As always, the annual March For Life has unleashed waves of debate and criticism about the news coverage, or lack of coverage, of this event. In this case, one of the most interesting quotes this week came from Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston and it related to the ongoing interest in what Pope Francis meant when he offered that famous -- all together now -- quotation that said:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. ... The teaching of the church ... is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
And, of course, he also said that the church:
“... cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. ... We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
In the mainstream press, this has evolved into a sound bite in which the pope says Catholics are "obsessed" with abortion and it's time for Catholics to stop marching, stop counseling at abortion facilities, stop teaching their doctrines to their children in Catholic schools, etc., etc.
Enter Cardinal O'Malley, who is usually seen as one of the more moderate or even progressive voices at the top of the American Catholic hierarchy. He certainly has his share of conservative Catholic critics. Also recall that, as the leader of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Boston prelate also delivered the pre-march homily that annually serves as a kind of state of the union address for the pro-life movement.
Thus, it is interesting that O'Malley, in an interview with The Boston Herald, offered this bit of media criticism about mainstream news coverage of Pope Francis and, in particular, that "obsessed" quotation:
The normal Catholic in the parish might hear a sermon on abortion once a year. They’ll never hear a sermon on homosexuality or gay marriage. They’ll never hear a sermon about contraception. But if you look at the New York Times, in the course of a week, there will be 20 articles on those topics. So who is obsessed?
Yes, there is more:
Now, the Church’s positions are very clear and very consistent. For us, life is at the very center of our social teachings. Life is precious. It is a mystery. It must be nurtured, protected, the transmission of life is sacred. And our defense of human life is a great service to society. When the state begins to decide who is worthy of living and who isn’t, all human rights are put in jeopardy, but the voice of the church is very clear. And we’re not just saying that life is precious in the womb but life is precious when someone has Alzheimer’s when someone has AIDS when someone is poor when someone has mental illness. Their humanity is not diminished -- and they have a claim on our love and on our services.
So the church’s position is a very consistent one. It is a consistent life ethic. I don’t think that we are obsessed, however, when the New York Times is writing 20 articles a week about these things and make reference to the Church in half of those articles, it gives the impression. But I think in the parishes, these things are talks, in a routine way, in CCD classes, along with the rest of the Catholic doctrine but all of our teachings fit together. They’re part of a whole. There’s a consistency in our life ethic.
If you read the whole thing, you can see that the cardinal appears to have a media-related agenda on this front, one that I think is linked to the fact that what the pope actually said was that his goal was a more "balanced" approach to work on moral issues in the public square, one balancing public advocacy and the defense of doctrine with improved pastoral care and displays of mercy.
O'Malley gets into this issue in a question about the Project Rachel program that helps women find healing after their abortions.
We see that an abortion is not only the destruction of the child but also damages the parents. With a million abortions a year, there are many women who feel that trauma and the church wants to reach out to them in mercy and help to bring them God’s healing out of this experience. We see that it’s helped a lot of women and also the fathers to come to grips with what has happened in their lives and to feel the healing of forgiveness. The Holy Father has described the Church (as being) a field hospital and I think that’s one of the functions of Project Rachel, is to help people in their brokenness and to help bring a sense of healing and reconciliation to people who’s lives have been touched by abortion. ...
I believe it’s certainly the kind of initiative that he would support very much because he really wants the Church to be the merciful face of God, where people feel welcomed, loved, forgiven, affirmed, and certainly this program does all of that because it’s a ministry of healing. People are much more focused on the abortion issue and the legality around abortion but the Church is very concerned about the individual’s whose lives are touched by the tragedy of an abortion. ...
The abortion problem will be solved by taking care of the mothers and this is one way that we’re trying to reach out and take care of mothers. There’s a lot of confidentiality around it and women are made to feel that they’re in a safe, accepting environment.
Now, I think the cardinal is asking readers (and even journalists) to read between the lines a bit.
I think he is saying something like this. Yes, the "obsessed" quote was important. However, who is really obsessed the most with these issues?
Then there is the flip side of the coin. If the pope's goal is a balance between mercy and advocacy, are efforts such as Project Rachel also newsworthy here in the early days of the Francis effect?
A fascinating interview. Let the discussions continue or, in this case, begin.