The Kind of Media Report that Muddies rather than Clarifies Truth

In the combox of a previous post, Faz/Tony gave the link to this report on the BBC News Europe site. To Tony’s credit, he did say that “[the] secular media often screws up reports related to the church”. I’ll say. Let’s look at this report. My comments in brackets in bold. 

Pope marries 20 cohabiting couples [really? They were ALL cohabiting?] in sign of papacy shift

14 September 2014 

The wedding ceremony marks a shift in attitude, explains David Willey from Rome

Pope Francis has presided over the marriage of 20 couples at the Vatican, including some [some? NOT all 20 then?] who were cohabiting, one of them with a child.

Pope Francis had asked to marry 40 people from different social backgrounds who represented modern couples.

It was the first papal marriage ceremony of its kind in 14 years.

The pope has expressed greater tolerance than his predecessor on many issues, including family values. [And so we buy into the “Pope Francis more liberal than Pope Benedict” myth…]

Sunday’s ceremony at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome comes three weeks before a meeting of Catholic bishops from around the world to examine church teachings on family matters.

Slow shift

One of the couples married was a man whose previous marriage was annulled [good – then he was perfectly free to marry again. Who would disagree? Certainly not Pope Benedict] and a single mother with a daughter from a previous relationship. [Since when was having a child from a previous relationship any bar to receiving the sacrament of matrimony?]

Pope Francis has shown more openness than his predecessors on the subject of marriage [Really? Please tell me where in Pope Francis’ magisterium we can find evidence of this?]. Pope Francis told the couples at the two-hour ceremony that marriage was “not an easy road, it’s sometimes a contentious trip, but that’s life,” AFP news agency reports. [“Pope says marriage can be difficult” – And this is news?]

Very slowly, the church under the guidance of Pope Francis is facing the fact that many Catholic couples cohabit before marriage, use contraception freely and divorce and remarry without seeking an annulment, says the BBC’s David Willey in Rome. [Now there is a statement that is REALLY “screwed up”. No such changes are on the agenda, certainly not Pope Francis’ agenda.]

He said in his homily that families are “bricks that build society”, but also believes that the church should forgive those who have sex outside marriage or who don’t obey church teaching to the letter. [A. The bit after “but…” in that sentence is the product of journalistic imagination; B. Even if the Pope did say that, who would be suprised? Parish priests forgive such sins whenever they hear confessions!]

It was the first marriage Pope Francis has conducted in his 18-month papacy. The last wedding to be presided over by a pope took place under John Paul II in 2000.

The world’s clergy will gather in Rome in October to discuss issues such as marriage, divorce and contraception.

They are expected to discuss the results of a worldwide survey launched by the Vatican last year to find out what Catholics really think about its teaching on marriage and family life.

Let’s make a couple of things quite clear:

1) Pope Francis did nothing that parish priests do not do regularly in their ministry

2) Pope Francis did nothing that was not completely in accord with canon law

3) Pope Francis did nothing that was at odds with the teaching or example of their predeccesors

4) Pope Francis sanctified by the sacrament of matrimony the lives and relationships of 20 couples, who will now benefit along the journey of married life from the grace of the sacrament.

It might be worth actually reading what Pope Francis said to the 20 couples in question. Please quote to me the bit where he shows a “shift in attitude” about, a “greater tolerance” for, or “more openness” toward the sins of cohabitation before marriage, divorce, use of contraception, divorce and remarriage, etc.?

Rather he says that “Whoever entrusts himself to Jesus crucified receives the mercy of God and finds healing from the deadly poison of sin.” Sin is a “deadly poison”, and 

“the cure which God offers…to spouses who ‘have become impatient on the way’ and who succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment” 


his Son Jesus, not to condemn them, but to save them: if they entrust themselves to him, he will bring them healing by the merciful love which pours forth from the Cross, with the strength of his grace that renews and sets married couples and families once again on the right path.

Amen to that. 

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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8 Responses to The Kind of Media Report that Muddies rather than Clarifies Truth

  1. Faz says:

    So, David, your benchmark is ‘muddies rather than clarifies the truth’. It’s a fairly high bar and I’m not sure your response makes the grade.

    Clearly the headline was provocative, but headlines are. A scan of your own blog would reveal headlines designed to stimulate interest. Not that I’m justifying it in this particular case, but it goes on to elaborate and clarify in the body of the article. Your reaction, it seems to me, is sarcastic and I don’t think sarcasm and clarity are necessarily good companions.

    If I could encapsulate your response to the article it would be something like, ‘nothing to look at here, move on’.

    Yet, there is something to look at. Almost every media link I can Google, even Rome Reports (see–en), makes a point about the ‘backgrounds’ of many of the couples. CathNews (see attributes the information to the Diocese of Rome.

    I think is is reasonable to assume that the choice of couples is no accident and that it is sending a message to the world.

    • Schütz says:

      Let me give you my summary of the BBC report: “Once the Catholic Church was so conservative and condemnatory (especially under that last pope) that they wouldn’t let people have a church wedding if they were co-habiting, or if they had had a previous relationship, or – worse still – if they had children by a previous relationship. But now Pope Francis is doing something new: he is forgiving people rather than judging them! In fact, Pope Francis is so cool with cohabitation and having children out-of-wedlock that soon he will be supporting contraception and remarriage without an annulment etc.”

      I mean really? What part of that is true? If either the assumption behind the story or the claim about the event were true, sure, there would be something to see. But there really, really isn’t. The Pope didn’t do anything that is not already standard Catholic practice or say anything that isn’t already Catholic teaching. The entire story is a beat up – even if Rome Reports gets in on the act.

