Doctrine vs. politics: Think pieces to ponder during this week of Pope Francis

Every now and then, normally on weekends, your GetReligionistas point readers toward what we call "think pieces" -- editorial features (as opposed to hard news) about topics that are directly linked to religion news and/or the mainstream press coverage of religion news.

As you would imagine, there has been a ton of this kind of writing this week with the pope visiting the media-rich Acela zone between Washington, D.C., and New York City. 

Pope Francis set the agenda for this in that off-the-cuff Shepherd One chat with reporters in which he tried to explain, well, as the headline from Time stated -- "Pope Francis: I Am Not a Liberal." The top of that essay added:

As Pope Francis flew to the United States for the first time, the pontiff assured journalists on the flight that he is not a liberal. Asked to comment on the many media outlets who are asking if the Pope is liberal, the Pope seemed bemused and decisive.
“Some people might say some things sounded slightly more left-ish, but that would be a mistake of interpretation,” he said before landing in the U.S. ... “If you want me to pray the creed, I’m willing to do it.”
He underscored the point: “It is I who follows the church … my doctrine on all this … on economic imperialism, is that of the social doctrine of the church.”

Did you see what happened there? Hint: It's pretty much whatever happens when a pope delivers a major address in a setting that journalists consider newsworthy, only this time the process was in reverse.

The journalists, thinking politics (the ultimate reality in the real world), asked the pope why "media outlets" think he is a liberal and the pope, starting with a remark about praying the creed, responded in terms of doctrine.

The key phrase is "my doctrine on all of this."

You see, the pope actually thinks that what he is saying and doing has something to do with doctrine and the real world. Both. At the same time! As if doctrine is real and beliefs have something to do with actions. Can you imagine that?

Press coverage warped by this materialistic distortion tends to drive serious Catholics a bit bonkers. For example, see this essay at The Politic site entitled: "6 Times You Were Flat-Out Lied To About Pope Francis."

So with this essential tension in mind, let's look at bites from several major-media think pieces that ran in recent days (thank you to helpful readers).

First, consider this from The Atlantic: "Pope Francis Is Not ‘Progressive’ -- He’s a Priest." Consider this sample:

... Francis does not fit neatly into American categories. To understand him and his agenda, it’s more helpful to look at America through his eyes than to look at him through an American’s eyes, for even the most familiar U.S. issue may seem very different to this Argentinian Jesuit. ...
First, the American political spectrum is truly idiosyncratic. This is a country where a Democratic congressman can loudly oppose the death penalty on moral grounds, but can’t risk really opposing abortion; a Republican might care a lot about the poor, but woe unto her campaign coffers if she suggests raising taxes on the rich. “Francis, like all the other popes, like the Catholic Church, simply doesn’t land comfortably on either side of the political divide in the U.S.,” said Vincent Miller, a professor of theology at the University of Dayton. “But it’s not simply that on questions of sexuality and human life he agrees with Republicans and on questions of economics he agrees with Democrats. The whole system is so skewed.”
Second, although some read this pope as a rebel within a broken Church, no pontiff can single-handedly overhaul Church teachings on any issue, nor has that ever been Francis’s intention.

Over at, there was an interesting piece, ironically enough, in the "It's All Politics" section that ran under the headline: "How Pope Francis Clashes With Both Democrats And Republicans, In 1 Graphic."

Now, there is plenty of material in this piece that activists on both sides will question and, as always, the Devil (as well as the angels) are in the details. For example, NPR -- you knew this was coming -- used the omnipresent, ripped-from-context Francis "Who am I to judge?" quotation (actual transcript of his remarks here) as its defining soundbite linked to his views on same-sex marriage.

What? You were expecting them to use the famous quote expressing his views on efforts to change the definition of marriage in Argentina? 

"Let us not be naive: it is not a simple political struggle; it is an intention (which is) destructive of the plan of God. It is not a mere legislative project … but rather a 'move' of the father of lies who wishes to confuse and deceive the children of God."

Actually, shouldn't that be "Father of Lies" in Associated Press style, since that is a biblical reference to Satan?

Still, I thought it was interesting that NPR -- the official voice of blue-zip-code America -- even attempted such a feature.

Over at Crux, the indefatigable John L. Allen, Jr., did that thing that he does, which is read all the full texts and then offer an analysis piece for people who, well, have not read all of the real texts. The headline this time: "Francis 2.0 emerges in America: Pope and Church are a package deal."

The bottom line: Popes believe the most issues they face are connected and the ties that bind are doctrinal, not political. Here is a large chunk of Allen's offering:

On his first full day in the United States, he drove home the ... point with two major speeches chock full of something for both left and right, all drawn from the wheelhouse of Catholic social doctrine.
In his address at a White House welcoming ceremony, Francis began with a defense of the institution of the family and also a strong plug for religious freedom, even endorsing the call to vigilance of the US bishops.
Pointedly, Francis turned and looked at Obama as he delivered the line.
Of late, the religious liberty cause par excellence of the American bishops has been opposition to the contraception mandates imposed by the Obama administration as part of health care reform, and no doubt they’ll appreciate the papal vote of confidence.

And then:

On the other hand, Francis also praised Obama’s efforts to fight pollution and climate change. He called himself a “son of immigrants” and thanked America for welcoming new arrivals, something that likely will be seen to bolster efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
It’s easy to imagine many public figures who might come to the White House to talk about the defense of marriage and religious freedom, and easy to imagine plenty who would push immigration and climate change. What’s far more difficult is to imagine one would talk about all of those things, and with roughly equal emphasis.

Also, the pope -- speaking to the U.S. bishops -- used a phrase that (because of frequent abuse) irritates many Catholic conservatives, but it is hard to deny the central doctrinal point to which it points:

In a turn of phrase full of meaning in recent America Catholic life, Francis at one point called the Church the “seamless garment of the Lord.”

Now, I wonder if this problem -- looking at doctrinal matters through a strictly political lens -- shaped any of the coverage of the Pope Francis address to the U.S. Congress? Stay tuned.

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