Call it truth in advertising--though not in reporting. Religion News Service's story on Pope Francis's Christmas address to the Curia bears a headline that aptly sums up its spin: "Pope Francis to Curia: Merry Christmas, you power-hungry hypocrites."
The lede signals that we have before us the mainstream media's familiar "Francis as radical" meme:
VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis launched a blistering attack on the Vatican bureaucracy on Monday (Dec. 22), outlining a “catalog of illnesses” that plague the church’s central administration, including “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and gossipy cliques.
The pope’s traditional Christmas greeting to the cardinals, bishops and priests who run the Holy See was more “Bah! Humbug!” than holiday cheer as he ticked off a laundry list of “ailments of the Curia” that he wants to cure.
In a critique that left many of the assembled clerics clearly uncomfortable, the 15 ailments in Francis’ “catalog of illnesses” reflected the take-no-prisoners approach he promised when he was elected nearly two years ago as an outsider with little direct experience in Rome.
The pope is an "outsider" with a "take-no-prisoners approach"? Don't hold back, RNS; tell us what you really feel.
Seriously, did Francis's tone in speaking to the Curia actually warrant such hyperbole? A GetReligion reader who read the full text of the pope's address says no:
Do reporters ever actually read Pope Francis' speeches/homilies/addresses themselves, or do they just rely on what someone else says about them and parrot that?...
I know most of the MSM is often tone deaf to religion-speak. ... It is obvious to me, though, that the Pope was speaking in a pastoral voice, the voice of a loving father. He even said to his brother bishops that what he was saying was for all of them (obviously, again, to me, inclusive of himself), as a preparation for an examination of conscience.
The text of Francis's address bears out our reader's critique, especially taken within the context of his public statements during Advent. Rocco Palmo encapsulates the message that the pope has been giving the entire Church during Advent and indeed throughout his papacy, a message which does not fit the mainstream media's image of him as Mr. WhoAmIToJudge: "Merry Christmas -- Go to Confession." Palmo observes:
[H]aving made Reconciliation [i.e. sacramental confession] his most frequent and urgent cause among the sacraments over 21 months in office – not to mention doing so infinitely more than his recent predecessors – Francis' affinity for the confessional stands as a principal proof that the reality of Jorge Bergoglio is far from the caricature accepted either by his champions or his castigators.
Now, what does one do before making sacramental confession? A religion reporter specializing in Catholic issues should know this. One makes an examination of conscience. In his Christmas message to the Curia, Pope Francis, who so often asks others to pray for him, was doing just that. What is more, as our reader observes, and as RNS ignored, his speech bears this out: he included himself among those in need of an examination of conscience. He even began by asking forgiveness:
Together with you I wish to elevate to the Lord a heartfelt and profound gratitude for the year we are leaving behind, for the events lived and for all the good that He willed generously to fulfill through the service of the Holy See, asking Him humbly for forgiveness for the faults committed “in thoughts, words, deeds and omissions.”
And, in fact, beginning from this request for forgiveness, I would like our meeting and the reflections that I will share with you to become, for us all, a support and stimulus to a true examination of conscience to prepare our hearts for Holy Christmas. ...
The Curia is called to improve itself, to improve itself always and to grow in communion, holiness and wisdom to realize its mission fully. However, it, like every body, like every human body, is also exposed to sicknesses, to malfunctioning and to infirmity. And here I would like to mention some of these probable illnesses, curial illnesses – they are the more usual illnesses in our life of Curia. They are sicknesses and temptations that weaken our service to the Lord. I think a “catalogue” of illnesses will help us – following the way of the Desert Fathers who made those catalogues of which we speak today. It will help us to prepare ourselves for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which will be a good step for us all to prepare ourselves for Christmas.
After reciting the promised catalog, Francis adds, as our reader noted, that he is in fact addressing all Catholics, not just the Curia:
Brothers, these sicknesses and these temptations are, naturally, a danger for every Christian and for every Curia, community, Congregation, parish, Ecclesial Movement, etc. and they can strike at the individual as much as at the communal level.
The close of the pope's address similarly emphasizes that he is calling all, including himself, to prepare to confess their sins:
Once I read that: “priests are like airplanes, they make news only when they fall, but there are so many that are flying. Many criticize and few pray for them.” It is a very nice phrase but also very true because it delineates the importance and the delicacy of our priestly service and how much evil one priest who “falls” can do to the whole Body of the Church.
Therefore, in order not to fall in these days in which we prepare for Confession, we ask the Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, to heal the wounds of sin that each one of us bears in his heart and to support the Church and the Curia so that they are healthy and restored; holy and sanctifying, to the glory of her Son and for our salvation and that of the whole world. We ask her to make us love the Church as Christ loved her, her Son and our Lord, and to have the courage to acknowledge that we are sinners and in need of His Mercy and of not being afraid to leave our hands between her maternal hands.
There is no denying that Francis's address points to many areas where he believes members of the Curia need to shape up. It is honest to call it a critique, and it is severe at times. But the pope makes it clear he is also calling himself and all Catholics to likewise examine themselves, with the express purpose of preparing for sacramental confession. That is an important distinction, and I do not see it anywhere in RNS's sensationalistic account.