Oh great. Here we go again, back into the media debates about whether the archbishop of Philadelphia really said, during a speech in New York City (full video here), that Pope Francis was working with Satan to destroy the Catholic Church.
So, once again, what did Archbishop Charles Chaput actually say? Back to the transcript:
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.
So, who did he say caused the confusion in the "public image" of the synod and its work?
That would be, in Chaput's opinion, the press. You don't have to agree with him to see that fact, when looking at the context of the "confusion is of the devil" quote that is still floating around out there in alleged-news cyberspace. More on that in a minute.
In a commentary at Crux, the seemingly omnipresent John L. Allen, Jr., put it this way, speaking of the public reputation of Chaput:
Anyone who knows him realizes he’s a man of strong opinions about the risks of assimilating to secular culture, and not shy about voicing them. It’s legitimate to suspect he may be a bit uncomfortable with some of the new winds blowing in the Francis era.
Yet Chaput is also a papal loyalist, and the idea that he would publicly accuse a pontiff of fostering the work of the Devil is implausible. If you read the full text of his response, it seems clear he was talking about media presentations of the synod, not necessarily the event itself. (Whether he was being fair to the media is a conversation for another time.)
Yes, indeed. That is a conversation for another time and one worth having. It is also 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 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 he is fine, when you read him in context, and that the press is totally to blame for any confusion that exists. There are others who 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.
So how do you cover all of that? Well, you quote people -- on the record whenever possible. You quote insiders and outsiders and you cover that debate. It helps to quote these complicated and almost always highly intellectual folks in context, because they will often be speaking in code.
I think that's what the USA Today team was trying to do in its story that ran under the headline, "Pope Francis agitates conservative U.S. Catholics." Instead, this is what you got -- right at the top of the story:
A senior American cardinal in the Vatican says that under this pope, the Roman Catholic Church is "a ship without a rudder'' and the faithful "are feeling a bit seasick.''
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput complains that a recent Vatican conference called by Pope Francis produced "confusion,'' adding, "Confusion is of the devil.''
A group of conservative lay Catholics say they felt "betrayed" by a preliminary report from the conference that proposed a more welcoming attitude toward gay men and lesbians.
Turnabout is supposed to be fair play, but for these and other U.S. Catholic conservatives and traditionalists, the papacy of Francis also seems to be infuriating, worrying or just plain puzzling.
Yes, Chaput did say that the "public image" of the synod was confused, at times. But, again, what was the crucial element in that confusion? And this story contains many other quotes, mostly from Francis, that have been stripped from context. Yes, the "Who am I to judge?" line is in there again, with no surrounding context.
Later on in the report, there was this:
Conservative reaction ranges from open dismay over Francis' direction to the more common conviction that it's not the pope promoting liberalization, but a news media that reports his frequent off-the-cuff remarks out of context for a public with little grounding in Catholicism.
"A lot of mainstream media reporting is based on what people hope Pope Francis is saying, instead of what he is actually saying,'' says Arina Grossu, a 31-year-old University of Notre Dame graduate who worships in the Archdiocese of Washington. The result, she concludes, "only adds to the noise and confusion."
Thank you. That is a crucial part of the picture. Part. Of. The. Picture.
But, later, the USA Today team is back to the Chaput quote, sort of.
Liberals cheered a preliminary report on the proceedings that, consonant with Francis' inclinations, expressed welcome to gay men and lesbians of faith and hope for gentler treatment of Catholics who live together outside of marriage or have divorced and remarried outside the church (and thus cannot receive Communion).
Conservatives then rallied and struck much of what they found offensive in the first report from the synod's final one -- a move widely reported as a rebuff of Francis. But the damage was done. Chaput expressed dismay over the debate in Rome, saying, "Confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion."
Sigh. And where did the "public image" -- as opposed to the reality that was in these complex debates, spread over several days -- come from?
One more time: What did Chaput actually say? Now, if this piece has that much trouble with one nuanced quote, is it wise for readers to trust the rest of its content?