On Francis and Benedict

Well, Pope Francis’s America interview has caused quite a stir, again leading in some media sources to rave reviews, and triumphant pronouncements about how different Francis will be from his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I am noticing a curious pattern emerging which has little to do with the Popes, and everything to do with their coverage in the Western media. In short, the media quickly (subconsciously, I expect) decide on the “papal narrative,” and then over-report the stuff that fits and under-report the stuff that doesn’t.

So, for example, during Benedict’s pontificate, any item that reinforced the narrative of “God’s Rottweiler” was accentuated (for example the investigation of American nuns) while other items that challenged the narrative went almost unremarked (for example, a speech from 2006 which included a very “Franciscan” section on segments of the Church’s excessive preoccupation on gays and abortion in 2006). Only once do I remember this narrative being challenged, when Benedict suggested (as an academic theologian well might) that the use of a condom, while less than entirely virtuous, may reflect a turn away from a greater sin and a turn toward righteousness. Headlines screamed that the Roman Church was revisiting its stance on contraception. Which, of course, it wasn’t. Once that became clear, Benedict went back to the dogs, so to speak.

Now Francis. We are hearing from pundits on the right and on the left that he is soft on gays, abortion, women’s ordination. Again, the entirety of his remarks suggest otherwise. For example on the hypothetical case of a gay priest, Francis says, “If a man is repenting of his sin and has a good will, who am I to judge?” What is reported: “Who am I to judge.” Or, when Francis says , “I will not talk as much about abortion, gays, or women’s ordination because Church teaching is settled on these matters,” the reports only cover up to the “because,” while the remainder, if it is reported at all, is buried several paragraphs down. At the same time, that Francis’s first encyclical was actually written by Benedict, completed by Francis and signed by both has been rarely talked about. Largely because this suggests a measure of continuity that runs against the grain of the narrative. As does, for example, Francis continuing the investigation of American sisters that his predecessor began. This suggests to me that the collective consciousness of the media has decided that Francis is the liberal anti-Benedict. Every quote will be filtered through this narrative and exaggerated or ignored accordingly.

Of course, the narrative can change over a long pontificate. Few probably remember how John Paul II was the darling of the media for his support of workers’ rights, Solidarity, and so on in Poland. It was only in the latter half of his papacy, as his body failed, and as he began to teach powerfully on matters of human sexuality that the narrative changed to the substantially less positive one now enshrined. For the briefest of months following his funeral, the original narrative seemed to take the stage again–who can argue with a million pilgrims shouting “Santo Subito!”?–but that is now a memory. I wonder whether there will be a narrative change with Francis. We’ll see.

A final thought. Much of the fawning seems to reflect a sincere attraction not to Francis, but to Jesus and to the Gospel. And that is good. At the same time, though, it also reflects a fundamental attitude toward Christian faith in the West these days: “I’ll become a Christian when the faith agrees with me.” So much for conversion. I am tempted to quote Flannery O’Connor out of context here. “If that is all it is, then to hell with it.” The fawning, in other words, reflects the truth of every human heart that instinctively knows the Gospel is good news, but recoils at the fact that part of that good news is the exposure of sin. It is therefore fitting to end with Francis’ own self-description–again under-reported outside Christian media. To the question, “Who is Francis?” he replied, “I am a sinner.” Just so.

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