It is a serious understatement to note that Pope Francis has made more than his share of news during the honeymoon months of his papacy. Mainstream reporters have rushed to cover almost everything this charismatic leader has had to say. The "almost everything" clause is, however, rather important.
It was news, for example, when the pope said that the church has been unbalanced in its approach to promoting it's teachings on the sanctity of life, stressing public-square politics over pastoral care. Yes, the word "obsessed" was worthy of big headlines. However, days later, journalists on this side of the Atlantic ignored his ringing words at a global conference focusing on abortion and other family life issues. So some pronouncements on abortion are newsworthy and others are not.
Now, Pope Francis has released an important “apostolic exhortation” -- the title is Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel") in which, in very popular language, he addresses a wide range of topics, everything from global economics to improving the preaching in local pulpits.
So what is grabbing the headlines? Consider the top of this The Washington Post report:
Pope Francis on Tuesday sharply criticized growing economic inequality and unfettered markets in a wide-ranging and decidedly populist teaching that revealed how he plans to reshape the Catholic Church.
In his most authoritative writings as pontiff, Francis decried an “idolatry of money” in secular culture and warned that it would lead to “a new tyranny.” But he reserved a large part of his critique for what he sees as an excessively top-down Catholic Church hierarchy, calling for more local governance and greater inclusiveness -- including “broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.”
The 50,000-word statement is the latest sign that Francis intends to push the church in a new direction.
Viewing the document through a DC Beltway lens, the Post team also jumped -- appropriately, I think -- on the fact that Pope Francis used a strikingly American term during his discussion of the weaknesses of unfettered capitalism. His content was very similar to similar statements by the Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but in this case the style is crucial.
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Francis wrote in the papal statement. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
“Meanwhile,” he added, “the excluded are still waiting.”
Although Francis has previously raised concerns about the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the direct reference to “trickle-down” economics in the English translation of his statement is striking. The phrase has often been used derisively to describe a popular version of conservative economic philosophy that argues that allowing the wealthy to run their businesses unencumbered by regulation or taxation bears economic benefits that lead to more jobs and income for the rest of society. Liberals and Democratic officials have rejected the theory, saying it is contradicted by economic evidence.
This is certainly a very important section of "The Joy of the Gospel." However, it is very, very interesting to note that the Post article -- after the earlier media firestorm about this pope's words on abortion -- completely ignores the strong passage in the new document about abortion and related issues. The passage even, like the "trickle-down" reference, includes a word that can be seen as linked to political and theological battles in America and elsewhere.
This passage is long, but it's important to consider the words of Pope Francis in context (full text in .pdf):
213. Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.
Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.
Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative.
Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.
It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.
Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.
Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. ...
214. Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question.
I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”.
It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.
On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?
It's crucial to note two things in this remarkable passage. First of all, Pope Francis -- being totally orthodox -- directly links the ancient church's teachings on abortion to its work on human rights and treating the poor and needy with dignity and compassion. These issues cannot be pried apart. Thus, the abortion passage is linked to the newsworthy passages on economic justice.
Second, surely it is not a coincidence that Pope Francis -- using direct quote marks, "scare quotes" even -- states: "It is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life."
Doesn't that "progressive" term sound as Beltway-esque these days as the "trickle-down theories" remark?
To it's credit, The New York Times team managed to include this section of "The Joy of the Gospel" in its report, even if this information was slotted at the very bottom of the report. Also, the Times did not link the abortion passage to the headline-grabbing statements on economic justice.
After months in which many have parsed his comments for hints of change, the pope used the document to reiterate church teachings on abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women. On abortion, he said, “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations,” who may seek abortions because of rape or extreme poverty.
Nowhere in the document did Francis speak explicitly of homosexuality or same-sex marriage. However, he said the church should not give in to “moral relativism,” and cited with approval a document written by the bishops of the United States on ministering to people with “homosexual inclination.” The pope said the American bishops are right that the church must insist on “objective moral norms which are valid for everyone” -- even when the church is perceived by supporters of gay rights as promoting prejudice and interfering with individual freedom.
Echoing his predecessors, Francis said that ordaining women to the priesthood “is not a question open to discussion.” He acknowledged that “many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests,” and said, “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church.” But he offered no specifics on doing so.
The Los Angeles Times briefly -- very briefly -- mentioned the pope's reaffirmation of church teachings on abortion and connected them to the "obsessed" media storm:
(Pope Francis) also warned that he would not be changing the church's viewpoint on abortion, gay marriage and female priests, although he did call for women to be given more decision-making clout within the church. On the Vatican's opposition to abortion, Francis says the church "cannot be expected to change her position on this question."
The pope captured attention in September when he complained that the Catholic Church had been "obsessed" with issues such as abortion, gay marriage and contraception, to the exclusion of other important matters.
Well, that isn't exactly what the pope said last September. And what about the new remark addressing "progressives"? Oh well, whatever, never mind.
The key is that journalists at The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times gave some evidence that they read the complete papal document and gave readers an update on this pope's thinking on some newsworthy topics that, a few months ago, were worthy of bold headlines.