The controversy over what happened during the February 10 ad limina meeting between Pope Francis and fifteen bishops from the Southwestern U.S. seems to be simmering down a bit, though all indications suggest a number of questions will remain unanswered and many disputed points will never be resolved. None of the anonymous bishops quoted in the original Catholic News Agency (CNA) piece have come forward to publicly defend their statements, leaving CNA in what must be an uncomfortable position: they are standing by the claims of bishops who are unwilling to stand by their own words.

For those unfamiliar with the story, I recommend reading Nathan Turowsky’s February 22 analysis, but here’s a quick summary:

CNA published an article by JD Flynn, on February 20, quoting two anonymous American bishops about topics discussed during their ad limina meeting with Pope Francis earlier in the month. Most notably, the article included claims about a discussion of Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest well-known (and controversial) for his outreach to the LGBT community.

According to the report, the unnamed bishops made a number of claims about what was discussed in the meeting, including:

  • That Pope Francis was unhappy “about the whole subject of Fr. Martin,” and that he became visibly angry and felt “used” by the meeting with Martin.
  • As for the meeting itself, the bishops claimed Francis told them that he “did not intend for it to convey any significance.”
  • That the pope was clearly unhappy about how some journalists reported on the meeting.
  • That Francis told them that Martin’s superiors had been spoken to about it, and that someone had given Martin a “talking to.”

In addition, the article stated that Martin was also discussed with some Vatican officials, in what might be the article’s most curious sentence:

“Two bishops told CNA that Martin’s work in regards to the LGBT community was also discussed with the heads of numerous Vatican congregations, and that some officials expressed concern about aspects of the priest’s work.”

In other words, anonymous bishops discussed Martin’s work with the unnamed heads of unspecified Vatican congregations, and some undisclosed officials expressed unrevealed concerns about unstated aspects of Martin’s work. Stop the presses.

Since the original story broke, two bishops have come forward to publicly challenge the account of the meeting given by CNA. For his part, Fr. Martin denied that he was ever given a “talking-to” by his superiors, or that he was aware of any complaints from the Vatican about his work.

In addition, CNA produced an article with quotes from a third bishop present at the meeting, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila. Many commentators have expressed that they suspect Aquila was one of the anonymous sources in the original article. Rather than stating if he was one of the sources or endorsing either narrative, he decided to change the subject. His quotes don’t quite qualify as a “statement,” as they are scattered throughout the article and include sentence fragments, but here they are all in one place (actual quotes in bold):

[Aquila said] it was a “privilege” to meet with the pope and his fellow bishops … adding that “the meeting was a grace.

“The Holy Father spoke very openly and freely with us regarding many topics,” … acknowledging that the meeting “has now become a source of some controversy.”

Aquila told CNA that Pope Francis expressed his personal frustration with the way his meeting with Martin was interpreted and framed by some journalists in a way that was clear, Aquila said, especially for “those who understand Italian.”

“I think it is reasonable that some remarks from the Holy Father would have been interpreted in different ways by different bishops.”

“all of us present at the meeting were making an effort to receive the pope in good faith”

“The most important part of the meeting was, of course, our unity with Pope Francis, the Vicar of Christ on Earth.”

The only actual quote from Aquila that might be described as even close to a defense of the original CNA narrative is, “I think it is reasonable that some remarks from the Holy Father would have been interpreted in different ways by different bishops.” That this was the most that any of the bishops present have been willing to say publicly to CNA about the meeting greatly hurts the credibility of the original story.

Additionally, the line about “those who understand Italian” has been interpreted as a dig at Bishop Stephen Biegler (one of the bishops who publicly challenged CNA’s original narrative), who mentioned in his response that the bishops were provided with an “excellent translation” of Pope Francis’s Italian. I don’t know that Biegler speaks Italian, but according to his official biography, he lived in Rome as a seminarian from 1989-1993, and again from 2003-2007 as a member of the faculty of North American College and for additional studies. He might have been in a position to judge the quality of the translation.

Because his statements left so many questions unanswered, I tried to contact Archbishop Aquila and his spokesman several times, asking whether he was one of the anonymous bishops, and whether he endorsed the original CNA report. Finally, I received an email from his spokesman directing me to the CNA story along with the comment, “He does not have anything further to add on the issue.”

What to make of all this? There’s one thing I want to state clearly: I don’t think JD Flynn was trying to intentionally deceive anyone when he wrote the story. That said, I believe he made an egregious error in judgement in deciding to go forward with a story based upon accounts from bishops who were unwilling to stand by their words. There were 15 bishops in the room. Their names are a matter of public record. If he really wanted to publish a report on this, he should have called them one by one, until he found somebody willing to put their name behind the narrative. And if he didn’t find one, the story should have died there.

Secondly, the anonymous bishops (whoever they are) have demonstrated a lack of character by not coming forward and owning their statements. Journalistic ethics require Flynn not to name his anonymous sources (whether he should have relied on them in the first place is another question). If they care at all about the reputation of JD Flynn or Catholic News Agency, they should come forward and admit that they provided the quotes.

I know JD, and I have no doubt that he believed he was being told the truth by whichever bishops he spoke to. Unfortunately, it is clear that he was too trusting and too ready to publish a story that conformed to an ideological narrative. If you are going to publish an article–especially if the story is based on someone’s personal recollection of a conversation and will clearly harm the reputation of another–you need to do your due diligence. As Pope Francis said last year,

“To be a humble journalist does not mean to be a mediocre one, but rather to be aware that through an article, a tweet, or a live television or radio broadcast you can do good but also, if you are not careful and scrupulous, you can do harm to others and sometimes to entire communities.”

We all make mistakes, but we should take responsibility for them when we do. Fr. Martin is owed an apology, and the story should be retracted with an explanation and correction.

It appears we are now at an impasse. Unless CNA retracts the story (or one of the anonymous bishops comes forward to defend their report), I suppose the story will eventually fade into the past. But the damage was done. This is yet another crack in an increasingly fractured Church.

Image: Adobe Stock

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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