So Pope Francis has spoken, once again. This time we are talking about an apostolic exhortation -- Gaudete et Exsultate ("Rejoice and Be Glad") -- that includes pastoral comments aimed at Catholics in general, but also specific shots at his critics on the doctrinal right.
So let's say that you are looking for news coverage that includes voices on both sides of the Pope Francis debate. You want to hear from people who have just been attacked by the pope. You also want to hear from doctrinal conservatives, as well as liberals, who embrace what the pope had to say, or who see his message as consistent with that of other recent popes.
So, where do you look for coverage that does more than -- let's be honest -- serve as a public-relations office for Pope Francis?
Do you choose a website that specifically focuses on Catholic news or do you turn to America's most powerful newsroom, a newspaper that in the past has been highly critical of Catholic leaders?
That's a trick question, right? In this case, you want to check out Crux to get complex reactions to this apostolic exhortation, while The New York Times gives readers all Francis, all of the time (with zero input or information from critics of this pope).
Which newsroom showed the most independence from the papal powers that be? That would be (drum roll please) the website for a Catholic audience. It's also interesting to note which report framed this document primarily in political terms. Here's the overture at the Times ("Pope Francis Puts Caring for Migrants and Opposing Abortion on Equal Footing").
VATICAN CITY -- Caring for migrants and the poor is as holy a pursuit as opposing abortion, Pope Francis declared in a major document issued by the Vatican on Monday morning.
Pushing back against conservative critics within the church who argue that the 81-year-old pope’s focus on social issues has led him to lose sight of the true doctrine, Pope Francis again cast himself, and the mission of the Roman Catholic Church, in a more progressive light.
“The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist,” Pope Francis wrote in an apostolic exhortation on the subject of holiness. ...
The pope’s vision of holiness explicitly highlights migrants, whose plight he has sought to elevate to global attention perhaps more than any other issue.
To it's credit, the Times team does stress, early in the piece, that by its nature an apostolic exhortation is "less authoritative than a papal encyclical." This is a pastoral statement, not a doctrinal bombshell. The story notes that Francis proclaims: "Seeing and acting with mercy: That is holiness,” adding that this is a "distilled expression of Francis’ vision of the church."
Many conservative critics of Pope Francis have stressed that the mission of the church is to act with mercy and truth, claiming that true mercy is consistent with centuries of church doctrine. Here is a crucial passage in the news report, soon after a statement that this Pope Francis letter was a statement to "political 'ultraconservatives'," such as the Church Militant website.
This is as close as the Times piece comes to dealing with the views of Francis critics:
When asked if the document on holiness was a response to those critics, the panelists at the Vatican news conference on Monday, including Archbishop De Donatis, looked uncomfortably at one other for several seconds before giving a roundabout answer.
But some of the passages seemed intended as a rebuke to the canon lawyers and archconservative cardinals leading the opposition to Pope Francis.
In the document, the pope excoriates Christians taking the path of “an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige.” They should instead be passionate about “seeking out the lost,” he writes.
He is also withering in his criticism of the hostile tenor that often reverberates throughout the conservative Catholic blogosphere.
Now, as a religion-news publication, Crux is obviously producing news content for a more specific audience. I get that. But Catholic-audience publications are often accused of having PR-like ties to church authorities. That's not what is happening here, at all.
So far, Crux has focused two hard-news pieces on Gaudete et Exsultate. For the first report, click here. It's the second report that I want to recommend to people interested the views of Catholics on both sides of this debate. The headline: "Mixed reaction from U.S. pro-lifers to pope’s latest challenge."
The solid journalistic approach emerges near the top of the story:
In the United States, early reaction among pro-life leaders has been divided, with some seeing the pope’s language as a healthy challenge to a perceived rift between “pro-life” and “peace and justice” Catholics, while others style it as a disappointment.
One of the nation’s largest pro-life advocacy groups, the Susan B. Anthony List, issued a statement Monday saying the exhortation “blurs lines and causes confusion,” insisting on a strong defense of “the primacy of the defense of unborn human life.” Yet according to Greg Schleppenbach, associate director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, Francis’s teaching in the exhortation is “certainly nothing new.”
In an interview with Crux, Schleppenbach said Francis is trying to aid in the resonance of the Church’s defense of human life so that there’s “equal passion in our defense of every human life, in every stage, and in every condition.”
I especially appreciated the remarks from Charles Camosy, who teaches ethics at Fordham University. It's crucial, he noted, to remember that modern Catholicism has "single-issue" activists on the left, as well as on the right.
“The main paragraph addressing abortion will be read as calling out abortion-to-the-exclusion-of-everything pro-lifers. And it is,” said Camosy.
Yet Camosy also said that many of the pope’s public allies should be more outspoken in their defense of human life.
“Most of those who hold up Francis as a model are not ‘clear, firm, and passionate’ in addressing the value of the prenatal child,” he continued. “Indeed, there is very little evidence that many of the most prominent Catholics on the left hold the lives of prenatal children as sacred as they do the lives of the poor. In this sense, once again, the Holy Father challenges both right and left rather directly.”
As always, my goal here is to make a journalism point -- not to argue with the pope, his critics or his defenders.
The bottom line: If you wanted to hear debate about Gaudete et Exsultate, you had to go to Crux -- not the secular, mainstream Times, which basically cheered for the pope and then moved on.
This Crux piece included numerous Catholic voices, some of the left and some on the right. While the New York Times piece basically said "the pope said this, aiming his words at the following people," the Crux piece was way, way less simplistic. In particular, there are doctrinal conservatives quoted who are worried about this latest Francis document, while others are not.
It's hard to decide which Crux quotes to share. Here is another set that captures the tone:
Maria McFadden Maffucci, editor of the Human Life Review and a long-time Catholic pro-life activist told Crux that pro-life organizations, like her own, have to be limited in their focus, but that in Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis is calling on people to recognize the common thread that links the issues of abortion, poverty, and migration: the dignity of all human life.
“On a practical level, those of us in the pro-life movement are following a specific call: to defend the innocent unborn, the disabled and the elderly, and to reach out with compassion to mothers in need. It would not be possible for our organizations to advocate with equal passion and energy on the other issues the pope lists,” said Maffucci.
She continued: “However, as an exhortation to holiness, the pope invites us to examine our hearts and consciences: Do we truly believe all human lives are equally sacred? If so, we must care, for example, about the victims of sex trafficking and prostitution as much as we care about the defenseless unborn, and be open to ways of cooperating with those who fight to defend them.”
Note the stress on cooperation. That's timely.
I realize that the Times piece could not include all of these different points of view. But at the very least, it needed some reaction quotes from leaders of the very Catholic groups that the Times says Pope Francis set out to spank.