So, journalists and news consumers, how do you feel about newspaper headlines published before major events that pivot on the word "could"?
As the clock ticks toward the family synods document by Pope Francis, journalists are rushing -- in what are often billed as news stories, as opposed to editorial commentary -- to tell readers all about the blockbuster doctrinal revelations that COULD be in the document.
Take this New York Times headline, for example: "How Pope Francis’ ‘Amoris Laetitia’ Could Affect Families and the Church."
In what could be an important moment for his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is scheduled to issue a major document on Friday regarding family issues. It is titled “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love.”
In the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, the pope could change church practice on thorny subjects like whether divorced Catholics who remarry without having obtained annulments can receive holy communion. He might address debates over same-sex relationships, cohabitation and polygamy, an issue in Africa. Or, he could sidestep such divisive topics and stick to broader philosophical statements.
For those who are paying close attention, that would be "could," "could, "might" and "could."
If you look at the format, it's clear that this is more of a news-you-can-use essay, not a hard news report. Yet, as the clock ticks toward the public release of the actual document, this essay is out there on the front page of the website at The Times, which is one of the most important news sites on the planet.
That brings me to the following email from Thomas Szyszkiewicz. He is a Catholic media professional, and his name frequently shows up in GetReligion comment pages.
Szyszkiewicz is commenting on the fact that, out on the front page, this piece is being promoted with this summary blurb of content.
A document to be issued by Pope Francis on Friday could change church practice on remarriage, same-sex relationships, cohabitation and polygamy.
Say what? Take it away, Szyszkiewicz:
... So when I first saw it on the home page, my initial reaction was, "Polygamy? Polygamy?!? Seriously? They’re thinking this exhortation is going to change Church practice on polygamy?"
So I go and look at the piece and whaddya know, there is one -- count it, one -- reference to polygamy in the entire piece and it goes like this: "He might address debates over same-sex relationships, cohabitation and polygamy, an issue in Africa." But because this is a prognosticating article, it then puts in this weasel sentence: "Or, he could sidestep such divisive topics and stick to broader philosophical statements."
All of this points toward an interesting question.
This is not, I stress, a traditional papal document "thumbsucker" in which reporters round up lots of folks on the left and right and ask them to analyze the contents of the text, which usually means focusing on political and culture wars issues. Oh, doctrine will be discussed, but it will be doctrine that applies to changing political and social norms. Everything is in flux, by definition.
So what is this piece? It is a thumbsucker about a text that has not been released? Is this a full-scale, go-to-the-mattresses attempt to frame what the document SHOULD -- as opposed to COULD -- say?
One final question: At this point, has anyone -- on the record or off the record -- claimed to have laid a highlighter pen on the actual, final, signed papal text? If there is such a piece, please leave us the URL in the comments pages.