In the days ahead, prepare for wave after wave of information about what Pope Francis does or does not believe and what his words and actions, during his visit to the all-important Acela zone that is home of all of our nation's media that, you know, really matter.
Traditional Catholics already know that it will be risky to read most of this coverage on their computers while drinking coffee, because the keyboards could be at risk.
As for me, I will follow the usual suspects (as in the full papal texts at Whispers in the Loggia and the omnipresent John L. Allen Jr.). However out in flyover country, most of the nation;s news consumers will have to settle for cable television coverage and the Associated Press.
The trends there, alas, are not good -- unless the networks hire some quality liberal and conservative insiders who can hold meaningful debates. I cannot stress this too highly: Reading the actual papal texts will be even more crucial than ever, this time around.
We can the usual editorial templates in effect already, in some of the explainers that are beginning to turn up in the press. Take, for example, the following chunk of the Associated Press pope guide that ran under this headline at The Oregonian: "Where does Pope Francis stand on gays, women, immigration? His views, explained."
Francis has upheld church teaching opposing abortion and echoed his predecessors in saying human life is sacred and must be defended. But he has not emphasized the church's position to the extent that his predecessors did, saying by now the church's teaching on abortion is well-known. In an indication of his mercy-over-morals position, Francis says he is letting all priests in the church's upcoming Year of Mercy absolve Catholics who committed the "sin of abortion" if they seek forgiveness with a "contrite heart." He says God's forgiveness cannot be denied to those who repent.
Where to begin?
As a faithful Catholic scribe who reads the press closely put it:
Head-desk, head-desk Ah, that feels better.
-- Thomas Szyszkiewicz
So what is your favorite moment in the little block of text? Maybe the scare quotes on the "sin of abortion"? How about the description of his approach to this issue as "mercy-over-morals," in light of his constant emphasis on people going to confession? How about the implication here that previous popes -- we all know that this means St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI -- must have believed that God's forgiveness should be denied to those who repent? Note that there is no mention that both of these popes had also, for specific periods of time, granted priests the same power to absolve women and men who had confessed sins linked to abortion.
The basic issue is that this "explanation" of his beliefs (yes, with scare quotes) once again assumes that Pope Francis is best understood in terms of a few lines of text selected by journalists, as opposed to the full, in-context statements the pope has released in his own writings.
Never forget, for example, that in the midst of the media storm about the Francis remarks voting that the church must strive not to be seen (by the press, perhaps, and thus the public) as proclaiming ONLY its doctrines on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, the pope did said the following at a major, yes, conference on abortion:
"The culture of waste, which now enslaves the hearts and minds of many, has a very high cost: it requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker," he said, according to a English translation offered by The National Catholic Register.
"Our response to this mentality is a categorical and unhesitant 'yes' to life. ... Things have a price and are sold, but people have a dignity, worth more than things and they don't have a price. Many times we find ourselves in situations where we see that which costs less is life. Because of this, attention to human life in its totality has become a real priority of the Magisterium of the Church in recent years, particularly to the most defenseless, that is, the disabled, the sick, the unborn child, the child, the elderly who are life's most defenseless."
In the end, stressed the pope, the church must continue to proclaim that, "Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world."
Note that he actually defends the priority given to this issue "in recent years" by the Magisterium of the Church."
Raise your hand if you have read that Francis quote -- or many similar to it from his speeches, sermons and papers -- in advance coverage of this U.S. visit?
The same Associated Press summary of the pope's views offers this, as well:
Francis has gone beyond his predecessors -- and official Catholic Church teaching -- in saying there is simply no justification for the death penalty today. He has said it is "inadmissible regardless of how serious the crime." ... The United States is in the Top 10 list of countries that still execute people, along with China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and North Korea.
Clearly this is referring to statements such as the following:
"May the death penalty, an unworthy punishment still used in some countries, be abolished throughout the world."
No, wait, that's John Paul II. And how does one go beyond the word "abolished"?
How about this one?
"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently ... for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."
No, that is John Paul II, as well.
See what I mean? Be careful out there, readers. Let Pope Francis speak for himself. Look for the full texts and make up your own mind. Also, let's all watch to see what the pope has to say about religious freedom, both in America and in the world.