WMC News & Features

Pope Watch: The mainstream media, like Francis, needs to do better by women

From DC to New York City to Philadelphia, TV commentators were agog, tripping over one another to proudly claim their Catholicism and report their pure, unmitigated joy over the once-in-a-lifetime, historic visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. This over-the-top enthusiasm reached a zenith on one local New York television station when an anchor observed, as the sun was setting, that the light shining down on the pope-mobile was “almost heavenly,” giving the Pope, said her co-anchor, “a natural halo effect.”

There was much to admire. Pope Francis is charismatic, humble, sincere, loving, and a tireless advocate for the poor and our wounded world. But in their gavel-to-gavel coverage of his comings and goings, while some in the American press did a great job of taking a good look at the church and the Pope’s policies, others turned uncritical eyes toward the man and the institution he represents. Below are my impressions of what I saw and what I wish I’d seen.

About That Shout-Out to American Nuns

Much was made of the Pope’s shout-out to America’s nuns as he spoke at a prayer service at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He lauded them as “women of strength,” “fighters,” with a “spirit of courage,” and heartily extended to “religious women, sisters and mothers of this people…a big thank you,” declaring that: “I love you very much.” Many observers were ecstatic about that remark, seeing as it not only the Pope’s rapprochement with the nuns but also, as a CNN commentator observed, “a momentous moment for women.”

In fact, a meager few sentences in one speech cannot begin to make up for the Vatican’s having spent several years investigating the nuns, dragging the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious through the mud, accusing them of being “radical feminists” and heretical supporters of abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and women’s ordination. Or for the church’s other sins against women, such as the poor treatment of the nuns and other women who have been picking up the slack in priestless parishes worldwide, without any of the benefits of the priesthood; the radio silence with which mothers of sexually molested children were met at the church doors—including Pope Francis’s own doors when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires; or the rejection with which women bearing children fathered by priests have been met by church authorities.

Women’s Ordination, Worldwide

While we were witness to a sea of men in white collars, black robes, red capes, and red caps, seated in front of the Pope, trailing the Pope, and speaking for the Pope and the church, I saw no in-depth discussion of the ban on even the discussion of women’s ordination.

There was slim mainstream coverage of the Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference, which drew some 500 people from 19 countries to Philadelphia right before the Pope’s visit. The conference was aimed at linking the inequality of women in the church with the inequality of women around the world. Among the attendees were Catholic women priests—there are upwards of 150 worldwide, all excommunicated—and male priest supporters, including excommunicated peace activist Father Roy Bourgeois and Father Jack McClure, whose superior, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, relieved him—during the Pope’s visit—of his right to celebrate Mass in his home diocese for daring to participate in the conference.

Most national coverage focused on the arrests of a handful of advocates who staged a “lie-in,” attempting to block the papal parade path. What was needed but scarce was serious analysis of the solid grounds for Roman Catholic women priests—like the fact that Pope John Paul II’s 1976 Pontifical Commission found no biblical or theological barrier to women's ordination—and attention to the stature of the movement’s leaders, like Bishop Patricia Fresen. A feisty former Dominican nun who lost everything—her religious community of 45 years, her home, job, and country, South Africa—to be ordained, Fresen taught theology for years to men preparing for the priesthood at Pretoria’s only pontifical seminary, having been deemed by the church, she’s said, “good enough to teach people to be priests, but not good enough to be a priest myself.”

Religious Liberty vs. Civil Rights

There were numerous references to the Pope’s repeated defense of religious liberty, often in abstract terms, at times alluding to his opposition to same-sex marriage, but brought down to earth with one dramatic gesture. After his White House address, in which he gave vigorous support to President Obama’s environmental initiatives, the Pope visited a home for indigent elderly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor—who are suing the Administration over the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Of that visit, Catholic theologian George Weigel on Meet the Press wryly observed: “For a guy who's not supposed to be judgmental, he was making some judgments.”

Weigel was the only official church observer on Meet the Press that day, and no one on the panel highlighted the extraordinary lengths to which the Obama Administration has gone to accommodate the sisters’ religious freedom. Despite a recent loss in court, the sisters, who operate some 30 homes in the country, are pressing on. They insist that simply signing a form—it says: “I certify that on account of religious objections” the organization opposes providing coverage for contraception—is a violation of their religious liberty.

