Francis, Faith, and False Assurances

There are a lot of people who are going to be surprised by how Catholic the Pope really is

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:

As 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 journalism—both 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”:

Cardinal 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.

Burke, 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 desperate—the 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 spinning—slyly, if not shrilly—the words of Burke. To take just one more blatant example:

Burke 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.

Was 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:

During 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.

At 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.

And then there are those Catholics who have been waiting since the 1960s—either literally or via a sort of chronological and ideological symbiosis—for 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:

It 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.

In 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.

Finally, Gibson 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.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.