The media narrative of Pope Francis as a rules-free Pontiff who wants to change the doctrine and dogma in the Catholic Church took a bit of a hit this week in Australia.  A priest who defied the Vatican on gay marriage and ordination of women into the priesthood discovered that Francis and the Curia still takes the obedience part of the vows seriously, both defrocking and excommunicating him:

From all of last week’s headlines saying that the Pope wants to forget this nonsense about abortion and gays, you’d imagine that Germaine Greer had been elected to run the Catholic Church. Actually what the Pope was saying was that he wants the Church to talk more about what it’s for than what it’s against. But that doesn’t mean it won’t still be against those things that contradict its teachings and traditions.

Just ask Greg Reynolds of Melbourne – a priest who appears to have been both defrocked and excommunicated because of his radical views on women clergy and gay marriage. From Australia’s The Age:

The excommunication document – written in Latin and giving no reason – was dated May 31, meaning it comes under the authority of Pope Francis who made headlines on Thursday calling for a less rule-obsessed church.

The document might give no explicit reason, but the reason is implicit and well understood: Reynolds has offended Mother Church with his politics.

More accurately, the Vatican acted in part because Reynolds resigned his position as priest and created a splinter group that defied Catholic teachings on ordination and marriage.  Tim Stanley points out correctly that Francis would never throw out Catholic doctrine, and won’t hesitate to defend and enforce it to ensure the proper teaching and formation of Catholics around the world.  “Despite the best wishes of so many in the media,” Stanley writes, Francis is a Catholic.

That’s the point I make in my column today at The Week, and list the many ways in which the media continually manages to miss that point.  With the kinds of silly and misleading errors made by the media with a faith that is easily researched, what does that say about media reporting on other faiths? Probably nothing that gives us any confidence:

Even with all of the resources available to research the hardly-secret doctrine of the mainstream Catholic Church, the media either fails at putting Francis in the proper context or can’t resist attempting to fit him into the narrative as the Pope Who Will Create Secular Catholicism. In this narrative, the retired Benedict XVI plays as some kind of moss-backed, benighted conservative for whom Francis is the cure. That ridiculous notion got skewered by National Catholic Register‘s Pat Archibold in an article that offers 10 quotes that prove Pope Francis is a liberal — only to discover that all 10 came from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

While this continuing media failure exasperates Catholics who actually understand what Pope Francis says, it raises a more significant question of media credibility on religious matters, and perhaps even more broadly than that. Catholic doctrine and teachings are easily accessible and understandable, and yet the media doesn’t appear interested in checking facts first before publishing news stories that inevitably mischaracterize the words of Francis and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Just how well do they report on other religions making news, whether that is Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or even atheism? Do they research those topics before publication, or are they building fact-deficient narratives on those topics, too — and at what cost to clarity?

Not that Catholics mind the attention too much:

Even with the exasperation and dread of having to explain that Francis isn’t actually rewriting the doctrine of the Catholic Church, we Catholics do have to admit that we benefit from the media failures in one respect. Suddenly, cheering the Pope is hip in a way we haven’t seen since John Paul II took on the Soviets early in his papacy. The gentle pastor of the Vatican has made Catholicism cool again, thanks to the press’ futile attempts to pigeonhole him. The Lord works in mysterious ways — even more mysterious than the media, it seems.

Our friend Nate Beeler satirizes that impulse in his cartoon today … or at least I think this is satire:

beeler-popeAnd as Peter Wehner writes, it’s not just Catholics who find themselves delighted with what the Pope is truly saying:

As a Christian (but non-Catholic), this strikes me as quite right. The church was created in large part to be a refuge, a source of support and fellowship; a place characterized by love and gentleness, encouragement and accountability. And a place that helps restore integrity and wholeness to our lives. Those who share my faith believe there is liberation to be had and peace to be found in knowing that we are God’s beloved and by living in alignment with His purposes for our lives. But all of us come to Him with brokenness in our lives, and that ought to command from us some degree of humility and empathy–and some aversion to judgmentalism and censoriousness. In a world in which people hold profoundly different views and hold them with some passion–and where moral truths need to be affirmed–it isn’t easy for people of faith to be known more for mercy than condemnation, for words that encourage and uplift rather than wound. But that is what we’re called to be.

For those who believe that framing things this way is a clever but mistaken way of pitting moral rectitude against love–who believe it is equivocating when people of faith should be standing strong and tall in a world of rising licentiousness and immorality–there’s no way to prove who is definitively right or wrong. The devil can quote Scripture for his purposes, Shakespeare wrote. Our life experiences, dispositions, and temperaments draw us to different interpretations and understandings of the true nature of things.