The late-breaking news that the Pope had a secret meeting in DC with Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis, who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, encouraging her to “stay strong,” is yet another indication of the Pope’s reading of religious liberty. By supporting those who refuse to accept a reasonable accommodation (the Little Sisters) or who defy civil law entirely (Davis), he clearly favors the exercise of one person’s religious beliefs over the legally guaranteed rights of others.

Calling the Pope on Sex Abuse Crisis

Commentators did pretty quickly recognize how tone-deaf the Pontiff’s early remarks were on the sex abuse crises, when in two different appearances he expressed his deep sympathy to the bishops who “have suffered greatly…by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the Church...I know you have come forth from great tribulation.”

Such comforting words for clergy sex abuse survivors, or a reiteration of his commitment to hold anyone, including bishops who enabled the crimes, accountable, didn’t come until Sunday morning and later with the press on the plane home.

Despite the fact that the Pope lectured the UN members about what they needed to do to create a safer, more equitable world, including preventing “the sexual exploitation of boys and girls,” I saw no reference to the scathing report released in 2014 on the failure of the Holy See itself to adhere to the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which it was a signatory, in its handling of child sex abuse cases.

“The Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators,” wrote the investigating United Nations committee.

But the UN panel did not stop there. It also called on the Holy See for failing to recognize, much less protect, the health and rights of girls, highlighting the need for birth control, condoms for HIV prevention, sex education, and access to safe and legal abortion. And it demanded that the Holy See “assess the number of children born of Catholic priests, find out who they are and take all the necessary measures to ensure the rights of these children to know and to be cared for by their fathers, as appropriate.”

The Good News

Thankfully, there is some good news in the reporting I saw.

CBSN live-streaming video news network has a female papal commentator, theologian Candida Moss. Some news outlets reportedly did call on prominent Catholic women theologians as spokespeople. Sister Camille D’Arienzo is celebrating her 40th year as a Catholic commentator at New York City’s 1010 Wins news radio station.

The New York Times ran two standout pieces. In her column “Francis, the Perfect 19th-Century Pope,” Maureen Dowd wrote: “[Francis’s] magnetic, magnanimous personality is making the church, so stained by the vile sex abuse scandal, more attractive to people—even though the Vatican stubbornly clings to its archaic practice of treating women as a lower caste…How, in 2015, can he continue to condone the idea that women should have no voice in church decisions?”

Laurie Goodstein came out with the stunner, post-visit. She highlighted Francis’s failures regarding the sex abuse crisis, such as his accepting the resignations of three American bishops knee-deep in mishandling the crimes, without reference to their mishandling or removing them as bishops, and the sorry fact that some of the bishops the Pope commended for their “courage” and “generous commitment to bring healing to the victims” are even today in active legal battles against the victims.

In the LA Times, Catholic studies professor Tina Beattie looked at Pope Francis’s agenda and asked: What about women? “An estimated 800 of the world’s poorest women die every day of causes related to pregnancy and childbirth,” she wrote. “It is scandalous that the question of maternal mortality remains unaddressed in Catholic social teaching.”

Beattie is also editor of Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table, a brand-new anthology. Its 44 contributors, wrote Beattie, plan to give the book, which features their theological reflections and personal stories on many hot-button issues, to every participant in the October Synod of Bishops on the Family.

The Synod is Francis’s brainchild; he could have made sure women had a real role there; instead, he settled for appointing 30 women as auditors. “It is ludicrous that these women can neither speak nor vote while nearly 300 celibate men—bishops and cardinals—will make far-reaching decisions affecting the lives of so many families on the planet,” Beattie wrote.

In a secular democracy, the media are supposed to look at events with a critical eye. One is hard-pressed to imagine such uncritical, over-the-moon coverage as we saw from some outlets given to any other spiritual leader of a fundamentalist religion whose essential teachings include the subordination of women.

But change is always possible. Cue the upcoming Bishops’ Synod. It’ll be a great opportunity for some objective reporting.

Here’s hoping.




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