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Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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Separating truth from media spin. By now you know that Time Magazine has snubbed me once again and named Pope Francis as it 2013 Person of the Year. In explaining the decision Time Deputy Managing Editor Radhika Jones says “The Pope came onto the scene in March with…fanfare, and almost the opposite of fanfare, and immediately made his presence felt in a way that seemed different from popes in recent memory…He’s in a position of immense power, but he introduced himself as a man of great humility. Even in a very short amount of time — he’s only been pope for nine months — he really has refocused a conversation that’s global, putting more emphasis on poverty and the poor.” Pope Francis stands out “as someone who has changed the tone and perception and focus of one of the world’s largest institutions in an extraordinary way,” says Time Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs.

This is just the third time Time has named a pope its person of the year. And, while after a decade of less than positive headlines involving all-too-real Church scandals, most Catholics are pleased to see that this pontiff’s obvious compassion for the poor and those of different beliefs (including atheists) is already helping the change to focus of how the faith and perceived and presented by the media. Still others, however, worry that Pope Francis is watering down Catholic doctrine to a dangerous degree — of, at the very least, is saying things that can be easily twisted by those with agendas that are not, in fact, in line with Catholic teaching.

Alejandro Bermudez is the author of Pope Francis: Our Brother, Our Friend. The new book, published by Ignatius Press, presents the personal insights of ten Jesuits, many who have known Pope Francis (fka Jorge Bergoglio) since his first days as a priest.  They were interviewed for this book shortly after he was elected the Pope. Non-Jesuits, including an Argentine senator, a prominent rabbi, a priest working in the slums of Buenos Aires that Bergoglio often visited, also were interviewed.

I recently had the opportunity ask the writer about his perspective on the media’s embrace of Pope Francis.

JWK: How can the designation of “Person of the Year” help Pope Francis communicate his message to the world?

ALEJANDRO BERMUDEZ: Honestly, I think that Pope Francis’ designation as Person of the Year is more the consequence of his incredibly successful capacity to reach the world with the message of the Gospel, rather than some kind of unexpected opportunity granted by TIME Magazine. Of course, the designation is not irrelevant, since it will attract more interest in him and what he has to say; but I think the true “secret” to Pope Francis’ success in reaching out to the world is his personality rather than his media “savviness.”

JWK: Do you think he’s comfortable being held up in this way? Will it have an impact on how he conveys Church teachings?

AB: Knowing him before, when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had a genuine, even amused detachment from what the media would say. His first interview as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, for example, was granted to a teenage boy writing a parish bulletin called “Estrellita de Belén” (Little star of Bethlehem) and it was a rather serious, substantial interview. He did this because he thought that most of the secular media was utterly unequipped to accurately deliver the full spectrum of the Christian message. That in no way means that the media is, to Pope Francis, useless or unreliable. He loves reading and watching the news. He believes mass media can certainly be a force for good and a “hook” to bring people to the depth of the Church’s message. But as he writes in his latest document “Evangelii Gaudium,” the fullness of the Gospel can only be transmitted the way the Apostles did: personally.

JWK: How would he — and you — respond to conservative critics who believe his words are being used to promote liberation theology? Does the Pope, in fact, believe in liberation theology? Is he anti-capitalism?

AB: In his recent interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Pope Francis clarified two important things: first, he believes Marxism was a total failure; and second, he never pretended to provide technical, political or economic solutions. His main goal is and always has been to make the case for a personal commitment to help those who are suffering around us. In short, helping our neighbors in need is not something that can be left to the power of an “invisible hand,” as effective as it may be in solving major economic problems. The poor and needy around me are my problem, and no other hands should be expected to address their needs but mine.

And regarding Pope Francis making the case for liberation theology… P-l-e-a-s-e! The man who was the world’s youngest provincial of the Jesuits, who personally fought the influence of liberation theology within his own order, and who paid the price of ecclesiastic exile for doing so is now, all of a sudden, an agent of liberation theology? That is about as logical as saying that Ronald Regan was actually the Manchurian candidate of the USSR.

JWK: How would the Pope likely respond to conservatives who are concerned about what they see as overly-conciliatory statements regarding atheists — and the idea that the Church has perhaps focused too much in issues like homosexuality and even abortion? To what extent have his words been twisted and to what extent do they represent a genuine change in tone for the Church?

AB: I use here the words of my friend José María Poirier, an Argentinean intellectual who has extensively interviewed and personally known Cardinal Bergoglio for years. The Pope, in all matters of doctrine, is a son of the Church. He stands and has stood quite bravely for all the most controversial points of the Church’s doctrine. But as a son of St. Ignatius, he also makes a “discernment of spirits”, a distinction between the doctrinal and the pastoral. The things that are most important at the doctrinal level are not necessarily the things that should be presented first when dealing with people looking for a permanent home in the Catholic Church. The Pope has witnessed masses of people filling up Catholic shrines and basilicas all over Latin America – they come on special occasions because they find God’s mercy and forgiveness, not because they are scolded for their sins. Once they find God’s mercy in the Catholic Church, they will naturally want to be faithful to that merciful God they have discovered, and that’s when they can be properly catechized. But people can hardly be catechized if they are not first evangelized.

This is a change in tone and style, but by no means is it a doctrinal change. Those who present his change as doctrinal are either deeply confused or utterly interested in manipulating him for specific political or ideological purposes. But neither the confusion nor the manipulation will deter him from doing what he believes needs to be done to bring a new spring to the Catholic Church.

JWK: Now that the media is holding up Pope Francis as something of a role model when it comes to this openness and genuine caring for the poor, is the Church now in a better position to articulate teachings that may be less popular with the media — particularly its opposition to abortion?

AB: Maybe, but I am not completely sure. Jesus himself predicted that He and his message would be a “sign of contradiction.” That means that the rejection of some core Catholic principle — such as the sanctity of all human life or the sanctity of marriage — is not a mere “misunderstanding” that can be solved by better “marketing,” media savviness or better “wording.” It is a message that is demanding, countercultural and therefore extremely uncomfortable and irritating to many. The true people of good will, the few that have not taken sides because of genuine ignorance, will probably be attracted by the message of mercy and the compelling humanity of this Pope. But those who already hate the Church because of what it stands for will keep hating it, unless there is that dramatic change of mentality that we Catholics call conversion. And this Pope is certainly hopeful for that too, but is not naïve.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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