Pope Francis talks with U.S. President Barack Obama during a private audience at the Vatican March 27, 2014. (CNS photo/Stefano Spaziani, pool)
As longtime readers know, I tend to have a rather dour view of the
mainstream media in the United States. However, I will give credit where
such credit is due: when they latch onto a particular hook or angle,
they will latch onto it with a sort of zealous fervor and focus that is
quite fascinating. And frustrating. For example:
5 new ways Pope Francis is sticking it to the Christian right (Salon)
Pope Francis draws criticism from some conservative Catholics... (Newsday)
Eight times Pope Francis riled conservatives in the Catholic Church (Washington Post)
The Republican Party's war with Pope Francis has finally started (The Week Magazine)
Pope drawing criticism from US conservatives (San Angelo Standard Times)
5 Ways Pope Francis Has Shocked Conservative Christians (EcoWatch)
Pope Francis agitates conservative U.S. Catholics (USA Today)
are numerous similar pieces, many of them inspired in large part by
news this summer that Pope Francis' popularity in the U.S. had faltered,
dropping to 59% from a high of 76% in 2014. Since then I've been
interviewed by a number of non-Catholics news outlets (including
NewsMaxTV, Al-Jazeera, and CNN) about this topic, and my July 16th post "The hyperbolic and exhausting papacy of Francis" has
been quoted in various articles as an example of "conservative"
insurrection, even dissent. Never mind that my post does not touch on
matters of faith and morals but instead focuses on rhetoric and tone.
Never mindwell, I'm getting ahead of myself.
This past Tuesday, CNN.com published a feature titled "The 'Obamification' of Pope Francis",
which contained some comments from my July post. The reporter, John
Blake, had contacted me by e-mail at the end of August, asking me if I
would talk to him about "conservative reaction to Pope Francis’ economic
message and how some even see similarities between his message and
President Obama’s worldview." I agreed, and a few days later we spoke
for a half hour or so. Mr. Blake began by asking me if I had any questions. Yes, I had two questions.
I asked if he knew if any pieces had been written back in 2008 about
"liberal reaction to Pope Benedict's message" on this or that topic. Put
another way, while there was plenty of liberal (and conservative)
commentary on Benedict, were there any pieces that delved into real or
possible liberal criticisms of Benedict? I noted that I had done various
searches and found nothing of the sort. Hmmm.
I asked what he meant by "conservatives" since there are at least three
large but fairly distinct groups that might be described as
1. Libertarian and/or right-wing political conservatives:
This would include folks such as Rand Paul, Michael Savage, Rush
Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and others who have a fairly (or very) negative
view of Pope Francis due to his stances on economics and global
There is overlap with the first group, of course, but I specifically
mentioned Jeb Bush, who had dismissed Francis' take on economics,
saying, "I don’t go to Mass for economic policy or for things in
politics. I’ve got enough people helping me along the way with that." I
noted that Bush apparently doesn't grasp that Francis' criticisms of
capitalism are, in many respects, very much in keeping with his
predecessors, even if they sometime lack clarity and evenhandedness.
Equally important, the belief that the Church has nothing to say about
economics is woefully lacking since economics are ultimately about
relationshipspersonal, social, political, etc.and the Church is an
expert on humanity.
3. Orthodox Catholics: While I don't care for the term "conservative" for
this group, it's widely used. Besides, it clearly is a key group that
is being addressed in these various stories and reports. I pointed out
that the criticisms made by the majority of such Catholics are far more
informed than those made by groups #1 and #2, and also display a far
more measured tone and careful approach. And, I explained, most of those
criticisms are not about matters of faith and morals, but about
emphasis, strategy, approach, and concerns over Francis' lapses into
ambiguity and hyperboleespecially in more informal settings and
Mr. Blake apparently found this interesting, and
asked some questions, which led to me giving a short tour of Catholic
social doctrine. He asked about the charge that Francis is a socialist,
and I said, "No, I'm certain he's not a socialist. His criticisms of
capitalism and liberal economics, again, are very much in keeping with
what can be found in Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and Leo XIII"not to
mention Chesterton, Belloc, and Abp. Sheen. I said that I thought
Francis doesn't seem to appreciate, perhaps, distinctions between free
markets and classical capitalism, but that many of his remarks in
"Laudato Si'" bring to mind distributivism, which is based in large part
on the social teachings of Leo XIII.
I was then asked about the
similarities between Francis and President Obama. I sensed that Mr.
Blake believed that the two men were largely of one accord, and I pointed
out that while there might be certain shared goals and some common
language, the underlying principles of the two men are dramatically
different. Francis, especially in recent months, has made strong
statements against abortion, "gender ideology", and related matters, all
of which speak to a very different understanding of the human person,
family, marriage, and sexuality. So, while the two men might agree about
global warming, this sort of statement should give some pause:
everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is
also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we
genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings,
however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a
human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates
difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance
of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are
valuable for society also wither away”. (Laudato Si', 120; quoting
President Obama, I said, seems to epitomize the sort
of secularist and utilitarian technocratic perspective that Francis,
Benedict, and John Paul have warned about in various ways. In the words
of Benedict: "The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself..."
