You’ve read the headlines. The new pope, Francis I, a former parish priest from Argentina, is turning Catholicism upside down. He refused to ride in a fancy limousine. He stopped and washed the feet of a street woman. He told priests to be more humble, ordered the faithful to love homosexuals and blasted capitalism.
So, is he a revolutionary? A radical? Or worse … an evangelical?
“The quality of reporting on the Vatican by the secular news media – never high – has plummeted to an all-time low in recent weeks,” writes Phil Lawler, writing for the website Catholic Culture. “Scarcely a day goes by without some sensational new headline: The Pope is going to appoint a female cardinal! He’s going to poll the Catholic public! He’s going to use the poll results to alter Church doctrine! He’s going to end priestly celibacy! He’s going to drop the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage!”
“The headlines are inaccurate,” says Lawler, “as are the accompanying stories. But because they’re sensational, they capture attention. Only rarely do the media outlets correct their errors, and even when they do, the corrections do not capture the same amount of attention. Meanwhile, after the eye-catching stories have appeared in the big media outlets, they filter down through the copycat outlets. So the inaccurate headlines keep popping up, long after the stories have been debunked.”
“On the last day of 2013, one of the weirdest religious stories for ages appeared on the news wires,” writes Luke Coppen for The Spectator. “The Vatican had officially denied that Pope Francis intended to abolish sin. It sounded like a spoof, but wasn’t. Who had goaded the Vatican into commenting on something so improbable? It turned out to be one of Italy’s most distinguished journalists: Eugenio Scalfari, co-founder of the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica, who had published an article entitled ‘Francis’s Revolution: he has abolished sin.’”
The announcement of Pope Francis as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” came as small surprise to anyone watching events in the Catholic Church over the past year, writes Politico’s Candida Moss. “This pontiff is a media darling. His charismatic and photo-op friendly ministry has won the hearts and minds of both the Catholic faithful and, clearly, the global press. Time’s editors couldn’t be more correct when they declare that Pope Francis has changed the “tone and perception” of the Catholic Church.
“But do they really understand him?”
Moving among the poor in Brazil. (Photo courtesy of Agência Brasil,)
“Interestingly, on Nov. 20, when Time initially named Francis as a contender for the award, the website noted that he was nominated for his ‘rejection of church dogma.’ It was a strange claim, given that Pope
Francis has yet to jettison a single church teaching. It was only after some pushback from the theological 'twitterverse' that Time changed the description to read “rejection of luxury.” The revised post now notes, “An earlier version of this post suggested that Pope Francis rejected some church dogma. He does not.”
“Why is there so much bad reporting about the Vatican?” asks Lawler. “First, Pope Francis has become enormously popular, and drawn the attention of the world’s media. There’s more coverage of Vatican affairs than in the past. Since the coverage is nearly always inaccurate, more coverage means more inaccuracy.
“Second, the mass media still don’t know exactly what to make of this new Pontiff. Pope Benedict XVI was a known quantity; he had been in the public spotlight for years. He was known as a staunch defender of Catholic orthodoxy, and so – even when reporters realized that he had been badly mischaracterized as a stern martinet – no one expected him to make significant changes in Church teaching. In the case of Pope Francis, however, reporters don’t know what to expect.
“Third,” writes Lawler, “Pope Francis has produced a series of surprises, mostly with his own personal gestures. Vatican-watchers are expecting further changes, and competing to be the first to spot a new development. Secular reporters generally – wrongly – think that ‘change’ must necessarily mean doctrinal change, so they speculate about the possibilities along those lines. Dozens of stories in recent weeks have solemnly announced that the pope ‘might be thinking of’ various major changes. Unless you can read minds, you can’t absolutely contradict such stories, but they’re based on nothing but the reporter’s speculation.”