That familiar game: Pope Francis, on a plane, with reporters and a female-priests question

It's a familiar news equation by now: Pope Francis, plus an airplane, plus reporters, plus a valid question equals what? The answer, of course, is "bold headlines."

The headlines come first -- in this WiFi age -- often before the wheels of Shepherd One touch the ground. The headlines then frame the discussions of what the pope did or did not say. Then the transcript comes out and it's possible to read what this off-the-cuff pontiff actually said.

Let me stress this: In most cases -- repeat "most" -- the issue isn't what the pope was quoted is saying, in this or that sound bite. The problem is usually that reporters are not given the space to quote what ELSE the pope said, the larger context that often defines to the sound bite.

Of course, it's possible that some reporters only want to quote the sound bite, which they -- backed by scholars and theologians in the semi-official mainstream media handbook of Catholic sources -- can then shape into a headline that lives forever. Is this good or bad? Well, who am I to judge?

So now we have the pope flying back from a celebration of the Reformation in Sweden. He was asked, once again, about the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Here is the headline from the conservative Catholic News Agency: "Pope Francis reiterates a strong 'no' to women priests."

Here is the headline from the mainstream Washington Post: "Pope Francis says the Catholic Church will probably never have female priests."

Ah, where did that "probably" come from? Let's go to the transcript and read the whole exchange that produced the headlines:

Kristina Kappellin: Good morning. The Sweden that hosted this important ecumenical encounter has a woman as head of it’s own Church. What do you think: is it realistic to think of women priests also in the Catholic Church in the coming decades? And if not, why are Catholic priests afraid of competition?
Pope Francis: Reading the history a bit in the area where we were, I saw that there was a queen who was widowed three times. And I said: but, this woman is strong, and they told me: Swedish women are very strong, very good. And because of this some Swedish man looks for a woman from another nationality...I don’t know if it’s true, but...on the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the final word is clear, it was said by St. John Paul II and this remains. On competition, I don’t know ...

At this point, the reporter says something that the transcript says is "inaudible."

Other reporters have filled that gap. Note the PBS video at the top of this post and you'll see the reporter's yearning words: "But forever, forever? Never, never?" Then there is this:

Pope Francis: If we read well the declaration made by St. John Paul II, it goes along this line, yes.

At this point, people will debate the best translation of the pope's words. Did he say that the 1994 doctrinal statement by St. Pope John Paul II was "clear" or "definitive"? Those seeking helpful links to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis can click here. There are also crucial follow-up documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, including commentary from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI.

So with all of that in mind, let's return to the Post report. The key is that the pope's words are interpreted by several scholars and theologians -- none of which are linked to institutions that consistently inspire trust among pro-Catechism Catholics. Here is the overture:

Pope Francis said Tuesday that the Catholic Church will probably continue banning women from serving as priests forever, according to journalists who were traveling on a plane with him.
But scholars who study the role of women in the church said Francis’s off-the-cuff statement did not close the door on the possibility of women serving as deacons, an idea that the Vatican is studying.

Contrast that lede with the top of the Reuters report, a much more straightforward take on the Francis remarks which appears to have been written before the release of the transcript:

Pope Francis said on Tuesday he believes the Roman Catholic Church's ban on women becoming priests is forever and will never be changed, in some of his most definitive remarks on the issue. ...
A Swedish female reporter noted that the head of the Lutheran Church who welcomed him in Sweden was a woman, and then asked if he thought the Catholic Church could allow women to be ordained as ministers in coming decades.
"St. Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands, this stands," Francis said.
Francis was referring to a 1994 document by Pope John Paul that closed the door on a female priesthood. The Vatican says this teaching is an infallible part of Catholic tradition.

Francis "believes" this is the case? This is essentially his opinion?

Obviously, the Vatican's use of the word "infallible" is crucial, when talking about a papal declaration.

That's the point that is worthy of debate and, trust me, reporters who call Catholic historians and theologians will get an earful from articulate voices on both the doctrinal left and right.

Once again, we have a familiar journalism question: Why not seek out sources on both side of that divide? If someone offered mainstream reporters a high-quality list of doctrinally conservative Catholic scholars, would more journalists call these people? Would more elite journalists include those names in the semi-official list of Catholic sources used in mainstream journalism?

Let me stress, as always: The goal is not reporting built on conservative voices alone. The goal is not reporting built on liberal voices alone. The goal is to show respect to believers on both sides of these debates. However, when dealing with a religious body that has authoritative teachings (think Catechism of the Catholic Church), it is essential to have someone explain these teachings from that faith's point of view. So quoting "reformers" alone is not enough.

In conclusion, let's go back to this most recent Pope Francis transcript. Right after the material that is making headlines, the pope had this to say about the role of women in Catholic tradition:

Pope Francis: But women can do so many things better than men, even in the dogmatic field: to clarify, to perhaps give some clarity, not to say only a reference to a document. In Catholic ecclesiology there are two dimensions to think about. The Petrine dimension, which is from the Apostle Peter, and the Apostolic College, which is the pastoral activity of the bishops, as well as the Marian dimension, which is the feminine dimension of the Church, and this I have said more than once. I ask myself: who is most important in theology and in the mystic of the Church: the apostles or Mary on the day of Pentecost? It's Mary! ...the Church is a woman! It's "la Chiesa" (in Italian), not "il Chiesa"'s "la Chiesa" and the Church is the spouse of Christ. It's a spousal mystery. And in light of this mystery you will understand the reason for these two dimensions. The Petrine dimension, which is the bishops, and the Marian dimension, which is the maternity of the Church ... but in the most profound sense. A Church doesn't exist without this feminine dimension, because she herself is feminine.

Now, this does not lead to an easy, bold headline. I get that. But would it be possible for reporters to grasp that Pope Francis is saying that this reality about faith, theology and St. Mary is just as important as the status of an all-male priesthood?

Just asking.

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