Journalists are rarely true prophets, but they often try to look into the future and see what they want to see -- often with the help of long-time sources on one side of an issue who are also anxious to see what they want to see.
The sources for these wish-fulfillment stories are real. The quotes are real and almost always valid. The issue addressed in a trial-balloon story of this kind may be timely. However, it is crucial to note that these reports rarely feature quotations from people on the other side of whatever hot-button issue is being, allegedly, covered.
That appears to be the case with the recent Los Angeles Times story that ran under the headline, "Vatican observers look for thaw between Pope Francis, U.S. nuns."
The lede is a picture perfect:
When the Vatican censured an organization representing thousands of American nuns, it did so in part because the group had not spoken out enough against gay marriage and abortion.
The Vatican said the Leadership Conference of Women Religious had espoused "radical feminist themes," adding, "Issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church's Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching."
Now, some observers of the Roman Catholic Church are wondering whether the arrival of a new pope will thaw the frosty relationship between the nuns and the Holy See.
You can just feel the yearning, can't you?
Now, all kinds of people observe the Vatican and some even know what they are talking about.
So who are the voices of conservative Catholic authority in this piece who believe that Pope Francis is going to embrace the DOCTRINAL STANDS -- click here for a refresher -- taken by these progressive nuns? As you read the piece, look for traditional Catholic voices who believe that this pope is going to be "inclusive" when it comes to their doctrinal views on abortion, salvation, Christology and, well, neopagan approaches to faith?
Again and again, it must be stressed that the Vatican, even under Pope Benedict XVI, praised these nuns for their stands on poverty and social justice. Yet the Los Angeles Times piece, as you would expect, notes:
In September, 17 months after the censure, Pope Francis said: "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods." Since he took office in March, the pontiff has also repeatedly spoken about the need for economic justice, which would seem to match the nuns' emphasis on serving the poor.
Meanwhile, I can't find a single conservative or centrist Catholic voice quoted in the piece. Did I miss someone?
Instead, the story does a fine job of repeating the mantra that "some observers" think this and that "some actions" of the new pope can be interpreted as favorable to the progressive nuns by these clusters of nameless observers at the Vatican.
Meanwhile, there are -- as there should be -- on the record quotes from some academics who back the editorial viewpoint of this story.
There is one Charles Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, and also Douglas Porpora, who is identified as "a Vatican expert at Philadelphia's Drexel University who identifies as progressive." We also hear from Sister Rochelle Mitchell, who is connected to the Sisters of Social Service in Encino. There are opinions offered from others simply called "supporters of the nuns' group."
These various oracles on the Catholic left work together to see the best in everything -- from their perspective -- in what Pope Francis says and does. This passage is crucial:
... A month after he took office, Francis "reaffirmed the findings" of the investigation that led to the censure, as well as the program of reform, according to a statement from the Vatican.
Some church observers see a discrepancy between the pope's statements and his actions toward the nuns. Sandra Yocum, a religious studies professor at the University of Dayton, called it "one of the puzzles of Pope Francis."
However, some experts agreed that although disappointing for the nuns, reaffirming the censure was a wise political move for Francis. He would have caused unwanted friction in the church had he reversed a key piece of Benedict XVI's career only a month after taking office, Reid said.
Because of Francis' emphasis on inclusiveness, his reluctance to act on the censure is seen by some as an attempt to not alienate supporters of the previous popes, while still giving encouragement to the sisters through his remarks.
You can feel the yearning, can't you?
Finally, there is the matter of the pope's recent sprawling statement Evangelii Gaudium “The Joy of the Gospel” (.pdf text). This Times story refers to it as "an 84-page manifesto released last month" -- actually, it's longer than that -- in which "Francis moves away from the "smaller but purer" church advocated by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and calls for a larger, inclusive church."
Of course, this is the same document in which Pope Francis himself states the following about abortion:
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. ...
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 on this question. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or "modernizations." It is not "progressive" to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.
If the team at The Los Angeles Times had interviewed someone on the conservative side of the church, this quote -- with its interesting use of the term "progressive" -- might have been included in the story. You think?