Believe it or not, the language of theology can make news, every now and then. This is especially true when the person speaking the words is the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter.
However, this goes against one of the great unwritten laws of journalism, which appears to state something like this: Whenever the pope speaks, even in a sermon, the most important words are always those that can be interpreted as commentary on events or trends in contemporary politics. This is consistent with this journalism doctrine: Politics is the ultimate reality. Religion? Not so much.
For a perfect example of this law, please see this story in The New York Times: “Pope Francis Breaks Some Taboos on Visit to Persian Gulf.”
The taboos that make it into the lede are, of course, political and, frankly, they are important. This is a case in which Times editors really needed to insist on a difficult and rare maneuver — a lede that lets readers know that the story contains TWO very important developments.
The political angle raised eyebrows among diplomats. But there was also a theological statement linked to this story that will trouble many traditional Christians, as well as Muslims. Then again, Universalists in various traditions may have every reason to cheer. Hold that thought. Here is the political overture.
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis used the keynote address of his roughly 40-hour stay in the United Arab Emirates to breach delicate taboos on Monday, specifically mentioning Yemen, where his hosts are engaged in a brutal war, and calling on countries throughout the Gulf region to extend citizenship rights to religious minorities.
The remarks by Francis were exceptionally candid for a pope who as a general rule does not criticize the country that hosts him and avoids drawing undue attention to the issues that its rulers would rather not discuss. …
But on Monday, during the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam was born, Francis was blunt in a speech before hundreds of leaders from a broad array of faiths on a day used to underscore the need for humanity to stop committing violence in the name of religion.
“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war,’” Francis said at the towering Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi.
“Let us return it to its miserable crudeness,” he added. “Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”
Yes, the reference to Yemen was big news. Yes, that had to be in the lede.
So what was the theological news?