Sunday morning, Americans awakened to headlines proclaiming that Pope Francis had called Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas “an angel of peace” during an event at the Vatican the day before. News organizations gleefully printed this claim across newspapers and news sites around the globe. Agence France-Presse’s headline: “Pope meets ‘angel of peace’ Abbas after treaty announcement.” BBC: “Pope Francis calls Palestinians’ Abbas ‘angel of peace.’” The New York Times: “In Vatican, Abbas Is Praised as ‘Angel of Peace.’” Even Jonathan S. Tobin of Commentary magazine published a piece entitled, “Sorry, Your Holiness, But Abbas Is No Angel.”
Of course, this reveals the eagerness of some in the media to paint His Holiness as some valiant advocate for the progressive cause, and thus, an ally of Palestine over Israel. If the Pope indeed called Abbas an angel, it would, in their eyes, be yet another example of his putting conservative Catholics, many of whom are likely to be pro-Israel, in their place; progressives have wrongly portrayed the pope as taking a progressive stance on other issues about which they care deeply. To them, it’s about time that traditional Catholics get with the program, and, thankfully, Pope Francis is going to set them straight.
But they couldn’t be more wrong. Here is the account of Pope Francis’s remarks by the Vatican reporter for La Stampa, an Italian newspaper:
As is tradition with heads of State or of government, Francis presented a gift to the Palestinian leader, commenting: “May the angel of peace destroy the evil spirit of war. I thought of you: May you be an angel of peace.” Pope Francis had called Abu Mazen a “man of peace” when he visited Bethlehem in May 2014, just as he called the then Israeli prime minister, Shimon Peres, a “man of peace” during his subsequent visit to Jerusalem. The Argentinian pope had then invited both leaders to a prayer vigil for peace in the Vatican Gardens which took place on 8 June that year and was also attended by the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.
To be clear, his statements to the Palestinian Authority president were a reminder of Abbas’s obligation to become a channel of peace, not praise for Abbas’s ethereal personality. This distinction is one of intent, and that is crucial in this discussion.
Oh, and that gift he gave Abbas? A copy of the Holy See’s own Evangelii Gaudium. In it, Pope Francis explains: “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked. . . . Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of Jesus’ disciples.”
Pope Francis knows what’s in the book he wrote. He is the leader of a faith that, as a rule, requires deep ecclesiastical justification for even the simplest gesture, so one can’t help but think that the pope’s gift to Abbas was unmistakably purposeful: Perhaps he meant it to demonstrate Catholicism’s admiration for Jews and Israel.
The misleading coverage of the Abbas exchange is troubling on many counts.
First, it is yet another example of the willful misrepresentation of the views of the Vatican under the leadership of Pope Francis. While it is true that the Catholic Church often leans to the political left of American conservatism (this is nothing new or profound), the mainstream press has wildly exaggerated the degree to which this occurs. Indeed, they can hardly contain their excitement when presented with an opportunity to portray Church leadership as being at odds with conservative political philosophy.
Second, because the media are determined to politicize every moment of every day, they view in a political light everything Pope Francis does. Catholics believe that God loathes violence and loves peace. These are ideals that exist irrespective of changing geopolitical landscapes. As the head of the Catholic Church (and consequently, the faith leader of the largest single religious denomination, representing 1.2 billion people worldwide), Pope Francis has an obligation to use his platform in the pursuit of peace. His encouraging words to world leaders, including Abbas, are meant to achieve these ends.
It’s astonishing that international news sources have continued to print false information, even after the pope’s remarks were made available in English.
But that doesn’t mean the Church remains silent in the face of evil. While President Obama, for instance, refuses to call the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians a “genocide,” Pope Francis stood up to Turkish leaders by insisting that the slaughter of these Christians a century ago was, indeed, “genocide.” As ISIS continues to massacre countless Christians in the Middle East, Pope Francis has called for the United Nations to mobilize troops to fight the jihadist network — a particularly striking statement given that the Catholic Church is often reluctant to endorse military conflict. It’s noteworthy that neither of these positions is strongly supported by progressives.
Finally, it’s astonishing that international news sources have continued to print false information, even after the pope’s remarks were made available in English by an Italian newspaper. The media are eager to paint Pope Francis as a progressive messiah who is ready to condemn the idiocy of conservative Catholics worldwide — and they won’t let accuracy stand in their way.
There are real geopolitical consequences for such shoddy reporting, and those in the media who misrepresented the Holy See’s comments should be held to account. It’s time for a retraction and an apology.
— Ellen Carmichael is president of The Lafayette Company, a Washington, D.C.-based political-consulting firm. She has served as a senior communications adviser for a Republican presidential campaign, members of Congress, and statewide elected officials. Follow her on Twitter @ellencarmichael.