ROME — When you’re doing the laundry, the rinse cycle generally comes ahead of the spin. In the media world these days, however, sometimes it seems all we’ve got is the spin cycle, without the clarifying rinse that allows things to be seen for what they actually are.
On the Vatican beat, we’ve had several examples in recent days of developments or statements that have been spun in a variety of ways, and which are probably overdue for a rinse.
To begin, there’s an interview with emeritus Pope Benedict XVI released last week, one of the rare times he’s broken his public silence since his resignation in February 2013. In it Benedict reflects on the doctrine of justification, and in particular about a “deep double crisis” he sees facing the faith today.
Benedict observes that Catholicism has lived through a “profound evolution of dogma,” from once believing that no one outside the Church can be saved, to now holding that “God cannot let go to perdition all the unbaptized.”
That evolution, he noted, has had two negative consequences: First, it’s reduced the motive for missionary work, and second, it’s raised the question of why one should be Christian if you can get to Heaven without the demands it imposes.
In some quarters, people assumed Benedict was calling for a return to the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, meaning “outside the church there is no salvation,” and therefore that he was critiquing both the Second Vatican Council and Pope Francis.
In fact, that’s not the story. Benedict says the idea of salvation outside the Church has been “fully affirmed,” and he was simply noting that it has had some unforeseen results. He finds the approach of Henri de Lubac and other theologians promising; they see Christian life as a form of “being for” the world, bringing it truth and light, and says “it is clear that we need to further reflect on the whole question.”
As far as Francis goes, Benedict also had words of praise for his successor’s focus on mercy, linking it to that of St. John Paul II. This, too, generated a wave of spin, especially among people who are on pins and needles for the forthcoming apostolic exhortation Francis is set to issue on the family, in which he’s expected to address the question of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Some thought Benedict was trying to influence the outcome of that document, others that perhaps he was trying to soften the blow of a decision that will rile conservatives by offering Francis an implied thumbs-up.
Those bits of spin, however, are also likely overheated. This interview actually took place in October 2015, and was released last week only because that’s when a new book in which it appears was released.
To connect the timing directly to the exhortation, therefore, is a stretch.
Next up was an interview with US Cardinal Raymond Burke by the Italian television outlet TGCom24 in which Burke, now the patron of the Knights of Malta, had some things to say about immigration.
“I see that in Italy there’s a truly striking generosity in receiving immigrants,” he said, “but at the same time, certainly, the Italian government has to reflect on how to receive these immigrants, thinking also about the internal problems of the country.”
“The government must take account of the suffering of many Italians,” he said, “such as the many Italians who suffer from joblessness. I myself know many young Italians who are well prepared for work, but who don’t have a job.”
In some quarters, the comments were taken as a “there he goes again” moment, thinking Burke was once again challenging Pope Francis in public, in this case the pontiff’s well-known pro-immigrant line.
It’s a natural enough reaction, since Burke was among the champions of the traditionalist camp at the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family, and his removal as head of the Vatican’s supreme court not long afterwards by Francis was taken as a demotion.
However, anyone who’s ever lived in Italy knows there really is a serious problem with youth unemployment in the country, and so Burke was hardly saying something novel. Moreover, it’s an issue Francis himself has addressed many times, so Burke also wasn’t trying to put something on the pope’s agenda that wasn’t already there.
In terms of why now, let’s remember that Burke didn’t initiate this; he was asked to comment by a news outlet, and in response said things that anyone who knows Italian realities would consider no-brainers.
In other words, Burke may not be exactly the most obvious example of a “Francis bishop,” but this interview was hardly a dramatic break with the boss.
Finally, there’s an interview Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the secretary and aide-de-camp to Pope Benedict, gave over the weekend to German radio in which he said that Francis is a “Jesuit of the old school,” and voiced doubt that Francis will introduce changes on either priestly celibacy or Communion for the divorced and remarried.
Like Benedict, Gänswein praised Francis, saying that from his experience, there’s no “resistance” to the pope in the Roman Curia, while conceding that some people are a bit exhausted by the “rapidity and intensity” of the pope’s pace.
Those statements, too, have been parsed and spun. One commentator, for instance, said that both the Gänswein and Benedict interviews may be “intentional (if gentle) attempts at clarifying and counterpointing some of the likely upcoming reforms of Pope Francis.”
However, like Burke, and for that matter like Benedict, Gänswein did not initiate the exchange. He answered when German radio called, and was open enough to respond to a few questions on hot-button subjects.
If the question is whether Gänswein represents a slightly more conservative position than some of the other figures around Francis, the answer is “yes,” but we hardly needed a new interview to know that. It’s debatable whether anything he said represented an intentional “counterpoint” to Francis, especially since, as prefect of the papal household, Gänswein is always careful not to allow himself to be put in that position.
As a final observation, here’s a thought: It would probably be helpful to make sure that before the spin cycle gets underway, there’s actually laundry to do — so maybe, before parsing what Francis will say in his document on the family, it would be a good idea to wait until he actually says it.