It is now widely acknowledged that the media’s initial reporting of the pope’s recent speech on creation and evolutionwith notable exceptionswas a journalistic debacle.
Despite blaring headlines that Francis had finally placed the Church behind evolution, he was merely repeating long-standing Catholic teaching on the compatibility between faith and science.
One would think, then, that the press would be more cautious reporting on Francis. Alas.
In a piece entitled, “Pope Maps out Personal (and Progressive) Policy,” the Associated Press presents Francis as a left-wing ideologue, whose policies “make even some of his closest collaborators squirm.”
The AP then admits, however, “Francis has demonstrated an unusually vivid concern about the devil”a subject not-known to have much sway among progressives. If papal observers are “squirming” about this, it is because Francis is far too Biblical and traditional for their spirits.
Unfazed by the contradiction, the AP goes on to write of the pope’s “progressive social priorities,” as if they were novel, highlighting his concern for the environment, the poor, the imprisoned and unemployed. But the saint after whom Francis is named embraced God’s creation back in the thirteenth century; and the AP quotes Francis himself as stressing “love for the poor is at the center of the Gospel.”
The AP concludes its commentary by stating, “Francis has spoken with near-disdain about theologians,” but then acknowledges his praise for “excellent theologians.” Among them is his illustrious predecessor, mentioned in a previous story by the AP:
“Francis has gone out of his way to embrace Benedict even as he steers the Church on a vastly different course.” (emphasis added)
The problem here is that Pope Francis wrote his first encyclical with Benedict, has endorsed Benedict’s stinging rebuke of a “dictatorship of relativism,” and built strongly on Benedict’s teachings on social justice.
If the secular media has gotten Francis wrong, so too have partisans in the Church.
Soon after Francis became Pope, a narrative emerged on the Catholic Left that Francis was an ideal Pope for the Democrats, and that his pontificate could deliver a death blow to the conservative “cultural warriors” in the GOP.
In fact, Francis has an outstanding pro-life record and is a strong defender of Catholic teaching on marriage and human sexualityso by any reasonable definition is a “cultural warrior.” His high-profile appointment of “moderate” Archbishop Blase Cupich to Chicago, and Francis’s own comments about judging and obsessing, have led many to believe that the pope, too, wants to “moderate” Catholic teaching, at least on the crucial social issues. But however well Archbishop Cupich lives up to the challenges of the Gospel, and however imprecise some of Francis’s interviews have been, the Pope’s fundamental positions are crystal clear.
In just the last month, Francis again denounced efforts to redefine marriage, and issued a thundering condemnation of abortion, euthanasia, and IVF, calling them “sins against God.” (Even the AP now concedes that Francis sounds like Benedict.) In pressing these truths, Francis has never urged withdrawal from the public square; on the contrary, he has declared: “Getting involved in politics is a Christian duty. We Christians cannot be like Pilate and wash our hands clean of things.” Moreover, the recent mid-term elections didn’t exactly bear out the Catholic Left’s notions about Francis and the GOP.
On the Catholic Right however, there are also misinterpretations. Some conservatives in the Church assail or ignore Francis’s essential teachings on social justice; while other traditionalists regard Francis as a dangerous liberal, quietly purging all traces of conservatism from the Church (never mind the orthodox prelates he closely works withthat’s just a deception, they say). Nothing will assuage their anger about the recent “demotion” of Cardinal Burke to Malta. Yet, in a twist even they cannot explain, many of the same hotheads who imagine a feud between Francis and Burke are now saying, even in fury, that the reassignment has actually enhanced Cardinal Burke’s influence, and given him more freedom to voice his concernswhich he continues to do, free of papal interference. And no sooner did the Burke controversy erupt than did Francis appoint Cardinal Wilfrid Napiera sharp critic of “progressive” theology to help lead next year’s synod; and Cardinal Robert Saraha “staunch conservative”to head the Congregation for Divine Worship.
The inability of commentators to pigeonhole Francis into a single category may frustrate them, but is key to understanding his pontificate. As Austin Ivereigh points out:
Francis is viscerally opposed to ‘parties’ in the Church. He will not compromise on the hot-button issues that divide the Church from the secular Westa gap liberals would like to close by modernizing doctrine. Yet he is also, just as obviously, not a pope for the Catholic Right. For him contrasting positions, held together in tension, loyal to fundamentals but open to the action of the Holy Spirit, are necessary to forge a new, better consensus and the differences make for an exciting discussion.
For some, this vision of the Church is confusing, and symbolic of a papacy that is “all over the place.” But if Francis is all over the place, so too is Catholicism, which is a faith of many dimensions, as anyone who reads the Bible and Catechism can see.
Beneath the complexities of the Church, however, is one unifying truth, which Francis repeats often, and from which all its teachings flow: “The principal mission of the Church,” he has declared, “is evangelization, bringing the Good News to everyone.”
This is the only agenda of Pope Francis: to lead people to Jesus Christ, so that their lives and joy may be full.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.