Here we go again.
Whether it's a flight of editorial fancy, as I think of it, or the increasingly popular "omniscient anonymous voice," as tmatt complains, the Washington Post has just spun out another sweeping, opinion-laced advance on Pope Francis' scheduled U.S. visit.
Francis is "often dubbed the coolest-ever leader of the Roman Catholic Church," the Post says. He's brought a "dose of magical realism" to the pontificate. He wants to be "something akin to a global Jiminy Cricket, a voice of conscience whether you believe in God or not." Who is speaking? Good question.
But wait, there’s more:
Francis has turned out to be a natural global leader. But he has also been a surprise to the cardinals who thought they were putting a cautious moderate on Saint Peter’s throne.
To the chagrin of conservatives, he has evolved into a sort of pontifical version of Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whose judicial decisions have upended his supporters’ expectations. After two popes who concentrated on doctrine and traditional families, Francis is clearly in a different mold.
Whew. Any wonder that this story goes way over 2,400 words?
The main point is that Francis is a "riddle," a puzzling blend of opposites. He is innovative in tone and manner, welcoming gays and easing the return of Catholics who have divorced and remarried. He is liberal in social issues, calling for better care of the poor and the environment. Yet he is a moral traditionalist who opposes same-sex marriage and transgenderism. In terms if on-the-page content, in other words, he sounds rather like St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Externally, Francis "has become a formidable diplomat, interjecting the Vatican into everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to U.S.-Cuba relations," the Post says. Internally, he is a strong pope, who fired his secretary of state and two top officials of the Vatican Bank.
All that is true. The problem is how often this story overreaches.
It makes a big deal over Francis getting on Twitter, forgetting that Pope Benedict XVI was the first pope to tweet, back in 2012. It says Francis strives to be "something akin to a global Jiminy Cricket, a voice of conscience whether you believe in God or not" -- something Pope John Paul II also did, as in his United Nations speech in 1995.
And the Post says Francis is "upending convention in one of the world’s oldest institutions," ignoring how other popes likewise defied Vatican tradition -- like John Paul I, who shunned the royal "we," the papal tiara and the portable throne.
Then there’s this pontificating paragraph:
But his economic pronouncements are not what rankles many traditional Catholics. Their concern is the absence of an emphasis on core teachings of the church — against abortion and for the traditional family.
And this one:
His more embracing tone on issues such as homosexuality, coupled with his tough talk on global warming and free markets, is sparking a broad debate about the role of popes in the 21st century as well as the future direction of one of the world’s largest faiths. In him, a church he took over in a profound period of crisis, as well as a world that listens less and less to its religious leaders, have both gotten far more than they bargained for.
Count the sources quoted in support of those statements: none.
It's enough to give a bad name to omniscience.
The article also suggests that liberals are disappointed with parts of Francis' papacy, but it doesn’t quote any of them. In contrast, it gives 167 words to the Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute -- carefully specifying that Sirico is a conservative.
No sources are cited for this paragraph, either:
His climate-change encyclical, which challenged unbridled growth, aroused bitter responses among conservative American Catholics, who are also deeply unhappy with other signals Francis has been sending. Meanwhile, more liberal Catholics want to know whether he will follow his empathetic rhetoric on issues such as divorce and homosexuality with concrete change.
The Post weakens any attempt at seeming even-handed by its choice of words. I count nine uses of "conservative" or various versions, five of "liberal" and one "progressive." The newspaper also calls the Curia, the Vatican government, a "powerful bureaucracy" -- a double label connoting "big, bad, rigid organization."
Oh, and it also mentions church "policy" or "policies" twice. As I said on Monday, that's a crippling one-dimensional view of religious teachings. Why do journalists insist on using the word "policies," as opposed to talking about church doctrines? One is tempted to think that these professionals think they are writing about politics.
So is Francis liberal or conservative? Will he cling to tradition or become more flexible? Well, it's just possible that he doesn’t conveniently fit American categories. Maybe, as we at GetReligion have said before, the pope is Catholic.