Welcoming sinners? Welcoming doctrinal change? Return of the pope as Machiavelli theory

So the powers that be at the Vatican have released a crucial document -- a “instrumentum laboris” -- setting the table for this fall's much-anticipated gathering to hash out issues related to marriage and family life. The ever quotable blogger Rocco Palmo has called it the "fight card" for Rome's "Main Event of 2015."

So there.

As you would expect, that Palmo quote -- with many others from Vatican insiders and officials -- made it into the Religion News Service news feature about the document. Quite frankly, this piece does a decent job of quoting Catholics who yearn for doctrinal change, while also stressing that the document keeps repeating and affirming major chunks of the church's moral traditions that have stood for 2,000 or so.

It's not bad. It's not an editorial-page piece hidden under a news headline.

However, right at the top, the piece gently frames the whole debate -- as usual -- in a way that seems to pit Pope Francis against the basic doctrines of his church. Here's the top of this news feature. See if you can spot the key word that frames the piece (oh, right, while ignoring the art with this post).

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Vatican officials on Tuesday (June 23) released a document on family values -- a precursor to a major meeting in October -- that underscores the ongoing tension between Pope Francis’ desire for a more “welcoming” church and the need to hew to long-standing tradition and doctrine.
“The Christian message should be conveyed using language that generates hope,” reads the 78-page working document, which compiles the responses of Catholics around the world on issues facing modern families.
“It is necessary to adopt a style of communication that is clear and inviting, open and not moralizing, judgmental and controlling, which witnesses to the moral teaching of the Church while at the same time remaining sensitive to the situation of each individual person,” it reads at one point.
Yet the wide-ranging document also strongly reiterates church teaching on marriage as a sacramental, lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, and it attacks fertility treatment procedures and foresees no change in Catholicism’s views of gay couples.

So here we are once again, pondering what mainstream journalists think this pope means when he uses the word "welcoming."

Once again, the appearance is that there is no way that the church can honor its doctrines and traditions while being "welcoming." And note that "hew" reference. The church can't even continue to "conform" with its own teachings?

Read that lede again. Are we talking about welcoming people? Are we talking about welcoming behaviors that for ages have violated Christian teachings? Are we talking about welcoming actual doctrinal changes into the life of the church?

What does "welcoming" mean to the press that is covering this pope? What does the term mean to the pope, himself?

If this sounds familiar, read this flashback:

Francis has largely shied away from emphasizing church teaching on hot-button issues, saying the previous two popes made the teaching well-known and that he wants to focus on making the church a place of welcome, not rules.

That was a statement of fact -- offered with no attribution -- in a hard-news Associated Press report (not an analysis piece) that I dug into earlier this year here at GetReligion. Where has this pope said that he wants to hide or change doctrine?

But the "welcome" vs. doctrine frame game goes on. This has led to paranoia among some pro-Catechism Catholics. In that same blog post, I offered this basic typology summing up some of the theories that have been mumbled about this pope among traditional -- small "t" -- Catholics:

There may be a few -- repeat few –- who see him as a secretly liberal Machiavelli who is steering the Catholic boat toward icebergs in order to cause massive doctrinal changes. There are others who think he is fine, when you read him in context, and that the press is totally to blame for any confusion that exists. There are others who think he means well, but that he is naive when it comes to how his off-the-cuff papacy will be presented in the media.

When the pope talks about "welcoming" sinners -- note this constant emphasis on Confession -- what does he mean? Is this stance the opposite of teaching the church's doctrines or even changing them? Or is the pope trying to change the image of the church through the very media that created that image?

Stay tuned.


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