Don't trust media reporting of Synod on marriage

Don't trust media reporting of Synod on marriage

Philip F. Lawler

Seven months before the Synod of Bishops meets to discuss pastoral care for the family, one can easily foresee how the mass media will cover the prelates' discussion.

It is not easy to predict which themes will emerge as most prominent in the Synod fathers' debates. But it is very easy to predict which themes will dominate the media coverage.

From the perspective of the secular media, the key question pending at the bishops' meeting - really the only question that the media consider worthy of coverage - is whether the Catholic Church will back away from her traditional teachings on contraception, homosexuality and divorce.

To be sure, then, there are plenty of calls for change - as there have been demands for change in Catholic doctrine since time immemorial.

But to complicate matters, the proponents of change today claim that Pope Francis endorses their ideas.

That English newspaper, the Tablet, quoted the Holy Father's reference to "pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness," and leapt to the conclusion that the Pope was advocating some major changes in Church teaching.

Virtually every day's news headlines include at least one story suggesting that the Pope is questioning some long-standing Church policy.

Today, for instance, a USA Today headline announces: "Pope Francis leaves door open for same-sex unions." In fact, in the interview on which the story was based, the Pope only said that secular governments might have various reasons of their own for providing legal protection for non-marital unions.

"One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety," the Holy Father said.

The interviewer did not press him on the subject, so we do not know under what circumstances - if any -the Pope might think the Church could accept some legal recognition of same-sex unions.

In the full interview the Pope did, however, firmly reassert the Church's teaching on a closely related issue: "Marriage is between a man and a woman."

Yes, it is true that in that interview with an Italian newspaper, Pope Francis might have "left the door open" to acceptance of some legal same-sex unions - by the state, not the Church.

At least he did not slam the door shut. But in an interview in which he offered that clear defence of marriage - an interview in which he also praised Pope Paul VI for his controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae, and offered a defence of the Church's response to the sex-abuse scandal - how could a journalist conclude that the Pope's vague, offhand remarks on same-sex unions were the most newsworthy part of the interview?

That could happen only because the reporter (or the headline writer) was looking at the transcript with the issue of same-sex marriage uppermost in his mind, and exaggerated the importance of an exchange that formed only a small part of a long interview.

Actually it should be no surprise that, in a quick response to a quick question, the Pope did not slam the door shut.

Pope Francis has made a determined effort to avoid blanket prohibitions. He does not want to be perceived as another "Pio Nono," because he does not want to reinforce the popular caricature of the Church as stern and inflexible.

Rather, he wants to make winsome arguments, to appeal to a world that has lost its moral compass, above all to drive home the message that everyone can enjoy the benefits of God's unlimited mercy.

Thus the Pope has challenged the Synod of Bishops to find new ways to address the problems of families, especially those that are struggling.

Following his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, he has made a special call for pastoral attention to Catholics who, because they are divorced and remarried, are barred from the sacraments.

Nowhere has he suggested that the Church should change her teaching or her perennial practice. He has merely called for a discussion. But again commentators have gleefully leapt to the conclusion that the Pope favours such changes - or even conveying the impression that the changes have already taken place.

In October, consequently, the major theme of the media coverage will be whether the Church will surrender on issues of sexuality. More specifically, the media will focus on whether the Church changes her stand, and allows divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist.

In his address to a special consistory in February, Cardinal Walter Kasper proposed a special penitential process that might allow for reconciliation of remarried couples under rare circumstances.

The German-speaking bishops will no doubt push for a broader indulgence. But fundamental Church teaching will not change, and so the mass media will be disappointed.

Public opinion

How will the media react? The coverage from the October Synod meeting will suggest that the "moderate" forces for change were stymied by the entrenched "ultraconservatives." Insofar as Pope Francis will ultimately support existing doctrine, journalists who have been enthralled by the new Pontiff will be devastated, just as liberal journalists of an earlier generation were disappointed when Pope Paul VI confirmed Church teaching in Humanae Vitae.

And then the real battle for public opinion will begin.

After Vatican II, the disappointed proponents of more sweeping changes formed an impromptu alliance with the mass media, to put out the story that the "spirit of Vatican II" was more important than the council documents.

In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, debates along these lines wreaked havoc within the Church.

Phil Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News (CWN), the first English-language Catholic news service operating on the internet, which he founded in 1995. CWN provides daily headline news coverage for the Catholic Culture site,, where he also offers regular analysis and commentary.

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