Media narratives about Pope Francis have led to a misunderstanding of his interview with Jesuit magazines, as well as a false perceived contrast between him and his predecessor, according to Carl Anderson.
“The media’s narrative of Francis is something else. We are told he is a
progressive, taking the Catholic Church in a profoundly new direction –
uninterested in Church teaching on moral issues,” reflected Anderson,
the head of the Knights of Columbus, in a Sept. 22 essay in National
“Benedict, we are told, is conservative, doctrinaire, and old-fashioned —
focused on moral issues. Neither narrative is true, because each leaves
out half of the story.”
Pope Francis' comments in his 12,000-word interview that the
proclamation of God’s “saving love” should come before “moral and
religious imperatives,” and that Catholics should not insist “only on
issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive
methods” were treated in the media as though “the Church was suddenly
charting a new course,” Anderson said.
He noted that in 2006, Benedict XVI similarly replied to a question
about why he had not addressed same-sex marriage, abortion or
contraception in a speech. He said, “Catholicism isn’t a collection of
prohibitions; it’s a positive opinion.”
Benedict XVI also denounced violence against homosexual persons and
encouraged compassion and mercy towards women who had had abortions.
These statement “garnered little media attention,” however.
“It didn’t fit the narrative, so it wasn’t widely reported.”
Anderson rejected claims that the interview shows that Pope Francis is
“uninterested in Church teaching on moral issues” or that he is
diverging with Benedict XVI.
He noted that Pope Francis has praised the work of pro-life groups; on
Sept. 20, he told a gathering of Catholic doctors that the right to life
Pope Francis has also urged the Knights of Columbus to “bear witness to
the authentic nature of marriage and the family, the sanctity and
inviolable dignity of human life, and the beauty and truth of human
After criticizing the supposed contrast between Roman Pontiffs portrayed
in mainstream media, Anderson went on to affirm with the Popes that
“Catholic teaching on moral issues isn’t the totality of the Church’s
message. It never has been.”
“And our popes, bishops, priests, and laity have always spent far more
time on charity, prayer, and pastoral outreach than on public policy
issues. If the public doesn’t know that, it’s because the media prefer
to cover controversies.”
Anderson said that Pope Francis’ interview touched on many subjects, but
many media outlets are focusing too much on the small sections on
abortion and contraception.
“Ironically, this coverage comes after the Pope said in that same
interview that the Church has a broader focus. It is increasingly
apparent that it is the media, more often than Catholics themselves, who
place a disproportionate focus on Church teaching about sexuality and
Anderson cited the Pope’s comparison of the Church to “a field hospital
after battle” where the Church must help the seriously injured person
and “heal his wounds.”
He said the Pope has presented a “stark and dramatic assessment of our
cultural situation” and has proposed in response “a bold,
self-sacrificing personal witness.”
Anderson said there is a danger that media coverage “narrowly focuses on
social issues.” He noted that news coverage neglects the massive
charitable and volunteer work of the Knights of Columbus, but focuses on
its minor funding of some social issues advocacy.
This kind of coverage “warps public perceptions and misleads” and could have severe consequences, he warned.
“Wrongly portrayed as singularly focused on a narrow set of issues,
believers run the risk of being misunderstood and marginalized.”
“If the media truly want to embrace Pope Francis’ message, they can
begin by heeding his call not to focus too narrowly on just one or two
issues in their coverage of faith.”