The pope and the press: a surprisingly friendly relationship

Pope Francis greets journalists Virginie Riva of Europe 1 and Alessia Giuliani of Catholic Press Photo aboard his flight from Rome to Portugal on May 12, 2017. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A few words on where I am coming from: My mother was a teacher in both public and Catholic high schools in Trenton and my father, a World War I veteran, was editorial writer for the Trenton Times and the Brooklyn Eagle and stringer for the Philadelphia Record and New York Herald Tribune and a contributor to the Monitor, the paper of the Diocese of Trenton. My father, I am told, wrote over 40,000 editorials in his career.

At Fordham University, after returning from my junior year in Paris, I served as editorial editor and columnist for the Fordham Ram. After two years in the army I joined the Jesuits, taught three years at McQuaid High School in Rochester and for 40 years taught journalism at five Jesuit and two secular universities. I was a summer editor and columnist for America in the late 1960s, joined Commonweal as book editor in the ‘70s, served as a writer and media critic at the NCR for about 30 years, and returned to America as book editor full time six years ago.

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During all this, I wrote nine books, mostly about journalists and Jesuits, and rarely distinguished between work and play. But I have always sensed a certain tension between the press and some parts of the church. One day, as a young boy, I accompanied my father to Mass in our parish. I don’t think the pastor ever prepared a sermon in his life and would often ramble on, griping about “the secular press”—a term he threw out with a snarl. This time he was griping from the pulpit about the newspaper coverage of some controversy concerning a priest. My father, who always had 102 percent control of his emotions, began to clutch his rosary and toss it around in his fist. I took this as a sign that if I was going to be a journalist I would have to accept a certain amount of abuse and keep my cool.

The Guiding Principles

I also learned that the media —which today include radio, film, television, Facebook, websites, blogs and Twitter as well as newspapers—can abuse the privilege they have to talk to and for that public they are supposed to represent. Let us look at the six roles the various media play and consider their obligations.

Inform. Spread the news widely and deeply enough for citizens to enjoy real democracy while they direct and build their communities.

Stimulate Commerce. Through business news and advertising, the paper and the community will prosper.

Educate. In the 19th century Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World helped immigrants master the English language.

There is a great scene in the 1940s Humphrey Bogart film, “Deadline U.S.A”: Bogart is the editor of a local paper that has just been sold to its competitor and has only a few days of publication left to expose a mobster who is responsible for the murder of a young immigrant woman. At the last minute, the young woman’s mother brings to the editor letters that prove the mobster’s guilt. Bogart asks the mother why she brought this evidence to him rather than to the police. The mother replies, “I no know police. I only know newspaper.” At the last moment, as the presses roll with the exposé on page 1, the gangster phones Bogart in the press room. “‘What’s dat noise?” he barks. Bogart snaps back, “That’s the press, buddy, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Preserve history. Without the archives of responsible newspapers, with their public documents—elections and wars fought, won and lost—our past would disappear as if our lives had never happened.

Develop culture.Without the critics, sports reporters and book reviewers, the community’s literature, films, theater, music, dance, comics and athletic events would deteriorate. The quality of entertainment would grow stale and the public intellect would shrink.

Inspire. The editorial page is the mind and heart of the newspaper. Above all, it is its conscience.

The editorial page is the mind and heart of the newspaper. Above all, it is its conscience.

This is both the religious and secular media’s most important obligation. For several days recently The New York Times published a full-page statement in 19 boldface sentences about “truth” that apply to themselves and every other communication organ as well. For example: “The truth is hard. The truth can’t be glossed over. The truth doesn’t take sides. The truth is hard to accept. The truth requires taking a stand.”

What Stands Out

In short, being a journalist demands both wisdom and courage. The editorial board must print the truth even though it might offend some readers. In some countries today truth-telling journalists are being killed. As I write these words, The Times, the Brooklyn Tablet, The London Tablet, The Catholic Free Press, America, the National Catholic Reporter, the New York Daily News, The Guardian, Commonweal, The Nation, The Michigan Catholic and other publications are spread out over my table. So these rules apply to us all, religious and secular.

This year is the fourth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election, and perhaps the one thing that stands out most is his willingness—even ardent desire —to blend in with the people, no matter what their religion or social status. It is reminiscent of the romantic novels and films where a king, in disguise, mingles with the lowest citizens and learns what they think of him—like Shakespeare’s Henry V, where Henry slips in with his soldiers around a campfire the night before the battle.

