Pope & Press: The Honeymoon Will End

The current headline over Carl Olson’s Catholic World Report blog is “When will the media turn on Pope Francis?” Others are asking the same question too. The new Pope’s friendly and casual manner has charmed a lot of the liberals into supposing that if he’s such a sweetie pie he must be one of them. This illusion is fostered by such stories as that of the Swiss Guard discovered by the Holy Father outside his apartment in the Casa Santa Marta: when the Pope discovered he had been standing all night, he fetched a chair and told him to sit down: when told that he couldn’t, he was under orders from his captain to remain standing, the Holy Father replied: “Well, I’m the Pope, and I’m ordering you to sit down.” He then went into his apartment and prepared him a snack of bread and jam.

Such stories, combined with a certain habit of spontaneity in the way he teaches the faith, have alarmed conservatives (who tend to think that doctrine ought to be weighed carefully before public utterances are made) and reassured liberals, who like a bit of informality (and preferably downright sloppiness) in these matters.

For instance, the Pope’s homilies in the morning Mass he celebrates in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae are preached completely off-the-cuff; they are also recorded: but according to Sandro Magister, they are not transcribed from the audio recording, cleaned up in thought and expression, then submitted to the Pope and finally made public in an approved text. What happens is that partial summaries are provided, by Vatican Radio and by L’Osservatore Romano, redacted independently of one another and therefore with a greater or lesser content of actual quotations from the resulting text. Here is one such quotation (the sermons are preached, of course, in Italian):
When the Church wants to throw its weight around and sets up organisations, and sets up offices and becomes a bit bureaucratic, the Church loses its principal substance and runs the risk of turning itself into an NGO. And the Church is not an NGO. It is a love story … But there are those guys at the IOR … Excuse me, eh?… Everything is necessary, the offices are necessary … okay, fine! But they are necessary up to a certain point: as an aid to this love story. But when the organization takes the top spot, love steps down and the Church, poor thing, becomes an NGO. And this is not the way.
The remarks about the Vatican bank (made in the presence of employees of the IOR, hence “Excuse me, eh?”) were cut out by L’Osservatore Romano but not by Vatican Radio. The point is that all this seems to be very much part of the Pope’s style, this is how he likes to get himself across. As Sandro Magister comments: “It is not known whether this practice—aimed both at safeguarding the Pope’s freedom of speech and at defending it from the risks of improvisation—will be maintained or modified. The fact is that what becomes known of these semi-public homilies is by now an important part of the oratory typical of Pope Francis. It is a concise, simple, conversational oratory, tethered to words or images of immediate communicative impact.”

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All this is going down, it seems, particularly well in liberal Catholic circles. Conservatives, as I say, tend not to like this kind of thing. But it’s not the only thing against which a few of them are already reacting. According to John Allen, not only are “the Church’s conservatives … not the ones most enchanted with the new Pope,” some are, in fact, “openly alarmed.” He gives the example of the Italian liturgiologist Mattia Rossi, who last month published a piece in the daily Il Foglio suggesting that Francis’s decision to convene an advisory body of cardinals represents a step toward the “demolition of the papacy” because it replaces the notion of a divinely instituted authority with a fuzzy concept of collegiality, thereby transforming the papacy, according to Rossi, from primus super pares to primus inter pares.

At the other end of the Catholic spectrum, says Allen, “liberals may feel more simpatico with Francis than with either of his immediate predecessors, but they’re inoculated from overheated expectations of any pope by their low view of hierarchs. Moderates in the Catholic fold [by which I assume he means liberals: he’s a liberal himself, though normally an unusually sensible one, so there’s bound to be a tendency for him to suppose that “conservative” means extremist] … seem almost giddy with enthusiasm, and that’s where the danger of exaggerated expectations is most acute.”

The liberals are indeed, I am sure, going to be disappointed, if they expect to continue feeling “more simpatico with Francis than with either of his immediate predecessors.” As soon as Pope Francis was elected, I wondered what Fr Fessio, founder of the Ignatius Press, and one of the first Jesuits I ever met (he published my critical book on feminist theology, What Will Happen to God?, before I was even a Catholic—I think I was at the time the only Anglican to be published by a Catholic publisher, certainly by an orthodox one like Ignatius) thought about it. Fr Fessio, of course, has suffered greatly at the hands of apostate fellow Jesuits, but has always kept the faith, so his opinion weighs greatly with me. This is what he had to say: “I’m overjoyed. He is a great Jesuit, a traditional one. He’s ‘progressive’ in the sense that he loves the poor, and—more importantly—lives a life of simplicity. But he is completely faithful to the Church’s teaching. So he really is a ‘pontifex maximus,’ which is Latin for ‘the greatest bridge builder.’ He bridges the Old World and the New, doctrinal orthodoxy and service to the poor.”

Sooner or later, the liberal media—secular and Catholic—are going to get the message. As Sandro Magister says: “This benevolence of the media toward Pope Francis is one of the features that characterize the beginning of this pontificate. The gentleness with which he is able to speak even the most uncomfortable truths facilitates this benevolence. But it is easy to predict that sooner or later it will cool down…. The first warning came after Pope Bergoglio, on April 15, confirmed the strict approach of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in dealing with the case of the Sisters of the United States represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The protests that were immediately raised by these sisters and by the ‘liberal’ currents of Catholicism, not only American, resounded as the beginning of the breaking of a spell.”

So, to get back to the question with which I opened: “when will the media turn on Pope Francis?” Any time now, I should think. As Carl Olsen concludes his CWR piece: “The media honeymoon will soon end, and while criticisms of Pope Francis will likely be more muted than they were of Benedict, they will surely grow in both quantity and volume. The bottom line is simply this: most criticisms of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis are not, in the end, criticisms of those particular men as much as they are rejections of their office and the teachings, authority, and beliefs of the Church. It simply comes with the territory, as should be expected.”

Precisely so. It always comes down to that in the end. There’s really no such thing as a liberal pope; it’s just not what popes are for.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared Wednesday, May 1, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. The photo above pictures the first meeting between Pope Francis and members of the press.


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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