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.”
“Fourth – and regrettably – Catholics on both ends of the spectrum are encouraging the media to think of Pope Francis as a revolutionary. One group, still longing for radical changes in doctrine, encourages speculation that the pope will grant their wishes. Another group, frightened of the changes that might be in store, seizes every opportunity to complain that the Holy Father is abandoning time-honored traditions.
“Extremists on both sides, for their own separate reasons, portray the pope as a radical. Their hyperbolic statements – gleeful on one hand, morose on the other – provide secular reporters with the juicy quotations they need for stories depicting Pope Francis as a radical.
“Folks, we all need to calm down. Take a few deep breaths. If you read the pope’s actual statements, if you watch his behavior, you realize that although he has a striking and often provocative personal style, he is no revolutionary.”
“Since he took charge last year,” writes Coppen, “Francis has been made into a superstar of the liberal left. His humble background (he is a former bouncer), his dislike for the trappings of office (he cooks his own spaghetti) and his emphasis on the church’s concern for the poor has made liberals, even atheists like Scalfari, suppose that he is as hostile to church dogma as they are.”
“They assume, in other words, that the pope isn’t Catholic. Last year, few left-leaning commentators could resist falling for the foot-washing
Jesuit from Buenos Aires. In column after column they projected their deepest hopes on to Francis – he is, they think, the man who will finally bring enlightened liberal values to the Catholic church.
“In November, Guardian writer Jonathan Freedland argued that Francis was ‘the obvious new hero of the left’ and that portraits of the Supreme Pontiff should replace fading Obama posters on ‘the walls of the world’s student bedrooms.’”
“There’s no doubt that Francis has breathed fresh life into Catholicism. In particular, his interest in limiting the power of the bulky Vatican bureaucracy, cutting back on church expenditure and encouraging compassion and practical aid for the vulnerable has met with widespread approval from a global media that, let’s face it, leans left. He had them at ‘Who am I to judge?’
“To be fair to Francis’s predecessors, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI also spoke about the need for the wealthy to care for the poor. But to the tradition-bound Vatican, there was something comforting, rather than challenging, when an ermine-clad Benedict spoke about charitable giving with an air of noblesse oblige. It gave the impression that assisting the poor needn’t come at the expense of personal creature comforts. Not so Francis: He has shunned the trappings of his office, using a minibus instead of a limousine after his election and forgoing the luxurious papal apartments accorded to him in favor of more humble digs.”
“But the buzz that has greeted Pope Francis’s advocacy for the poor against the powerful exaggerates its novelty. And it’s certainly not a rejection of church doctrine: It goes back to Jesus and has been a dominant feature of Catholic social teaching since the very beginning. Francis may be the most photographed priest to adhere to his vows of poverty, but he’s far from the first.”
“ Whenever he proves himself loyal to Catholic teaching – denouncing abortion, for instance, or saying that same-sex marriage is an ‘anthropological regression’ – his liberal fan base turns a deaf ear,” notes Coppen.
“Last month America’s oldest gay magazine, the Advocate, hailed Francis as its person of the year because of the compassion he had expressed towards homosexuals. It was hardly a revolution: Article 2358 of the Catholic church’s catechism calls for gay people to be treated with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity.’
“In simply restating Catholic teaching, however, Francis was hailed as a hero. When a Maltese bishop said the pope had told him he was ‘shocked’ by the idea of gay adoption, that barely made a splash. Time magazine, too, made Francis person of the year, hailing him for his ‘rejection of Church dogma.’ But for cockeyed lionisation of Francis it would be hard to beat the editors of Esquire, who somehow managed to convince themselves that a figure who wears the same outfit every day was the best dressed man of 2013.”Francis I with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (Photo: Mexican government)
“Some pundits,” write Coppen, “have noticed the gulf between what you might call the Fantasy Francis – the figure conjured up by liberal imagination – and the actual occupant of the Chair of St Peter. James Bloodworth, editor of the political blog Left Foot Forward, recently urged his journalistic allies to show some restraint. ‘Pope Francis’s position on most issues should make the hair of every liberal curl,’ he wrote. ‘Instead we get article after article of saccharine from people who really should know better.’
“For a while, it seemed inevitable that the new Pope’s fans would come to realise he is not about to bless women bishops, condom use, gay marriage and abortion – and then they would turn on him. Now, that seems unlikely. Having invented the Fantasy Francis, his liberal well-wishers may never want to kill off their creation.”
“In fact, we have yet to see the kinds of doctrinal tinkering the media has attributed to him,” writes Moss. “When it comes to the hot-button cultural issues that animate the Rush Limbaughs of the world, nothing has changed. Francis has been clear that the church’s position on abortion is not up for discussion, and he recently excommunicated Father Greg Reynolds of Melbourne, Australia, presumably for officiating at unsanctioned gay marriages. This pope may be
extraordinarily compassionate, but he still enforces church order.”
At World Youth Day (Photo courtesy of Agência Brasil)
“Where Francis has been most antagonistic has been in his statements about liturgy and hierarchy. In his headline-making Apostolic Exhortation, an official letter to the church, released two weeks ago, for example, he took a few swipes at those who are ‘ostentatious[ly] preoccupied’ with doctrine, liturgy and prestige without an appropriate concern for how the gospel affects people’s lives – a jab at traditional Catholics who had criticized him for altering the liturgy.
“To them, Francis responded: You’re hung up on the bells and whistles, and missing what truly matters. Intra-church scuffles over liturgical innovation aren’t why Francis was nominated for Person of the Year, however.
“‘What makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all,’ Time wrote in its cover story.
“And that is true,” writes Moss. “But less than a year into his papacy, it certainly seems premature to argue that he ‘may have found a way out of the 20th century culture wars, which have left the church moribund in much of Western Europe and on the defensive from Dublin to Los Angeles.’
“The heady romance between Pope Francis and the world is still in its honeymoon period. Francis may turn out to be the religious revolutionary that Time magazine fell in love with and that right-wing pundits fear – but it is too soon to say. Perhaps the media should take a step back, take some time and get to know him.”