After a shallow and at times confusing dip into church history and the theological clout of Vladimir Putin -- coverage of the summit of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow -- the mainstream press has returned to its comfort zone with full-scale papal tour coverage.
As always, most journalists seem to think that the key to covering a papal tour, especially during the Francis era, is to stress whatever the pope says about social justice and politics, while ignoring almost everything he says about Christian faith on other topics. Thus, the papal tour is all about immigration and the need for Catholic bishops to face the real lives of the poor and these important and valid themes are not framed -- in Francis style -- with appeals for confession, repentance, mercy, evangelization and truly radical grace.
In other words, journalists tend to offer wall-to-wall social gospel with as little Gospel as possible. Pope Francis, of course, is a both-and kind of spiritual father.
However, in one of these stories -- "Francis Admonishes Bishops in Mexico to ‘Begin Anew’ " -- the news team at the New York Times decided to push beyond this kind of ordinary papal tour editing and add a dash of actual heresy.
First, ponder this question: What does the Catholic Church teach about Mary, the mother of Jesus? This is a huge subject and one that confuses many people, both inside and outside the church. When in doubt, check the Catechism.
Suffice it to say, there are people who -- hearing phrases such as "Mother of God" (a statement supporting the divinity and humanity of Jesus) -- accuse the ancient churches of trying to edit Mary into a new wing of the Holy Trinity, turning her into some kind of goddess. With that in mind, ponder this passage in that Times report:
The morning began at the National Palace on the colonial Zócalo, the central square where President Enrique Peña Nieto and other dignitaries greeted Francis with full honors. But the pomp, laid on by politicians jostling for some reflected glory of the pope’s popularity, seemed at odds with a trip that Francis had described as a pilgrimage.
Indeed, the pope made his own pilgrimage on Saturday afternoon to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, to celebrate Mass before tens of thousands of worshipers. Then, as dusk fell over the giant city, Francis entered the shrine’s inner sanctuary and sat contemplating the Virgin’s olive-skinned image, a symbol of the fusion of Latin America’s disparate peoples under a nurturing maternal image of the divine.
First, let's ask a journalism question -- since this is a hard-news report, not an editorial or opinion piece. So, who is being quoted in this summary paragraph?
Who, precisely, said that Pope Francis was "contemplating ... a nurturing image of the divine"? Does it matter that this is divine with a small "d," as opposed to a capital "D"?
Perhaps the journalists who worked on this piece were trying to say that the pope was "contemplating ... a nurturing image of the holy." That would have been appropriate, orthodox and, well, accurate.
Instead, they chose -- surely this was a coincidence -- the kind of wording that has, in the past generation or two, emerged in feminist theological discussions of Mary (as an alternative to simply attacking Mary as a dangerous and damaging image of submissive female devotion). The basic idea is that, since Christianity is dominated by male patriarchy, the true power of the Divine (or Sacred) Feminine has been hidden in images of Mary, the "domestic goddess," etc. The church couldn't ignore the truth, so it hid the truth in the veneration of Mary.
Perhaps the people who edited this passage have been reading (or watching) "The Da Vinci Code," rather than checking the Catechism.
If the goal is journalism that accurately reflects the teachings of the Catholic Church (and what was actually happening in this striking, beautiful moment in the Pope Francis trip to Mexico), I do not recommend turning to the likes of Dan Brown. However, if a journalist wants to insert Brown into a news piece of this kind, it would be better to admit what one is doing by openly quoting the author (or others who hold this view) by name. Be honest and quote the source.