Pope wades into culture war; Washington Post avoids calling it

The freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins, according to the old saying. The stickler, of course, has to do with how far you reach and whether I move my nose.

Such issues are woven into the Washington Post's indepth on questions of freedom raised by Pope Francis' six-day visit to the United States, which he finished yesterday. The article's three reporters, with GetReligion alumna Sarah Pulliam Bailey as the lead writer, do a great job of covering the waterfront. But they also take a side excursion or two.

The WaPo team quotes six well-chosen sources, including a pollster, two religious liberty experts, a philosophy professor, a constitutional law expert and a religion consultant with the ACLU. Yet they cover this broad topic in less than 1,100 words.

This story is cast in two ways. It drops in at three sites Pope Francis visited where freedom is especially important: Philadelphia, near the Liberty Bell; the White House, where Francis visited President Obama; and at the United Nations, where the pope called for an end to persecution of Christians.

The article also tries to weigh how much the pope was drawing on his own lights, and how much he was listening to American bishops. For the latter, of course, the battles swirl around gays and Obamacare:

U.S bishops in recent years selected as their top priority what they call threats to the rights of Americans to freely practice their faith. For them this has meant concern that, among other things, church-affiliated non-profits will have to do abortion referrals or provide health care to spouses of gay couples. Some worry faith-based non-profits could lose their tax-exempt status.
Francis spoke alongside one of the bishops’ most prominent figures for the religious liberty cause, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput.
“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others,” Pope Francis said.
Opponents, including civil liberties advocates, argue that one person’s religious liberty can’t trump another person’s right to be free of discrimination or to have full access to health care (including abortion or contraception).

The big question is not only what Francis said, but what he might have meant. Was he pointedly lending aid and comfort to the American bishops in their struggle with the federal government? Or was he trying simply to guide consciences toward guarding everyone's freedom -- a considerable task in itself?

The Post finds evidence in both interpretations, without trying to rule on who's right:

Francis has also made several comments this week showing his support for the bishops, including at the White House, where he stood beside President Obama and said “my brothers, the United States bishops, have reminded us all..to be vigilant..to preserve and defend [religious liberty] from everything that would threaten and compromise it.”
Francis also spoke about religious freedom at the United Nations, where he focused on Christians losing their homes and their lives because of religious persecution. There Francis immediately broadened the topic. “Not only in cases of religious or cultural persecution, but in every situation of conflict.”

As the newspaper adds, Francis also made an unscheduled visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order that is suing the White House over its requirement for them to pay for contraception for employees.

But the story conscientiously quotes people from various fields on the matter. Philosophy professor Robert George says the pope was urging the U.S. to be "more respectful to those who dissent from the administration." (The Post doesn't make clear, though, if George is speaking as a Princeton professor or as the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.)

And at least one source seems to contradict himself:

Doug Laycock, a religious liberty expert at the University of Virginia law school, said the talk would likely be seen as an affirmation of the bishops’ campaign.
“He stuck to the high ground. He endorsed religious liberty in general. He didn’t get into specific disputes, probably wisely,” he said.

The bishops, however, have been getting very specific on what they believe are threats to their freedom. So if Francis sounded affirming for their campaign, that sounds like yes, he's siding with them.

The Post story seems to wander from its theme of pope, bishops and freedom when it brings up polling results.  It says that in 2012, most Catholics said that a faith-based employer should not have to pay for birth control as part of its health plan; but this month, most Catholics said that "when there's a conflict between someone's religious beliefs and the need to treat people equally under the law, the latter is more important." That's all interesting, but neither the pope nor the bishops base social or moral teaching on polls.

As the article winds down, it quotes from three experts in the last quarter.

The ACLU's Daniel Mach says that religious freedom is "not a blank check to discriminate against others."

Richard Gannett of Notre Dame University says Francis was reminding everyone that "religious freedom is not supposed to be a conservative issue, but rather a fundamental human-rights issue."

But the last word goes to Marci Hamilton of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. She says that with his use of "public square" -- a term he doesn't usually use, but the American bishops do -- the pope was apparently being influenced by the bishops.

OK, let's gather it all up. The Post gives us info and a variety of interpretations, although the latter predominate in the belief that Francis was subtly speaking up for the American bishops. Was the article seeking to get us to agree? Or is that the way it really was?

And maybe WaPo simply decided that drawing a bottom line was not their call?

Just maybe this is a trend, or perhaps an undercurrent, at the paper. Another Post writer showed impressive restraint today, when reporting the pope's remarks aboard his plane enroute home. ABC’s Terry Moran asked if someone had the right not to issue a marriage license to a gay couple. As the Post says:

“I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscience objection,” the pope told reporters on the plane. “But, yes, I can say the conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right.
“And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”

Even then, the paper didn’t insist on a direct comparison. "It was unclear if the pope knew of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who earlier this year refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples," the story says.

It's also possible that the Washington Post is recognizing what our Bobby Ross Jr. observed in his column today: "Is there a chance that this pope is more complicated – and more committed to centuries of Catholic doctrine – than 21st century media headlines make him appear?"

Addendum from Douglas Laycock, via e-mail to GetReligion: "I didn't actually contradict myself. I said the Pope stuck to the broad principle and avoided specific controversies, probably wisely, as Sarah quoted. But I said he would probably be read as endorsing the bishops' position. It's the difference between what he actually said and what activists were likely to claim he said. Sarah reported both the quote and the paraphrase accurately, but she didn't make the connection clear."

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