My own perspective is that life is filled with joy and wonder to be sure; but there is also the pain and hardship of living in a fallen world. That people whose lives seem so well put together on the surface are struggling with fears and failures below it. And that often we find ourselves living somewhere else than we thought we’d be. Many of us, then, find ourselves in need of grace and redemption. Which is why the words of this remarkable pope have such resonance with us.

Truly, but that doesn’t mean that the Church must not take steps with wayward members who threaten to mislead the faithful on core teachings.  The Vatican hinted this month at a renewed effort to make that clear to those in the public square who misrepresent those teachings, with the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura Cardinal Raymond Burke warning Nancy Pelosi that canon law could be applied to her “sacred ground” comments on abortion (via LifeNews and Jeff Dunetz):

Q. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, when recently questioned at a press briefing about the moral difference between what Dr. Gosnell did in murdering a baby born alive at 23 weeks as compared to the practice of aborting a baby moments before birth, refused to answer. Instead she is reported to have responded: “ As a practicing and respectful Catholic this is sacred ground to me when we talk about this. I don’t think it should have anything to do with politics.” How are we to react to such a seemingly scandalous statement? Is this a case where Canon 915 might properly be applied? [Editor’s Note:Canon 915 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law states that those who are “ obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”]

A. Certainly this is a case when Canon 915 must be applied. This is a person who obstinately, after repeated admonitions, persists in a grave sin — cooperating with the crime of procured abortion — and still professes to be a devout Catholic. This is a prime example of what Blessed John Paul II referred to as the situation of Catholics who have divorced their faith from their public life and therefore are not serving their brothers and sisters in the way that they must — in safeguarding and promoting the life of the innocent and defenseless unborn, in safeguarding and promoting the integrity of marriage and the family.

What Congresswoman Pelosi is speaking of is not particular confessional beliefs or practices of the Catholic Church. It belongs to the natural moral law which is written on every human heart and which the Catholic Church obviously also teaches: that natural moral law which is so wonderfully illumined for us by Our Lord Jesus Christ by His saving teaching, but most of all by His Passion and death.

To say that these are simply questions of Catholic Faith which have no part in politics is just false and wrong. I fear for Congresswoman Pelosi if she does not come to understand how gravely in error she is. I invite her to reflect upon the example of St. Thomas More who acted rightly in a similar situation even at the cost of his life.

Q. Many faithful Catholics are troubled when high- profile political figures with unconcealed antilife, anti- family positions are honored in such ways as receiving invitations to speak at Catholic university commencement ceremonies and given honorary degrees or memorialized at public Catholic funeral Masses without having renounced their immoral positions. Faithful Catholics, at the same time, are taught they have committed a serious sin if they vote for these same candidates. How are those who are seriously trying to live out their faith to reconcile this apparent contradiction?

A. You cannot reconcile it — it is a contradiction, it is wrong, it is a scandal, and it must stop! We live in a culture with a false sense of dialogue — which has also crept into the Church — where we pretend to dialogue about open and egregious violations of the moral law. Can we believe it is permissible to recognize publicly people who support open and egregious violations, and then act surprised if someone is scandalized by it? For Catholic institutions or individuals to give recognition to such persons, to honor them in any way, is a source of grave scandal for which they are responsible. In a certain way, they contribute to the sinfulness of the individuals involved. There is no way to reconcile it; it simply is wrong.

Before anyone expects to see a priest stop Pelosi during Mass, we should be clear that such an action would be impossible from a practical aspect. First, there is a process to this kind of discipline, but more to the point, distribution of the Eucharist is primarily done by extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and not priests.  Those lay people (myself among them) do not have lists of who can and cannot partake of the Eucharist.  Her pastor and her bishop would have to instruct Pelosi to refrain from taking part, with the penalty of a mortal sin if she continues. Otherwise, it’s considered a “excommunication latae sententiae,” or a de facto failure of communion with the Church based on her actions that doesn’t necessarily require a formal declaration (as described in paragraph 2272 of the Catechism). I’ve addressed this before, but want to emphasize that the Church doesn’t want to use the Eucharist as a weapon, nor should they.

Still, this is quite a public rebuke, although it’s unfortunately not going to get the same attention as Pelosi’s “sacred ground” comments did.  That’s too bad, because this would be a very valuable teaching moment for the media.

Update: I forgot the link to Peter’s piece at Commentary, but it’s in there now.