope's move was to view it in pastoral terms, rather than political terms. Click here to tune in that conversation.

Now, here is another way to understand what the pope is doing.

Does the name "Anna Romano" ring any bells? Think back to the very beginning of the Francis papacy, when he gave that long, long, important interview with America magazine. There was this very interesting story that received lots of coverage in Europe, but not much in America. I wrote a column about Romano that opened like this:

It was the telephone call heard around the world, because the pope made the call.
On the other end of the line was a single woman in central Italy, who mailed Pope Francis a confused, anguished letter after learning she was pregnant by a man who turned out to be married. The man demanded that she have an abortion and she refused.
Then a strange telephone number appeared on her caller ID screen. It was the pope, who called to say that she made the right decision because the "child was a gift from God" and that he wanted to help.
Pope Francis, she told The Catholic Herald, assured her that "as Christians we should never be afraid. He told me I had been very brave and strong for my unborn child. I told him that I wanted to baptize the baby when it was born, but I was afraid, as I was divorced and a single mother. ... He said he would be my spiritual father and he would baptize my baby."
If the baby is a boy, she plans to name him Francis.

Now this parable unfolded during the heady days when the American press was abuzz with stories about the pope's statements that the church needed to be involved in public debates about a wide range of issues, as well as moral issues such as abortion and gay rights. The press was delighted and saw this as a political statement.

Actually, the Romano parable suggested that Francis was talking about the church being more pastoral and personal on these issues.

Yet the pope also spoke out on abortion, in a crucial speech that the mainstream press basically ignored:

While the media storm raged, Pope Francis did an interesting thing. ... He addressed, with little media fanfare, a gathering of Catholic gynecologists, urging them to remember that a doctor's "ultimate objective" must always be the protection of life.
"The culture of waste, which now enslaves the hearts and minds of many, has a very high cost: it requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker," he said, according to a English translation offered by The National Catholic Register.
"Our response to this mentality is a categorical and unhesitant 'yes' to life. ... Things have a price and are sold, but people have a dignity, worth more than things and they don't have a price. Many times we find ourselves in situations where we see that which costs less is life. Because of this, attention to human life in its totality has become a real priority of the Magisterium of the Church in recent years, particularly to the most defenseless, that is, the disabled, the sick, the unborn child, the child, the elderly who are life's most defenseless."
In the end, stressed the pope, the church must continue to proclaim that, "Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world."

Does that sound like a retreat? This latest Pope Francis media storm is rather similar to that earl episode in his reign. Basically, Francis issued another urgent plea for Catholics to go to confession, something very, very, very few do these days in places like, well, the Acela Zone and similar regions.

Now, if you want to see a rare mainstream media discussion of this side of the story, please see this Elizabeth Dias essay in Time, which ran under the headline: "What Pope Francis’ Abortion Announcement Really Means." Here is a key section:

It is a bold move, and a spiritual one. Pope Francis is not addressing politicians. He is providing guidance to his Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization as he prepares the Catholic Church for a year of intentional mercy designed to foster spiritual renewal. Pope Francis’ offer is also not new -- it widens a common Catholic practice. ...
Forgiving abortion is not the same as saying abortion is now acceptable: forgiveness implies a turning of heart, with the goal of change. Pope Francis made this clear in his papal bull announcing the Jubilee Year in April. “This is the opportune moment to change our lives! This is the time to allow our hearts to be touched! When faced with evil deeds, even in the face of serious crimes, it is the time to listen to the cry of innocent people who are deprived of their property, their dignity, their feelings, and even their very lives,” he wrote. “To stick to the way of evil will only leave one deluded and sad. True life is something entirely different. God never tires of reaching out to us. He is always ready to listen, as I am too, along with my brother bishops and priests.”
The Vatican made this clear again ... after the Pope’s letter was announced. “Forgiveness of the sin of abortion does not condone abortion nor minimize its grave effects,” Father Thomas Rosica, the Vatican’s English-language press assistant, explained to reporters in an email. “The fact that this statement is coming from the Pope and in such a moving, pastoral way, is more evidence of the great pastoral approach and concern of Pope Francis.”

Read it all. And enjoy the podcast.

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