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I do not regret acting on the assumption that the Pope would be above petty quarrels…

I do not regret acting on the assumption that the Pope would be above petty quarrels…

By Phil Lawler ( bioarticlesemail ) | Nov 30, 2023

Like any journalist I hate to be beaten to a story, and this week Catholic World News (CWN) was late on a big one. Yet I have no regrets. If you’ll join me for a few minutes behind my editorial desk, I’ll explain why—and in the process, tell you something about CWN and about the Catholic world we cover.

Last Saturday, when I read the first report on La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana (found in English as the Daily Compass) that Pope Francis planned to strip Cardinal Raymond Burke of his salary and oust him from his Vatican apartment, I did not believe it. Would a Sovereign Pontiff really take such a vindictive action? My editorial instinct—the sensor that Hemingway talked about—warned me to proceed with extreme caution. So CWN did not mention the report in our headlines that day.

Why such hesitation? Because all too often, critics of this pontificate have rushed out with sensational reports, based on incomplete information, portraying things in Rome as even worse than they are (and they are bad enough). Such reports harm our cause: the cause of journalism and the cause of truth. Yes, I want the story. But I want the story to hold up. I want CWN to be recognized as a reliable source—as the place where readers will find a calm, balanced analysis.

On the other hand I did not entirely discount the report. Apparently the Pope had said something about Cardinal Burke during his November 20 meeting with leaders of the Roman Curia. Was the story in La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana based on a partial report? On some misunderstanding? An overly excited source (or an overly excitable reporter) might leap past the facts to an inaccurate conclusion; I’ve seen that happen often as well.

So I did my due diligence, contacting a few of my own sources, watching posts on social media, checking other news outlets, trying to determine what really had happened at that November 20 meeting. Within a matter of hours I noticed three things:

  1. My friends in Rome thought the story was—if not perfectly accurate—at least substantially true. No one who attended that meeting of Curial leaders was talking for the record. But informed sources confirmed that the Pope had discussed punitive measures against Cardinal Burke.
  2. Other responsible news outlets were saying roughly the same thing; their sources, too, were confirming the original report.
  3. Perhaps most telling, the Pope’s most ardent supporters, who had reacted to the original report by scolding journalists who carried it, saying that it was a wild rumor, gradually changed their tune and proclaimed that the Pope had every right to evict a cardinal from the Vatican.

On Tuesday, CWN carried the story—with a telltale question-mark at the end of our headline, indicating that we were not certain of the details.

Later we would learn that, sure enough, some of those details may have been wrong. The Pope did say that he planned to cut off Cardinal Burke’s stipend. He did not plan to evict him from his apartment, but he did plan to begin charging rent. The papal biographer Austen Ivereigh added that he had asked the Pontiff directly about the story, and the Pope had denied calling the American prelate his “enemy.”

To date no one who attended that November 20 meeting, apart from the Pope himself, has spoken for the record. (Cardinal Burke reports that he has been told nothing.) No doubt more details will eventually emerge. But it is now clear that the story I found incredible was essentially true. Pope Francis really was planning to take the actions that I thought too mean-spirited for a Pope to contemplate. After ten years of covering this pontificate I am not easily shocked. This story shocked me.

But then as I recovered from that shock, I remembered another time when I had missed an interesting story because I thought it seemed so improbable. Immediately after Pope Francis was elected, reports emerged that as he was preparing to step out on the loggia of St. Peter’s to greet the public for the first time as Pontiff, he shook off an aide who was trying to put the papal mozzetta across his shoulders and said, “The carnival is over!” I could not credit those reports. It seemed impossible that a man newly elected as Successor to St. Peter would take the time to make a catty remark about his predecessor’s willingness to wear the traditional regalia of his office. As the years passed, and I learned more about the personality of this Pontiff, I came to believe those reports. Why would anyone who was on the spot remember the Pope’s exact words, unless they were shocking enough to be etched in the memory? Why would anyone circulate such an outlandish report, unless it were true? Credo quia absurdum.

Twice, then, I have been late to an interesting story because I underestimated how rough Pope Francis can be on those who oppose or annoy him. Still I do not regret acting on the assumption that the Bishop of Rome would be above petty quarrels. Like any loyal Catholic I look to the Pope as a source of unity in the Church, not a source of conflict.

And oddly enough, I think this unfortunate episode may help to restore the Pope’s role as unifier—eventually. Because when the next papal conclave comes, the cardinals will surely remember the shabby treatment of Cardinal Burke—and of Cardinal Müller, and Archbishop Gänswein, and Bishop Strickland, and others—and realize how badly the Church needs a Pontiff who does not merely talk about synodal government, but walks the walk.

Meanwhile I will continue to marvel at the way the secular reporters who cover the Vatican continue to portray Pope Francis as a reformer who welcomes all points of view, and ignore the callous way he treats those who disagree with him.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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