The 2015 Synod of Bishops is over and this weekend was, as required by the traditions of journalism, dedicated to the writing of thumbsuckers.
What was the synod on the family all about? What did it mean? And most importantly, from the everything-is-politics viewpoint of most journalists, which political party won, the "reformers" who back Pope Francis and his appeals for mercy or the tea-party-like radical conservatives who want people to follow all those old church rules?
Tea party? More on that later.
Any journalist who has ever written a summary, reaction think piece after a major event like this knows that one of the crucial questions is: Who gets the first quote? Journalists may interview dozens of people, with a variety of perspectives, but a reporter has make a choice and give someone the first quote. This choice almost always points to the thesis of the piece.
For example, consider the opening of the New York Times reaction story that was built on the reactions of New York Catholics.
People streaming into Catholic churches across New York over the weekend were struggling to understand the meaning of a statement issued by an assembly of bishops in the Vatican on the place within the church of Catholics who divorce and remarry.
And the first quote:
Ann Moore, 71, of Pittsburgh, attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan on Sunday. She expressed disgust with the bishops, who had been summoned by Pope Francis for a three-week global assembly on family issues, for not letting divorced and remarried Catholics receive communion.
“It’s wrong,” said Ms. Moore, who was in town to celebrate her daughter’s 50th birthday. “If Jesus forgave everybody, why can’t these big shots?”
This quote, for me, raised an interesting question that had been nagging me throughout the coverage of the synod.
Whatever one thinks of the Catholic Church's teachings on divorce, and how these doctrines are fleshed out at the level of pews and altars, I was struck by the fact that journalists -- at least the mainstream reporters I was reading -- were not quoting a rather authoritative source in their reports. To understand the high stakes of the battles in Rome, one really needed to hear from this particular voice of authority.
That source? That would be Jesus, as in the Gospel of Matthew:
But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
Or how about the Gospel of Mark?
He answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.
This is not a hard quotation to find. You can try the Gospel of Luke, too:
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Now, one does not have to agree with Jesus on this issue in order to quote this material accurately, or to quote it at all. However, I think some readers might have wanted to know that these debates in Rome were dealing with a topic on which Jesus had clearly spoken.
Is that newsworthy material? Well, it was at the heart of the arguments in Rome and bishops on both sides were dealing with these words in different ways. Why not quote them?
For example, consider this passage from the global level thumbsucker published by the Times:
Six months into his papacy, Francis called this assembly of bishops to reconsider the church’s approach to marriage and family at a time when the definition of family is changing rapidly. It was a sign of recognition that the church was losing traction, and members, by failing to connect with people who are divorced, separated, single, gay or transgender, or whose lives in other ways do not fit the Catholic ideal of the nuclear family.
Just asking, but where is the Catholic Church losing most of its members and where is it growing? Did the bishops calling for doctrinal changes represent the healthy, growing churches or the struggling, declining churches? Back to that summary passage:
But the bellwether issue for the synod was what to do about divorced and remarried Catholics, who cannot receive communion or participate fully in church life if they had not had their previous marriages annulled. The church teaches that the sacrament of marriage is “indissoluble,” and that remarried Catholics who have not received annulments are committing adultery and living in sin. They may receive communion if they abstain from sex.
Francis early in his papacy signaled his direction by championing the work of a German cardinal and theologian, Walter Kasper, who proposed that the church create a “penitential path” to bring divorced Catholics back into full communion with the church. But this idea quickly hit roadblocks, and the German-speaking cardinals at the synod proposed another route that was partially adopted by the bishops in their final document.
Notice the choice of words in passage stating that the "church teaches that the sacrament of marriage is 'indissoluble,' and that remarried Catholics who have not received annulments are committing adultery and living in sin."
Now, that is an accurate statement. However, it might have helped readers to know WHY Catholic doctrine teaches that. It might have helped, in other words, to quote the actual words of Jesus in the New Testament and, perhaps, mention the fact that bishops were talking about how to honor them, or avoid them, in this modern age.
In other words, the stakes were, and are, very high in terms of biblical authority on this particular issue. Did Jesus mean what he said?
Again, it is not necessary for reporters to agree with this doctrine in order to report it accurately or to quote this particular source accurately. When push comes to shove, are editors afraid to publish quotes from the Bible?
One more point, drawing from the ocean of thumbsucker ink from the past few days.
Did anyone see coverage of this synod that didn't frame the debates as a clash between "reformers" and defenders of old, strict rules? I did see some stories that avoided the slanted "reform" language, but it was still clear who was wearing the white hats and who was wearing the black hats.
However, this crucial passage from a think piece in The Washington Post set the standard for slamming the events in Rome into an American political template. Wait for the punch line at the end:
Of the many measures under debate here, two have emerged as the most polemic. One is whether to grant divorced and remarried Catholics, who are committing adultery in the church’s view, access to Communion. The other is the question of whether to offer a warmer welcome to gays and lesbians, including cutting references to being gay as “intrinsically disordered” from church teachings.
The divide is not just a liberal-conservative split; it is also geographic, with prelates in Africa, for instance, denouncing the “Eurocentric” and “Western” fixation with issues such as gay rights.
Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah linked the push for gay rights to abortion and Islamic extremism, comparing them all to what “Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century.”
The vehemence of the backlash has shocked even some moderate conservatives, and it has suggested the rise of a tea-party-like faction of bishops within the hierarchy.
Where did this "tea party" image come from? Who is being quoted here?
Who, precisely, is comparing the vast majority of the bishops from Africa with the Tea Party Movement (which in American media is usually code language for racism and other forms of irrational bias)? Is this a quote or material provided by the Post team itself?
As always, who are the unseen editors and sources shaping this "omniscient anonymous voice" material?
Just asking. Again.