Quoting the Pope and Missing the Point

The New York Times went for the obvious headline — about the Pope talking about a “gay lobby” — and missed the chance to run this one: “Pope Says Don’t Worry About the Inquisition.” Confused? Let me explain.

Wait for it, wait for it...

Wait for it, wait for it…

A Pope who’s very comfortable going off-script and improvising — jazz-style, as Ryan Duns has observed — has been keeping the media on their toes. Most recently, there’s discussion of  a set of private remarks from the Pope’s meeting with representatives from the confederation of Latin American religious orders, via a set of notes leaked from the conversation. Aside from raising the question of who leaked the notes (a couple of months back, we would have said the butler did it) this story also illustrates what drives news coverage: if the words “gay” and “Pope” are anywhere in the same story, then — bang! — there’s your headline.

But that story gets the emphasis wrong on a number of fronts. In the first place, it’s unlikely that the Pope, even in a private meeting, was staking out a general position on homosexuality within the Church — he was speaking about the issue of corruption within the Curia, and acknowledged that the speculation about a “gay lobby” was part of this larger issue that must be addressed in order for the Curia to serve its proper role. The issue isn’t homosexuality per se, but rather the fact that secrecy and hypocrisy lead to unfreedom, as Ryan Duns, SJ discusses on his own blog.

Further, the Pavlovian over-reaction to a story involving the church and sex has buried a much more sensational quote. If all you’re reading is the New York Times, you’d walk away thinking that the Pope had a meeting with Latin American religious orders in order to talk about homosexuality. In fact, Pope Francis was encouraging them to be bold in pursuing their ministry — and especially not to be fearful about the challenges they may face from within the church, even including concern from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e., the Vatican department charged with maintaining orthodoxy, formerly known as “the Inquisition”). He’s reported as saying, “Maybe you’ll receive a letter from the Congregation for Doctrine [sic], saying that they were told this or that thing…. But don’t let it bother you. Explain what you have to explain, but keep going forward.” Don’t let doctrinal controversies bother you — explain yourselves and keep going forward: that’s the real news from this meeting.

In addition to dealing with leaked private remarks, the media and the Vatican press offices have also had to deal with the unprecedented practice of daily short papal homilies at Masses in the Domus Santa Marta where Francis has continued to live since his election. Even though the Vatican has stopped publishing the text of the Pope’s daily homilies to avoid suggesting that they are formal teaching statements, they’re still being widely reported and discussed, especially when he said that even atheists are redeemed.

As with the “gay lobby” story, a single word in that homily — “redemption” — got the press off on the wrong foot, and the coverage ended up tying itself up in knots on the specifics of who can get into heaven. We talked about it here at TJP, too. However, if you actually read what the Pope said (go ahead, it’s right here) that’s exactly the question he’s rejecting. In his homily, he pleads for Catholics to recognize, in a “culture of encounter,” their commonality with all who do good.  And then he imagines someone — someone who’s missing the point — objecting “But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.” And to this person, Francis replies that our common identity as children of God and the one redemptive sacrifice of Christ on the cross for all means that we can, and must, “meet one another doing good.” The real message? Stop arguing about who’s being saved, and start doing good.

Here’s a quick rule of thumb for interpreting pope quotes. First, he’s almost certainly not inventing new Church teaching on the fly, and he’s also not working from talking points designed to serve up soundbites. What he’s actually doing is preaching — that is, trying to say something to encourage and support people in their faith. The standard for that communication is not what will sound good when it’s reported, but what people really need to hear about the love of God and God’s will for them. What’s been consistent across everything he’s said — and can be found both in the homily touching on atheism and the leaked private remarks — is that Francis focuses on doing good first, and trusts that we can sort out the theological details later. The message isn’t just “practice what you preach” — it’s that the only message you can preach is the one you’re already practicing. That’s the real story.

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