Once again, Pope Francis fails to make headlines (with conservative words on sex)


As a rule, controversial statements by the Pope of Rome tend to make news.

As a rule, controversial statements by the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter make news.

Do I really need to note that, as a rule, controversial statements by Pope Francis about sexuality almost always inspire headlines in major news sources?

With that in mind, raise your cyber-hand (leave a comment even) if you have read the following information reported in a mainstream news source in the past few days — especially in elite media, either printed on dead-tree pulp or in any electronic form.

Meanwhile, the following is from the Catholic News Service, as printed in the conservative National Catholic Register:

“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates, if that is the case. We have to be exacting. In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the Church,” the Pope says in the book The Strength of a Vocation, set to be released Dec. 3 in 10 languages.

In an excerpt from the book, released Friday by Religión Digital, the Pope said he is concerned about the issue of evaluating and forming people with homosexual tendencies in the clergy and consecrated life.

“This is something I am concerned about, because perhaps at one time it did not receive much attention,” he said.

Francis said that with candidates for the priesthood or religious life “we have to take great care during formation in the human and affective maturity. We have to seriously discern, and listen to the voice of experience that the Church also has. When care is not taken in discerning all of this, problems increase. As I said before, it can happen that at the time perhaps they didn't exhibit [that tendency], but later on it comes out.”

“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates, if that is the case,” the Pope reiterated.

Wait, there is more to this nuanced, but still newsworthy, statement.

Note the following, focusing on a conversation between the pope and the leader in a religious order, focusing on issues linked to gays and lesbians serving in holy orders:

The Pope said that the religious “wondered if it were an issue and asked me if there was something wrong with that. Francis said he was told by one religious superior that the issue was not “that serious, it's just an expression of an affection.”

“That's a mistake,” Francis warned. “It's not just an expression of an affection. In consecrated and priestly life, there's no room for that kind of affection. Therefore, the Church recommends that people with that kind of ingrained tendency should not be accepted into the ministry or consecrated life. The ministry or the consecrated life is not his place.”

We “have to urge homosexual priests, and men and women religious to live celibacy with integrity, and above all, that they be impeccably responsible, trying to never scandalize either their communities or the faithful holy people of God by living a double life. It's better for them to leave the ministry or the consecrated life rather than to live a double life.”

A quick Internet search of news sources indicates that this statement by the pope is currently being viewed as “conservative news,” and, thus, news about it can be found in “conservative” and “religious” news sources in North America. The statement is being covered in the European press, including this short report from the BBC.

So what is happening here? (Bill Donohue of The Catholic League is convinced that we are talking about a cover-up.)

One way to judge how this statement is being seen by many journalists in mainstream newsrooms is to look the coverage in a liberal source, The Daily Beast. Check out this dramatic double-decker headline:

Pope Francis Goes Full Homophobe, Now ‘Very Worried’ About Homosexuality in the Church

The pontiff once adorned the cover of Advocate magazine for his seemingly liberal stance on gay priests. Now he’s changing his tune.

The story under that headline serves as a nice introduction to the “Who am I to judge?” controversy and its lasting impact on news coverage.

Careful readers will recall that some doctrinal conservatives in the church were not alarmed by this earlier Francis statement — as opposed to being alarmed by slanted press coverage of what the pope said. With that in mind, here is the top of this Beast piece:

ROME — Remember back in 2013, shortly after Pope Francis was elected when he shocked the world with his words: “If a person seeks God and has goodwill, then who am I to judge,” when asked about a gay priest? 

What was then seen to be a change in decades of dogma sent shockwaves around the world, landing the pontiff on the cover of Advocate and winning him praise among LGBTQ groups and lapsed Catholics. In some ways, Francis has been eating his words ever since, constantly called to explain by conservatives in the church what he meant.

First, note that we are talking about gays serving in the priesthood.

The assumption is that a priest who is truly seeking God and serving the church with goodwill is going to confession on a regular basis. Thus, the pope stressed that judgement is up to God and the priest’s confessor. (An issue lurking there, of course, is whether all confessors these days are willing to defend church teachings on this issue, but that’s a matter for another day.)

Also note, in the second paragraph, this language: “What was then seen to be a change in decades of dogma sent shockwaves around the world. …” This raises an obvious question: Who saw the pope’s words as a change in “decades” of “dogma”? At some point, will leaders of major news organizations admit that this statement was yanked out of context, creating what many would consider a misquote? Don’t hold your breath.

But back to the pope’s new statement. There is one other issue worth noting in these stories, one that could — maybe — be a hook for further coverage. Here is the top of a Reuters report:

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) — Men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be admitted to the Catholic clergy, and it would be better for priests who are actively gay to leave rather than lead a double life, Pope Francis says in a new book.

While he has previously spoken of the need for better screening of candidates for the religious life, his comments suggesting that priests who cannot keep their vows of celibacy should leave are some of his clearest to date.

A long-time GetReligion reader noted, via email: Here it is again — "celibate" does not mean what most English speaking reporters think it means.  "Celibate" means not married. "Chaste" is the right term. Even married people are supposed to be "chaste" — sexual activity only according to a status as married to one person.  Ordained or religious like nuns, sisters or brothers are not married and should not have sex at all.  

I would also note that, in some liberal Catholic circles, “celibate” means “not married,” and that’s that. Thus, some would argue that the sexual activities of priests are their own business, as long as they remain unmarried. Yes, that’s a word game — but one a few activists have been known to play.

In my experience, the hot-button issue here is whether Catholic clergy — priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals — are willing to defend their church’s moral theology as stated in the Catholic Catechism. But that’s a story for another day.

Please help us watch for major media coverage — here in the United States — of this latest salvo from Pope Francis. Leave URLs in our comments pages?

FIRST IMAGE: Illustration from a previous Daily Beast salute to Pope Francis.

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