While most of you were either shopping for your Thanksgiving meal or preparing it, Pope Francis was busy promoting his new book.
To be fair, the pontiff wasn’t doing exactly that in the same way as other authors, who typically make TV appearances and do book signings at your local bookstore.
Instead, the pope was getting the word out in other ways. The book, titled Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, was excerpted in the Italian daily La Repubblica, a left-wing newspaper not shy about highlighting the pope’s more woke leanings over the past few years.
The excerpt earned widespread media coverage and praise. The Associated Press, in its Nov. 23 news account after attaining an advance copy, ran with the headline: “Pope book backs George Floyd protests, blasts virus skeptic.”
The key to this story is that this book comes at a time when the Catholic church is deeply divided along doctrinal and political lines. How was this issue handled? Here’s how the story opens:
Pope Francis is supporting demands for racial justice in the wake of the U.S. police killing of George Floyd and is blasting COVID-19 skeptics and media organizations that spread their conspiracies in a new book penned during the Vatican’s coronavirus lockdown.
In “Let Us Dream,” Francis also criticizes populist politicians who whip up rallies in ways reminiscent of the 1930s, and the hypocrisy of “rigid” conservative Catholics who support them. But he also criticizes the forceful downing of historic statues during protests for racial equality this year as a misguided attempt to “purify the past.”
The 150-page book, due out Dec. 1, was ghost-written by Francis’ English-language biographer, Austen Ivereigh, and at times the prose and emphasis seems almost more Ivereigh’s than Francis.’ That’s somewhat intentional — Ivereigh said Monday he hopes a more colloquial English-speaking pope will resonate with English-speaking readers and believers.
At its core, “Let Us Dream” aims to outline Francis’ vision of a more economically and environmentally just post-coronavirus world where the poor, the elderly and weak aren’t left on the margins and the wealthy aren’t consumed only with profits.
It should be noted that the news story deals mostly with Floyd and the pandemic because the press release issued by Simon & Schuster to go with the book that was made available to reporters and reviewers highlighted those sections.
In other words, the press office there knew how to preach to the choir.
Pope Francis in his new book #LetUsDream
\”Those who declare there is too much ‘confusion’ in the Church, and only this or that group of purists or traditionalists can be trusted, sow division in the Body. This, too, is spiritual worldliness.\” pic.twitter.com/pAha0ltC6o
\u2014 James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) November 23, 2020\n“,”url”:”https://twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ/status/1330918448499666946″,”resolvedBy”:”twitter”,”floatDir”:null,”authorName”:”James Martin, SJ”,”version”:”1.0″,”resolved”:true,”type”:”rich”,”providerName”:”Twitter”,”providerUrl”:”https://twitter.com”}” data-block-type=”22″>
The AP news story, for example, went further and even highlighted Francis’ expressions of disdain for some conservative media voices in the United States. Here’s that section halfway down the story:
Turning to the pandemic, Francis blasted people who protested anti-virus restrictions “as if measures that governments must impose for the good of their people constitute some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom!” (Παγκοσμιοποιητής και ο Πάπας).
He accused some in the church and Catholic media of being part of the problem.
“You’ll never find such people protesting the death of George Floyd, or joining a demonstration because there are shantytowns where children lack water or education,” he wrote. “They turned into a cultural battle what was in truth an effort to ensure the protection of life.”
He praised journalists who reported on how the pandemic was affecting the poorest. But he took a broad swipe at unnamed media organizations that “used this crisis to persuade people that foreigners are to blame, that the coronavirus is little more than a little bout of flu, and that restrictions necessary for people’s protection amount to an unjust demand of an interfering state.”
“There are politicians who peddle these narratives for their own gain,” he writes. “But they could not succeed without some media creating and spreading them.”
The pope did not identify these politicians or news organizations by name.
This is embarrassing: The common good is the foundation stone of Catholic social and political thought, with roots in the classical tradition.
Pope Francis didn\u2019t invent it. And yes, securing the common good is a duty of rulers. https://t.co/tilMW9srM3
\u2014 Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) November 27, 2020\n“,”url”:”https://twitter.com/SohrabAhmari/status/1332383944759783426″,”resolvedBy”:”twitter”,”floatDir”:null,”authorName”:”Sohrab Ahmari”,”version”:”1.0″,”resolved”:true,”type”:”rich”,”providerName”:”Twitter”,”providerUrl”:”https://twitter.com”}” data-block-type=”22″>
The pope’s quibbles about the common good and listening to civil authorities when it comes to the virus — and his New York Times Op-Ed that ran on Thanksgiving Day — came into conflict with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling brought by the Brooklyn Diocese in New York against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s edict that called for church capacity in hot coronavirus zones be limited to just 10 people.
Lost in all the chatter on Twitter was the First Amendment. The freedom of religion and assembly, in this case, combine to say that government can’t make unfair rules dictating such practices, even in a major health crisis. In this case, the crucial point was that religious organizations and similar secular groups and activities were not given similar restrictions.
That the pope would put his name on a book — written by a British author — criticizing the United States, its media and politics without understanding the First Amendment is a major shortfall of the project. There is also more to this book that the mainstream secular press chose to highlight, such as the pope’s staunch opposition to abortion.
