Today at GetReligion, it's deja vu all over again.
Once again, a story on Pope Francis by Associated Press reporter Nicole Winfield has us asking, "What is this?" As I wrote the last time around:
Is [the article] meant to be hard-news journalism, or is it meant to be advocacy or commentary? And if it's commentary, or analysis, why is it not labeled as such? Why is the AP selling it to news outlets as straight reporting?
This time, the AP article is on Francis's address to the International Theological Commission, "Pope to Theologians: Listen to the Ordinary Faithful." It begins:
Pope Francis urged the Catholic Church’s top theologians on Friday to listen to what ordinary Catholics have to say and pay attention to the “signs of the times,” rather than just making pronouncements in an academic vacuum.
If this is meant to be straight news story, then the first question is, did the pope really say that?
And the answer is no -- at least, not exactly. He did mention the "signs of the times." However, having read his entire speech, the claim that he decried "making pronouncements in an academic vacuum" strikes me as pretty far-fetched.
Moreover, Francis's reference to the signs of the times was actually in reference to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes. In context, it does not seem to mean what Winfield takes it to mean. As a Twitter user noted, it's not about blowing with the wind, but rather about evaluating contemporary voices "in light of the word of God":
Here's the relevant quote from Francis's address:
[Together] with all the Christian people, the theologian opens the eyes and the ears to the “signs of the times.” He is called to “hear attentively, to discern and interpret the various languages of our time, and be able to judge them in the light of the word of God -- it is the word of God that judges – so that revealed truth is grasped ever more profoundly, is better understood and is able to be presented in the most appropriate way” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council , Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 44).
Meanwhile, back in the AP story, the full-on spin comes in paragraph two:
Francis, whose near-disdain for theologians is well-known, told the International Theological Commission that they must “humbly listen” to what God tells the church by understanding Scripture but also by taking into account how ordinary Catholics live out their faith.
Hang on. "Near-disdain for theologians"?
Once again: Is that a fact or an opinion? If it is so well known, there is the evidence? Wherever it may be, it's certainly not in the text of the actual Pope Francis address. He told the theological commission's members:
The theologian is, first of all, a believer who hears to the Word of the living God and receives it in his heart and mind. However, the theologian must also place himself humbly to hear “what the Spirit says to the Churches” (Revelation 2:7), through the different manifestations of the faith lived by the People of God. We were reminded of this in the recent document of the Commission on “The Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.” It is beautiful. I so liked that document, congratulations!
So, being that the pope has such "near-disdain" for theologians, he calls the latest work of his own theological commission "beautiful"; he "so liked" it that he enthusiastically congratulates the commission's members for writing. It kind of makes you wonder how excited he would be about the document it if his disdain were more distant.
Further down in the AP article, the weirdness continues:
Made up of leading theologians from around the world, the commission is a permanent advisory body to the Vatican’s theological and orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Both are headed by Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, a conservative German theologian appointed by the theologian pope, Benedict XVI.
Cardinal Mueller a "conservative German theologian appointed by the theologian pope"?
One is tempted to wonder whether that line was actually written by Winfield, or was inserted by an editor who moonlights at the Department of Redundancy Department. (It reminds me of the kind of Orthodoxy Derangement Syndrome in which USA Today engaged when it called the "conservative" Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel a hero to "conservative" Catholics.)
However, I fear the line is intentional, as it attempts to pit the cold, cruel German twin theologians against the more merciful, theologian-disdaining Francis -- which is just plain wrong, though it's unfortunately par for the course for Winfield. As I wrote the last time she painted Mueller as Francis's nemesis,
Pope Francis himself confirmed Muller in his job. To claim that the pope's own doctrinal head is locked in an ideological battle with him is a serious charge.
At the end of the AP story, Winfield does make an attempt to reinforce her point that the pope has it out for ivory-tower academics, writing that Francis has
spoken frequently about what he calls “theology on its knees” — a more merciful type of theology that isn’t focused so much on rules and regulations but meeting the faithful where they are to help them reach holiness.
Again, is this meant to be hard news? Is it meant to be analysis? Either way, it fails, for the AP is not even quoting Francis correctly. The pope urges the practice of theology "on one's knees," not on its knees.
Doing theology on one's knees is in fact the opposite of putting theology on its knees. Francis insists that the theologian is not to drag Catholic beliefs down to his or her own level. Rather, he or she is called to humble himself before God:
[The] theologian who does not pray or does not adore God ends up sinking into the most repugnant narcissism. And this is an ecclesiastical sickness. Narcissism in theologians and in thinkers is harmful and repugnant.
So it's not theologians in general that Francis disdains. It's narcissistic theologians who make idols of their personal ideologies rather than listening to scripture, Catholic tradition, and the lived faith of the universal church from the apostolic age through the present time.
In other words, ladies and gentlemen of the Associated Press, the pope is Catholic.