Explaining without judging, observing without opinionating, reporting without pretending to know more than you do -- these all make for a delicate balancing act. But the Associated Press achieves it with its roundup on Pope Francis' visit to the U.S.
Written by Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll, along with fellow AP vet Nicole Winfield, the indepth interweaves the now-familiar themes Francis sounded during his hectic six-day tour, including climate, morality, church life, economics, history, immigration. Yet it does so without the guesswork and political noodling on which so many such stories have fixated. More on that later in this post.
Setting the tone early in the article is this perceptive passage:
From his very first appearance, he wove together issues that are rarely linked in American public life.
At the White House with President Barack Obama, he upheld religious freedom while seeking urgent action to ease climate change. Addressing Congress, he sought mercy for refugees, while proclaiming a duty "to defend human life at every stage of its development," a challenge to abortion rights. Standing on altars before the nation's bishops, he acknowledged the difficulties of ministering amid "unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society," a recognition of gay marriage.
But he urged American Catholic leaders to create a church with the warmth of a "family fire," avoiding "harsh and divisive" language and a "narrow" vision of Catholicism that he called a "perversion of faith."
The statements amounted to a dramatic reframing of issues within the church and a hope for less polarization overall in the United States.
The way the writers spotted the way Francis joined issues that are seemingly disparate -- that strikes me as laser-like discernment worthy of seasoned professionals.
If you’ve been reading my posts here, you know I pay a lot of attention not only to the number of sources but their quality and variety. On that scale, too, AP scores high.
Note how the various viewpoints in the story supply various angles:
* John Carr, a former social justice director for the U.S. bishops, says the pope's stands on matters like abortion is "no obsession, no retreat." That's a really solid and clever quote.
*John Green, a specialist in religion and public life at the University of Akron, says Francis is "very adept politically. Even people who ended up disagreeing with him on certain points find him a very attractive and persuasive man."
* Gonzalo Mercado, who directs a job center, points out that workers sat at the front of the stage for Francis' talk in Harlem while politicians and community leaders sat at the sides. "That speaks volumes," Mercado says.
* Msgr. Raymond Kupke, a historian with Seton Hall University, suggests that the papal visit could produce a "half-century wave or ripple from a visit like this," as priests find their inspiration in Francis' simple, humble approach.
Just as impressive are some terms that this article didn’t use. Nothing about the "cultural war." No simplistic conservative/liberal opposition built on political assumptions. And one of the few appearances of politics, aside from Green's remark, was in Francis' idealistic address at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, in which he said American history is the tale of a constant effort "to embody those lofty principles in social and political life."
Yet the AP story doesn't lose sight of Francis' humanity. It tells how he hugged an inmate and prayed with a disabled child. It notes how he identified himself as to Congress a "fellow American" and praised hardworking middle-class Americans. It reports how he defied the programming and security measures to inject some spontaneity: "kissing babies, adding a last-minute event to honor Catholic-Jewish relations and going off text in Philadelphia for a heartfelt meditation on family life."
What a contrast from some other elite coverage of the trip.
A New York Times piece, for instance, said Francis' speeches showed he was "slipping the conservatives’ grasp with broad and generous calls for tolerance and contemplation." As if he was ever in their "grasp" -- and as if conservatism were the opposite of tolerance and contemplation. As tmatt wrote the other day in critiquing the article: "It is impossible to pin an American political label on centuries of Catholic doctrine."
The Guardian ran a vigorous wrapup, saying the pope "used his final homily to speak not as a political figure but as a pastor, exhorting the Catholic church to show more tolerance, openness and inclusiveness." Then it spikes the blend with a mini-editorial:
"[T]he so-called people’s pope cited Moses and Jesus to criticise a 'narrow' approach to faith. This was a coded rebuke to certain colleagues in the Vatican, the US and elsewhere ahead of October’s synod on the family in Rome, which will shape church policy."
The article then has Francis preaching that God-given freedom bypasses "bureaucracy, officialdom and inner circles." Good addition; why not just quote the pope, instead of trying to guess at "coded" messages?
And Time's roundup raises the usual banners of divorce, priestly sex abuse, women's ordination. It says Francis was asked "if he supported individuals -- including government officials — who say they cannot in good conscience abide by some laws or discharge their duties, for example when issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples." Time even quotes Francis on ISIS, Colombia, refugees in Europe, and whether he'd like to visit China.
Stardom? Well, the pope said he was overwhelmed at the effusive crowds he saw in New York and Philadelphia. And the article ran four selfies that people shot with Francis.
Given the liberties taken by some media, then, the AP story stands out all the more. Thorough, thoughtful, yet restrained and respectful of us readers -- this is how a class act covers a world-class religious leader. That's important, since AP copy is what millions of readers see in their local newspapers.