Let's get one thing clear right up front about this post. I have no intention of comparing Adolph Hitler with Pope Francis. Got that?
However, long ago -- while at graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign -- I did a readings course about post-Holocaust trends in world Judaism. You can't read about that horror without reading about Hitler.
I wish I could remember who said this, because I would like to give full credit, but one of the authors I read said that, most of the time, commentaries about Hitler almost always tell you more about the writers than about Hitler. I know I ran into this concept again years later when I interviewed journalist Ron Rosenbaum, author of "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil."
What does this have to do with Francis?
Journalists on the religion beat, news-consumers at large, please ask yourself this question: When you stop and think about the public impact of Pope Francis, how much are you reacting to the pope's own words, as opposed to news-media (and church media) commentaries about his words? When you read elite media coverage of a new statement by the pope, are you confident that you know what the pope said as a whole, in context, as opposed to one or two sentences that have been used to create a headline?
With these questions in mind, please consider this new think piece from The National Catholic Register by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, which ran under the headline, "5 Ways to Avoid Unhelpful Pope Francis “Mind Reading." Here is her overture:
It has been interesting to see the varied reactions to Amoris Laetitia, or The Joy of Love, the new document by Pope Francis on the family. I have learned a lot from the positive, the negative, and the mixed reviews. But I also think that some of the responses to the document, positive and negative, have been a disservice to the Church. After digging around online just a day after the document was released I had to stop because I was feeling depressed and full of despair, not because of the document itself but because of the negativity of some writers, the effusive praise of others (who see only their own agenda in anything the pope says or does), the lies in many of the headlines, and the general confusion.
Disturbed by the unrest in my soul, I decided to choose to read articles online based on a few rules of thumb. These guidelines helped me to avoid reactions to the document that are unhelpful. I particularly wanted to stay away from anything that contained many assumptions and conjectures and employed what I call a “mind reading” approach to Pope Francis.
Mind reading is a wonderful way of describing what has been happening with many of this pope's writings -- especially the crucial press coverage that takes place BEFORE a papal document is even released that, still, tends to frame the expectations (usually with material from off-the-record sources).
So here are a few of Sister Theresa's tips. You will want to read them all:
1. Avoid Assumptions without Evidence: When I read articles on the new document, I ask myself, “What are the assumptions the author has made about Pope Francis and his intentions?” It is fine to wonder what is motivating another person. But assessments must be based on what the person actually says and what he or she actually does. The articles that take huge liberties in their assumptions about Pope Francis’ intentions are usually not based on hard evidence.
2. Look for People Who Give the Benefit of the Doubt: When I first entered the convent, I was amazed at some sisters who were able to respond to difficult situations by seeing things in the best possible light and to make excuses for other people. These sisters are not naïve; they realize that their positive, hopeful assessments may be wrong but they also realize that negative, worst-case-scenario assessments don’t help any situation. ...
3. Shun Stereotypes: If an article stereotypes Pope Francis as a “liberal” or a “conservative,” it’s probably best to just stop reading it. Many of these assessments of Pope Francis are based on a narrow point of view that is rigidly rooted in American politics and the culture of the United States. We forget that Pope Francis is a universal figure in the Catholic Church, not the pope of the United States. When he seems to speak like he is a member of one political party or another, it’s important to remember that this means absolutely nothing outside of the United States. ...
Like I said, read it all.