Obama, of course, has never wavered in his support of abortion and of
Planned Parenthood, or in his apparent belief the State should make or be involved in every
decision, big and small, for each American.
There is more,
but the point is that I tried, as best I could, to show that the real
story in all of this is not only somewhat complicated (as it requires
some study of the Church's social doctrine and key theological
principles) but it is far more interesting than "conservative Americans
vs. liberal Pope"an approach that grabs attention but provides little
light. Wouldn't it be great if a major news outlet would really delve
into these issues with a calm and measured approach, seeking to make
careful distinctions and not falling back on simplistic political saws?
it would be great. But, as I suspected would be the case, it didn't
happen. Unfortunately, Mr. Blake's piece tosses together a wide range of
opinionsmany of them clearly fringe and extremeand makes little or no
sense. Worse, it gives the impression that those of us who do hold
reasonable positions are somehow aligned with the nut jobs and the
conspiracy theorists. Even worse, the resulting piece is as much of an
apologia for Obama as it is for Francis, but in a crude, hamfisted, and
unfair way. The opening paragraphs suffice to make my point:
The charismatic Pope, who arrives in the United States on September 22, has gained fans in and out of the Catholic Church for
denouncing unfettered capitalism, warning about climate change and
urging mercy toward divorced couples and women who have had abortions.
also sparked a strange trend. The same political slurs and conspiracy
theories that critics have used against President Barack Obama are now
being deployed against Pope Francis. One critic even says the two
leaders have morphed into one sinister figure he calls "Popama."
Obamification of Pope Francis includes charges from conservative
critics that he's either a socialist, the Antichrist, an illegitimately
elected leader who wants to create a "New World Order" -- or all of the
above. Their anxiety was captured by the headline of one online column:
"Pope Francis is the Catholic Church's Obama -- God help us."
Ironically, the latter piecewritten by Adam Shaw for FoxNews.comis
the sort of clueless rant one finds among the worst of group #1, and
Shaw's failure to properly parse the pope's remarks (the "free market" is obviously not the
same thing as "unfettered capitalism") and make fair judgments about them (does
Shaw really think the pope talks "vacuously about the poor" in order to
"be respected"?) is paralleled by Blake's own fairly shrill and partisan
As one friend dryly remarked upon reading the CNN
article: "Who would have thought there are crazy ideas on the internet?"
The piece gathers the extremes and presents them as part of the typical
"conservative" perspective, which is sloppy, even very skewed. Also, it
is needlessly sensational:
In July, Jennifer LeClaire asked readers of Charisma magazine to Google the phrase "Is Pope Francis Antichrist." The query produced 425,000 hits, she noted. (That number is now 440,000.)
Francis hasn't yet caught up with Obama in the Antichrist category. A
Google search for "Is Obama the Antichrist" yields more than 800,000
results. But LeClaire's column reported on a growing belief among some
Catholics that the Pope is a diabolical figure in papal clothing.
Francis be the final Pope before Christ's return?" LeClaire asked.
"Could he be the Antichrist? Is he the False Prophet? The chatter
continues. ... "
Really? There's a "growing belief among some
Catholics" that Francis is the antiChrist? (Do a search for "John Paul
II" and "antiChrist". Yep.) Suffice to note that linking the papacy to the antiChrist has been a popular and polemical parlor game since
at least the Reformation. Also: there are a lot of kooks who think
Reagan and one of the Bushes was/is the antiChrist. And, frankly, you
can find a "Catholic" saying nearly anything if you do enough Google
searches. (Come to think of it, there are some "Catholics" who insist
that they are good Catholics despite supporting abortion,
"gay marriage", contraception, and euthanasia. Some of them even hold
public office!) And why, oh why, is "Charisma" magazine being quoted in
this regard? It might as well be called "Crazy" when it comes to the
papacy and "Biblical prophecy"! Speaking of prophecy, within a few days I
fully expect to see this headline: "Pope Francis chastises and angers
conservatives during papal visit."
Finally, Mr. Blake writes:
"Carl Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, said he and other
Catholics think Pope Francis expends too much energy apologizing for and
chiding the faithful."
No, I never said Pope Francis spends
"too much energy apologizing for" the faithful. I didn't say so in my
post, and I never said it in my interview. Frankly, I don't even know
what that means; it completely distorts what I've actually stated. In
fact, nothing I said on the phone made it into the piece.
article ends: "As the Pope visits the United States, it's doubtful
anyone will stand up and call him a socialist or the Antichrist. But
among Pope dissenters, the chatter will continue." Goodness. And we
wonder why most peopleincluding far too many Catholicsare completely
clueless about what the Church really teaches, why it teaches it, what
distinctions should be made and for what reason, and so forth? No, I
didn't expect a perfect or even balanced article. But I had hoped for
something worthy of thoughtful readers, not merely
empty clattering about fringe chattering.