I’ll admit it, I bought into the mass hysteria last week, and perhaps I should have known better.
I woke up one day last week to a tweet from a Vatican reporter, whom I have met personally and with whom I have had a discussion about the particular topic in question, and I hit “retweet” immediately on the news that Pope Francis was setting up a commission to explore the question of women as deacons.
Others picked up that same tweet as a dramatic shift in Church policy.
There were lauds and praises thrown around like ticker tape on Broadway in a parade welcoming back the first men to land on the moon. There were also notable detractors, people who sought immediately to marginalize whatever the Holy Father had said, saying he was “one voice among many,” and quoting councils as far back as Nicea to rebuff what they assumed he was saying.
Here’s the problem; no one actually knew what the Pope had said. The Vatican released the full text of the audience in question only hours after the original tweet. When you read the text of Francis’ comments it became immediately clear that this was only one among many things that Francis had actually said.
It also became clear, as is often the case with Francis, that either those who had praised the spirit of the tweet that had started the furor, or those who had rejected it, could claim some measure of victory in the pope’s words when read in full.
The question of women as deacons has been played out well in the Catholic press in the last week, and there are many good sources to read as the question is considered. One also needs to think well on our present reality.
Many good and faithful women, and women religious in particular, serve the Church in the same ways that ordained male deacons do in parts of the world where there is such a scarcity of ordained clergy that local bishops need, and in fact are grateful for, their help.
There’s also the conundrum of the way in which Vatican II talks about the diaconate as tied to priestly ordination and episcopal consecration, which those on either side of the issue have to admit raises a clear obstacle going forward in the conversation of potentially ordaining women as deacons.
All of this is to say that if this is a conversation worth having, and the Holy Father seems to have indicated that it is, it will likely take a long time and a great deal of study and prayer before anything can or will change, if it does change at all.
So, I am forced to say as much to myself as anyone else, because I jumped to hit retweet on the original post: Calm down, think about this, read the whole text, and pray on it.
In our twitter-ized world, we perhaps react too quickly to soundbites that come in 140 characters or less. While Francis, and Benedict XVI before him, have successfully used twitter as a means to communicate simpler messages, we should likely be wary of tweets that come as excerpts of much larger conversations.
When people quote scripture out of context to bolster a claim or push forward an agenda, we call this “proof-texting” and we rightly disregard the argument in question. We ought to apply a similar standard to what Pope Francis, or any other Pope for that matter, says.
Before jumping too quickly to react, we’d do well to actually take a moment to read and consider what they’ve said, in full, with open minds and hearts. In doing so we should be aware of the fact that we may well be disappointed, as many were this week, by what the text actually says when we look beyond the soundbite that may have brought us to read it in the first place.
This also, of course, speaks to the responsibility that those of us who both report and comment on all things Catholic have when it comes to these sorts of moments. We are all, of course, only human. Each of us brings our own opinions, hopes, and biases to what we write.
We’d do well, particularly when we hear something that excites us, in the sensational sort of way that last week’s headline did for some, to take a moment to consider what we write, on any platform, before we do it. We may rush to break news, and discover that we have in the end, broken the news in a different, and much more negative, sense of the word “broken.”
We do people a disservice when reporting only the part of the truth that excites us, and we may open old wounds for people if they become discouraged by the truth beyond the tweet.
Pope Francis has famously stated that he prefers a “messy Church,” but we shouldn’t make it needlessly messier. This messy Church is a place where we can and should have discussions about the things that are important to us, and feel free to do so.
We need to remember always, though, that in a Church of 1.3 billion people, we are bound to disagree on occasion. “Catholic” means universal, but it does not mean uniform, after all.
If we are going to have these sorts of conversations in charity we should always allow people, the pope especially, to speak fully for themselves. Only then should we deign to offer charitable commentary, be it positive or negative, on what has actually been said.
There have been many moments like this one in the papacy of Francis already, where reporting the soundbite has caused a similar roller coaster of ecclesial emotion, and there’s an easy way to get off that ride.
Let’s let Francis be Francis, and listen to everything he says in its entirety, before we offer a soundbite, or live and die by the truth of a tweet.
Father Michael J. Rogers, S.J., is a fellow at the McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture of the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA.