The bishops "bickered" during the recent synod at the Vatican on families -- yes, the article by CNN said "bickered" -- and a lot of people wondered why Pope Francis doesn't just order changes, rather than call a two-week debatefest.
Good question, and CNN's Daniel Burke has a good answer. Actually, four good answers, highlighting the variety of sources and factions within the Roman Catholic Church. And he lays them out in mostly even-handed fashion. We'll look at the exceptions in a bit.
The Vatican synod, as you may know, was called to spot new ways of helping stressed-out families. The bishops also were charged with seeking out the possibility of providing Eucharist and other Church services to gay couples and to Catholics who had divorced and remarried.
Burke alertly reports Francis' silence throughout the quarrels, as a pope who wanted to encourage dialogue rather than hand down decrees. The reporter even quotes a Latin saying by a Vatican cardinal: Roma locuta, causa finita, or "Rome has spoken, the case is closed." Ergo, if Francis had volunteered opinions, the conferees would have fallen silent.
The bishops, as reports said, considered a passage on accepting gays as members, then watered it down and then erased it altogether. As Burke reports, Francis still tried to prod the meeting his way:
In a widely praised speech, he told them the church must find a middle path between showing mercy toward people on the margins and holding tight to church teachings.
What's more, he said, church leaders still have a year to find "concrete solutions" to the problems plaguing modern families -- from war and poverty to hostility toward nontraditional unions. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for next October in Rome.
I like Burke's word-crunching summary of Francis' double-edged admonition: to become neither hidebound in tradition nor forgetful of Church beliefs. I would have liked it better if he'd quoted the pope directly, as my colleague Dawn Eden did the other day. Perhaps Burke was worried about his story, already at more than 1,100 words, running too long.
I also admire the orderly way he lays out four restraints on papal fiat. They're clearly marked with subheads, with handy bites of 150-250 words each:
* WWJD?, or what does Jesus say in the New Testament.
* Tradition, aka established doctrine, aka the "deposit of the faith." Church leaders figure that their forebears must have known what they were talking about.
* The church universal, or the sensibilities of Catholics worldwide -- not just in Europe and the Americas, but in Asia and Africa, which are more conservative toward matters such as same-sex marriage and the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics.
* The old guard, the corps of traditionalist leaders appointed by previous popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For 35 years, they’ve steered the Church in traditional ways, Burke points out.
Thumbs-up on all that, but, the story still has a few flaws. One is buying into the mainstream media code of flagging conservative people, groups and comments. In this piece, "liberal" appears four times, relieved only by the synonym "progressive." By contrast, "conservative" appears eight times, including the curious "archconservative."
The CNN article also ends on a liberal slant -- something of a disappointment after its even-handed treatment of religious-social influences on the pope. It notes that although John Paul and Benedict packed bishop ranks with conservatives, Francis has been appointing "moderates" in several big dioceses, like Chicago -- and removed some "archconservatives" from their posts:
So, while many liberals expressed disappointment that the bishops' surprising welcome to gays was later retracted, others argue that at least the topic is still on the table for the next year's meeting, when the church will make final decisions on these issues.
Put another way, taking "three steps forward, two back, is still going forward," said Marx.
This story, in turn, is a few Marxian steps forward while retreating a couple of others. It takes an original approach to the synod, helping us understand why a pope can't just change things whenever he wants. But the article also falls into the secular media habit of scrutinizing conservative forces more than liberal ones.
And in ending with the liberal viewpoint, it appears to signal the direction the Church "should" move when it hears proposed solutions next year.
CNN did well with its fresh look at the synod and Catholic thought. It should also take a hard look at its own assumptions in coverage.