Wow, they didn’t rely on clichés. Major media scrambled today after Pope Francis pulled off a Friday surprise, releasing his eagerly awaited statement on the family. And they didn’t fall back on the tried-and-untrue "Who am I to judge?" and "Pope Francis broke with centuries of tradition, saying that …"
Well, most didn’t. More on that later.
The book-length, 256-page Amoris Laetitia makes for hefty weekend reading, and church officials are calling for careful consideration. As Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said today:
Amoris Laetitia is unusual for its size – more than 250 pages – and the Holy Father himself cautions us to read it with patience and attention. This is sound guidance, especially in the scramble that always takes place to stamp a particular interpretation on important papal interventions. My own more developed thoughts will be forthcoming. In the meantime, we can be thankful for the Holy Father’s thoughts on an issue of real gravity. Nothing is more essential to any society than the health of marriage and the family.
In the letter, Francis strikes balance between law and grace, restating both church doctrine and an understanding of what contemporary families go through. In turn, media seem to take a sympathetic view of the document -- for now, at least.
Despite a tight deadline, the Washington Post produced an almost feature treatment:
He called for divorced and remarried Catholics to participate more fully in church life. But he closed the door on gay marriage. He quotes Jorge Luis Borges and Jesus Christ. There is an entire chapter on love.
But more than anything, Pope Francis’s long-awaited document on family life, released Friday by the Vatican, amounts to an exultation of traditional marriage while recognizing that life, in his own words, isn’t always “perfect.” Yet rather than judging, he commanded, the church should be a pillar of support.
WaPo sees an ambiguity in Francis' words on divorced and remarried Catholics. It says he maintains that some are living in an “objective situation of sin,” but " he seemed to suggest that such cases should be studied and ruled on one by one."
And this may be a bit of Post commentary, but interesting if accurate:
The pope seemed to say that the church must deal with the world it lives in, not the world it wants. He sometimes sounded less like a pontiff than a marriage counselor.
Single women get pregnant, and need the support of those around them, he wrote. Children sometimes need punishment — and, he notably added — sex education. Gays and lesbians deserve protection from “unjust discrimination.” And while he clearly upholds his church’s teachings of marriage as only between a man and woman, he notes that unconventional unions do indeed form. And they are not, he writes, without their “constructive elements.”
Perhaps most importantly, he exhorts the church — specifically its clergy — to use “discernment” and not paint with a broad brush. Do not, he warned, wield “moral laws” like a weapon.
That last point shaped the lede of the New York Times' look at the papal statement:
ROME — In a broad proclamation on family life, Pope Francis on Friday called for the Roman Catholic Church to be more welcoming and less judgmental, and he seemingly signaled a pastoral path for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive holy communion.
The 256-page document — known as an apostolic exhortation and titled “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love” — calls for priests to welcome single parents, gay people and unmarried straight couples who are living together.
“A pastor cannot feel that it is enough to simply apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives,” he wrote.
Like the Post, the Times adds that the letter adds "no new marching orders" and doesn't change Church teachings against same-sex marriage. Also like the Post, the Times article indulges in some analysis:
Alluding to the diversity and complexity of a global church, Francis effectively pushes decision making downward to bishops and priests, stating that a different country or region “can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.”
But Francis also makes clear the vision he wants local bishops and priests to follow: as a church that greets families with empathy and comfort rather than with unbending rules and rigid codes of conduct.
A great Times reader service is a sidebar by Godbeat vet Laurie Goodstein, highlighting 11 themes in Amoris Laetitia. Those address single parents, divorced Catholics, renewing injured marriages and rejecting antigay violence. Francis even recommends drawing lessons from married clergy in Eastern Catholic churches for ministering to families.
In contrast, the Los Angeles Times' story has a breezy lede that borders on snark:
Pope Francis on Friday published a long-awaited document on love, divorce, cohabitation and homosexuality that defines his bid to be more merciful but may disappoint his legions of liberal fans looking for doctrinal change.
The so-called Apostolic Exhortation, entitled “Amoris Laetitia” or “The Joy of Love,” gives some wiggle room on granting Communion to remarried divorcees -- a hot-button issue that divides Catholic conservatives and progressives.
But the document firmly restates church opposition to gay unions, abortion and contraception.
The rest of the article bears down on the parts of Amoris Laetitia that can be seen as more political: no abortion, no sterilization, no same-sex marriage. The newspaper notes also that Francis urges conscientious objection for healthcare workers who may be ordered to perform contraceptive procedures.
"Francis’ views reflect Catholic doctrine, but his words will have extra resonance in the U.S. during an election year," the Los Angeles Times says. But for some reason, it doesn't make a connection with recent state laws on conscientious objection -- perhaps because they're usually termed "religious freedom" laws.
The Religion News Service, while reporting the traditional stance of Amoris Laetitia, also teases out a few innovative comments like:
“The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear,” he said, advising husbands to take on domestic chores.
“Masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories,” he said. “It is possible, for example, that a husband’s way of being masculine can be flexibly adapted to the wife’s work schedule.”
All the articles include reaction from other leaders, both inside and outside the Church. Oft-quoted are the approving remarks of Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, identified by RNS as "a progressive whose parents divorced." There are also less-friendly quotes by leaders of the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign and the New Ways Ministry.
Only one gaffe jumped out at me in today's stories. The Washington Post notes gays' disappointment in Amoris Laetitia, then adds: "Yet for the pope who floored the planet when he said, of gay priests, 'Who am I to judge?' there may be others who still hold out hope, based on other comments Francis wrote in his document."
Aaaiieeeee! And they were doing so well!
But enough for now. Taken together, the articles still show the strength of an ailing yet vigorous mainstream media, doing what they do best: hustling to inform us of breaking news.
And I'm glad some of them still have religion specialists whose skills and knowledge parse such stories for their significance. We'll see in coming days whether they can also enrich the follow-up stories.
Thumbnail photo: Pope Francis in Brazil in 2013, photographed by Roberto Stuckert Filho. Licensed under Attribution 3.0 Brazil (CC BY 3.0 BR).