(Cue: audible sigh) 'Who am I to judge?' errors continue in basic AP wire report

One of the most positive developments of the online age, for journalists, is the number of full verbatim texts of interviews and speeches that are only a few mouse clicks away.

Of course, this is a positive development if journalists actually use those resources. At some point, one still has to care about the details of what people actually said.

Like what? Several weeks ago, while working on a Universal syndicate column ahead of the papal visit to the United States, I ran a simple online search for the terms "Pope Francis" and "Who am I to judge?" The results, I thought, were pretty eye opening, with nearly 200,000 hits, including 4,540 in current news articles and commentaries.

Trust me that very, very few of these articles actually focused on what Pope Francis actually said in that 2013 encounter -- here is that link to the full text again -- with reporters on Shepherd One. We will come back to that subject.

I just ran the same search and, to my surprise, the current Google News files contain even more references than in the past -- with 5,300 in recent stories -- even though the we keep moving further and further from that event. Also, the the pope has had more to say on this and related topics that illustrate his actual views.

This flawed coverage includes the following in a new Associated Press story about Francis and the 2015 Synod on marriage and family issues. As always, AP reports are especially crucial since they go out to, literally, several thousand newsrooms across the nation and around the world and are seen by the copyeditors as basic, accurate stories. Let's walk through some of the summary material about what happens when the synod is done and submits its report to the pope:

What Francis does with the final paper is up to him: He can use it as a basis for a document of his own, he can ignore it, or he can publish it as a synod document. During Round One of the bishops’ family meeting last year, Francis not only published the final document in full, he published the three paragraphs that didn’t receive the necessary votes to pass -- those that dealt with the vexing issues of ministering to gay Catholics and civilly remarried Catholics.
The key question of Round Two has been how the bishops would pick up those two outstanding issues, after Francis called for a more merciful, less doctrinaire approach.

Here we have the traditional media juxtaposition between mercy and doctrine. See this earlier post: "Thus saith The New York Times: Compassion is the opposite of Catholic doctrine." 

Once again let me stress that your GetReligionistas are NOT saying that the views of those who defend the doctrines of the church are the only views that should be reported. Of course not, since that would be ignoring the work of the people driving this story -- the people who want to modernize either church doctrines or the procedures that are followed in handling these issues.

The goal is to cover the debate. But, again, look at the framing in that language  -- to be merciful, Francis needs to guide his church to a less "doctrinaire" approach. Moving on to the inevitable:

Francis has shown a far more pastoral attitude to gays, famously asking “Who am I to judge?” about a purportedly gay priest. But Church teaching holds that while gays themselves should be treated with dignity and respect, homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and homosexuality is “objectively disordered.”
Progressives have sought a new language that is more welcoming and less condemning, but proposals last year to recognize that homosexual unions had some merit were quashed by conservatives.

Now, if you know the case that Pope Francis was discussing -- a specific case, raised by reporters -- you know that it focuses on a Vatican official, a priest whose gay past had been discussed in the Italian press. Once again, what was Francis actually saying when he used the phrase "Who am I to judge?"

I recently had some private email exchanges with a journalist who held to the current news gospel on this case. The pope was asked for his views on homosexuality and he responded, "Who am I to judge?" I sent him the transcript. 

The key question: Will he read the transcript? Or, at this point, to does it no longer matter what the transcript actually says? Is this news gospel reading of the pope's words now seen as "accurate" -- it cannot be challenged -- because it has been repeated 200,000 times? Does it matter that the pope used the "Who am I to judge?" phrase when discussing the status of a priest who had confessed his sins -- the word "sin" is used multiple times -- and had been forgiven by the church. Thus, after confession and forgiveness, "Who am I to judge?"

Does this matter? How could AP express that basic truth in one or two sentences? 

One more time, please read the transcript. I am breaking to passage into several paragraphs to help the subjects being discussed stand out:

About Monsignor Ricca: I did what canon law calls for, that is a preliminary investigation. And from this investigation, there was nothing of what had been alleged. We did not find anything of that. This is the response.
But I wish to add something else: I see that many times in the Church, over and above this case, but including this case, people search for “sins from youth”, for example, and then publish them. They are not crimes, right? Crimes are something different: the abuse of minors is a crime. No, sins.
But if a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then converts, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives. When we confess our sins and we truly say, “I have sinned in this”, the Lord forgets, and so we have no right not to forget, because otherwise we would run the risk of the Lord not forgetting our sins. That is a danger.
This is important: a theology of sin. Many times I think of Saint Peter. He committed one of the worst sins, that is he denied Christ, and even with this sin they made him Pope. We have to think a great deal about that.
But, returning to your question more concretely. In this case, I conducted the preliminary investigation and we didn’t find anything. This is the first question. Then, you spoke about the gay lobby. So much is written about the gay lobby. I still haven’t found anyone with an identity card in the Vatican with “gay” on it. They say there are some there.
I believe that when you are dealing with such a person, you must distinguish between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of someone forming a lobby, because not all lobbies are good. This one is not good.
If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a beautiful way, saying ... wait a moment, how does it say it ... it says: “no one should marginalize these people for this, they must be integrated into society”. The problem is not having this tendency, no, we must be brothers and sisters to one another, and there is this one and there is that one. The problem is in making a lobby of this tendency: a lobby of misers, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of masons, so many lobbies. For me, this is the greater problem.

I have discussed the contents of this transcript with several priests. They see nothing in it that suggests that the pope is saying that homosexual acts are not sinful and should not be dealt with in Confession. At the same time, note that the pope separates the "tendency" -- the temptation -- from the reality of sinful behavior. Temptation alone is not sin. 

So my final questions: Do Associated Press editors care what the pope actually said? If so, how could they express what the pope said in one or two wire-service friendly sentences?

At the very least, might they quote Catholics on the doctrinal left and right offering their interpretations of what the pope said? Then readers could read the full Francis quotes and make up their own minds. 

Yes, that would take space. But it would be fair to Catholics on both sides of this crucial debate in the news. That's the goal -- accuracy and fairness.

Please respect our Commenting Policy