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How The New York Times Tried To Intimidate U.S. Catholic Bishops With A False Headline

The Vatican from the Tiber. Stefano Avolio/Flickr.

It lacks any facts because it’s a pressure piece, pure and simple, designed to intimidate America’s bishops into doing what The New York Times thinks they should do.


“Vatican Warns U.S. Bishops,” the headline boldly declares: “Don’t Deny Biden Communion Over Abortion.”

It’s a striking title, and even with its sagging readership and brutalized reputation, these sort of things carry weight when they come from The New York Times. But it doesn’t take a marginally informed Catholic to see something’s wrong here — it merely takes a decent search for details to notice that whatever weight the headline is carrying, it certainly isn’t in facts.

It lacks any facts because it’s a pressure piece, pure and simple, designed to intimidate America’s bishops into doing what The New York Times thinks they should do; that is, perpetuate the corporate media myth that President Joe Biden and other pro-abortion politicians are close adherents to their Catholic faiths.

The article comes as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gather Wednesday through Friday to discuss a host of issues, including whether politicians who publicly, materially, and unrepentantly support grave sins should be denied Holy Communion.

Catholics who are not “in a state of grace,” meaning they are aware of grave sin, are barred from Communion. While Catholics hold that Communion is instituted by God for men and for their salvation, and that all men sin (“Catholic guilt” is a real thing, folks), the Roman Catholic Church teaches that in order to receive Communion, you must first be absolved of your sins, which you achieve by confessing them to a priest, committing to sin no more, and giving an act of repentance as directed by your confessor.

Although as a matter of church law the case of gravely sinning leaders is clear-cut, over the past 60 years a number of Catholic clergy have dispensed with punishment and consequences for sin as if afraid to appear to judge another, and have instead stressed a sort of “hippy Jesus” theology of easy-going forgiveness.

Catholic teaching is clear that there is no forgiveness without repentance, however, and at the top of June, Pope Francis issued a rare update to church law that included a crackdown on the laxity of its enforcement, calling correction an essential act of pastoral care. For example, the purpose of barring a Catholic from Communion, like excommunication, isn’t simply to punish but to prompt the sinner to repent, reconcile himself with God, and return to the church.

Meanwhile in Europe, where Biden is meeting with high-profile leaders, the Vatican reportedly asked the president to not make a stopover to come to the pope’s Mass. The reason given, according to American Catholic news service ETWN, is Pope Francis not wanting to send any mixed messages while the American bishops decide the issue. While the White House has specifically claimed there was no meeting ever planned between the pope and the president, follow-up questions from The Daily Caller News Foundation show the spokesman dodging if the president had been asked to not attend the Mass.

This, of course, stands in contrast with The New York Times, which claims in its opening paragraph that the Vatican “has warned conservative American bishops to hit the brakes on their push to deny communion to politicians supportive of abortion rights,” describing the apparent warning as a “remarkably public stop sign from Rome.”

The following 30 paragraphs, the casual headline reader might be surprised to learn, fail to deliver any “remarkably public stop sign from Rome” at all.

Instead, the third paragraph ties the ancient Catholic opposition to aborting children to former President Donald Trump and the fourth calls the discussion of ancient Christian teaching “a dangerous precedent,” citing a European Jesuit priest. The sixth paragraph cites the pope’s dislike of American Catholic “opposition to his pontificate” and a May 7 letter from Cardinal Luis Ladria in Rome.

The six-week-old letter, which is most likely what the Times is claiming to be its “remarkably public stop sign,” instructed American bishops to proceed carefully by discussing the matter privately among themselves and in light of both church teaching and the 2002 Vatican Doctrinal Note on Catholic politicians, which cites St. John Paul II’s command for Catholic politicians to limit those abortion laws they cannot overturn, and further calls on Christians “to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism and accept that democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society.”

Cardinal Ladria’s letter further instructed the bishops to not let their meeting end in discord among them, to make sure that their treatment of sin encompasses all sinners and not simply politicians, and that once a decision is made, it be discussed privately with those politicians it would affect.

It strains credulity that the Rome correspondent for The New York Times could honestly read the cardinal’s letter as “a remarkably public stop sign” and the analysis appears slightly absurd in light of the Vatican reportedly asking the president to pass on Mass with the pope, but our reporter doesn’t dwell on any specifics, plowing on in paragraphs seven and eight with filler on Pope Francis’s feud with American clergy, and paragraph nine with the White House spokesman’s statement on Biden’s “strong faith.”

Paragraph 10 doubles down on the absurdity, claiming the church’s jurisdiction over sin doesn’t extend to politicians, the 11th insults the archbishop of Los Angeles, the 12th quotes him, and the 13th complains that American bishops aren’t enthusiastic enough about the pope’s climate change agenda.

The bishops’ conference treats poverty, racism, alleged global warming, and other major issues as “serious threats to human life and dignity,” but maintains that “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.”

The 14th and 15th paragraphs details internal politicking and the likelihood of any action being taken, with the 16th and 17th tackling the resistance to the call to hold sin to account from Washington’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory, an ally of the president who enjoys his proximity to powerful people.

A desire to curry favor with power has indeed driven the bishops’ past reluctance to chastise public leaders, with church leaders fearing that if they stand up for themselves they will lose the little remaining influence they maintain in American public life. Serial abuse, laxity in teachings, and closed doors have pockmarked a massive decline in church attendance worldwide with little course-change from most succeeding bishops.

Those readers who made it that far in the Times might be wondering what possibly justifies the headline, and paragraphs 18-21 continue to disappoint, focusing on U.S. climate envoy John Kerry’s 2004 fight with the bishops (during which the bishops backed down) and ending with Kerry’s suggestion they not try it again.

In the final third of the article, the Times calls American Catholics “political and extremist,” reiterates their disagreements with Rome, tells us this isn’t a problem in Europe (where churches sit nearly empty and the pope warns that German bishops toy with excommunication), calls House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a Catholic and derides her diocese’ bishop an “archconservative” for his adherence to his religion.

The article opens with a patently unsubstantiated claim, portrays a serious lack of understanding of Catholic doctrine at the Times, and betrays its true intent: to pressure the bishops ahead of their Wednesday meeting — something the pope himself has reportedly declined to do. It isn’t surprising; it’s just sad, and for Catholics and Americans, it’s more of the same.