Why LifeSiteNews and the New York Times are both wrong about Pope Francis

Okay, so you’d probably have to be living in a hermitage somewhere not to have heard about ‘that interview‘ – the one that Pope Francis gave to Italian Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica.

The ink had barely had time to dry before journalists from both the mainstream and Catholic media had begun cherry picking lines from it, and then presenting them in an out-of-context fashion, with the end result being statements such as this one from the New York Times:

“Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.”

And this one from Catholic pro-life news website LifeSiteNews.com:

“In comments rocking the Catholic world today, Pope Francis’ has recommended that the Church pull back from her perceived emphasis on “abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”

There’s just one problem – LifeSiteNews and the New York Times are both wrong in what they are claiming here.

I encourage people to actually take the time to go and read the FULL interview with Pope Francis for themselves, because when they do I’m sure they’ll see just how selectively and out-of-context Pope Francis has been quoted by various media outlets.

I read the full interview first thing this morning over breakfast, taking the time to digest the entirety of what Pope Francis said, and boy am I glad I did, because it’s actually a really great insight into Pope Francis, and it contains some beautiful little gems about this Pope whom very few of us in the English speaking world actually know that much about.

It was disappointing, but not all that surprising, to read the mainstream media headlines which completely fudged what Pope Francis had actually said, but what I found really frustrating was that a Catholic organisation like LifeSiteNews would do this as well.

In fact, not only did LifeSiteNews misrepresent what Pope Francis actually said, but they also then proceeded to compare what he had said to previous statements from Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II on these issues – effectively pitting the popes against each other, and implying that what Pope Francis had said in this interview was someone contrary to what the previous two popes have said.

But if you actually look at the quotes LifeSiteNews provide from Benedict XVI and John Paul II, nothing that Pope Francis has said in this interview contradicts those earlier statements – this is because Francis did NOT actually say that the Church should “pull back” from speaking about these issues. Instead what he did was propose HOW we should engage on these issues.

(As a side note: in another blog post next week I am going to explore why I think that one of Pope Francis’ greatest strengths has also made him so vulnerable to this sort of distortion and misrepresentation in the modern media and communications environment.)

What Francis did in this interview, when he briefly touched on these issues, was to state the important truth that we must be more than just mere moralists or hollow doctrinal parrots who simply talk AT our culture on these important issues. What we actually need to be are disciples of Christ motivated by love of Jesus and of the persons in our culture caught up in the web of lies and destruction that is the culture of death.

There is a very short line in this interview which most people have missed, yet which I think is key to unpacking Pope Francis’ thoughts on these important issues (emphasis added):

“The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

It seems to me that what Pope Francis is proposing here is that most Catholic of truths; that our moral action must not be guided by a mere fear of punishment for wrongdoing, or some sort of unthinking adherence to a set of rules, instead it must flow forth from a deep love for Christ, and be rooted in an overwhelming sense of gratitude for his profound gift of mercy and love to us mere sinners.

He is speaking about these issue in the context of the pastoral and missionary dimensions of the Church, and like I said earlier, he is actually answering the question ‘how must we, as the Church, engage our culture on these issues?’, not: ‘should we engage the culture on these issues?’

Just consider his statements (emphasis added):

“But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.”

AND:

“I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.”

In other words, Pope Francis is still expecting the Church to engage with the culture on these issues, but that engagement must be properly framed within the fullness of Catholicism – in that it must not be limited to just certain moral/theological issues alone, and the primary message must be that Christ loves us and came to save us.

It seems to me that what he is suggesting here is that we need to be presenting the Gospel not just as a series of prohibitions, but instead in the full context of it being a ‘yes’ to Christ, and to His free gift of salvation, and all of the freedoms and joys that such a ‘yes brings – and that our proclamations must always be motivated by a love for those whom we are proclaiming them to.

Now, for anyone who still mistakenly thinks that Pope Francis was saying: ‘stop talking about abortion, contraction and gay marriage’, or: ‘these issues don’t matter to God’, you just need to stop and consider the following statements he made in that interview, and how they completely contradict such an idea (emphasis added):

“The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that.

AND:

 “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.”

AND:

 “The teaching of the church [on abortion, gay marriage and contraception], for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church

AND:

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

One other thing that I think is really important to clarify here is that a magazine article, even with a Pope, is not a Magisterial teaching document. At the end of the day, much of the things Pope Francis has said in this interview are personal reflections, stories, and his own prudential judgements about how the Church should engage with the world.

On that last point, ultimately the responsibility for evangelising the culture lies with us, the laity, and the world is where we should be outworking our mission for the Church on a daily basis. This means that if situations arise where prudence and wisdom dictate adopting a different strategy for effective engagement with the culture to the one that the Pope has proposed here, then we are totally free to run with that alternative strategy.

But for that to happen, more of us baptized Catholics first need to rediscover our baptismal calling to evangelism, and then we need to actually get out there and start engaging with our culture!