The New Style

Known in his pre-papal history for resisting interviews, once Francis assumed the role of world pastor he was quick to reach out to his flock. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, an official Jesuit-edited Vatican periodical, conducted Francis’ first interview published in both Civiltà and America magazine. Meanwhile Francis was quick to challenge the media in an address to the collected Roman correspondents directly on March 16, within three days of his election.

Ecclesiastical events, Francis confessed, are more difficult to cover than political ones, partly because church events are “more spiritual” than political. “Christ is the church’s pastor,” he said,” but “His presence in history passes through the freedom of human beings.” You must take this into account and “bring into proper focus what really happened in these days.” He praised their important work and added, “You have at your disposal the means to hear and to give voice to the peoples’ expectations and demands, and to provide for an analysis and interpretation of current events.” This calls for appreciation of what is “true, good and beautiful.”

He concluded with an explanation of why he named himself Francis. It happened that a good friend, the cardinal sitting next to him during the election, when the votes were counted, gave him a hug and kiss and said, “Don’t forget the poor!” Right away he started thinking of the man who loved the poor, a man of peace, who loves and protects creation—St. Francis of Assisi. At that moment the “image” of the new pope was sealed, reinforced by his living in a priests’ hotel rather than a palatial suite, riding in a simple little car, avoiding red slippers and luxurious clerical robes and regularly pleading with the crowds to pray for him.

In an address for the 50th World Day of Social Communications (Jan. 25, 2016) Francis spoke about social media. The internet and social networks were a “gift from God,” he said, and can be “fully human forms of communication.” But, only if their effect is to “help overcome the mindset that neatly separates sinners from the righteous. We may judge sin, violence, and corruption and exploitation, but may not judge individuals, since only God can see into their hearts.” Nevertheless, in “Seeking the face of God” (Feb. 10), he told nuns to be careful not to “waste time” or use social media to escape the demands of religious life.

It is hard to judge to what extent the pope’s presence on Twitter or Facebook is influencing the religious commitment of the current generation. According to Editor and Publisher, Facebook seems to have many media executives scared. Now more than 40 percent of adult Americans get their news from Facebook. Globally, around one in ten people say social media is their main source of news. President Trump’s way of dealing with the public is by tweets rather than face-to-face with real journalists; he has further complicated newspapers’ efforts to get the truth. One Catholic journalist told me that one tweet from Francis will reach over 30 million people.

A cross section of recent news stories indicate Francis’ willingness to speak up any time. In late February at his private Mass he chewed out Catholics who don’t practice what they preach. They don’t pay their employees a proper salary. They launder money, lead a double life. Owners of failing companies don’t give workers their paychecks. One took a winter vacation on a Middle East beach while his workers went without their salaries. On a more grievous level, in a New York Times report, Myanmar repressed its Rohingya Muslim minority group, slaughtering and raping hundreds of men, women and children in a “campaign of terror.” Francis told his weekly audience that these people had been tortured and killed only because of their Muslim faith. We should pray for our Muslim brothers and sisters, he said, not build up walls but bridges. The wall reference was also taken as a reference to President Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border and perhaps Israel’s wall between itself and the Palestinians.

The Major Impact

In the judgment of leading journalist observers, what has Francis accomplished? Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., founder of the Salt and Light Media Foundation, Canada’s first national Catholic television network, says in The Catholic Journalist that Francis has “rebranded” Catholicism. Not long ago, Catholics, asked what the church stands for, would reply: Catholics are against abortion, gay marriage and birth control and are known for their sex abuse crisis. Today we would answer: we have a pope concerned about the environment, mercy, compassion and love. We have a passion for care for the poor and displaced persons roaming the face of the earth.

Among the press he has made it fun to be a religious journalist again. Prestigious graduate business schools make him an example of “rebranding.” Father Rosica cites two situations that still cry for attention: the lack of accountability in the “crazy world of the blogosphere” and the many Catholics who have made the internet a cesspool of hatred and venom in the name of defending the faith.

Pope speaks to Media
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Interviewing several bishops and scholars, Joshua J. McElwee, the NCR’s Rome correspondent (March 10-23), focuses on the “unique pastoral sense” that is shifting the church’s vision of the world, in a wider culture that is no longer Christian, let alone Catholic, and, according to Cardinals Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Sean O’Malley of Boston, Francis is forcing the church to change its “demeanor” as he cautiously changes its structures, slowly working from the bottom up. A report in the same issue recounts San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy’s speech at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in February, in which he called upon the 700 social workers to become “disrupters and rebuilders” in response to President “disrupter” Trump’s assault on social justice programs: We must disrupt those who send troops into the streets to rip fathers and mothers from their families, who portray refugees as enemies, who see Muslims as sources of fear, who rob medical care from the poor, who take food stamps from the mouths of children.

