NYT advance on Pope Francis visit spins religion as economics

It's almost become a slogan for Terry Mattingly that one of the "deadly sins" of mainstream media is to reduce all religious issues to politics. But if he reads this New York Times story on Pope Francis' upcoming U.S. visit, he may well add economics to his complaints.

No, economics isn't the only thing in the article. It also looks at Francis' personality and his approach to church matters; the fact that he has never been here before; what he thinks of capitalism; what Americans think of him; and the differing views of politics between South America and the United States.

But a sizable chunk of the story reads like this:

He is not opposed to all America represents. But he is troubled by privileged people and nations that consume more than their share and turn their backs on the vulnerable. The message he will probably deliver when he comes, they say, is that the United States has been blessed with great gifts, but that from those to whom much is given, much is expected.
“I think what he criticizes in the U.S. is the absolute freedom and autonomy of the market,” said the Rev. Juan Carlos Scannone, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Colegio Máximo, a prominent Jesuit college near Buenos Aires. He taught the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would become Francis, as a seminarian and became a friend. “We should admire the U.S.’s democracy and the well-being of its people, but what Bergoglio would criticize is the consumerism: that everything is geared toward consumerism.”

Much of the story, in fact, resembles the Aug. 30 advance by the Associated Press. It's almost like someone at the Times read AP and said, "Hey, that's a good idea!" -- then assigned their own version.

Both stories emphasize how new the experience will be for a 78-year-old pope who has never visited here. Both style him a "homebody" who prefers to hang out with the poor than jet to public appearances. The Times quotes Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York saying Francis is "a little nervous about coming."

Both articles also quote sources who say the pope isn't really anti-American -- he just opposes the social and environment harm it's caused, he believes, by our economy: "maximizing profits" in the AP story, "savage capitalism" in the Times piece.

Not that that's a bad thing. As a reporter, I often took stories by the competition and sought new angles. In this case, though, it looks like the Times may have tried a little too hard. Where AP devoted two paragraphs to Francis' economic views, the Times deals with them in four, like this one:

He has also frequently denounced a global economic system that values “profit at any price,” and a colonialist structure that “reduces poor countries to mere providers of raw material and cheap labor” — a critique widely interpreted to include the United States.

Such references are also scattered elsewhere. One sentence calls the United States "the economic giant that likes to think of itself as the center of everything." In another, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, says Francis "wants to make sure the plight of the poorest people is served."

You can't fault the Times for its first-rate sources. Besides Kurtz and Dolan, they include Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, plus two Jesuit educators, in the same religious order to which Francis belongs. One says that even North American Jesuits differ on politics and economics with their fellows in South America.

But how will Francis relate to the American people? Here is where differences pop up between the stories.

Francis biographer Austin Ivereigh tells the Times that Francis can relate to the Catholic immigrant experience in Chicago and Philadelphia because his own parents moved to Argentina from Italy. But in the AP story, historian Massimo Faggioli says America is "foreign" to Francis: "It's not just a language barrier. It's a cultural barrier."

Both stories, by the Times and AP, have another unfortunate similarity: sparse religious content. Francis is, after all, not primarily an economist or politician. He is primarily a religious leader, coming to visit his flock in North America.

Yes, you can write religious political stories and religious economic stories. But how about religious religion stories? You can get ideas rather easily from outfits like Catholic News Service and Catholic News Agency. You could also apply several independent studies on beliefs and practices, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did this week.

In that article, Godbeat pro Peter Smith examines the decline in several Catholic life cycle events, including baptisms, confirmations, church weddings and first communions. He also asks how modern Catholics view prayer, evangelization and religious education. And he interviews Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik on "spiritual individualism" or "me-and-God mentality."

To be sure, Pope Francis will almost certainly speak in the U.S. on social and economic issues, couched in moral and ethical language. But he will be speaking as a pastor, a shepherd, a representative of Christ.  If mainstream media want to understand the fruits, they should also study the roots.

Photo: Pope Francis greets pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Nov. 27, 2013. Cover thumb: Francis during a general audience in St. Peter's Square on March 11, 2015. Both photos by giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com.

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