The pope has come. The pope has gone. Now it is time for mainstream journalists to tell us what it all meant, to show readers the big picture and to reveal larger truths about what Pope Francis said and, maybe, even about what he should have said.
There's more to this process than news, of course.
About a decade ago, New York Times editor Bill Keller -- yes, the man who soon after his retirement offered the "Kellerism" doctrines -- told an audience of young journalists that his newspaper had changed its credo. He told them: "We long ago moved from 'All the News That's Fit to Print,' to 'All the News You Need to Know, and What It Means.' "
The theologians at the great Gray Lady got started even before the pope was gone, offering a "thumbsucker" analysis piece on Sunday A1 (even thought it was not labeled "analysis") that said the "pastoral" tone used by Pope Francis was a loss for conservatives, who wanted him to defend doctrine. The Times team did note that the pope offered no comments that supported the doctrinal left, either. Thus, the bottom line: Compassion is the opposite of doctrinal orthodoxy. Click here for my earlier post on that.
The thumb-sucking process continued in American papers yesterday. The Times weighed in, once again, with a piece stressing that the pope showed a "deft touch" when handling issues in American politics (since we all know that politics are what ultimately matter):
... Mostly Francis demonstrated a nuanced political dexterity, effectively sidestepping the familiar framework of American debate while charting his own broader path. He advocated “life” but emphasized opposition to the death penalty, not abortion. He made strong stands for religious freedom -- a major issue for American bishops -- but refocused the concept on interfaith tolerance and harmony.
“I was frankly taken aback at how savvy he was,” said Stephen Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. “He was clearly aware of all the very divisive issues for Catholics in American public life but talked about them in a way that didn’t give ammunition to either conservatives or progressives in the United States to use in their political wars.”
With nearly every issue, he addressed American politics in his own pastoral terms. Tacking more left than right, he made vigorous calls at the White House, Congress and the United Nations for action to protect the earth against environmental destruction and climate change. He continued his advocacy for the needs of the poor. And he made a passionate and personal plea on behalf of immigrants from his native Latin America.
Note again the political lens through which the Times team is viewing this visit.
In what sense of the pope "tacking left," in terms of ancient doctrines, when he is talking about immigration, the environment and the "needs of the poor"? Once again, we see journalists struggling to grasp that the pope is drawing from the same doctrinal wells when talking about, let's say, the dignity of the poor as when he is speaking out on abortion and euthanasia.
But the theologians at the Times do know that doctrine matters. Thus, readers were told:
The success of the trip is doubly important for Francis, because he returns to the Vatican for what could become a showdown between liberal and conservative factions in the Roman Catholic Church over doctrine and social teaching. Beginning on Sunday, Francis is convening a synod of bishops to hash out how the church should approach issues such as homosexuality and divorce -- a meeting that loomed over his interactions with American clergy.
Bishops in the United States have been outspoken, arguing against same-sex marriage, and nondiscrimination laws that would require Catholic institutions and businesses to serve gay couples. Some bishops have forced Catholic schools in their dioceses to dismiss openly gay teachers or required them to sign doctrinal oaths. And at their most recent meeting, the bishops agreed that their top priorities are promoting respect for life and marriage -- by which they mean teaching against abortion and same-sex marriage.
Of course, on the flight back to Rome the pope made a strong statement affirming the right to believers -- even government officials -- to "conscientious objection" rights when their religious beliefs clash with those of the state. Surprisingly, this produced few big headlines in elite American media. Click here for the Bobby Ross Jr., post on that.
Also, it's interesting to note that the Times assumes that the U.S. bishops are acting on their own convictions, when it comes to "doctrinal oaths" in Catholic schools -- as opposed to working with educational principles established, in writing, by St. John Paul II. This is something like saying that circuit-court judges, when faced with tough questions, go it alone, as opposed to turning to decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, at The Washington Post, the main post-visit thumbsucker openly acknowledged that Pope Francis mixed symbolic pastoral gestures with remarks that quietly affirmed Catholic doctrines. This was a disappointment to the Post team and its key sources, thus leading to the use of the loaded term "reform" in the lede.
With a generous spirit and palpable affection for American values, Pope Francis won the nation’s heart during his six-day visit that ended Sunday. With his commitment to unchanging church doctrine, he disappointed some who yearn for reform.
His message was pastoral, a series of dramatic reminders of man’s obligations toward the needy, the stranger, the other. His gestures were powerful -- his tiny Fiat that knocked the papacy down to a human level, his loving embrace of a disabled child, his decision to dine with the homeless directly after addressing Congress.
Is the word "reform" an editorial statement, in and of itself? Of course, this could mean that the people who yearn for changed doctrines -- crucial Post sources, perhaps -- truly believe that reform (definition here) is needed, because the church's ancient doctrines are "wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory."
This piece did include some strong attributed quotes, including this crucial voice from the doctrinal left.
The result for many Catholics, liberal and conservative, was a sense of possibility and renewal, tempered by questions about whether welcoming rhetoric is enough to bridge serious divisions as a very traditional church struggles to find its place in a fast-paced, disillusioned society.
“This was a real feel-good visit,” said Jeannine Hill Fletcher, a feminist theologian at Fordham University in New York. “He called us back to charity in a really beautiful way. But look at the missed opportunities to deal with the complex issues that divide the Catholic Church in America. Where was the open discussion of the places where the church is really wrestling? Where were the realities of women, the realities of gay and lesbian Catholics, the realities of racism?”
But in the end there was this thesis statement from the Post team, stressing that this papal visit was inspiring and pleasant -- but a missed opportunity for, yes, doctrinal "reform."
... Francis’s decision not to speak explicitly about the pressures for reform in church policy on divorce, abortion, contraception or homosexuality was what allowed him to connect to people on more foundational questions of faith and hope.
So that is that, for now. On to the Vatican synod and the next change for an ancient church to reform its ways and get with the program when it comes to life after the Sexual Revolution.
The crucial question: Who gets to determine what "sin" is today? The early church or the church of today? Or maybe newspaper editors?