Action Alert!

Please, don't read the headlines

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 03, 2015

This week's headlines in the mainstream news media have driven me close to despair over the inability of secular reporters to provide accurate, or even minimally competent, coverage of news about the Catholic faith.

And it's only going to get worse. Later this month, when the Pope visits the US, hundreds of pundits who know nothing about Catholicism will be offering their uninformed opinions about the meaning of the latest papal statements and gestures. I could spend all day, every day, trying to clear up errors and misconceptions. 

But I won't. Instead I'll ask you to spare me, and spare yourself, the aggravation. Skip over the news in the secular media. If you want to know what the Pope said, check our news headlines. Tell your friends to do the same. Don't bother telling me that the mainstream outlets have botched the stories. Believe me, I already know. If they'd come to me first (and sometimes they do), I could set them straight. But I can't stop the tsunami of misinformation.

As you can imagine, this rant has been provoked by the many inaccurate stories about the Pope's announcement on Tuesday that during the Year of Mercy, all priests will have the authority to absolve penitents of the sin of abortion. Many reporters saw this as a dramatic new policy, which it is not. A few claimed, absurdly, that the Pope is softening the Church's opposition to abortion. 

If you're a regular reader of Catholic World News, you may have noticed that in our coverage, the Pope's statement on abortion didn't even merit top billing. Our headline called attention to what really was the dramatic news of the day: the Pope's announcement that priests of the Society of St. Pius X could hear valid, licit confessions. For most Catholics in the US, the portion of the Pope's statement that relates to abortion will have little or no practical impact. Most American priests already have been given authority to absolve penitents of abortion. The change that the Pope made involves a nicety of canon law, which Ed Peters has explained here. For Catholics seeking forgiveness of sins, the teaching and practice of the Church remain the same. Abortion is still regarded as a grave sin, but the Church, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, offers forgiveness of even grave sins.

By declaring a Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is trying to call the world's attention to the boundless reservoir of Divine Mercy. Unfortunately, our secularized society seems incapable of grasping the fact that “mercy” is valuable only to someone who recognizes the need for mercy. You don’t need a Get Out of Jail Free card unless there’s an expectation that you might be going to jail. 

The difficulty is that— as the last few days’ headlines have shown— it’s hard to say “you can be forgiven for your sins” without having clueless journalists interpret the message as “you haven’t sinned.” But if you haven't sinned, you don't need forgiveness. Logically speaking, if you deny the reality of sin, then you cannot understand the need for forgiveness, and therefore you cannot understand the meaning of the Year of Mercy. 

Thus most of the reporters covering the Pope's visit will not understand-- and, barring a change of heart, cannot understand-- what the Holy Father is saying. And thus my advice: don't read the headlines.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 04, 2015 9:58 AM ET USA

    One of the things they cannot twist too much out of the realm of reality involves the polling data. It is what it is. Thus the emphasis on mercy- while laudable and earnest- can also rather readily be twisted. Further, the theatrics at last year's Synod and since have done nothing to dissuade secular reporters that change awaits. In light of this and much more it's an injustice to accuse the secular media. They are products of something we Catholics have demonstrably helped make possible.