      What I find really sad is the real possibility that narrative behind the BBC report (ie. “The Church normally turns away such couples away and refuses to marry them, but now it is changing and will soon change even more to accommodate modern realities”) is actually quite widespread among those outside the Catholic community. If that is the case, then I would like to propose a different narrative which goes like this: “Pope Francis, by marrying these couples in a such a public way, is showing us who the Church really is, and what the Church actually does every day, and how the Church will open her arms to receive you too: Because this is the Gospel in action, folks.”

      (P.S. Re the headline: Which is it? Were ALL of them cohabiting, or just “some”? I don’t mind a headline that is attention grabbing, but isn’t it bad journalism to have a headline which is then actually contradicted by a line in the article itself?)

      • Faz says:

        Let me give you my summary of the BBC report …. I mean really? What part of that is true?

        Your summary? Not much.

        You’re hoist on your own petard, David. The very techniques of ‘muddying the truth’ used by the media — and reasonably critiqued by you — are in full view by your own ‘summary’.

        … narrative behind the BBC report (ie. “The Church normally turns away such couples away and refuses to marry them, but now it is changing and will soon change even more to accommodate modern realities”) is actually quite widespread among those outside the Catholic community.

        Again, you’re ‘reading a narrative’ into the article in just the same way that the writer of the article is ‘reading a narrative’ in the original BBC story.

        On the PS: Again, I’m not defending the particular headline but just pointing to the fact that headlines often push boundaries to get a reader in. I think it’s not a substantive thing to be a literal critique of a headline — especially when your ‘weapon of choice’ is sarcasm — when the real material is in the body.

        Mind you, next time you come out with something like ‘Cardinal Kasper again: So right, but so wrong’, it might be worth challenging the truth — the un-muddied truth — of that! ;-)

        • Schütz says:

          If you think I am “reading a narrative into the article”, why don’t you tell me what you think the narrative is? After all, Tony, you cited this article to bolster your own argument in the com-thread of an earlier post. Was there something in the article that appealed to you? Or, regardless of the article, if you were writing your own article reporting on the Pope celebrating these marriages, what angle would you take? What would your narrative be? Come, I’ve given you my side of the story. Or are you just going to critique and not contribute? (I’ll pass you the port bottle if you think it’ll help!)

          • Faz says:

            Fair go, David. Your own post is a ‘critique’! Many of your posts are ‘critiques’!

            Notwithstanding that, if the source of the basic information is from the Rome dio and they’ve included these references to the ‘variety’ of backgrounds of the participating couples, I can understand media attention being drawn to it.

            They may go overboard in their ‘narrative’ — and I think it’s fair to examine that critically — but it doesn’t mean the angle is completely off the mark.

            I don’t pretend to have the breadth and depth of reading to be sure, but I would cite the following as reasonably ‘safe’ sources:

            From Rome Reports (–en):

            Interestingly, the couples reflected different social realities the Church is grappling with. One of the brides had a child out of wedlock when she was younger. A groom had a previous marriage annulled. Some of the couples were living together before the wedding. More than a ceremony, many believe the Pope is sending a message of mercy to those who are willing to move beyond their past and renew their lives with the Church.

            The CathNews article seems to be quoting from the Dio of Rome information (

            “The people getting married on Sunday are couples like many others,” the Diocese of Rome said in a statement. “Some already live together, some already have children.”

            It may be that in a technical sense the Pope hasn’t done anything out of the ordinary, but it seems to me that the choice of participants sends a clear message to the world.

            I would rank it as significant as the washing of feet in the youth detention centre. PF1’s gesture was significantly different from all his recent predecessors and sent a very different kind of message about the symbolism of that event.

            • Schütz says:

              Okay, I can run with that narrative. And you know what? I’ve absolutely no problem with it. Even more, I entirely agree with it.

              The comparison to the footwashing example is in fact helpful – I grant that the Holy Father did what he did to make a point. Except that it should be noted:

              1) in the case of the footwashing the Holy Father was actually doing something which is currently contrary to the rubrics of that particular rite as they stand at the moment. He could change it, no problem, any time if he decided to, because it isn’t ultimately a matter of dogma – just small “t” tradition – so I’m not quite sure why he hasn’t (there would be issues with changing the “all men” rubric, but not insurmountable issues and certainly not issues that papal authority would not cover

              2) in the case of the wedding ceremonies the Holy Father didn’t even break any rubrics. In fact he did nothing in any way out of the ordinary or contrary to Canon law or Church teaching. If there was a conflict it was solely between the reality of the Church’s teaching and practice and the general mistaken perception about the Church’s teaching and practice held by the public at large

              The message I gather from the official sources is NOT that the Church is changing her “policies” (as the media likes to call Catholic dogma and discipline!), but rather a proclamation of the breadth and depth of the Church’s merciful outreach reflecting the love and acceptance of Christ. Just as the footwashing was a symbol of service and charity (arguably that is not actually what the footwashing is about in the Maundy Thursday rite) so too Pope Francis’ clear intention on this occasion was to extend the grace of the sacrament of Matrimony to couples in irregular relationships.

              One presumes (one has no wish or right to know for certain) that, since the Catholic Church does not admit anyone to the Sacraments (other than the sacrament of Baptism) without first being restored to communion with the Church through repentance and the sacrament of reconciliation, that the couples married on Sunday did in fact receive absolution for any sins prior to the celebration of their marriage.

              All in all, a happy ending all round!

            • Faz says:

              I don’t think I’m being any more ‘robust’ towards your posts, David, than you were to +Kasper, but you don’t seem to like it much when I point out that you do exactly what you criticize others for doing.

              If there was a conflict it was solely between the reality of the Church’s teaching and practice and the general mistaken perception about the Church’s teaching and practice held by the public at large.

              Maybe that’s exactly what it comes down to, David, and maybe PF1 is effectively saying it’s time the church took responsibility for that perception and acted to counter it even if it risks being misinterpreted.

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