ROME – To be honest, sometimes the conversations we journalists have about breaking news stories can be almost self-parodying. Often, for instance, that’s because we’re more focused on how to package something rather than on the significance of what’s actually happened.
A public figure (usually, but not exclusively, a politician … could be a celebrity, a sports star, whoever) says something perceived as critical of another. We’ll ask ourselves, should we tout it as a “blast”? A “rebuke”? A “dig”? Or, a public figure ignores the presence of another at some happening. We’ll huddle and debate, was that a “snub”? A “cold shoulder”? A “slight”? Or, if we want to go colloquial, maybe we can call it a “dis”?
Presentation, as they say, is half the battle in any courtship or sales campaign, and in journalism it’s often more akin to three-quarters.
Thus we come to Pope Francis’s latest remarks about the hyper-controversial Vatican document Fiducia Supplicans, and the active debate they triggered within the journalistic community as to how the pontiff’s words should be best described.
Here are just a few of the possibilities for characterizing what the pope said on Friday that have been floated over the past 48 hours:
- “Walking back”
- “Reining in”
- “Playing down”
- “Distancing himself”
- “Doubling down”
Probably needless to say, this is merely a partial list of verbal formula. In reality, there are as many catchphrases out there by this point as there are reporters, commentators and pundits wielding them. (Wags might say such perplexity is deliberate under a Peronist pope, for whom keeping people guessing isn’t always a bad thing and clarity isn’t always a consumation devoutly to be wished.)
First, let’s be clear about what the pope actually said, which came in the final paragraph of a brief address to participants in a plenary assembly of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department which issued Fiducia Supplicans.
“The intent of the ‘pastoral and spontaneous blessings’ is that of demonstrating concretely the closeness of the Lord and of the Church to all those who, finding themselves in different situations, ask for help in carrying forward – sometimes in starting – a path of faith,” he said. (Francis spoke in Italian, and this is my English translation.)
“I want briefly to underline two things: The first is that these blessings, outside any context or form of a liturgical character, do not require moral perfection for being received; the second, that when a couple spontaneously comes forward to request [these blessings], it’s not the union that is blessed, but simply the persons who together made the request. Not the union, but the persons, naturally taking account of the context, the sensibilities, and the places in which one lives, and the most appropriate way of doing it,” he said.
To being with, the most immediate consequence of the pope’s remarks is that it changes the shorthand we’ve all been using to describe Fiducia. For the last month, we’ve been calling it a Vatican document on blessing same-sex unions; now, presumably, we’ll have to slug it as a Vatican document on blessing the people involved in a same-sex union.
To what extent does that bit of nuance change the equation?
Well, for pro-LGBTQ+ activists in the Catholic fold, who hailed Fiducia as a watershed when it appeared a month ago, to some extent the pope’s remarks may temper their enthusiasm. They may feel slighted that Francis seemingly went out of his way to attempt to placate critics, thereby perhaps taking some of the wind out of the sails of hopes that Fiducia was a hiarbinger of even bolder changes to come.
For moderates inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Pope Francis, Friday’s remarks likely will become a point of reference to make the argument that Fiducia is no more than pastoral common sense: When a couple asks for a blessing, you don’t have to do a background check first to make sure they pass moral muster. You give the blessing, knowing that you’re not endorsing the ways in which that couple may fall short on the journey of faith, but the fact they’re on it at all.
(I would note, for instance, that after Elise and I were married four years ago, we went to St. Peter’s Square for the traditional papal encounter with newly married couples at the end of the General Audience. We were admitted and received the pope’s blessing without having to pass any test of virtue … and, speaking just for myself and definitely not my wife, thank God.)
Conservative critics of Fiducia, however, seem unlikely to be mollified, for a couple of reasons.
First, Francis still refers to couples and to the people who “together” request a blessing, not to individuals or single persons. That language suggests that what’s being blessed is the couple, and the critical perspective would be that no matter how you try to spin it, blessing a same-sex couple implies some sort of approval, or at least tolerance, of their relationship – certainly in the court of public opinion, if not in strictly theological terms.
Here’s how the influential Italian Catholic blog Korazym put the point.
“When two people who live together as a couple present themselves together, and are blessed together hand in hand, it’s just not possible to maintain that the two individuals as a couple are blessed but not their union, [meaning] the sinners but not the sin. To say otherwise is a mockery and, indeed, a shell game,” the author of the blog post wrote.
Second, it rankles critics that Francis made no mention of the dispensations from Fiducia that he himself has authorized, most notably the decision by African bishops not to offer blessings to same-sex couples on their continent. In a recent interview Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo of the Democratic Republic of Congo explained that their statement was worked out in collaboration with Fernández, consulting the pontiff along the way.
“We prepared the document in dialogue and agreement with Pope Francis, so that at every moment we called him to ask him questions, to see if he agreed with that formulation, etc.,” Ambongo told a French Catholic blog.
To sum up: While people who already support Francis may find his statement on Friday reassuring, activists on either side of the debate over Fiducia Supplicans, in all likelihood, will come away even more agitated.
All of which brings us to my personal candidate for the best way to characterize the effect of the pope’s remarks. I’d argue the right formula is that Francis has “amplified” the battle over Fiducia … perhaps giving all sides fresh ammunition, but not really a reason to lay down their arms.