Recent mischaracterizations of Pope Francis’ comments to the Jesuit-run America magazine have littered headlines for days, but is the media merely hearing what it wants to hear?
In the September 30 issue of America, an exclusive interview between Antonio Spadaro, S.J. and the holy father will be printed. Ever since the electronic copy was published last week, newsmakers have flooded the press with blinkered headlines. From ascribing sensationalist epithets like the Washington Post’s “Pope Francis, the radical in the Vatican” or Slate’s “Pope Francis is a Liberal” to claiming monumental evolution such as USA Today’s “Pope Francis’ Shift Draws Admiration,” reports have not been hesitant to embellish the pontiff’s remarks.
Unfortunately, Catholics have long been acquainted with the press's habit of misrepresenting or misunderstanding the bishop of Rome. Just three years ago, The Guardian alerted us, “Pope signals shift away from Catholic Church’s prohibition of condoms,” only to surprise itself a year later when it baffled, “The pope is still sidestepping the issue of contraception.” Other news outlets were not immune to this — BBC, CNN, and Fox News also all got then-Pope Benedict’s faithful message wrong.
Looking at Francis’ recent interview, two quotes have stood out in mainstream reporting: First, “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.” And second, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.”
Regarding the first quotation, Francis’ position is not only compatible with the Church’s tradition, it is aligned with the church's doctrinal and pastoral teachings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lauds the dignity of the human person, as well as his or her moral conscience (1700). Gaudium et spes, written during the Second Vatican Council, further articulates, “The Church holds that the recognition of God is in no way hostile to man's dignity, since this dignity is rooted and perfected in God.” Even more directly, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a letter “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” under Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s prefecture (later Pope Benedict XVI) in which it insists, “Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.” Does this context make Francis seem like a radical?
Turning to his second quotation, the Church has never focused only on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The Catholic Church remains a worldwide leader in charity, it continues to educate more individuals than any other organization worldwide, and it offers pastoral care to over a billion Catholics worldwide. Is it the Church that's obsessed with these hot-button social issues, or is it the media that fails to report on the other facets of this dynamic organization?
If the press took the time to read the full 20-page interview with Pope Francis, they would have instead reported on a thoughtful and gracious holy father as he discussed Ignatian spirituality, the importance of discernment, and the Church as a community. They would have understood his distinction of balancing a pastoral ministry and a dogmatic message. They may even have written on his piety and prayerfulness.
But this isn't what happened. For some strange reason, “The Pope is Catholic” just doesn’t make headlines.