As if echoing The Times’s ad, he said we must never be afraid to speak the truth. In the battle to safeguard the dignity of the human person we must side with a “strong government and protection for the powerless, the worker, the homeless, the hungry, those without medical care, the unemployed.”

From the standpoint of history, perhaps Pope Francis’ two most significant contributions would be his encyclicas “Laudato Si’” (“Praise Be to You, Lord,” May 24, 2015) on the preservation of the environment, and his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love,” March 19, 2016) on love in the family. Both have been widely read and discussed and both have their critics. “Praise Be to you, Lord” is from the canticle of St. Francis of Assisi, who declared the earth our common home. Pope Francis lists the damage we have done in our failure to follow God’s command in Genesis to care for his creation: pollution, waste, the throwaway culture, the climate change induced by global warming caused by the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, the abuse of the “world’s water supply indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.”

Therefore preservation is abasic human rightand our world has a grave social debt toward the poor who are denied access. Almost as if he were writing for the American press, Francis emphasizes the decline in the quality of human life and the rise of global inequality and laments the weakness of the international response to these crises. Pope Francis's “magic word” in response to all the disputed issues he confronts is “dialogue.” Here the discussion must spread from the international community out to the leadership, the scientists and citizens at every level. The great majority of the world’s population has welcomed the pope’s call to action; others deny the reality of climate change.

“The Joy of Love” is the product of a lengthy process wherein every parish and diocese was called upon to meet and discuss openly the problems that undermine family life and then forward the results of the consultation to Rome where delegations of the hierarchy, in meetings over two years, would propose answers in advice to the pope. Some divorced Catholics in their second marriage when the first marriage for various reasons has not been annulled are not free to receive the Eucharist. Francis clearly wants, in cases where discernment on the local level leans toward freedom, to welcome these families back to the sacraments. A group of four cardinals has challenged the pope, whom they see as violating canon law, and he has welcomed their frank objections. Meanwhile the German bishops in two dioceses have drawn up guidelines to facilitate the discussion between the couples and their priests.

In Argentina bishops have issued their own interpretation of the pope’s family life document to ordain married men; and in Brazil, where there are only 1,800 priests for 140 million Catholics, the bishops have asked that priests who previously left and married may return to the priesthood with their families.

Theologian-journalist Thomas Reese, S.J., has listed Pope Francis’s five great achievements: (1) He evangelizes by emphasizing compassion and mercy; (2) He allows open discussion and debate in the church; “It is impossible to exaggerate how extraordinary this is,” Father Reese writes. (3) He has moved discussion of moral issues away from rules to discernment, relying on grace in the lives of imperfect people; (4) He has raised the environmental issues to a central place in Catholic faith; (5) He has moved to reform government structures in the church. Most important, he is trying to change the clerical culture, especially to convince bishops they are not princes but servants.

Pope speaks to Media
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Richard R. Gaillardetz in Commonweal (Jan. 27) reminds us that although Pope Pius XII proclaimed that when the pope speaks on a doctrine it’s no longer open to debate, John XXIII criticized the church’s reliance on condemnations and insisted on dialogue, “the medicine of mercy.” What the church needed was pastoral vitality. Mr. Gaillardetz suggests that Pope Francis’s gift is in his insistence on a form of teaching authority with six distinctive features: (1) We are a listening church. (2) Pastoral teaching is best through symbolic gestures, like washing the feet of a Muslim woman on Holy Thursday. (3) the Brazilian hierarchy’s move toward married priests decided by local, not Roman, authority. (4) Admit the reality of doubt and uncertainty in the life of faith. Doctrine is not a closed system, but moving. (5) Conscience formation surpasses rigorous judicial norms. (6) Not all questions require magisterial conclusions. The impromptu airplane interviews that journalists enjoy are dialogues, not solemn definitions. The author reminds us that the church’s teaching on slavery, usury, religious freedom and the fundamental equality of men and women has changed.

What We See

How do we know this teaching style is influencing the journalism profession? We have to read, read and read. Within a few days The New York Times editorial and op-ed pages read like the gospels. Nicholas Kristof’s column introduced a character named Pious Paul of Ryan who continually interrupts Jesus as Jesus heals a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years, heals 10 lepers, and tells the story of the good Samaritan who takes pity on a man beaten by robbers and passed over by a minister and a rich man until Jesus takes the injured man to the hospital.

