A few notes on journalistic points made today

It’s one thing for the pope or the Vatican to correct mistakes; it’s another thing for them to act as if mistakes were never made.

In a day fraught with canonical confusion may I offer a few observations on some journalistic issues I noticed along the way?

First, I find John Allen’s pooh-poohing of widespread concerns that Francis’ remarks, yet again, needed to be “walked-back” by Vatican spin doctors off-putting in several respects. Ignoring Allen’s patronizing tone and his caricaturing of Vatican critics as emitting “howls of outrage” over mere “retouching” of the pope’s words, from several passages let’s consider these.

Allen writes: There’s nothing objectionable about a pope correcting what he said, as long as we’re sure it’s actually the pope making the corrections.

Of course there is nothing objectionable about correcting mistakes: the objection is to pretending the mistakes were never made. No matter who is doing the pretending.

The alternative would be for a pope to never open his mouth until his utterances have been vetted by a team of theologians and spin doctors.

A false dichotomy: our only choices are to keep a pontifical editing intervention team on call 24/7 or to suffer a pope who never opens his mouth except to read a prepared manuscript? What about simply having a pope who understands the main issues coming before him, defers on those he is not equipped to speak on at the time, and thinks about his response to others before he discusses them? Is that so utterly unimaginable? Oh, and by the way, spin doctors are not involved in simply reporting papal utterances; they only get involved when deliberately re-writing them.

Pope Francis is hardly the first churchman to suggest that incomprehension of permanent commitments in the modern world may render many marriages contracted in church “invalid” by the traditional test of informed consent.

No, Francis is not the first churchman to make this suggestion and, given the widespread lack of canonical understanding among prelates these days, he will doubtless not be the last to leap wrongly from one’s deficit understanding of certain aspects of marriage to the nullity of one’s attempt marriage—an error Allen incorrectly describes as “the traditional test of informed consent”. (Francis’ leap, which Allen apparently shares, fails for having its having omitted the canonically crucial middle term, as discussed here.)

Second, a Vatican spokesman said Friday it’s normal practice for the pope or his aides to review transcripts of his impromptu remarks, and to make small changes before releasing an official version.

Small changes? Are we tweaking a pope who said Minneapolis when he meant Minnesota or, to use Allen’s example, simply repairing a pope’s confusion about the date of some meeting? Good grief, the pope said “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null”; but he is now reported as saying “a part of our sacramental marriages are null.” This changes his statement from one portending shocking problematics into a truism that any sapient observer could utter or agree with. Small changes, my foot.

By the way, the notion of “impromptu” or “off-the-cuff” remarks conjures in my mind, say, a busy man who, being stopped on his way to lunch and engaged in conversation with a friend, says something he wishes he had phrased differently. But does that fairly describe Francis’ recent marriage remarks? He was the guest of honor at a major clergy conference, speaking with fellow clerics into recording equipment during a scheduled Q&A, all the while surrounded by experts and advisors. If even that setting qualifies remarks as “impromptu”, then I can only imagine that everything a pope says outside of a prepared speech read from a teleprompter must be malleable as “off-the-cuff”.

In this case, Francis and his advisers probably realized that the phrase “vast majority [of our sacramental marriages are null]” could be taken to suggest that faithful Christian marriage today is a near-impossibility …

Nooo, the pope’s advisors probably realized that the pope’s phrasing could be taken to suggest that Francis thinks “the vast majority of our sacramental marriages are null”. That’s what provoked the fire storm.

As a result, they walked the quote back to make it clear that what the pope really meant is simply that because of cultural pressures, many couples don’t fully understand what they’re getting into at the beginning. Phrased that way, most spouses – this one certainly included – would probably concur.

Nooo, the pope’s advisors watered-down the pope’s words into a safe platitude about many couples not ‘fully understanding’ what marriage is at the beginning—as if, you know, that is essentially the same thing as saying that most of their marriages are null.

And so on, and so on…

Meanwhile another veteran Catholic journalist, Phil Lawler, makes several good points along these lines with which I largely agree (especial where he quotes me). I pause, though, over Phil’s suggestion that the Crux reporter who claimed that Francis referred to certain priests as “animals” might not have understood the pope’s jumbled remarks correctly. Apparently, suggests Lawler, the pope “intended to say that some priests treat children (or possibly their unwed mothers) as ‘animals.’ He did not aim that insult at the priests themselves.”

Sorry? Would I console my insulted friend by saying to him, “No, no, Phil, I did not say that you were an animal. I said you treat some people as if they were animals. Okay? Feel better now?” Ummm, no, I would not feel better, not if the description were still false or unfair.

Well, enough journalistic musing. Back to canon law.

[This essay was originally posted on the “In the Light of the Law” blog and is reprinted here by kind permission of Dr. Peters.]  

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.