In an interview this week, Pope Francis noted that the Church should focus on mercy and salvation through Jesus Christ rather than “rules.” The headlines that followed suggested that the Church was suddenly charting a new course.
One might think this is the first time a pope said something like this. It isn’t.
Though it garnered little media attention, Pope Benedict XVI made a similar statement in 2006. Asked why he hadn’t spoken about same-sex marriage, abortion, or contraception in a speech, he noted that “Catholicism isn’t a collection of prohibitions; it’s a positive option.”
With neither pope has the full story been told. Furthermore, as Francis went to great lengths to point out in his encyclical Lumen Fidei, continuity is a hallmark of the papacy.
The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation.
But the media’s narrative of Francis is something else. We are told he is a progressive, taking the Catholic Church in a profoundly new direction — uninterested in Church teaching on moral issues.
Benedict, we are told, is conservative, doctrinaire, and old-fashioned — focused on moral issues.
Neither narrative is true, because each leaves out half of the story.
As pope, Benedict wrote three major encyclical letters to the Church — two on charity and one on hope — but these weren’t what got him the most coverage.
Benedict once stated that “the Church’s first duty is to approach these people with love and consideration, with caring and motherly attention, to proclaim the merciful closeness of God in Jesus Christ.” It didn’t fit the narrative, so it wasn’t widely reported, but he was talking about those who had had abortions.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis left the Vatican to greet participants in Rome’s March for Life. He also invited them to “keep the attention of everyone on the important issue of respect for human life from the moment of conception.” More recently, he exhorted the Knights of Columbus “to bear witness to the authentic nature of marriage and the family, the sanctity and inviolable dignity of human life, and the beauty and truth of human sexuality.” Again, neither statement was widely reported, because it didn’t fit the narrative.
And on Friday in Rome, the pope spoke to Catholic gynecologists and other medical professionals about our “throwaway culture” that leads to elimination of the weakest among us. “Our response to this mentality is a ‘yes’ to life, decisive and without hesitation,” he said. “‘The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are precious, but this one is fundamental — the condition for all the others.’” But for those who see the Church running from social issues rather than giving them their proper place in the full constellation of Catholic teaching, this speech doesn’t fit the narrative either.
Pope Francis spoke out against a homosexual “lobby” and then later said that he is not in a position to judge those who are gay “if they are seeking the Lord and have good will.” Media largely neglected to note both the “if” and his concern about the lobbying. His pastoral comments are reported like political comments, and his warnings about politicizing the Church are ignored.
Missed too was his implicit reference to his predecessor’s document On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons, where Benedict wrote: “What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross.”
“It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action,” Benedict stated in that document. “Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs.” But few know Benedict said anything like that.
It is increasingly apparent that it is the media, more often than Catholics themselves, who place a disproportionate focus on Church teaching about sexuality and abortion. In Francis’s dense 13-page interview released this week he touched on many subjects. But the American media are focusing almost exclusively on the few paragraphs related to abortion and contraception. Ironically, this coverage comes after the pope said in that same interview that the Church has a broader focus (and discussed that focus in the other twelve pages).
Like Francis, many Catholics have been frustrated by the perception in some quarters that the Church is concerned about only one or two issues. The Knights of Columbus have experienced this firsthand. We are one of the country’s most active charitable organizations, with hundreds of millions of hours and more than a billion dollars given to charitable activity in the past several years. Such good work almost never gets noticed nationally, but when we spend even a fraction of that total amount on social issues, the media take note, often with alarm.
Here is what Pope Francis wants Catholics to be thinking about: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” He has presented a stark and dramatic assessment of our cultural situation, and he is proposing as a response a bold, self-sacrificing personal witness.
Catholic teaching on moral issues isn’t the totality of the Church’s message. It never has been. And our popes, bishops, priests, and laity have always spent far more time on charity, prayer, and pastoral outreach than on public-policy issues. If the public doesn’t know that, it’s because the media prefer to cover controversies.
But there is a real danger here. Coverage warps public perception and misleads when it narrowly focuses on social issues and ignores the rest of what people of faith do on behalf of the common good. Wrongly portrayed as singularly focused on a narrow set of issues, believers run the risk of being misunderstood and marginalized. Their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is increasingly seen as unimportant.
If the media truly want to embrace Pope Francis’s message, they can begin by heeding his call not to focus too narrowly on just one or two issues in their coverage of faith. Popes, people of faith, and media consumers all deserve better, fuller, and fairer coverage.
— Carl Anderson is CEO of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times–bestselling author.