Catholic scribe notes the hidden news story: This pope's emphasis on Confession

We get all kinds of comments and email here at GetReligion, some of which readers see online, some of which we refer to in posts using careful language and some troll offerings -- few of which have anything to do with journalism -- that we trash before we start laughing or crying or both.

Quite a few -- critical and/or supportive -- come from working journalists, including religion-beat pros. I wish that I could share more of these, including the ones that are critical of the website, yet also constructive. It would be great to dialogue with these professionals, but most cannot let us use their real names.

As you would expect, we frequently hear from the same readers over and over. Quite a few of these people are professionals in religious or denominational newsrooms, the kinds of people who spot the errors and holes (real and, every now and then, not so real) in mainstream news reports about their own flocks.

For years, one of the website's most loyal and most constructive readers of the site has been Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz, the veteran Catholic scribe currently is a producer at The Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio. He is the former editor of The Catholic Times in the Diocese of La Crosse in Wisconsin. He has a degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Earlier this week, during the latest media explosion on Pope Francis, abortion and moral theology (post by Bobby Ross, Jr., here and then Julia Duin here), he wrote us a note with some very precise reactions to the mainstream coverage. I asked him if he would flesh out his thoughts a bit, as a memo to reporters covering this story. Here is what he produced.


Remember back in March of this year when Pope Francis told a gathering of seminarians and priests that Confession should not be a form of torture? The subsequent reporting featured a lot of emphasis on that torture part, but something was missed:

“Too often people confuse being merciful with being lenient,” he said. Saying, “Oh, go on, that’s not a sin” is just as bad as insisting over and over, “but the law says this,” he told them. “Neither response takes the penitent by the hand and accompanies him or her on the journey of conversion.”

Let’s go back further to March of 2014 when the Pope was going to hear confessions in St. Peter’s Basilica during Lent. A YouTube video (see top of this post) showed him being escorted to his confessional by the Master of Ceremonies when he suddenly veered off and went to confession himself. That image of him kneeling before a priest of his diocese rocketed around the world.

A month before that, in his general audience, he had this to say:

“I would like to ask you -- but don’t say it aloud, everyone respond in his heart: when was the last time you made your confession? Everyone think about it ... Two days, two weeks, two years, 20 years, 40 years? Everyone count, everyone say ‘When was the last time I went to confession?’ And if much time has passed, do not lose another day. Go, the priest will be good.
Jesus is there, and Jesus is more benevolent than priests, Jesus receives you, he receives you with so much love. Be courageous and go to Confession!”

Going further back, into what almost seems to be ancient history, in the first major interview he granted in August 2013, Pope Francis told his fellow Jesuit, Father Antonio Spadaro, this:

“Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: 'I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.’ And he repeats: ‘I m one who is looked upon by the Lord.’ ”

I hope these four examples reveal that Confession is near and dear to the heart of Pope Francis
because he sees God’s mercy being poured out through that sacrament. He himself goes to Confession frequently (about every 10 days), though that’s not something highlighted in the media.

So when he wrote a letter to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, about the upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, and he conveyed that he would grant faculties to all priests around the world to immediately absolve and reconcile to the Church any woman who contritely confesses the sin of abortion during the upcoming Jubilee Year, the media’s response was almost one of, “So the pope is finally getting the Catholic Church with the times.”

Most media noted that canon law stipulates that abortion is not only a sin, but also a crime, a crime that incurs the automatic sentence of excommunication (OK, so they didn’t put it in those terms, but they did talk about the excommunication part). But there are important facts that were missed, facts which could have been cleared up with some interviews to answer key questions:

(1) With the Pope saying he was granting this faculty to all priests, doesn’t that imply that some priests have it and others don’t? So how about asking a canon lawyer what faculties regular parish priests hearing confessions have to absolve women who confess to abortions, and then reporting that as precisely as possible rather than citing generic “church officials”?

(2) What's the difference between absolution and the lifting of an excommunication? Does the one imply the other?

(3) What kind of penance is imposed for a sin like abortion? (Now wouldn’t that be interesting to know?)

From some media reports (see tmatt’s post on The New York Post as an example) you could get the impression that abortion is an unforgivable sin. It’s not.

You can also get the impression that if a sin can be forgiven, then it’s really not that big of a deal. But because it can be forgiven doesn’t make it any less of a sin. The fact that it is a sin is exactly why it needs to be forgiven and the person reconciled with God.

This is urgent for this Pope, so urgent that he granted the faculties for absolution to a group completely reviled by the mainstream media -- the priests of the Society of St. Pius X -- you know, that group that was excommunicated back in 1988 and are still not fully reconciled with the Church? This was almost completely ignored in the MSM or added as a minor footnote. Only John Allen (#nosurprise) really got the full implications of this act.

It would be well for reporters to keep in mind the raison d’etre of the Catholic Church, at least as she understands herself (you know, that whole thing about treating people as they self-define?), which is to reconcile the world to God by applying the graces obtained by Christ’s actions in the Eucharist, the Cross and the Resurrection to those who believe through the administration of the sacraments.

So reconciling people to God -- people who have committed abortion, murder, lies, theft, adultery, sodomy, child sexual abuse, gossip, extortion, torture, racism and any other sin you can think of and those you can’t -- through the Sacrament of Confession is precisely why the Church exists. People who commit those sins are sinners, just like the Pope proclaimed himself to be. People who are reconciled, i.e. get right with God, are those who, also like the pope, the Lord has looked upon.

IMAGE ON FRONT PAGE: Pool photo from ANSA/Osservatore Romano.

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