Over the past couple of years, I’ve periodically wished Pope Francis would refrain from speaking extemporaneously to the news media. The distance between what he means and what they hear, for purposes of drawing attention to their articles, is as great, it seems, as might be the distance between a technical sociological study of two societies and diplomats’ seeking to resolve hostilities between them. Not only can their language be different, but they’re using it for different purposes.
So, when the pope acknowledges, off-the-cuff, that moral decisions are complex and individual, the news media grabs any nuance that doesn’t quite fit with their cartoonish understanding of Catholicism and splashes it up as headlines around the world. They proclaim it as a signal that doctrine has shifted without knowing or caring that any such Earth-shaking shift would require an elaborate process throughout the global Church.
Today, we have two examples, the first of which gained a boost because it was easy for the news media to provoke the petulant Donald Trump into swing his indiscriminate sledge hammer in the area of theology (thus displaying again, as he’s been doing with increasing frequency, that he would be a very dangerous president, indeed). I have yet to find any source reporting the actual question that the pope was answering, but his response to some question having to do with Donald Trump was, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
And off to the races the political pugilists have gone, mainly by ignoring the second half of the description of somebody who is “not Christian.” There are two standards in play: 1) Only thinking about building walls and 2) not thinking about building bridges. I don’t know what Christian could disagree with that statement. Contrary to the har-har jarring about the walls around the Vatican, the pope wasn’t saying that walls aren’t useful or sometimes necessary, but that they aren’t complete. Christians must be ever concerned with building bridges to other people. There is absolutely nothing controversial in that statement.
Furthermore, understanding his statement as one would understand any pastor’s statement, Pope Francis did not say that “Donald Trump is not Christian.” If he is only concerned with building walls, and if he is not concerned with building bridges to other people, then it would be fair to question Trump’s understanding of and fidelity to Christianity. In fact, the pope went on to stress that he would give Trump, specifically, “the benefit of the doubt.” Although, Trump’s defensiveness on the point is extremely telling.
The second example of the media’s seizing on the pope’s too-casual extemporaneous commentary relates to contraception, which is an area in which the progressives in the media would love to produce cracks in the Church’s implicit criticism of their own worldviews and lifestyles. In this case, I have found the reporter’s specific language:
“The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish,” the journalist said. “Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoid pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of ‘the lesser of two evils’?”
Note, first of all, that the question is somewhat confusing. Is the journalist saying that allowing contraception would be the lesser of two evils, versus allowing abortion, or is she proposing them both as potentially “lesser evils” to bringing a child into the world with a birth defect? Whatever the case, Francis’s first reaction was, rightly, to point out that killing a child in the womb is an absolute evil and therefore cannot be a “lesser” one.
With regard to contraception, Pope Francis appears to have mainly intended to suggest that these matters are intensely personal and situational, such that a quick declaration on a plane could not suffice. In this regard, we should remember that the pope is just the first among equals, leaving significant specific authority to the bishops in the region, who should leave appropriate authority to the pastors who can understand Catholics’ individual circumstances a bit better, but who should still leave it to the people themselves to seek God’s intention within their own consciences.
Francis noted that Pope Paul VI, who actively affirmed the Church’s teaching on contraception, had allowed some nuns under threat of rape to take birth control. Note that there is nothing in Church doctrine that would prevent women who have vowed celibacy from taking contraceptives for some non-sexual reason. As the Catholic Catechism makes clear, teachings about contraception begin with the sin of lust. The question facing Paul appears to have been whether nuns, as an exception from the discipline of their order, could use birth control as a preliminary defense against sexual attacks that they did not intend. In other words, they wouldn’t be taking birth control in preparation for an act of lust on their part.
This is quite a different situation than married couples’ getting a pass on birth control just because the risk of birth defects is higher at a particular time. Yet, considering this deep, personal matter on the fly, Francis apparently did not want to categorically state that no individual woman could justify the use of birth control under any circumstances in light of the disease. I won’t venture any hypotheticals, but suffice it to say that Pope Francis was not articulating some camel’s-nose-in-the-tent for a rethinking of Catholic doctrine on contraceptives.
If only we lived in a media environment in which such discussions could be held in good faith and with care to understand what others are actually suggesting, before statements become the subjects of global headlines. (One would think Donald Trump, in particular, would understand this challenge.) Despite the challenge, though, I’m coming around to the idea that Pope Francis can’t let the tendency of journalists and political actors to misconstrue statements become an obscurant’s veto on his own message… although I will continue to pray that the pope’s words have God’s intended effect.