Sometimes I wonder if the leaders of The New York Times,among other media titans, take the late Justice Potter Stewart approach to obscentiy when deciding who is a "conservative" Roman Catholic. The famous jurist, you may recall, said of so-called "hard-core" pornography:
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that." [Emphasis added.]
While many of our readers would probably place Pope Benedict XVI in the Catholic Church's conservative wing, they'd also know he isn't, say, in the "ultra-traditionalist" camp of, say, the Society of St. Pius X, a group whose relations with the Vatican are tenuous at best. His differences with Pope Francis, so far, are best described as differences of emphasis and style.
Hang in there with me: I do have a journalistic point to make.
The journalists who produced the recent Times piece under the headline, "Conservative U.S. Catholics Feel Left Out of the Pope’s Embrace" pin one label on all sorts of people who are disappointed in one way or another with the work of Pope Francis, without making much distinction as to who fits where under that broad label. They seem to "know it when [they] see it," but the rest of us are left guessing.
The beginning is poignant enough:
When Pope Francis was elected in March, Bridget Kurt received a small prayer card with his picture at her church and put it up on her refrigerator at home, next to pictures of her friends and her favorite saints.
She is a regular attender of Mass, a longtime stalwart in her church’s anti-abortion movement and a believer that all the church’s doctrines are true and beautiful and should be obeyed. She loved the last two popes, and keeps a scrapbook with memorabilia from her road trip to Denver in 1993 to see Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day.
But Ms. Kurt recently took the Pope Francis prayer card down and threw it away.
“It seems he’s focusing on bringing back the left that’s fallen away, but what about the conservatives?” said Ms. Kurt, a hospice community educator. “Even when it was discouraging working in pro-life, you always felt like Mother Teresa was on your side and the popes were encouraging you. Now I feel kind of thrown under the bus.”
All right, it's clear that Kurt doesn't like something that the pope has said.
However, this article doesn't specify which statement made her upset -- readers can only presume, given the "longtime stalwart in her church's anti-abortion movement" tag. I'd sure like to know a bit more of her thinking, and why she's dubbed a "conservative" Catholic. There are and were, after all, politically "liberal" Catholics who also opposed abortion. Dorothy Day comes to mind here, and even Day might have been disappointed in some of the pope's comments.
Perhaps there was more detail when the story was turned in. We'll probably never know.
In seeking perhaps to position Francis to the left of his two immediate predecessors, the Times is taking something of a scattershot approach, with a blog quote here, a soundbite there to capture the "conservative" mood:
They were particularly alarmed when he told a prominent Italian atheist in an interview published in October, and translated into English, that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil” and that everyone should “follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them” -- a remark that many conservatives interpreted as appearing to condone relativism. He called proselytizing “solemn nonsense.”
They were shocked when they saw that Francis said in the interview that “the most serious of the evils” today are “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.” It compounded the chagrin after he said in an earlier interview that he had intentionally “not spoken much” about abortion, same-sex marriage or contraception because the church could not be “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.”
Steve Skojec, the vice president of a real estate firm in Virginia and a blogger who has written for several conservative Catholic websites, wrote of Francis’ statements: “Are they explicitly heretical? No. Are they dangerously close? Absolutely. What kind of a Christian tells an atheist he has no intention to convert him? That alone should disturb Catholics everywhere.”
And a little later:
Matt C. Abbott, a Catholic columnist in Chicago with Renew America, a politically conservative website, said in an interview on Friday, “I wish that he could have chosen some different words, expressed himself in a different way that wouldn’t have been so easily taken out of context.”
“For orthodox and conservative Catholics,” he said, “the last few months have been a roller-coaster ride.” He added in an email, “I’m not a big fan of roller coasters.”
Note the phrasing: "several conservative Catholic websites," and "a politically conservative website." We don't know, because we aren't told, which "several" Catholic websites are involved, how big or influential they are, and so forth. There's no perspective, no detailed enough descriptor to help us understand things. And are some of these people upset with the pope, or skewed press coverage of the pope?
As a (very) rough analogy, both National Review and Human Events are "conservative" periodicals, but each is markedly different from the other in some basic matters of orientation, detailed beliefs, presentation and "voice." It would be helpful here to have a bit of that flavor, at least some more detailed positioning.
I don't know if The New York Times has a policy against interviewing, say, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, but I've generally found Donohue to be available for a soundbite. Or, for that matter, why they didn't go to a trenchant analyst such as the Rev. James Martin, the America magazine columnist and, in my opinion, master of the Catholic soundbite. He's another well-known observer who is rather media savvy. (Indeed, Martin noted on his Facebook page, in linking to the Times article, that among conservatives who staunchly defended Benedict XVI and John Paul II it's now OK to criticize a pontiff.) Is there no academic who could steer us through this?
But absent any statistical evidence, absent a breakdown of which types of conservatives are saying these things, the story seems a bit, well, vague. Particularly when it starts to wrap with the words of a conservative who does seem to like Pope Francis and believes him to be perhaps a bit misunderstood:
Judie Brown, the president and co-founder of the American Life League, a Catholic anti-abortion group, said: “Pro-lifers are upset because they feel the pope is selling out the pro-life movement. And that’s not at all correct. If you read everything he’s been saying, especially in his Wednesday sermons, there’s no question that where he stands is consistent with what the church has been teaching.”
For now, readers are left wondering. And in a news article -- when there's no "news analysis" label used, at least in the online text -- being left wondering isn't a good thing, is it?