A football tailgate, a Sunday homily, over breakfast with an Evangelical friend, between band sets at an Irish pub with a middle-aged lawyer—in the past couple of weeks, it’s been near impossible for me (and for many, I suspect) to avoid conversations marked by delight, disturbance or debate about Pope Francis’s recent interview. This 12,000-word conversation with Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro on behalf of 16 Jesuit publications, which one columnist has called an “extemporaneous encyclical,” continues to reverberate throughout both the Church and media.
Francis’ interview covers a wide range of topics, including his identity as an Argentinian Jesuit, religious faith (and doubt), women in the Church, classical music and film, the Curia, Ignatian spirituality, and the Church’s stance on particular moral issues such as homosexuality, abortion and contraception. Having had a week to observe reactions from inside and outside the Church, it is helpful to step back and consider: Which aspects of Francis’ interview have been emphasized, and by who?
Sociologists have long studied the phenomenon of bias in media representation of public events, especially selection and description bias. Selection bias can be described as the influence of media agendas on the selection of events (or in this case, an interview) that are reported. In description bias, both print and electronic media can focus upon selected issues for intensive and continuous coverage over a sequence of days or weeks, especially those issues with which the media are already concerned, independently of the characteristics of the event considered as a whole.
With respect to Pope Francis’ interview, take, for example, a survey of some major news sources’ headlines after its publication:
- USA Today: “Pope seeks less focus on abortion, gays, contraception.”
- CBS News: “Pope Francis: Catholic Church must focus beyond ‘small-minded rules.’”
- New York Times: “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion.” This headline was later changed to: “Pope, Criticizing Narrow Focus, Calls for Church as ‘Home for All.’”
While the Pope delved into the musical genius of Beethoven and the Ignatian concept of discernment, what is clearly occupying the media’s attention are his comments on the Church’s moral teachings. And importantly, this “description bias” has influenced the intra-ecclesial conversation about the interview. Not a few Catholic news sources and bloggers, for example, have responded primarily by emphasizing the theological continuity between Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis:
- One popular blog carried the titled: “Seven reasons why Pope Francis worries some Catholics and why they shouldn’t worry.”
- Another blogger, “Father Z,” advocates “reading Francis through Benedict” and notes: “Through interviews–and the coverage of interviews–a “virtual Francis” is being created. An interview, by its nature, can only go so far…. We have to make sure… that the “virtual Francis” is not stronger than the real Francis.”
- In a national Catholic newspaper, one commentator, noting that the original interview had to be translated for various global publications, wrote: “Since we are working across languages, there could always be problems in the translation, though none have yet emerged.”
It seems clear that the readers to whom these columns are addressed feel disaffected either by Francis’ words or by the mass media representation of them. Positively, then, these writers seek to counteract media bias or misrepresentation of the Pope. Yet such interpretations also run the risk of preemptively neutralizing Francis’ new and challenging insights for the Church.
In the midst of various interpretations of the interview, the best mainstream treatment of it that I’ve come across has been by Michael Gerson, albeit with the somewhat sensational title, “Pope Francis the Troublemaker.” Gerson nicely points out genuine continuities between Popes Benedict and Francis. On “hot-button” moral issues, he notes that “the pope’s views on these topics are orthodox.” But Gerson doesn’t neglect genuine differences in Francis’ tone and points of emphasis. “[Francis’] critique of legalism is radical and unsparing,” he suggests. Likewise, he notes the strong personalism of Francis’ theological anthropology: “God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life.” One of the distinctive, overarching themes of the interview, he highlights, is Francis’ concern that “the proclamation of the saving love of God” be primary in the Church’s encounter with society, even in the articulation of the Church’s moral teachings: “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.” Gerson understands this as the correlate of Francis’ sense that religious faith is first “an affair of the heart,” an encounter with the Person of Christ, from which morality naturally flows.
So while some would focus on “Reading Francis through Benedict,” potentially at the loss of Francis’ distinctiveness, and others would forecast a “coming American Schism” among Catholics that exaggerates this distinctiveness, Gerson strikes a nice balance: “Francis is taking a different direction. Rather than surrendering the moral distinctiveness of the Catholic Church, he is prioritizing its mission.” This “different direction” ought not to be under- or over-emphasized, he suggests.
To bring us full-circle, then, while media bias seems to be dictating the conversation about Francis’ interview, within and outside the Church, by focusing almost exclusively on his comments on controversial moral issues, perhaps we could all delve into the rest of those 12,000 words, where Francis insightfully comments on the legacy of Vatican II, his respect for his predecessor, his personal growth as a Jesuit superior in Argentina, and his eclectic prayer life (in which he tries “to seek and find God in all things,” from adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to praying “mentally… when I am waiting at the dentist”). And perhaps we might better grasp the Pope’s worldview and vision by joining him in Eucharistic adoration, exploring Ignatian spirituality, or pursuing his film recommendations, rather than reading media headlines.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia nicely suggests a path forward after the manifold media, ecclesial and personal reactions to the interview:
“We can draw some useful lessons from these reactions. First, we need to be very careful in taking mass media coverage of the Catholic Church at face value. Second, we need to actually read the Holy Father’s interview for ourselves, and pray over it, and then read it again, especially in light of the Year of Faith. A priest here in Philadelphia asked for a show of hands at a Mass last Sunday, and nearly everyone in the church, which was full, had heard about the Pope’s interview. But only five persons had actually read it. Third and finally, we need to open our hearts – all of us – and let God lead us where he needs us to go through the words of the Holy Father.”
 “From Protest to Agenda Building: Description Bias in Media Coverage of Protest Events in Washington, D.C. Social Forces, Volume 79, Number 4, June 2001, pp. 1397-1423 (Article)