Dogs, Heaven and Other Papal Misunderstandings
Pope Francis hasn't gotten the New York Times to see the error of its ways in general, but he has inspired it to issue an embarrassingly long correction. In a front-page story last week, the Times reported that the pope had told a boy he would one day see his dead dog in heaven. The incident didn't happen, although reportedly Pope Paul VI once said something similar.
The news media has a Pope Francis problem, and the dog-that-didn't-ascend is only the latest example. After the pope met with President Barack Obama this spring, some outlets reported that he had ignored contentious issues of religious freedom; the Vatican then said otherwise. In October, the pope reiterated longtime Catholic teaching on evolution -- that it's consistent with belief in a Creator -- and much of the press reacted as though he had broken new ground.
At other times, the press has simply emphasized some of Francis's remarks over others in a misleading way. He made headlines in March by saying, "A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will -- well, who am I to judge him?" But how many people who have heard about that remark know that his very next words referred approvingly to the Catholic catechism's teachings about homosexuality? In November, he said that marriage is based on sexual "complementarity" and that the "decline of the marriage culture" had "brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings." He got fewer headlines that time.
All that is just one year's worth of errors. Why does the news media keep botching coverage of this pope? Part of it is simple ignorance. The New York Times has also, within the past few months, referred to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as "the site where many Christians believe that Jesus is buried." It shouldn't be necessary, but apparently is, to note that the belief that Jesus rose from the dead is the defining tenet of Christianity.
In the case of Pope Francis, though, this ignorance combines with a powerful pre-set narrative that distorts first journalists' and then their readers' understanding. Reporters have decided that Francis is the progressive pope, filled with compassion and impatient with custom and doctrine. Ambiguous phrases are interpreted according to that template, and rumors believed if they fit it. It is in that context that the latest story proved irresistible: The pope was literally being nice to children and small animals, and brushing aside theological debate about whether pets have immortal souls.
Theological conservatives often share this misunderstanding and seem to confirm it. Some of them imagine that Pope Francis is systematically plotting to undermine them within the church, and fall for each new media storyline.
Let's hope that 2015 sees a little less credulity in the coverage of faith.
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