You reporters say the darnedest things! At least once a week now those of you in the media report on the comments and activities of Pope Francis, which means at least once a week you err. And we Catholics spy a pattern – your erroneous pronouncements almost always stem from a misconception of Catholic teaching. For example, last February we all awoke to reports along the lines of:
News Flash! Pope Benedict XVI announces unprecedented resignation!!
There are, of course, several problems with such claims. First of all, Benedict did not “resign” – he “renounced the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.” He was not the first pope to do so – there was a precedent for his actions. To be fair, when the world awoke on the morning of February 11 to the news that Benedict was stepping down, a lot of Catholics asked the question, “Can he do that?” The knowledge that prior popes have renounced the Petrine office was basically relegated to history books. It had been, after all, nearly 600 years since the last such incident.
So we can’t be too hard on you media types for struggling with your verbiage on that one – it caught most Catholics off-guard as well. However, when reporting on more recent comments made by Pope Francis, news outlets often betray a thoroughgoing lack of comprehension of basic Catholic doctrine – not good when you are trying to interpret the Pope’s statements to a public which for some reason might entertain the fond notion that the media knows what it’s talking about. I realize that the name of the game is market share, so it is not entirely incomprehensible to me that reporters should produce teasers along the lines of “News Flash! Pope changes the whole entire direction of Catholicism!” That, of course, will sell papers. But so many of those putative “changes” you guys trumpet don’t amount to a hill of Italian broad beans. On any given day the world might awaken to headlines such as these:
News Flash! Pope Francis admits he’s a sinner!
Luke 18:13 – “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified….”
Romans 3:23 – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”
1 John 1:8 – “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Confiteor – “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, [And, striking their breast, they say:] through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault….”
Pope Benedict’s final tweet – “We are all sinners, but His grace transforms us and makes us new.”
Pope John Paul II in an address to U.S. bishops – “Sin is an integral part of the truth about the human person. To recognize oneself as a sinner is the first and essential step in returning to the healing love of God.”
Write this down, those of you tempted to write on the subject of religion in general and Catholicism in particular. The pope speaks infallibly (under certain, very carefully defined conditions), but no pope is impeccable (sinless). Like every other Catholic in the world, at every Mass he admits that he has sinned.
News Flash! Pope Francis admits he was mistaken!!
Reporter folks, Catholics don’t believe that the Pope is a demigod. We certainly hope that the man chosen to lead the Church is polite, educated and socially adept – but there is nothing in our belief system that would insist that he must be. Of course he’s going to make mistakes and missteps – that’s pretty predictable. The doctrine of papal infallibility only kicks in when the pope is making a solemn declaration on a matter of faith or morals. It’s pretty easy to recognize when this is happening – popes tend to get all dressed up for the occasion, put on a big ceremony and preface infallible remarks with words like “We hereby solemnly pronounce, declare and define….” It happens exceedingly seldom. Short of that, anything Francis says may or may not be correct – just like when a reporter says something.
Okay, maybe not that iffy….
News Flash! Pope Francis apologizes for sins of the Church!
Well, actually, there probably isn’t much left for Francis to apologize for – Blessed John Paul II beat him to most of it. In fact, there’s a Wikipedia article entitled “List of apologies made by Pope John Paul II,” with expressions of regret concerning the conquest of Latin America in the name of the Church, the execution of Jan Hus, Church participation in the “Stolen Children” policies in Australia, the trial of Galileo, the 1204 Crusader attack on Constantinople…. It’s obviously not unthinkable for a pope to apologize for the sins of the Church. John Paul II felt that he was opening the lines of communication to communities who had long held grudges over wounds inflicted centuries earlier. By beginning to lay these incidents to rest with an apology, the pope hoped to open a dialogue with people who had previously felt that to talk to the Church meant to betray their ancestors. What is more Christian than to attempt to be reconciled to your brother? So if Francis ever does apologize for something done by the Church, it wouldn’t be unprecedented, and it certainly doesn’t somehow contradict Catholic doctrine for him to do so.
News Flash! Pope Francis changes Catholic practice!!
That is entirely possible. If, for example, the Pope declared that Catholics no longer have to fast on Good Friday, he would be changing a “discipline.” That’s not unthinkable – the Church has done this before. Mass used to be celebrated in Latin; now it is generally celebrated in the vernacular. That practice could change because the Church has never believed that it was divinely revealed to her that Mass must be celebrated in any particular language. Other practices are likewise subject to change. In fact, some wonder if the U.S. bishops shouldn’t reimpose the obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays which was lifted after Vatican II. It isn’t as if most American Catholics already engage in too much penance….
So the idea that Pope Francis is changing a practice or a discipline isn’t really headline news. However, if you find yourself writing a headline similar to the following, I can already tell you you’ve got a problem:
News Flash! Pope Francis changes Catholic dogma!!
Okay, here’s where your MSM message hits the fan.
I can understand why you guys are constantly proclaiming that doctrinal change is on the Catholic horizon. You are comparing the Church to Protestant denominations who change their doctrine all the time. You think of Catholics the way you think of Anglicans, the people who faithfully endorsed the 1,900-year-old Christian teaching that contraception is a moral evil, only to wake up one morning and declare out of the clear blue sky that now it isn’t evil. Try to understand – in a Catholic context, that could never happen. Catholic doctrine can grow and develop, but it can never transmogrify into something fundamentally different. It can never contradict itself. So when you read words like these in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (you have familiarized yourself with the Catechism before shooting your mouth off, right?), you should be able to read the handwriting on the wall of the Vatican:
Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment. So the Church, which is “on the side of life,” teaches that “it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life.” “This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.”
Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:
“You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.”
God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
If you refuse to do your homework (what? Too “old school” for you?) before reporting on Catholic issues, don’t be surprised when people start believing that MSM stands for “Monumentally Stupid Misinformation.”
Allow me to make a suggestion: Consider the next papal interview from this angle – this could be your big break! No matter what you think you heard the Pope say, no matter how you think you could turn his message on its head: refrain. Simply assure your audience that “Catholic dogma CANNOT change.” When other reporters start floating the possibility that the Church may do a 180 and sanction contraception, abortion or homosexual acts, be the one who calmly insists that it will never happen in a million years because “Catholic dogma CANNOT change.” As people start to notice that you’re always the one to call the Pope’s decisions before he announces them, your remarks will be found prescient, even psychic. Just remember that one fundamental principle, and you’ve got it made.
So there you have a few handy tips for dealing with Catholic issues. Maybe jot them down on a notecard and keep it in your pocket; pull it out when you need a refresher. Pope is not impeccable – Pope can make mistakes and apologize – Infallible statements will be prefaced by a big, big buildup, will involve “solemn definitions” and will never be off-the-cuff, airplane-interview type affairs – Catholic disciplines and practices can certainly change – Catholic dogma certainly CANNOT change.
Pssst! One more hot tip: The cost of a paperback copy of the Catechism? $8.00. The value of accurate reporting?
On the memorial of The Six Welsh Martyrs and their Companions
Deo omnis gloria!