Kryptonite update: Gray Lady keeps using political labels in Pope Francis coverage

Faithful GetReligion readers know that we have, through the years, stressed that reporters are not responsible for the headlines that top their stories. Sadly, it is very common for a simplistic or even inaccurate headline to warp readers' perceptions of the content of a story before they even read it. Reporters are not amused when that happens.

In this online age, reporters at major newsrooms -- The New York Times is about as major as things get -- are also not in charge of writing the promotional materials posted to promote their stories or, in many cases, sent to readers who have signed up for daily email digests describing the contents of the newspaper. The odds that an online editor understands the story as well as the reporters? Not very good.

So with all that in mind, let's note the wording, in the Today's Headlines digest shipped by the Times, of the blurb describing the newspaper's story about the controversial secret meeting between Pope Francis and Rowan County clerk Kim Davis of Kentucky. That promotional summary stated:

Pope Francis' meeting with Kim Davis cheered conservatives troubled by his words on poverty, the environment and immigration, and dismayed liberals who said it negated much of the good will he had built up on his trip.

OK, once again we see a pitch-perfect -- in a negative sense -- use of the flawed, inaccurate political labels that many mainstream journalists keep using when covering this papacy, as well as the Catholic Church and prominent religious institutions in general. This problem existed with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but things have gotten even worse with Pope Francis. You see, many journalists have developed an image of this pope based on their own interpretations of a few off-the-cuff remarks he has made, as opposed to his writings.

In this blurb, who are the "conservatives" who have been "troubled by his words on poverty, the environment and immigration"? Are they Catholic doctrinal conservatives or activists linked to the Republican party?

When one looks at this statement from a doctrinal point of view, it is simply ridiculous. What ancient doctrines of the church, what sections of the Nicene Creed or Catholic moral theology, are undercut by this pope's statements on these issues? It would also help to know if the "dismayed liberals" are political or doctrinal liberals (or both).

This flawed, simplistic political framework is found in the actual Times story, but not to the point of blunt inaccuracy. Well, other than the now mandatory out-of-context use of the Francis "Who am I to judge?" soundbite to convey a message that is pretty much the opposite of the doctrinal statement he was actually making (background and full transcript here).

So back to the event itself. As I stated yesterday -- "Media Kryptonite incarnate: Why such secrecy for pope's chat with Kim Davis? #DUH" -- Vatican officials clearly knew that a meeting between Pope Francis and Davis would be greeted with dismay by most scribes in the American press. The Times report does include some interesting details -- often from Liberty Counsel lawyer Mathew D. Staver -- about the secrecy surround the meeting at the Vatican Embassy, which was blanketed with intense security. For example:

Sneaking her inside was no mean feat, Mr. Staver said, because Ms. Davis is now nationally recognized.
While waiting in the embassy, the Davises took cellphone pictures of themselves with a portrait of Francis. But, Mr. Staver said, “out of deference and respect, they didn’t want to pull out a cellphone with the pope.”
Mr. Staver said the meeting lasted 15 minutes, and the only people present were Ms. Davis and her husband, papal staff and security, and at least one Vatican photographer. He said that he, the Davises and Vatican officials had agreed not to publicize the meeting until after the pope had left the United States because, Mr. Staver said, “we didn’t want the pope’s visit to be focused on Kim Davis.”

An early nomination for the understatement of the year?

Most of this Times report, however, focuses on fallout from the meeting. The political frame game starts early, as in:

The episode added a new dimension to an American tour in which the pope drew rapturous throngs and surprised admiration from liberal Americans thrilled to hear a pope stake out left-leaning positions on poverty, the environment and immigration.
Suddenly, on Wednesday, religious conservatives were cheering. They had spent a week watching with some chagrin the pope’s reluctance to engage directly in their culture-war battles over same-sex marriage, abortion rights and religious liberty. Francis had urged American bishops to avoid “harsh and divisive language.”

There are some on-the-record reactions from some dismayed liberal Americans. The problem is that they were jammed under the same liberal umbrella in ways that may not have done them justice. For example, compare these two sets of remarks:

Liberal Catholic commentators were left asking whether the pope had been trying to make a statement about religious liberty or same-sex marriage by meeting with Ms. Davis, and if so, why the meeting had been kept secret. Some called it a mistake.
“The news that Pope Francis met privately in Washington, D.C., with Kim Davis throws a wet blanket on the good will that the pontiff had garnered during his U.S. visit last week,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for gay Catholics.

And later:

John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group, posited that Francis’ intent on his trip was not to escalate America’s culture wars but to illustrate the contradictions within them.
“Part of the Francis effect is making the left and the right a little bit uncomfortable, and mission accomplished,” Mr. Gehring said. “I think Pope Francis affirms religious liberty, and he rejects the culture wars. That’s something we need to grapple with.”

Are these two groups both "liberal" in the same way? 

Maybe not. For decades, New Ways Ministry has actively worked for changes in ancient Catholic doctrines on human sexuality. In other words, in this case the "liberal Catholics" are best described as doctrinal liberals who want to see changes at the level of the Catholic Catechism. This group argues that some Catholic doctrines are both wrong and sinful.

Is that the case with the leaders of the Catholic program at Faith in Public Life? While the group appears to be active in public-square LGBT issues, I don't see clear evidence that it is actively opposing the doctrines of the Catholic faith.

So is it fair or accurate to use the same label to describe these two groups? Once again, is it fair to equate doctrinal and political liberalism or conservatism? Do political labels really work, are they accurate, when journalists are covering ancient, truly global faiths?

Let's end with a "conservative" quote from the Times piece, making a point very similar to the thesis of the Crux analysis piece posted by John L. Allen, Jr. That Times quote stated:

“The news is consistent with what the pope said, consistently, in his various addresses and appearances,” said Richard W. Garnett, an associate dean and a professor at Notre Dame Law School. “Some have seemed to want to frame the pope’s visit as a pushback” against the bishops’ campaign supporting the rights of those who resist same-sex marriage and the contraception mandate on religious grounds.
He said the pope’s friendly meeting with Ms. Davis suggested “that this frame does not fit.”

Note once again that many Catholics are convinced that the central issue here is a clash between the public narrative of this pope's work (in news reports, primarily) and the content of the full texts of his remarks and writings.

So, who are the people who "have seemed to want to frame" Pope Francis as consistently clashing with U.S. leaders who are attempting to defend church teachings? Is the pope's call for a change in tone and tactics the same thing as calling for changes in the Catechism? 

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