Pope Francis raises the Book of the Gospels during Mass with new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 23. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Who, exactly, is reassuring whom? And about what?
Those were my thoughts upon reading David Gibson's spin-laden, cliché-soaked piece, “U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke: Pope Francis opposes abortion and gay marriage”
(Feb 21, 2014), for Religion News Service. Gibson's report was on an
essay by Cardinal Burke, who is Prefect of the Sacred Tribunal of the
Apostolic Signatura, titled “The Pope’s radical call to the new evangelization”, for L'Osservatore Romano earlier the same day.
Gibson's first sentence immediately tries to stuff Cardinal Burke's essay into a narrow, politicized framework:
Pope Francis led the world’s cardinals in talks aimed at shifting the
church’s emphasis from following rules to preaching mercy, a senior
American cardinal took to the pages of the Vatican newspaper on Friday
(Feb. 21) to reassure conservatives that Francis remains opposed to
abortion and gay marriage.
Cardinal Burke, you see, isn't so much
interested in reflecting upon the words and actions of Pope Francis as
he is in gently patting the furrowed brows of fretting, simplistic
Catholics who might wonder if the Holy Father is, in fact, on board with
the Church's perennial teachings on issues of life, sexuality, and
related matters. Or, more bluntly: Cardinal Burke is a politician first,
and pastor second.
Gibson's piece is an outstanding example of
bad Catholic journalismboth as the work of a Catholic and in its
representation of the topic at hand. Two rhetorical tactics are
immediately evident: the skewed portrayal of Cardinal Burke as a
disgruntled, even angry, reactionary and the use of Gibson's favorite
negative descriptive: “conservative”:
Raymond Burke acknowledged that the pope has said the church “cannot
insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of
contraceptive methods.” But in his toughly worded column in
L’Osservatore Romano, the former archbishop of St. Louis blasted those
“whose hearts are hardened against the truth” for trying to twist
Francis’ words to their own ends.
an outspoken conservative who has headed the Vatican’s highest court
since 2008, said Francis in fact strongly backs the church’s teaching on
those topics. He said the pope is simply trying to find ways to
convince people to hear the church’s message despite the “galloping
de-Christianization in the West.”
For those who rely only on
Gibson's description, Burke's essay sounds like the shrill manifesto of a
man desperatethe term “conservative unease” is used twice!to spin the
words of Francis to his own, well, “conservative” agenda. In fact, it
is Gibson who is spinningslyly, if not shrillythe words of Burke. To
take just one more blatant example:
said he was prompted to write his column after a recent visit to the
U.S. in which he became alarmed that so many people wanted to know
whether the pope’s statements about not judging gays and his stress on
mercy and welcoming everyone augured a change in church doctrine.
Burke, in fact, “alarmed”? I guess that depends on whether or not you
are willing to take him at his own word; for the sake of accuracy and
fairness, I'll do so here:
a recent visit to the United States, I was repeatedly impressed by how
deeply Pope Francis has penetrated the national conversation on a whole
range of issues. His special gift of expressing direct care for each and
all has resonated strongly with many in my homeland.
the same time, I noted a certain questioning about whether Pope Francis
has altered or is about to alter the Church’s teaching on a number of
the critical moral issues of our time, for example, the teaching on the
inviolable dignity of innocent human life, and the integrity of marriage
and the family. Those who questioned me in the matter were surprised to
learn that the Holy Father has in fact affirmed the unchanging and
unchangeable truths of the Church’s teaching on these very questions.
They had developed a quite different impression as a result of the
popular presentation of Pope Francis and his views.
If there is a
note of alarm here, I don't see it. In fact, the piece is one of the
best yet written about the thought and focus of Pope Francis, and it is
all the more valuable because Cardinal Burke is a member of the Curia
and is one of the most highly placed American prelates in the Church.
That Gibson, whose affinity for trendy, dissenting causes is hard to hide,
tries to paint the cardinal into the ideological corner says far more
about Gibson and like-minded Catholics than it does about Burke. Much
more. This is the same reporter, after all, whose (metaphorical) head nearly split in two when he wrote a rather humorous piece for The Washington Post in
October 2009 that sought to cram Benedict XVI into the convenient but
tired “conservative-liberal” bottle. (For even more of this nonsense,
see my May 2009 Insight Scoop post, “Straw men by the left, straw men from the left”.)
Yes, this topic of empty labels is one I've written about before.
But it's worth keeping front and center, especially as there are going
to be many more reports about what Francis and the bishops are
discussing and considering when it comes to family life, marriage, and a
host of closely related matters. The continual spin since last summer
is that Francis is on the cusp of changing Church teaching, doctrine,
and practice, perhaps allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to
received Holy Communion. The pontiff, in less than a year, has gotten
the attention of the media, who almost uniformly expect him to “update”
the Church, make Catholicism “relevant”, and pull medieval-minded
Catholics into the bright light of the 21st century.
then there are those Catholics who have been waiting since the
1960seither literally or via a sort of chronological and ideological
symbiosisfor The Big, Dramatic Change That Will Transform the Catholic
Church Forever. Is this the year?
Well, no, it isn't. The Church's
teaching on faith and morals is not going to change. Granted, I don't
know the future, but the past is a pretty decent guide here, as well as
the Faith itself. But there is also the fact that, on the whole, the
secular media and not a few Catholics have been misreading Francis,
either through selective reading or by reading him within a faulty
context. (There is also the fact, I think, that Francis hasn't always helped himself in giving informal interviews,
a practice he appears to have now backed away from.) The correct
context involves two realities: the person of Jesus Christ and the Body
of Christ, the Church. And this is what Cardinal Burke understands very
well and expresses very well:
is not that the Holy Father is not clear in his opposition to abortion
and euthanasia, or in his support of marriage as the indissoluble,
faithful and procreative union of one man and one woman. Rather he
concentrates his attention on inviting all to nurture an intimate
relationship, indeed communion, with Christ, within which the
non-negotiable truths, inscribed by God upon every human heart, become
ever more evident and are generously embraced. The understanding and
living of these truths are, so to speak, the outer manifestation of the
inner communion with God the Father in Christ, His only-begotten Son,
through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
seeking to put the person of Jesus Christ at the heart of all of the
Church’s pastoral activity, the Holy Father is following closely the
teachings of his predecessors in the See of Peter.
claims that “Burke’s piece in the pages of the Vatican’s own
semiofficial newspaper is an indicator of conservatives’ unease that
their priorities are viewed as out of favor.” That is, frankly, close to
slanderous, as it assumes that Cardinal Burke is motivated by political
gain and power rather than love of Jesus Christ and his Church. The
people who should be the most uneasy are those who have bought into the
mythology of “Francis the Liberal” while ignoring the reality of
“Francis the Catholic.” Time will expose the myth and further reveal the
reality, even if the media spin and din never ceases.