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Pope Francis and the Media

October 10th, 2013by Dan Andriacco

Almost from the day he was elected to the Chair of Peter, Pope Francis has displayed a propensity for making eye-brow raising comments. But the next time you want to ask, “He said WHAT?” maybe you ought to read the entire interview or statement at issue.

The secular news organizations hardly ever do a good job of covering religion, and the reporting on Pope Francis lately has been just plain abysmal.

The pope’s recent highly publicized interview that appeared in America magazine and its Italian Jesuit counterpart ran to 12,000 words. Most media organizations quoted about 17 of them, and generally out of context.

Misleading headlines included “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion” (The New York Times); “Pope Francis: Church can’t ‘interfere’ with gays” (CNN); and “Pope Francis: The Church needs to mellow out on abortion” (San Francisco Chronicle).

There’s been some excellent, insightful commentary on the interview, but none of it came from the mainstream media. That job was left to George Weigel, William Donohue, Kate O’Hare, and others.

The day after the interview appeared, Pope Francis met with a group of Catholic gynecologists in Rome. Here’s how the Associated Press began its story:

“Pope Francis encouraged Catholic doctors to refuse to perform abortions today in a bizarre U-turn on comments yesterday that condemned the church’s obsession with such ‘small-minded things.’

“Francis appeared to be offering an olive branch to the more doctrine-minded, conservative wings of the church today with a staunchly pro-life message during an audience on Friday with Catholic gynecologists.

“It seemed to directly contract his warning yesterday that the Catholic Church could fall ‘like a house of cards’ if it continues in its preoccupation with abortion, gay marriage and contraception.”

This is just plain silly on so many levels. There was no contradiction. The pope did say, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” But the comment had nothing to do with abortion. There isn’t a reference to abortion within several paragraphs of those words.

Also, the pope didn’t say the Church has a preoccupation with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. He said that’s not the only thing we have to talk about, adding: “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.”

Don’t take my word for it. Read the whole interview.

In between those wildly misleading paragraphs is one that makes Francis look like an America-style politician shoring up his base by “offering an olive branch to the more doctrine-minded, conservative wings of the church . . .”

Where does such nonsense come from?

I think it was Terry Mattingly, Scripps-Howard News Service religion columnist and founder of the Get Religion blog, who several years ago gave me the key to understanding this sort of journalistic malpractice: The media don’t know how to report religion, so they follow the models they know – sports and politics. Therefore, religion stories tend to be about who’s winning and who’s losing, with the motivations of religious leaders viewed from a political perspective.

They also tend to create a template, and then fit the latest story into it. Part of the secular media template about Pope Francis is that he is so different from Pope Benedict. After all, he said in the interview this week that, “The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.” But isn’t that exactly what Pope Benedict did when he chose as the subject of first encyclical God Is Love?

Dan Andriacco

Dan Andriacco has been communications director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati since 1997. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Religion from the Athenaeum of Ohio and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Theological Seminary. He has written five published mystery novels and three other books.