Share

Opinion: Columnists

How easy it is to misreport a pope

By |
David Freddoso,Columnists,Abortion,Religion,Catholicism,Pope Francis

Deep philosophical topics don't lend themselves to journalistic shorthand. Popes speak in paragraphs, not soundbites.

Put it all together, and it's not hard to understand last week's weird coverage of Pope Francis. The Pontiff, the New York Times informed us, supposedly loosened or at least downplayed the Catholic Church's most controversial teachings. It was a huge story - only it wasn't so.

Whatever importance you ascribe to the papacy, it matters what popes say and how their words are misreported. Seven years ago this month, at a lecture in Regensberg, Benedict XVI quoted a late Medieval Byzantine thinker's comments on Islam from 600 years ago, calling them “brusque” and “unacceptable.”

The International Herald-Tribune (the global edition of the New York Times) quickly pounced on the story. Its careless paraphrase of Benedict's lecture helped spread and cement a mistaken impression that had already taken hold in the Muslim world, that Benedict had cited the offensive quotation favorably and as evidence of Islam's vicissitudes – which wasn't true.

The entire Christian population of Iraq, which extremists subsequently threatened with extermination unless the pope apologized, may never know to what extent they were victims of lazy journalism.

No one will die from the Times' coverage of Francis, but people might be confused. Under the headline “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion, Birth Control,” the story (whose online text was at some point heavily modified without note) did its best to hang a crooked frame around the lengthy interview Pope Francis gave the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica.

“Pope Francis,” the Times reported originally, “...said that the Roman Catholic Church had grown 'obsessed' with preaching about abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he has chosen not to speak of those issues despite recriminations from some critics.”

The string of paraphrases that followed suggested that perhaps the Catholic Church was finally embracing the teachings of the New York Times editorial board.

Not really, though. The very Catholic writers one would expect to complain most loudly over such things had little negative to say about Francis' actual interview. (They did complain about the Times.)

FirstThings called the pope's comments “perfectly of a piece with every utterance of Benedict.” At worst, some suggested, the pope had been naïve about how comments about these controversial topics would be twisted.

Catholicism is best known today by unchurched Westerners for its inflexible opposition to abortion and homosexuality. Francis pointed out that it is not primarily about these things. As a Catholic, it's hard to argue.

People who care should read the full interview to see what Francis actually said, because it doesn't lend itself to short paraphrases. But just for starters, here's a more representative quotation than that the Times offered on his attitude toward the church's counter-cultural teachings on hot-button social issues:

“[W]hen 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.”

Francis' opinions on these issues are well-known. He followed up the release of his interview with an unequivocal denunciation of abortion. (“Every child that isn't born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ”).

In 2009, he called Argentina's legalization of same-sex marriage “a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God,” and called for a “holy war” against it.

A Catholic bishop has to step forward and say such things when the times demand it – but then, that's exactly what “in context” means.

According to the new pope, Catholicism is chiefly about the cross, the resurrection, and forgiveness of sin rather than about the particular sins for which people need forgiveness. But I'm afraid that's really old news.

DAVID FREDDOSO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is the former editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner and the New York Times-bestselling author of "Spin Masters: How the Media Ignored the Real News and Helped Re-elect Barack Obama." He has also written two other books, "The Case Against Barack Obama" (2008) and "Gangster Government" (2011).
View article comments Leave a comment