“Francis began a busy day in Cuba by holding Mass this morning in Havana’s Revolution Square,” reported ABC News over the weekend. Wrong. He didn’t.
“Pope Francis meets Fidel Castro after saying Mass in Havana,” wrote Al Jazeera America. Also wrong.
“Pope Francis focuses sermon on the need to serve others,” read a headline in the Miami Herald. Incorrect.
“To truly understand this ‘people’s pope,’ it helps to consider some of his deepest influences — in particular, the ways and values of the Society of Jesus, the order into which he was welcomed as a novitiate in 1958 and ordained 11 years later” explains the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Untrue.
What’s the problem with these statements? Let’s count the errors. In the Catholic Church, Mass is always celebrated, never held or said. Francis, like other Catholic priests, delivers a homily, not a sermon. And a novitiate is a building or a program. A person entering the novitiate is a novice.
These and other corrections of the record may be found in the delightful Twitter thread PapalGoofs, a hashtag created by James Martin, a Jesuit priest and frequent writer on Catholic affairs, to correct common errors in reporting about Catholicism.
Imagine a science reporter who called experimental evidence a proof. Or a political journalist who doesn’t get the difference between a primary and a caucus. A sportswriter who couldn’t tell Nascar from Formula One would be laughed out of town.
Unfortunately, many writers about Catholicism make errors that are, in their context, every bit as bad. Articles routinely confuse “dogma” with “doctrine” and use “nuns” when they should use “consecrated women.”
Why does nomenclature matter? The obvious answer — and an entirely sufficient one — is that it’s the job of the news media to get facts right. And it’s our job too. All of us, when entering upon an argument, have a duty to our fellow humans to know what we’re talking about.
In the particular case of Pope Francis, whose visit to the U.S. begins Tuesday, there’s another reason accuracy matters. Francis is enormously popular. The seeming warmth of his persona has invited efforts to get him to speak up on behalf of various causes. Some have even wondered whether he might be open to changing unpopular aspects of Catholic teaching. Others are uneasy at the direction in which they think he is leading the church.
Presumably those who want Francis’s ear would like to be persuasive. But it’s hard to listen to either critics or fans when they can’t be bothered to get their facts straight.
Think the Vatican is wrong on abortion? Try at least to convey a sense that you understand why the church teaches what it does. Don’t become beguiled by the amusing myth that Catholic leaders never condemned the practice until the 19th century. If you actually want a shot at changing the church’s mind, you will have to speak the church’s language.
The challenge is hardly a new one. In 1877, a disappointed reader wrote to the Agnostic Journal and Eclectic Review to protest a recent article about the church’s approach to marriage: “I do not propose to discuss the reasonableness of the Catholic view on the question. I only desire to protest mildly against people writing about Catholicism who know nothing of the subject.”
Exactly right. But the lack of understanding of the subject is common. It helps explain the fascination of the news media with opinion polls on whether Catholics agree with the Vatican’s teaching on one issue or another. The emphasis on surveys signals the degree to which Western secularists have adopted (perhaps unknowingly) the distinctively American Protestant notion that questions of biblical interpretation lie properly with the individual, whose views those in authority ought to reflect.
This is not to say that the Vatican cannot change. In 2005, John T. Noonan Jr., a federal judge and lay Catholic theologian, published a well-received book on the subject, with special attention to the church’s position on slavery. But if we don’t understand the Vatican’s position that its leaders have been entrusted with an unchanging apostolic deposit that cannot be altered — that what others regard as “change” can come about only if the position argued for is found to be implicit in that original deposit — then we can’t possibly understand why Noonan’s book provoked such a sharp reaction from Catholic traditionalists.
The Catholic Church remains one of the world’s most influential institutions. Whatever Westerners may think, the appeal of the church in the developing world continues to grow. It’s important, therefore, that the Vatican’s critics learn something about the institution they are criticizing. Even when the church is wrong, it always has its reasons.
Martin has done us a great favor with his gentle reminders of the right way to talk about Pope Francis. The job of the Vatican’s critics is to find the right way of talking to the church Francis leads.