Pope Francis and the media’s ongoing fallibility

(COMMENTARY) Did you hear what Pope Francis said about (fill in the blank)? That’s a question someone may have posed to you during Christmas dinner or at a recent New Year’s party. With the only exception being President Donald Trump, there’s no world leader who gets as much press coverage as Pope Francis. The head of the Catholic Church – whether at the Vatican delivering a homily or holding a news conference – is constantly in the news. His every utterance able to fill a reporters’ notepad.

One of my tasks while working as an editor at the New York Daily News as recently as last year was to scour the wire services – primarily The Associated Press and Reuters – each morning to see whether Pope Francis had “made news.” He usually had. Whether it was about economics, climate change or immigration, Pope Francis often came through on Sundays and during holidays, something reporters commonly refer to as “slow news days.” The biggest confusion amid all this press coverage is the notion of papal infallibility regarding what the pontiff says in public. Both Catholics and non-Catholics typically have a warped sense of what it means. Those in the media have an even more confused notion.

Not all papal statements are created equal. What the pope writes in an encyclical has one degree of importance as does what he says to crowds in St. Peter’s Square.

Papal infallibility, unlike what the mainstream media would have you believe, is not every time the pope opens his mouth. Whether he believes Trump is a good Christian or not has nothing to do with infallibility. Same goes for a host of other hot-button political issues. There needs to be a distinction between what Pope Francis says ex cathedra (on subjects that impact dogma and do not contradict Scripture) and what Jorge Mario Bergoglio (the pope’s birth name) believes when he answers a reporters’ question about a topic like climate change. Papal infallibility, for example, does not extend to matters of science.

The pope’s infallibility dictates that he is preserved from the possibility of error “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” This doctrine had already existed during the Counter-Reformation, but codified in 1870 resulting from the First Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. In the modern era, the use of this power – referred to as speaking ex cathedra – has been used just twice (and never by Pope Francis). In 1950, Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary as “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” The other had been in 1854 by Pope Pius IX when he put into doctrine the belief of the Immaculate Conception.

Not all papal statements are created equal. What the pope writes in an encyclical has one degree of importance as does what he says to crowds in St. Peter’s Square. Both carry a lot more weight than the soundbite you saw on CNN, but none of them should be considered infallible. You wouldn’t know it from the way news outlets cover Pope Francis’ every utterance. You wouldn’t know that from the headlines generated by numerous mainstream media outlets when they covered Pope Francis’ July 2013 remarks regarding the issues of gay priests. During a news conference aboard a Rome-bound flight from Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

While it made for an attention-grabbing headline in an age of social-media clickbait, the pontiff was not advocating for gay clergy or same-sex marriage – like many wanted to believe. He was reiterating what Church doctrine already teaches – denounce the sin, not the sinner. While he did strike a more conciliatory tone than his predecessors, the pope’s statement was not unusual. Francis’ answer had been in response to a question about a Church official accused of having had a homosexual relationship while working as a diplomat in Uruguay and amid reports in the Italian press of a “gay lobby” lurking within the Vatican. Francis responded that an investigation had found no evidence of a tryst. He also denounced the existence of any lobby.

My experience in major newsrooms in New York, both large newspapers and at a major TV news network, showed me that few of my colleagues understood the intricacies of the pope’s duties. Nonetheless, these very people were often tasked with having to explain to millions that very thing or weigh the importance of such comments. Very few news articles bother to include an explanation of papal infallibility. There needs to be an honest discussion regarding infallibility during news coverage regarding the pope. Not everything the pope says is heaven- sent wisdom. Unfortunately, most of these newsrooms lack the budgets to have a religion reporter on staff or the open-mindedness to hire people of faith to work for them.

The other real issue is the media’s disregard for reporting on what the pope says regarding matters of faith. They rather pull out the one quote he said about immigration – and spin it as an anti-Trump statement – than report on what he says regarding values and faith. Pope Francis, like popes before him, constantly speaks about these issues, but what he says often gets lost in all the talk about world politics.

This comes at a time when Catholicism faces some real issues. This pope’s role as reformer is part of his practical approach to faith in the 21st century. Conservatives are upset that the pope has allowed priests to absolve women who repent for having an abortion and has made it easier for those who are divorced to receive the sacraments. While the merits of those decisions should be debated in the press, journalists who cover Pope Francis need to first educate themselves and give broader context when it comes to his role as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Without it, papal coverage remains incomplete and inaccurate.