Sometimes, anecdotes are a wellspring for indepth reporting. Other times, it just leads to wishful thinking. Here is what the Washington Post ran on March 27 as an attempt at background for the meeting of Pope Francis and President Obama:
FLORENCE, Italy -- The power of the Catholic Church in Italy has compelled thousands of gay men and lesbians to live in the shadows, and the opposition of bishops helped make this the only major nation in Western Europe without broad legal rights for same-sex couples. But gay Catholics here now speak of a new ray of light from what they call “l’effetto Francesco.”
The Francis Effect.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, at a time when the new pontiff is upending church conventions and opening new doors. In their first face-to-face encounter, the two leaders — who have sought to bring change to their respective offices — focused on issues ranging from growing inequality to the challenges of global conflicts.
But for the pope, perhaps no one issue illustrates his divergence from tradition more than early signs of rapprochement between the church and gay Catholics.
Oh, dear. Where to start?
With the dateline, I guess. The president met the pope, of course, at the Vatican. Which is, of course, in Rome. Which would, of course, make the meeting hard to cover from Florence, 174 miles away.
Second, the code word. Have you ever noticed that when a reporter doesn't like a person or organization, he/she uses words like "power" and "powerful"? And when he/she does like them, the adjectives run more toward "respected" and "influential"?
Third, if gay rights, same-sex marriage or anything like it came up at the Francis-Obama meeting, no media -- including the Washington Post -- have reported it. The meeting was the flimsiest of newspegs on which to hang a story about the Church and gays.
But the story premise itself is flimsy, as the article acknowledges more than once. A few excerpts:
Francis’s shift so far has been one of style over substance; nothing in the church’s teachings on homosexuality has changed, and conservative clerics remain deeply skeptical of any radical move toward broad acceptance.
Among the gaggle of conservative cardinals and bishops of the Italian church, little has outwardly changed since Francis’s arrival.
Gay activists in Italy say it is far too soon to tell whether Francis will truly usher in a new era here. And for each priest who is partaking in an opening, there are probably 20 others who are not.
But those qualifiers, laudable as they are, do little to slow the headlong optimism of this 1,300-plus-word article. We get snippets like a church allowing a gay Catholic group to hold a public prayer session. And another church group that reaches out to gays as well as divorced Catholics. And the Diocese of Padua meeting with a gay Catholic group.
And my personal favorite: a priest in Tuscany who was notable for "authorizing" local actors (What does that mean?) to produce a pro-gay play -- "in a hall that shares a common wall" with his church.
All this from a single sentence by Francis about eight months ago, when he said -- all together now -- "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
The Washington Post does quote laypersons from both sides. But even then, the reporter weights the quotes by acceptability. One is by an avowed lesbian church member:
She said her devoutly Catholic mother called her after hearing the pope’s declaration. The two of them had grown distant since Anna Maria had told her mother years earlier that she was a lesbian. “But when she called me, she said, ‘If the pope is not judging you, then who am I to judge you either?’ ”
Ah, see what they did there? Mom is one of those Devout Catholics™. And as you know from an earlier column of mine, you get that label -- at least in mainstream media -- only by opposing tradition. Note this quote two paragraphs later:
Anna Berni, a 72-year-old worshiper at Sant’Alessandro, for instance, said she fails to see the need for more openness toward gays. "What I can’t stand is arrogance, the imposition of difference,” she said. “There are limits for each one of us. They’re overturning family and society because those who are different want more rights."
Anna may be 72, but sorry, she doesn't get to be a Devout Catholic™. She favors tradition.
But in the end, little of this news is really news. Liberal groups, parishes and individuals have been scattered around the Catholicverse for decades. Since at least the reforms of Vatican II, starting in the mid-1960s, various movements have tried a host of approaches, including meeting with gay and divorced Catholics.
In the Archdiocese of Miami, I saw a gay organization in 2010 among several groups who gathered to thank the outgoing archbishop for his encouragement. And the Washington Post article itself mentions a gay group that has been meeting at a parish hall in Tuscany for five years. Both incidents, of course, happened long before the "Francis Effect."
The Roman Catholic Church just might be warming to gays, but the Post story offers too little evidence for it. Nor does the story show any change in basic Church attitudes, like same-sex marriage or ordination of gays. Newspapers need facts, not wishing wells.