The questions have become so familiar, by now.
What did Pope Francis say this time?
What did the mainstream press say that Pope Francis said this time?
The wise news consumer, of course, asks one more question: Does the Vatican or some other form of Catholic media have a transcript posted online that shows us what Pope Francis actually said this time and perhaps even enough context to know what the words that he said may have meant?
The classic case of this syndrome, of course, is the infamous "Who am I to judge?" quote that launched a million headlines. Have you ever actually read a transcript on that one? Please do so, because it's enlightening.
Now we have the pope's statements expressing a surprising degree of openness to seeing married men ordained as priests (other than in the Eastern rite and in cases of Anglicans and Lutherans moving into Catholic ministry). That story has actually received some pretty decent coverage, in my opinion. If you've seen stories that botched it, please let your GetReligionistas hear about it.
Meanwhile, it's clear that wise news consumers need some guidelines on how to read coverage of off-the-cuff, spontaneous remarks by Pope Francis. The person I would turn to, of course, is the omnipresent John L. Allen, Jr. of Crux (who I actually got to meet the other night, after years of online and telephone contacts).
Allen has written a Crux think piece that will do the trick, with this headline: "Rules of thumb for processing the latest papal bombshell." He notes, with a nod to realities deeper than newsprint:
Whenever these bombshells explode, pundits and commentators go into overdrive trying to explain (and sometimes spin) what the pope actually meant. Less noticed, however, is the grassroots pastoral challenge they create, as parish priests and other Church personnel scramble to answer people’s questions about what was said and what it might mean.
Ah, in addition to news producers and consumers, this analysis piece is also for Catholics in the pews. Got it. Please read it all, but here are thumbnails on his three guidelines:
First, whatever else these bombshells may be, they are clearly not a formal expression of the pope’s teaching authority. If Francis wanted to declare a new dogma binding on Catholic consciences, he knows how to do it, and a one-off zinger in a press conference isn’t it.
That’s not to say, of course, one should simply disregard whatever the pope says in these informal settings. He’s the pope, and his words always deserve to be received with respect. However, his opinion on the Charlie Hebdo attacks obviously doesn’t have the same standing as, say, declarations in the Creed about the Trinity or about Christ.
And also, it helps to place a higher priority on quotes from things that the pope has written or spoken in formal church settings.
Second, it’s important to remember that these one-liners don’t always capture the pope’s own priorities. Often they’ve come in response to questions other people have asked him, rather than something he brought up himself. ...
While the soundbite may help define Francis from a media point of view, it’s probably not how he himself sees the heart of his papacy.
Finally, always look for context, context and more context.
The “breeding like rabbits” soundbite, for instance, was initially taken in some circles as a step back from the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control, but in context the pontiff appeared to be talking about Natural Family Planning and other Church-approved strategies for what Francis called “responsible parenthood.”
“In the Church there are matrimonial groups who are experts in this, there are pastors,” he said. “I know many of them, and [they have] many licit solutions that can help.”
Now, journalists are journalists. Do you really expect editors not to run a headline containing the word "pope" and "breeding like rabbits"? No way.
The Internet takes these zingers and flings them all over the place. However, the same Internet also makes it possible for reporters, readers and parishioners to, with a few clicks of a mouse, find full transcripts of papal remarks, often starting here and then here.
Be careful out there.