The dance continues: Pope Francis, the U.S. bishops and alleged confusion in the press

The U.S. Catholic bishops are meeting in Baltimore and, as you would expect, the coverage -- so far -- has been framed in terms of the the liberal, friendly, compassionate agenda of Pope Francis and the nasty, legalistic, orthodox point of view of the bishops who are "culture warriors" on abortion, marriage, religious liberty, etc.

The top of this Associated Press report is perfect, in terms of capturing this framework:

U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are gathering at a moment of turbulence for them and the American church, as Pope Francis moves toward crafting new policies for carrying out his mission of mercy -- a prospect that has conservative Catholics and some bishops in an uproar.
The assembly ... comes less than a month after Francis ended a dramatic Vatican meeting on how the church can more compassionately minister to Catholic families.
The gathering in Rome was only a prelude to a larger meeting next year which will more concretely advise Francis on church practice. Still, the open debate at the event, and the back and forth among bishops over welcoming gays and divorced Catholics who remarry, prompted stunning criticism from some U.S. bishops.

Actually, that is the top of an earlier version of the AP story, recovered via Wayback Machine. That text is now missing and the current version of that AP story, at the same URL, can be found by clicking here. There are some interesting differences, but before we get into that let's flash back to the mad-conservative-Catholics typology that I offered in a recent post (I have added a bit of annotation here, with the numbers).

It is ... clear that there are a wide variety of positions on the Catholic right, at the moment, when it comes to the work of this pope.
There may be a few -- repeat few -- who (1) see him as a secretly liberal Machiavelli who is steering the Catholic boat toward icebergs in order to cause massive doctrinal changes. There are others who think (2) he is fine, when you read him in context, and that the press is to blame for any confusion that exists. There are others who (3) think he means well, but that he is naive when it comes to how his off-the-cuff papacy will be presented in the media. I am sure there are other options on the right that I missed.

A key question, in these conspiracy discussions, centers on whether Pope Francis is getting bad coverage that distorts his true agenda (a mercy follows repentance agenda) or precisely the media coverage that he secretly wants, since he really does (wink, wink) plan to edit the Catechism at some point down the line.

Notice that it's almost impossible to escape the role of the press in discussing all of this. 

With that in mind, consider the following two passages in this Religion News Service story -- it is not one of the articles that is marked as "analysis":

In an effort to ease any concerns over what happened at the synod in Rome, the four cardinals and bishops who represented the U.S. bishops at the two-week meeting gave brief presentations to their nearly 300 colleagues meeting in a waterfront hotel here.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, one of the synod delegates, was especially outspoken in telling the bishops that the media had distorted the message of inclusion that came out of the meeting. Dolan said the synod was not “hijacked” by liberals seeking to change church teaching, nor were efforts to explore changes “smothered” by conservatives forces.
The meeting “was hardly as spicy, juicy, interesting or pugnacious” as the media portrayed it, he said. “In fact, it was plodding, even at times tedious. But it was a synod of consensus.” 

Cardinal Dolan, I would say, is clearly in the second camp in my typology. And what about former USCCB press aide Russell Shaw, in this RNS quote about the U.S. bishops?

“They’re just as aware as anybody that the perception of the pope’s program has caused a terrible ruckus in the church in the U.S.,” he said. “So they find themselves in the very difficult position of moving forward with the pope’s program while reassuring people that nothing fundamental is changing or will change in the doctrine of the church.
“It’s hard to do,” Shaw said.

Note that Shaw stresses that, for him, the "perception of the pope's program" is the issue. One might even say that the issue is the "public image" of this pope, the recent synod, etc. And where does this perception, this public image, come from? Shaw is being very careful, but that sounds like another voice in my camp two.

Now this brings us back to the earlier, now missing, version of the Associated Press report. The goal is to assign the camps to the people referenced in this material. Who is where?

Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former St. Louis archbishop and leading voice for conservative Catholics, said the church "is like a ship without a rudder" under Francis. Burke made the comments before the pope demoted him from his position as head of the Vatican high court, a move he had anticipated.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said the debate and vote on a document summing up the discussion in Rome, which laid bare divisions among church leaders, struck him as "rather Protestant." Tobin referenced a remark Francis had made to young Catholics last year that they shake up the church and make a "mess" in their dioceses.
"Pope Francis is fond of `creating a mess.' Mission accomplished," Tobin wrote.
Other American bishops said the meeting sowed confusion about church teaching, although several blamed the way information was released from the Vatican or reported by the media.
"I think confusion is of the devil. I think the public image that came across was confusion," said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. Next year, Chaput will host the pontiff on his first U.S. visit for the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-organized event that draws thousands of people.

Actually, I think that the full quote from Burke shows a bit more context. Here that is from Crux:

“At this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the Church is like a ship without a rudder,” Burke said.

Burke is being careful, too. Is this a strong sense in the public, among the bishops, inside his own head? You can read that several ways, but it is an editorial judgment to automatically assign the now infamous "ship without a rudder" words to Burke's point of view, alone. That is not what he said.

The Tobin quote? Strong stuff. I put that one in my third camp. Could he be camp one? 

Yes, there is the Chaput quote, once again. It really does help -- as John L. Allen, Jr., noted in Crux commentary -- to read the actual transcript again. So here it is:

Audience member: I would be very grateful for your comments on the recent Synod on the Family in Rome.
Chaput: Well, first of all, I wasn’t there. That’s very significant, because to claim you know what really happened when you weren’t there is foolish. To get your information from the press is a mistake because they don’t know well enough how to understand it so they can tell people what happened. I don’t think the press deliberately distorts, they just don’t have any background to be able to evaluate things. In some cases they’re certainly the enemy and they want to distort the Church.
Now, having said all that, I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.

OK, so we have a claim here -- you don't have to agree with him -- that it is a "mistake" to rely on the press when parsing the work of the synod. Why? Well, Chaput claims that some reporters lack experience and depth. That's harsh, but that's what he said.

The archbishop then went further, stating that in "some cases" journalists are "certainly the enemy and they want to distort the Church." That's really harsh and is clearly, in Chaput's analysis, a key source of the "public image" of confusion that he, now being extra harsh, states is "of the devil."

So is Chaput, looking at the words he actually spoke, mad at the pope, the synod or the press? If anything -- again, one does not have to agree with him -- isn't he saying that "in some cases" journalists are "certainly the enemy" and, well, cooperating with you know who in causing confusion?

Stay tuned and read carefully.

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