When does ignorance become an excuse for anti-Catholic bigotry?
Catholics united this week against secular media reporting that grossly distorted a Pope Francis speech about evolution and the Big Bang.
The controversy began Tuesday when major media outlets, led by The Independent and MSNBC, picked up a Religion News Service (RNS) report which strongly — and wrongly — implied that Pope Francis had rejected yet another Church tradition by affirming the scientific theories of evolution and the Big Bang.
The Pope had addressed the topics in his speech Monday to the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which was commemorating the unveiling of a bust of Pope Benedict XVI.
Here’s are the Pope’s words that started the furor:
When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However, it was not like that. He created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time that He assured them of his continual presence, giving being to every reality. And thus creation went forward for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today, in fact because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities. The beginning of the world was not the work of chaos, which owes its origin to another, but it derives directly from a Supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it. The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.
– ZENIT, Pope Francis’ Address at Inauguration of Bronze Bust of Benedict XVI, October 27, 2014
In this passage, Pope Francis expresses a complex truth in simple but profound terms. What science discovers in the book of nature, he was saying, always reflects God’s ultimate purpose for the cosmos and humanity, no matter how random the process may appear in empirical terms.
Unfortunately, most secular journalists and bloggers have too little understanding of faith or science to report this sort of story accurately. When you add widespread ignorance about Church history, and animus against the Church for its traditional teachings on sexuality and the family, you’re almost guaranteed to get news reporting filled with massive falsehoods about the Church and its doctrines. And that’s what happened when the secular media picked up this story.
The errors are almost too numerous to count, and too twisted to explain. Here are the main ones: the Church had until now embraced Creationism; Pope Benedict XVI was a Creationist; the Church had until now denied the Big Bang (uh, no, the theory was developed by a priest); and, due to a bad translation of the text, that Pope Francis denied that God was divine (media critic Dawn Eden parses this one at the Get Religion blog).
By Wednesday, Catholics of all stripes — from conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, to Vatican analyst John Allen, to liberal Jesuit Fr. James Martin at America Magazine — took to social media to denounce the reporting.
Most of the time, criticisms of secular news coverage stay within Catholic circles. But this time the most forceful debunking of the coverage by far came from a secular source, Elizabath Dias, religion columnist for Time Magazine.
In a remarkably erudite column published Wednesday entitled “Sorry, But Media Coverage of Pope Francis is Papal Bull,” Dias defended the Church against the charge that it has been anti-science, citing statements by recent popes in support of evolution going back to Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Humani Generis, in 1950.
But Dias’ critique went deeper than the evolution story. She went on to condemn a pattern of media misinformation in the Pope Francis era. The evolution story fiasco, Dias explained, is “just the latest example of the press getting the Catholic Church completely wrong.”
“This embarrassing narrative repeats itself over and over in Francis coverage,“ she continued.
In her analysis, Dias points to a possible underlying motivation for the press’s systematic errors in its coverage of the Church. They “occur most often when hot-button Western political issues can be tied to the Pope’s statements—evolution, death penalty, gay marriage…”
To support her claim, Dias cites a recent example: “It happened at the Synod of the Bishops on the family, when the bishops talked about welcoming gays and the media whipped that up into an inaccurate story about an enormous policy shift toward gay marriage.”
None of this is surprising to Catholics. But when they charge the secular media with systematic bias against the Church, they’re usually dismissed as paranoids. Is it far-fetched to think that media coverage that Dias describes as “bananas” and “madness” might be the result of systematic prejudice against the Church because of its defense of traditional values on sexuality and the family?
It’s not far-fetched when you read statements from commentators like NY Times columnist Timothy Egan, one of the Church’s harshest critics. In his column yesterday, about violence and Islam, he advised youthful adherents of that religion to emulate Pope Francis and
…change your own religion from within. Look at the Roman Catholic Church, long a home to medieval attitudes about science, women and gays (and also a favorite target of [Bill] Maher). A few days ago, Pope Francis rejected simple-minded versions of creationism and backed evolution, saying God should not be seen ‘as a magician with a magic wand.’
When does a simplistic caricature like this cross the line from ignorance into bigotry? It’s hard to tell. The only way to find out is for the Church to engage with its critics.
Has Elizabeth Dias started a conversation about media bias against the Church? Let’s hope so. Catholics working within secular media should follow her lead and speak up about the issue. A civil and fact-based conversation among journalists about systematic bias against the Catholic Church is overdue.
But in the meantime, discerning media consumers should heed Dias’ advice:
“Don’t believe most of what you read about the Vatican. Papal coverage has gone wild.”