Last week Hilary White wrote an article for Lifesite News in which she reported on the fact that Pope Francis concelebrated Mass with and then later kissed the hands of an activist priest, Fr. Don Michele de Paolis, who has publicly spoken out against Church teaching on homosexuality. The priest also co-founded an organization, Agedo Foggia, that works to subvert the Church’s teaching. The article made no conjectures at all about the Pope’s motivation, nor did White at any point insert any editorial comment on the matter. She simply reported on the known facts – disputed, by the way, by no one – and then wrote about de Paolis’s previous work and writings. I repeat, White reported on the matter, and none of the facts she mentioned have been disputed by anyone. It is an accurate and well-sourced article.
The reaction to the piece was severe and swift. Soon after the article was published, and presumably in reaction to Hilary White’s article, Simcha Fisher intoned on her facebook page:
Two sentences that make me turn on my bull@#$% detector: ones that start, “Guess what Pope Francis just did?” and ones that start, “According to LifeSiteNews . . . “
Damien Fisher added in the comments: “If any lifesiter is reading this: You all suck at reporting and have no business pretending you are a news organization.”
By the way, at no point in any of their charitable screeds against Lifesite did either of the Fishers point out or specify any flaws in Hilary’s reporting. No, according to them Lifesite just sucks and you have to deal with it. Other comments on the thread were similarly lacking in anything resembling charity or substantive criticism.
Other denizens of the Catholic blogosphere weighed in with predictable reactions that I am not going to bother linking to, but you know where to look. Lifesite News itself issued this clarification that managed to offer up scores more conjecture than anything Hilary White offered in her article. First, Lifesite tried to backtrack the article:
LSN’s intention in publishing the story was to present the known facts about a public meeting between the pope and one of Italy’s leading Catholic dissidents – a newsworthy event in itself. However, in retrospect we recognize that in the absence of certain necessary clarifications and contexts the facts alone, as presented, unnecessarily lent themselves to misinterpretation.
What clarifications and context were needed, precisely? As usual, the Vatican spin machine offered no assistance, so all that was left for Hilary to do was report the facts as known to her.
LSN proceeded to propose several possibilities about what the Pope was up to.
Possibility #1: Pope Francis did not know about De Paolis’ pro-gay activism
In the first place, it is possible that Pope Francis was himself unaware of De Paolis’ pro-gay activism. As LSN’s original report stated, De Paolis officially met with Francis in his capacity as the founder of the Emmaus Community in the southern Italian city of Foggia, an organization that assists the poor and those suffering from AIDS – in other words, a commendable outreach. We do not know whether De Paolis’ other work agitating against Catholic teaching on homosexuality came up during the meeting. Pope Francis’ gesture in kissing De Paolis’ hands would in this case have been no more than a sign of priestly confraternity – a humble sign of respect from one priest to another. This view is given weight in light of the fact that Francis routinely shows respect for those he meets by kissing their hands. This week alone he publicly kissed the hands of the Patriarch of Constantinople, as well as a group of Holocaust survivors he met during his trip to the Holy Land.
However, even if the above scenario is accurate, it does raise some interesting questions about the Vatican’s vetting process. Why, for instance, of the many priests who would welcome the opportunity to concelebrate mass with the pope, did Francis’ handlers choose for this public honor a priest who is best known for his work opposing the Church’s teachings? On the other hand, it is possible that even they were they not aware of De Paolis’ background – a possibility that at first glance bears discomfiting echoes of that PR flub from Benedict’s pontificate, when the Vatican overlooked critical facts about Bishop Richard Williamson of the SSPX. Finally, given Pope Francis’ habit of mingling freely with guests at Domus Santa Marta, it is also possible that no such vetting process was applied to De Paolis, although this does seems unlikely, especially given that he was apparently given advance notice of his meeting with the pope.
Possibility #2: Pope Francis knew who the priest was, and was reaching out to him in mercy
On the other hand, it is possible that Francis and his handlers knew about De Paolis’ advocacy, but decided to arrange a meeting as an opportunity for the pontiff to reach out to the wayward priest as an act of mercy.
Some have compared the pope’s meeting with De Paolis to the famous meeting between the pontiff’s namesake, St. Francis, and a priest who was living in sin with a woman. After being urged by some local townspeople to go chastise the priest, Francis finally agreed. But instead of rebuking the priest as the townspeople expected, St. Francis fell to his knees and, without saying a word, began kissing the priest’s hands. According to the story, the priest repented.
The suggestion that the meeting between De Paolis and Pope Francis is similar is an attractive one. It is also given credence both by the pope’s love of St. Francis, as well as the strong emphasis of his pontificate on reaching out to the marginalized, and to bringing them back to Christ through kindness and mercy.
However, this interpretation runs into the difficulty that De Paolis himself has only spoken positively of the meeting with the pope. In his public comments he certainly has offered no indication that the pope either called him to repentance, or that he is considering abandoning his heterodox views after the meeting. Given the public nature of the meeting, this then raises prudential questions about the possibility of scandal, in the absence of a corresponding public statement from the Vatican or the pope calling De Paolis to repentance and conversion.
Possibility #3: Pope Francis intended the meeting as some kind of an endorsement of De Paolis’ work
The third possibility is that the pope knew of De Paolis’ pro-gay activism, but decided to meet with him anyway as a sign of respect either despite or even because of that activism. However, given the gravity of such an allegation, and how little is known about the meeting, there is clearly insufficient evidence to propose this as the best interpretation.
All three scenarios are certainly plausible (less so the third [I hope]), yet this is all complete guesswork. Hilary White did the responsible thing by offering up the facts as known to her through her reporting, and it would actually have been quite irresponsible for her to provide some kind of rationale for the Pope’s behavior based on educated guesswork. So she is experiencing blowback for failing to do precisely what she should not have done. Unreal.
I understand that we are living through some tense times, and there is a division developing between Catholics based on our feelings regarding the current Pontiff. I can respect the views of those who think the media and some Catholics have blown the Pope’s words and behavior out of proportion even if I think that some of the defense if fairly weak sauce. Yet what I cannot tolerate is this knee-jerk reaction against anything that might possibly cast the Pope in the bad light, especially when it is a straight news report in which the critics compile no substantive criticism of the reporting. It’s also especially galling that a faithful and talented reporter like Hilary White is mocked and derided on Facebook by people who can’t seem to compile an intelligent thought without offering up the intellectual equivalent of a loud grunt.
There’s also a delightful irony in the fact that the knee-jerk defenders are quick to resort to ad hominem attacks, such as mocking the “Cathowackosphere” before immediately making appeals such as “If you have a specific criticism, make it constructively, charitably, and reasonably. If you can’t, maybe you should just keep it to yourself.” Evidently this standard is to apply only to those who have expressed concerns with Pope Francis, and not defenders who can’t seem to handle any news story about the Pope without destroying the reputation of the person reporting the facts.
Update: Please read Steve Skojec’s blog post on this matter.