How Catholic Opinion Journalists Should Cover Pope Francis

COMMENTARY: Far from tearing the Church apart with oafish ambiguity, Pope Francis is building it up with strategic intelligence.

Pope Francis speaks to journalists during a press conference on the papal flight to Rome from Krakow on July 31.
Pope Francis speaks to journalists during a press conference on the papal flight to Rome from Krakow on July 31. (photo: Alan Holdren/CNA)

UPDATE: One significant flaw in this piece is that I fail to specify Catholic opinion journalists. Catholics do have a duty to avoid public dissent. Reporters, on the other hand, have a duty to report accurately about the Pope, neither covering up for him nor misrepresenting him negatively.


It can be hard to process all of Pope Francis’ sometimes-surprising pronouncements. After finishing my book called What Pope Francis Really Said, it seems that the opportunities for an expanded edition are never lacking. The latest: the brouhaha over his “addition to the works of mercy.”

It is important to get to the bottom of what Pope Francis really said, because we need a strong shepherd. As Jesus himself said, “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.” The problem: Sometimes it is the sheep themselves who strike the shepherd.

At least that is how it feels when Catholics go after Pope Francis.

It is easy to understand how they feel: Many Catholics instinctively dislike the Pope’s style of casual ambiguity. Those who felt awed and grateful watching Pope John Paul II or reading Pope Benedict XVI often feel a little deflated watching Pope Francis. Feeling underwhelmed by the Pope is understandable. Savaging him in public isn’t.

How to treat a shepherd who does the wrong thing? Biblical precedent can be found in Genesis 9:21-23 — the story of Noah’s sons finding their dad naked and drunk. They avoid even looking at him as they cover his shame with the original “cloak of charity.” They certainly don’t snap photos of him and put them on their blog under the headline “How foolish our ‘holy’ father is!”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Pope Francis is behaving like a disgraced drunk. Quite the contrary. But if I thought he were, the last thing I would do is try to make it worse for the Church by broadcasting it.

The latest thing that the Pope is getting flak for is the “new work of mercy” he reportedly said he wants to add to the original seven. Only he never really said that.

This criticism, like so many others, always takes the most dissenter-friendly possible reading of what Pope Francis is doing and then helps cement that as the normative reading of what he is doing.

In recent remarks in Rome, Pope Francis reiterated that there are “seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy.” He lists them in a footnote. He never proposes changing them.

He notes that “the object of mercy is human life itself and everything it embraces.” He points out that “care for our common home” can also meet that end. Then he proposes a “complement to the two traditional sets of seven: May the works of mercy also include care for our common home.”

So he wants care for our common home — for the environment — to complement (not add to) the works of mercy. It seems clear what he is saying: “Here are the lists of seven spiritual and seven corporal works of mercy. Care for the environment can meet the goals of both lists.”

Think of minimizing water pollution and stewarding food production as helping those who thirst and hunger; think of comforting those afflicted by environmental devastation (in China, for instance) and admonishing those responsible (in economies that flood themselves with made-in-China goods, for instance).

By contrast, when Pope John Paul II added mysteries of the Rosary, he spelled them out; he made it clear that he wanted there to be more mysteries of the Rosary now. He didn’t say meditation on the public life of Christ can “complement” the Rosary; he said, “Here are five Luminous Mysteries.”

If someone truly thinks Francis was wrong to do what he has done, what should that person do? If anything, the person should thank the Holy Father for broadcasting the traditional list and then shore up that original list by sharing ways to meet it.

What someone shouldn’t do is gin up outrage against the Pope, because that would do three things at once:

1) damage readers’ fidelity to the Church.

2) teach people that the truths of the Church are subject to change; and

3) teach people that they should be looking to smart lay Catholic writers instead of to the magisterium of the Church for the surest way to truth.

The Church is counting on the laity to defend the Pope. The Catechism says the laity are “the front line of Church life,” as “the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common head, and of the bishops in communion with him” (899).

A layperson turning on the Pope is as unthinkable as a soldier turning on his commander.

And who is the Pope? “The Roman pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered,” says the Catechism (882).

So there you have it. Does that mean no layperson should ever criticize the Pope? That depends.

If you are Janet Smith and have done the difficult work it takes to receive academic credentials, it may not only be okay for you to comment, it may be your job to clarify points of doctrine that suffer from confusion because of papal airplane interviews or other confusing communication.

But I’m not Janet Smith. I’m Tom Hoopes. I am a Catholic journalist. What I have is not detailed, specialized, credentialed expertise. What I have is the ability (on my good days) to helpfully drive home a truth of the faith because of my ability to write clearly and summon a helpful insight or interview.

None of those talents equip me to square off against the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ, and nothing in my vocation suggests I should try. (One writer made an excellent point: You can tell the difference between an expert and a faker because experts know so little. Fakers know everything. Perhaps you have noticed that we journalists know everything.)

I’ll go further: My vocation, in fact, calls me to defend the Holy Father wherever and however I can.

I freely admit that this is not always easy. I spent a year working on What Pope Francis Really Said, and what a year it was. It was the year of Laudato Si and the synod on the family. I was writing about papal remarks on everything from “Who am I to judge?” and “rabbits” to Zika and Amoris Laetitia.

At first, I hated it. I hated slogging through the Pope’s words at exactly the moment great doubt was being cast on him.

But now, I am so grateful that I did it. I can hardly contain my joy. I discovered a secret I desperately want to share: Far from tearing the Church apart with oafish ambiguity, Pope Francis is building it up with strategic intelligence.

It would take a book to explain what I mean. But suffice it to say that we needn’t either strike down our own shepherd on the one hand or cover up his embarrassment on the other.

What we should do, in fact, is unite around “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful,” which, Catechism 882 tells us, is “the Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor.”

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas,

and the author of What Pope Francis Really Said.