Pious Paul of Ryan tells Jesus how he should teach the sick and poor to be responsible for themselves. Stop to cure 10 lepers, and we’re late for the cocktail party at the temple.

Ryan protests that the Samaritan’s using his money to help travelers on dangerous roads means giving money to losers. That’s socialism! Ryan proposes that the Samaritan meet his friend The Donald and open a foundation and build a for-profit hospital. Drop this bleeding heart nonsense about health care being a human right. Jesus turns to Pious Paul and says, “Be gone. When you do not feed the hungry, you do not feed me.”

Pope Francis says that to give someone something is “always right.” But don’t just give it. Stop, look the person in the eyes

In “The Pope and the Panhandler,” the lead editorial on March 4, The Times says Pope Francis has done New Yorkers a service with advice on how to deal with panhandlers, especially in big cities where homelessness is unsolved and every day we meet a suffering person who asks for help. We tend to keep on walking or search for some loose coins. Or we wonder— criminal background check? Mental health? Interviewed, Pope Francis says that to give someone something is “always right.” But don’t just give it. Stop, look the person in the eyes and touch him/her with your hand. The point is not to build a wall, but to see the person not as a social problem but as a human being whose life is as valuable as your own.

Face to Face

Finally, there are two reasons why Francis enjoys sympathetic treatment from the press. The first, I am convinced, is that they share a system of values—the obligation to inform the public, a sense of history and the sensation that both are making history when they meet and travel together, a commitment to the freedom of speech and to justice for the most vulnerable members of society. The second is that when they meet him he really is the warm and humble person he pretends to be.

Washington Post critic Hank Stuever says it best: “There is a real sense among reporters, especially those who have only known the later days of Pope John Paul II and then Benedict XVI, that there is less a culture of NO running through the stories about the Vatican. The theme has shifted...mainstream reporters, and their readers too, respond in their own way to open arms. It is not necessarily a culture of YES, but it does come across now as a culture of listening and concern. That has a way of making the stories from journalists who write about the church a lot more interesting to write and to read.”

Two correspondents have shared their impressions of a plane ride with the pope from Rome to Latin America. Some of the reporters on board from Argentina have known Jorge Bergoglio from the pre-papal years. He seemed a very different person. Very serious, he seldom smiled. Now his radiant smile is constant. Among the Argentine Jesuits he earned a nickname “La Giocanda,” the Italian name for Mona Lisa, who, in her portrait, never smiles. He rarely spoke to the media; now these onboard press conferences can last more than an hour. Those on board who had done their homework knew about his appointment as Jesuit provincial when he was 36 and about his trouble navigating the “Dirty War” (1976-1983), in which the brutal right-wing dictatorship exterminated thousands of people viewed as “subversive.” And there was his clash with fellow Jesuits who endangered themselves by working in the slums and his falling out with the Society of Jesus, leading to his temporary exile in a remote part of Argentina and then Germany.

And now here is this “new” person slowly working his way down the aisle of the plane chatting and shaking hands with every one of the 77 reporters, who, though admonished to stay calm are up and down, snapping pictures with their iPhone cameras as he blesses them and their family photographs, personally delivers a birthday cake to the “dean” of the Vatican press corps. One reporter briefly places his extra hat on the pope’s head so he can wear it to parties as the “pope’s hat.” A Spanish TV reporter from Miami presents the pope with a box of 48 empanadas baked by Argentine immigrants in Miami. Francis, delighted, laughs and jokes and shares the empanadas.

A Spanish TV reporter from Miami presents the pope with a box of 48 empanadas baked by Argentine immigrants in Miami.

Newsday’s Bart Jones has already spent 10 years reporting from Venezuela and interviewed Hugo Chavez, whose biography he wrote; but this is different. He wants to make some kind of an impact. He shows Francis a picture of his Venezuelan immigrant wife and two children. Francis signs the picture and blesses it. Bart wants just another minute. He tells Francis of his studies with the Fordham Jesuits and how good it was to experience their teaching. He reaches out and touches the pope’s arm. Francis lets out a small smile and says in Spanish, “Now you have the virus” of having studied with the Jesuits. He reaches out and moves his hand across Bart’s forehead, “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” then moves on.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Kevin Murphy
4 months 1 week ago

Another article pointing out that Francis is great. Has America no shame? Dull, dull, dull.

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