Being a newspaper journalist and a practicing Catholic can be a life spent confronting humility on a daily basis. People often proclaim the two institutions are in decline, irrelevant or dying.
Maintaining faith in both is practiced in newsrooms and churches marked by empty seats and pews that used to be filled with people. And when newspapers turn their gaze toward the Catholic Church, I often feel the frustration many share about the media in general – that the images in the news pages are distorted, simplistic or biased.
So when Pope Francis made the front page of The Bee and many other newspapers Friday, when the pontiff seemingly broke with recent church doctrine on homosexuality and abortion, I was initially thrilled. Here was the leader of a publicly battered church who was changing the narrative after years of priest sex abuse scandals – and years of Catholic lay people leading an unholy campaign against marriage equality.
As a Catholic, I was happy the pope was giving voice to the church I knew – one that was built on the idea of a community where everyone was welcome and no one was shunned or marginalized.
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But as a journalist, I feel that many of my colleagues are missing the point of the Pope Francis story.
What was reported – the news hook everyone jumped on – centered on these revolutionary-sounding words spoken by the pope to a Jesuit publication:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
Stop the presses.
Slate Magazine went so far as to state that this was a “liberal” pope, one who was profoundly “anti-conservative.”
At first, I admit to falling prey to the trap of instant analysis in my profession. I could imagine the pope’s words as a rebuke to Catholic lay people who have built their reputations blocking same-sex marriage in California and beyond.
To my mind, we’ve been on the wrong side of history on marriage equality. And while Catholic bishops are within their rights to refuse to perform same-sex marriages, we didn’t stop there as a Catholic community.
Catholic lay people funded and helped organize mean-spirited campaigns that preyed on people’s fears as motivation to vote against marriage equality.
That wasn’t merely standing up for religious beliefs.
That was shaping secular laws by forcing religious beliefs down the throats of others who don’t necessarily share them.
Was the pope really intending to rebuke these people? No. I think he was making a much more profound statement – one that challenges people on both sides of these controversial issues.
What’s my proof? The pope’s own words. I went back and read the full text of the pope’s interview, one where the issues of same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception were but a tiny sliver of a much deeper discussion on faith.
As I read, it pained me to realize how the media are actually misrepresenting what the pope said – his intent – because his words and messages cannot be distilled to sound bites.
The pope wasn’t condemning his recent predecessors, as some seemed to believe. He wasn’t rewriting church teachings or distancing himself from anything the church has said or done.
Since his words were quoted around the globe on Friday, the pope issued his strongest condemnation on abortion yet – though it was only covered extensively in the religious press. It’s also a safe bet that the Holy Father hasn’t suddenly become a supporter of marriage equality.
His words were momentous in a different way from how they were portrayed in the media.
He wasn’t talking about conservative issues or liberal issues or political issues. He was suggesting that we change the context of these discussions from the politics involved to the people involved.
In a world of wall-to-wall media and endless talk, Pope Francis was saying we talk too much.
“I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that,” he said. “But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
“We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
Completely overlooked in the media coverage was how the pope began his interview by proclaiming himself a “sinner.” He said he has to be “around people” and therefore has shunned the exclusive trappings of past pontiffs. He called himself a poor, authoritative leader in his younger years. He listened only to the sound of his own voice but now wants to hear the voices of others.
What would happen if the rest of us – bishops, priests, politicians, powerful people – heeded these words that got no attention? What if more of us acknowledged that our dogma and beliefs are flawed and can get in the way of our better angels?
“His comments are a reminder that our best teaching comes from practice,” said Bishop Jaime Soto, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. “Through our schools, our social services, our health care system. That’s where the rubber meets the road . When we are teaching out of that spirit, as opposed to some textbook, then Gospel comes to life.”
The pope’s words do not abolish church practices many find objectionable. But they do open the door – rather than slamming it in the face – to those who have been pushed aside when dogma overwhelms fellowship.
When a door is open and when hearts are open, anything can happen.