National Review, in an unsigned editorial, called the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling just. This is the key section:
Under longstanding precedent, states typically may enact religiously neutral, generally applicable laws without running afoul of the First Amendment, even if those laws sometimes burden religious practices. But if a law that burdens religion is not generally applicable, it must satisfy “strict scrutiny”: It must be narrowly tailored to promote a compelling government interest using the least restrictive means available. Cuomo’s restrictions in areas classified as “orange” or “red” (in terms of COVID-19 prevalence) are neither generally applicable nor narrowly tailored.
Within these areas, different types of establishments are treated differently, with houses of worship facing some of the strictest rules. Religious services are limited to ten people in red areas, for example, while many nearby businesses, including acupuncture clinics and liquor stores, are deemed “essential” and may admit as many customers as they want.
This policy was clearly not tailored to minimize damage to religious observance. It doesn’t even allow higher attendance in bigger buildings. As the Court noted, some churches in New York can seat more than 1,000 people while others accommodate far fewer, yet none could host more than 25 people in orange areas and ten people in red.
Again, the AP news story dealt with the issue this way:
“Right now, we see this as a good decision, opening up the understanding that First Amendment rights are much more powerful than the right for somebody to shop,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in an interview with the Associated Press.
DiMarzio also praised the words of Pope Francis, who in a New York Times Opinion piece published on Thursday criticized groups protesting COVID-19 restrictions.
“I think the pope’s words are wonderful. I don’t think we protested. I don’t think we’ve ever negated the rules that were imposed upon us, except we had a difference of opinion on the number of people that could go into a building. That’s a big difference from flaunting the rules, as some congregations have done in Brooklyn and Queens,” he told the AP. “They refused to take precautions. That was not our case. We complied with everything we were asked to do and more.”
“So, I think that it’s a big difference. I don’t think those words of the pope really apply to us – this is not an ideological issue. It’s not anti-government, but it is looking at the First Amendment that people have a right to worship when it’s possible.”
New York City became an early U.S. hot spot of the pandemic and the deadliest with some of the city’s worst-hit areas concentrated in Brooklyn and Queens.
When it came to opinion journalism, Pope Francis seemed — as usual — to be more in sync with politically progressive writers. However, most focused on the parts of his work with which they agreed.
This is how an Op-Ed in USA Today handled the issue:
The opinion, then, did nothing more than admonish New York to stop doing something it had already stopped doing. Even if the case wasn’t technically moot, there was no reason for the highest court in the land to intervene, without an oral argument or deliberation, to grant extraordinary relief.
The Roman Catholic Diocese ruling is also far-reaching in its substance. The unsigned majority opinion decries what it deems discrimination against religion because worship services were subject to capacity limits while some essential business were not. Likewise, Justice Neil Gorsuch complains in a concurrence that under some circumstances, New Yorkers in a hot zone were permitted to crowd into a liquor store or a bike shop but not a church, synagogue or mosque. Justice Brett Kavanaugh registers the same complaint about grocery stores and pet shops.
Once again, it is crucial to seek out the work of actual religion-news specialists, including those who specialize in covering Catholic issues and traditions.
For example, a news analysis piece by John Allen over at Crux offered the crucial context that so many news stories missed.
Here’s some of the content that made Allen required reading on this topic:
It should also be noted that the restrictions were imposed originally in response to reports of rising infection rates in Orthodox Jewish congregations in New York, but were applied across the board to all religious bodies.
Granted, left v. right probably does shape core sensitivities when it comes to church/state issues and Covid-19.
Contrary to popular mythology, most secular liberals aren’t hostile to religion, merely indifferent. Many see it as analogous to quilting, deep sea fishing or rodeo – perfectly fine if you’re into it, but hardly “essential.” Equally, most religious conservatives aren’t hostile to science or public health measures, but they’re far more inclined to see worship as analogous to grocery stores and pharmacies, i.e., an essential public service.
Certainly DiMarzio is hardly a Covid denier or indifferent to public health concerns.
“I don’t want to endanger anybody,” he said. “That’s primary, because life itself is so important. But spiritual life is equally important, when we have the right safeguards.”
Great point, but a kind of quick-strike journalism mythology is what many Americans now believe when it comes to how they read and understand news accounts of the reality happening around them.
That takes us back to the pope’s book. When it comes to news coverage and reviews, expect more fawning coverage from mainstream media sites and Catholic news organizations on the doctrinal left. Catholic sites on the far right will likely hate it.
One would hope that reporters on both sides actually read the book, like I did this past weekend, and recognize that Francis isn’t the woke pope he is often made in mainstream news coverage.
The book is about a prescription for the future, as opposed to dwelling on the past or even the present. The book discusses abortion at length as well as the perils of social distancing — something news accounts failed to mention because it puts the pope at ideological odds with most secular newsrooms in this country — and emphasis sacrifice and the common good. Both are important in the age of COVID-19 as Catholics enter the season of Advent.
My advice: read media on both sides of the political and doctrinal spectrum and, as always, seek out the work of veteran religion-beat professionals.
Better yet, read the book and make up your own minds.