Four-and-a-half months into Pope Francis's pontificate, it's become more than a little tiresome to hear both his admirers and his detractors compare him with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. "Benedict would never have done . . . " rolls as easily off the lips of aging Call to Action types as it does off the fingers of the bloggers at the traditionalist website Rorate Caeli.
Yet, taking only the latest tempest in a teapot as an example, Benedict did do many of the things that his admirers and detractors insist he would not have done. Have we forgotten Pope Benedict's remarks on condoms? Unlike Pope Francis's recent remarks, Benedict's thoughts were not delivered in a plane over the Atlantic at the end of an hour and 20 minute interview capping an exhausting trip. And yet Benedict, even though he had the opportunity to revise his remarks before they were published in Light of the World, still managed to provide the media with lines they could take out of context and twist to make it appear that he had changed Church teaching on artificial contraception.
I do not write that as an indictment of Pope Benedict, whom I greatly admire and whose intellectual and liturgical style are more to my taste than Pope Francis's are. Taking innocuous statements out of context and twisting them for both ideological purposes and to sell more papers is simply what the media, both secular and—yes—Catholic, do, and it's no surprise that most of us who think we know what Pope Francis said do not realize that his remarks did not concern "gay people" in general, much less those currently engaged in homosexual activity, but homosexual priests in the Curia who are attempting to "seek God" and live out their vocation. (You can read what the Holy Father actually said, and see the context in which he said it, in my post Pope Francis on Homosexuality: Take a Deep Breath . . . on the About.com Catholicism site.)
Far more interesting than all of this is question of the media's love affair with homosexuality. Why was the New York Times, for instance, so eager to ignore the context of Pope Francis's remarks and to try to make them appear to be a major step toward the approval of homosexuality? Isn't this especially odd in light of the Times' veritable crusade against the Catholic Church—and Pope Benedict in particular—over the clerical sexual-abuse scandal? After all, the vast majority of cases of clerical sexual abuse were male on male—in other words, they involved priests engaged in homosexual activity.
Yes, I know; science has supposedly established that there is no connection between homosexuality and pedophilia. But pedophilic activity is, by definition, either heterosexual or homosexual. Moreover, men who engage in heterosexual pedophilic activity rarely engage in homosexual pedophilic activity—and vice versa.
By speaking of homosexuality as something that exists both prior to and outside of sexual activity, the media can create an idealized version of "the homosexual" that does not exist in reality. What does it mean to say that someone who has never engaged in homosexual activity of any kind is a homosexual? That he or she has inclinations and desires toward people of the same sex? I have various inclinations and desires in many areas of my life that I have never indulged; does merely having them make me, for instance, a "latent drug user" or "latent murderer" or "latent philanderer"? Even asking the question exposes the silliness of it all.
What it comes down to is this: The media loves the idea of homosexuality—that is, the idealized version of homosexuals who show up in TV sitcoms or go on The Colbert Report to discuss their latest book on the joys of "gay marriage" in their charming English accents. What the media would rather did not exist are those who engage in the whole spectrum of homosexual activity, because the reality of the actions of the witty interior decorators, hairdressers, and "conservative" pundits casts a pall over the idealized image. For the New York Times, a priest who engages in homosexual activity with a 17-year-old must be a pedophile rather than a homosexual; otherwise, "homosexuality" becomes a lot more messy.
Christians are called to love the sinner and hate the sin, and Pope Francis's comments were simply an unremarkable example of that command. To the extent that we live our lives that way, we may help others "who seek God and are of good will" to avoid the sin. But if we follow the example of the New York Times and its ilk—if we hate the sinner but love the sin—all we'll end up with is more sin, and greater sinners.
Scott P. Richert is editor at large for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and Publisher for Our Sunday Visitor. He holds an M.A. in political theory from the Catholic University of America. He has been published in, among others, The Family in America, This World, and Humanitas. He is the Catholicism Expert for About.com.