Media narratives about Pope Francis have led to a misunderstanding of his interview with Jesuit magazines, as well as a false perceived contrast between him and his predecessor, according to Carl Anderson.
“The media’s narrative of Francis is something else. We are told he is a progressive, taking the Catholic Church in a profoundly new direction – uninterested in Church teaching on moral issues,” reflected Anderson, the head of the Knights of Columbus, in a Sept. 22 essay in National Review Online.
“Benedict, we are told, is conservative, doctrinaire, and old-fashioned — focused on moral issues. Neither narrative is true, because each leaves out half of the story.”
Pope Francis' comments in his 12,000-word interview that the proclamation of God’s “saving love” should come before “moral and religious imperatives,” and that Catholics should not insist “only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods” were treated in the media as though “the Church was suddenly charting a new course,” Anderson said.
He noted that in 2006, Benedict XVI similarly replied to a question about why he had not addressed same-sex marriage, abortion or contraception in a speech. He said, “Catholicism isn’t a collection of prohibitions; it’s a positive opinion.”
Benedict XVI also denounced violence against homosexual persons and encouraged compassion and mercy towards women who had had abortions. These statement “garnered little media attention,” however.
“It didn’t fit the narrative, so it wasn’t widely reported.”
Anderson rejected claims that the interview shows that Pope Francis is “uninterested in Church teaching on moral issues” or that he is diverging with Benedict XVI.
He noted that Pope Francis has praised the work of pro-life groups; on Sept. 20, he told a gathering of Catholic doctors that the right to life is “fundamental.”
Pope Francis has also urged the Knights of Columbus to “bear witness to the authentic nature of marriage and the family, the sanctity and inviolable dignity of human life, and the beauty and truth of human sexuality.”
After criticizing the supposed contrast between Roman Pontiffs portrayed in mainstream media, Anderson went on to affirm with the Popes that “Catholic teaching on moral issues isn’t the totality of the Church’s message. It never has been.”
“And our popes, bishops, priests, and laity have always spent far more time on charity, prayer, and pastoral outreach than on public policy issues. If the public doesn’t know that, it’s because the media prefer to cover controversies.”
Anderson said that Pope Francis’ interview touched on many subjects, but many media outlets are focusing too much on the small sections on abortion and contraception.
“Ironically, this coverage comes after the Pope said in that same interview that the Church has a broader focus. It is increasingly apparent that it is the media, more often than Catholics themselves, who place a disproportionate focus on Church teaching about sexuality and abortion.”
Anderson cited the Pope’s comparison of the Church to “a field hospital after battle” where the Church must help the seriously injured person and “heal his wounds.”
He said the Pope has presented a “stark and dramatic assessment of our cultural situation” and has proposed in response “a bold, self-sacrificing personal witness.”
Anderson said there is a danger that media coverage “narrowly focuses on social issues.” He noted that news coverage neglects the massive charitable and volunteer work of the Knights of Columbus, but focuses on its minor funding of some social issues advocacy.
This kind of coverage “warps public perceptions and misleads” and could have severe consequences, he warned.
“Wrongly portrayed as singularly focused on a narrow set of issues, believers run the risk of being misunderstood and marginalized.”
“If the media truly want to embrace Pope Francis’ message, they can begin by heeding his call not to focus too narrowly on just one or two issues in their coverage of faith.”