Francis, the Washington Post, and Me

Bob Royal takes todays slot, normally reserved for David Warren. Were sad to report that Mr. Warrens mother passed away this week.The Catholic Thing family extends our deepest sympathies to David and the Warren family. May her gentle soul rest in the bosom of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  the editors

This past week, The Washington Post ran a front-page story on conservatives publicly “criticizing the pope” in which I was “quoted” – in the Pickwickian sense. You can’t be surprised when your words are distorted by the press, taken out of context, even made to do backflips into positions opposite to the ones you hold, especially when it comes to Catholicism. But this experience was something new for me.

Since the article appeared, some friends thanked me. Others have written me – or written articles themselves – chiding me for thinking it’s my job to police the pope’s statements. For the record, it’s never even crossed my mind. I’m amazed at the new spirit of mercy and the ability to touch people Francis has brought to the whole world. He may just be the special man needed to convey the richness of the Faith, as developed in modern terms by his two great predecessors, to Catholics in the pews, fallen away Catholics and non-Catholics outside, and the poor and marginalized around the world.

So, oddly, because of the hash the reporter made of the whole thing, I find myself partly agreeing with some critics of what “I” said, and fencing a little with friends who think they agree with “me.” That doesn’t happen every day. But it happens – to the pope, clearly, as well – when you’re dealing with journalists who think in partisan categories. 

There’s little serious professionalism in religion reporting – obviously not only at the Post. For example: after the piece appeared, I tried to get the reporter to understand that, among other vagaries, she was using traditional and traditionalist as identical. It’s like a political reporter, I told her, not knowing the difference between a Republican and a Libertarian. I thought this humble comparison, drawn from the simple world of Washington front-page news, might cause a light bulb to go on.

It didn’t. Differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, as we know, matter. Orthodox, conservative, and reform Jewish differences matter. But when it comes to Catholicism, everything that’s outside what the average secular liberal is interested in is just “getting into the weeds.”

Besides a lack of interest in the content of Catholicism, there’s a strange sense of proportion operative. It’s too difficult to reproduce the whole episode here, but if you read the story, it brings in a Catholic counselor who had a client who described himself as a “Pope Francis-Nancy Pelosi Catholic.” Now, if this had been reported to underline the absurd conclusions some people have drawn from a couple of ambiguous remarks by Pope Francis, it might actually have news value. As it is, it gives the impression that this impossible politico-religious hybrid is now a prominent part of the Church. 

A much bigger problem lies at the nexus of ignorance and prejudice. In that realm, there are only sides and conflicts – sometimes deliberately exacerbated by the press. To see things as partly this and partly that, as a process in which elements are developing, as requiring a supple understanding of matters that don’t lend themselves to Left and Right, sheep and goats, is dismissed as just the obsession of specialists. And ignored in the reporting.

In this vein, the most troubling misrepresentation lies on either side of an ellipsis. At one point, we talked about how there have been good and bad popes. I even joked that Benedict XVI, careful theologian that he is, refrained from saying that the Holy Spirit wholly dictates the choice, since we had the Borgias, etc.

“There are better and worse popes and God allows them.” Four dots later I’m portrayed as saying that “I’m getting used to it,” implying that I’m getting used to having a “bad” pope. What came in between, and throughout the interview, but left off the page, was my balanced account of Pope Francis to date: an extraordinary man who has a rare gift for touching people. But in the heat of the moment, when he’s thinking on his feet, occasionally formulates things poorly. He’s said as much himself. I was “getting used to” a great pope who has a tendency to leave some things unclear – the root of the recent controversies.

The Post reporter claimed – and still does – that she doesn’t understand my point since I “blamed” the pope for the misunderstandings that have arisen.

What I really said is that “conservatives,” loyal and respectful as we are whoever is pope, should not simply explain these problems away. Francis can and should be defended; William Doino has done a notable job of it here. Still, there are unclear statements. And half-expressed thoughts. It’s not “bad translations.” Similar controversies have arisen in the Italian press. And there are many people, as a result, who think the Church has already changed teachings on homosexuality, abortion, divorce, and the usual modern litany.

They’re wrong, of course, wildly so. But it’s useful to ask why, especially since the press is acting as a megaphone for them. A gay man sent a letter to the Post in response to this article, saying he’s attending Mass again after twenty-five years away. That’s all to the good, but he may be surprised by what he hears there. It’s not  “criticizing the pope,” for instance, to point out: “When NARAL sends you a thank-you note, it’s clear something got miscommunicated.” Several bishops, as we know, have had to put out statements informing people that Church teaching has not changed.

Francis will get better at handling all this as he grows more familiar with the full range of his responsibilities as pope. As I wrote here, he ultimately came out on top in the Repubblica interview. But the modern media – in which our words appear and get dissected within moments, rarely with calm thought – present a unique challenge for anyone who wants to communicate outside well-worn paths. And given the religious prejudices of most reporters, that’s a problem that can only be managed, not entirely solved.

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.