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The secular media caricatures the Pope’s words, but the Holy Father must beware unwittingly fuelling media spin

Does Francis’s attempts to reach out to lapsed Catholics risk sapping the motivation of those who sacrifice much in the name of faith?

By on Thursday, 24 October 2013

Pope Francis speaks to the media aboard the papal flight from Rio de Janeiro

Pope Francis speaks to the media aboard the papal flight from Rio de Janeiro

Ever since Pope Francis initiated his own style of communicating his views on belief and the practice of the Faith through unrehearsed interviews and informal homilies during Mass at the Casa Sancta Marta it has generated a huge amount of debate. My Quaker friend – who is spiritual rather than religious – thinks the Pope is wonderful and can do no wrong; our parish priest valiantly preaches on what the Pope is “really saying” and how it is distorted in the press; a devout Catholic friend wishes he would just talk less – and so on.

David Manly, editor of Personal Update, the excellent newsletter of Family and Life, reflects my own view in the current October edition. Under the headline “The Problem of Translating the Message” he writes, “The problem of translating Francis’ message to post-Christian Europe, Liberal Protestant America and other developed countries is that most of the population either have no concept of sin in their lives or they deny the idea completely. Therefore Francis’s message of forgiveness, acceptance and embrace comes across as condoning whatever lifestyle people happen to have chosen. Catholics should make the distinction between loving the sinner and hating the sin… non-Catholics both don’t and won’t make that distinction. Consequently, the Pope’s message simply comes across as him being a really nice guy who doesn’t judge anybody – like everybody else in our relativistic society.”

Manly goes on to comment, as so many others have done, “Within his own largely Catholic context the Pope’s message works, but in our own post-Christian culture his message is in danger of being interpreted as wishy-washy. He is saying to the homosexual person, ‘God loves and accepts you and so do I. But you need to sincerely seek him and turn from your sin.’ The secular Westerner simply hears him say, ‘Hey man, I’m OK. You’re OK.’ He says, ‘Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more” and they hear him say, “Neither do I condemn you. Do what you want.’”

As Manly indicates, the Holy Father wants to reach out to lapsed Catholics and to those outside the Church who have never heard the healing and liberating words of Christ. Manly asks, “Doesn’t this run the risk of lending respectability to those who accept destructive ideologies like relativism? Does it run the risk of sapping the motivation of those who sacrifice much in the name of faith?… Shouldn’t we be ‘obsessed’ – in a positive way – about the evil of state-sanctioned destruction of unborn children and the assault on the basic social institutions of marriage and the family, which provide the best possible environment for men, women and children?’ The answer to these questions is yes, yes and yes.

He concludes, “Let’s keep the Holy Father in our prayers” – meaning, I surmise, “Let’s hope for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in his public pronouncements so that we won’t have to keep explaining what he really means to others who get completely the wrong end of the stick.”

Fr Tim Finigan’s blog on “The new generation of lapsed” adds his own reflection – and, incidentally, provides the best reason for engaging as Catholics in the blogosphere. He writes, “It is no longer a question of being “kind” to the lapsed but of trying to get something across to the generation who do not know the ‘Our Father’, people who have no contact with the Church at all, and no knowledge of the Christian faith beyond the distortions that they have seen in the media. On Catholic blogs we often highlight these distortions. We have to remember that for many people those caricatures of Christianity are all that people have in the way of religious education. If we don’t give a considered and accurate account of Catholic teaching on ‘difficult’ issues such as abortion, contraception and same-sex unions, we will leave people with the caricatures.”

Too true. The secular media is as it is and we have to keep correcting with charity the distortions and caricatures that it generates. But we don’t want the Holy Father unwittingly adding to fanciful media speculation. Let’s keep him in our prayers.