Sandro Magister’s most recent piece, “The Spell of Pope Francis”, reflects on something that has interested me since the election of the new pontiff, summarized in this way by the Italian journalist: “This benevolence of the media toward Pope Francis is one of the features that characterize the beginning of this pontificate.” Quite right. Pope Francis has repeatedly, in a very short period of time, made strong statements that would have likely been met with agitation, consternation, or outright indignation if uttered by his predecessor—especially if they had been uttered, say, in the spring and summer of 2005. Magister, having written some thoughts about the preaching style of Pope Francis, states:
The popularity of Pope Francis is due to a large extent this style of preaching and to the easy, widespread success of the concepts on which he insists the most – mercy, forgiveness, the poor, the “peripheries” – seen reflected in his actions and in his own person.
Quick interruption here, if I may: which pope stated, in his very first homily, the following? “The Eucharist makes constantly present the Risen Christ who continues to give himself to us, calling us to participate in the banquet of his Body and his Blood. From full communion with him flows every other element of the Church’s life: first of all, communion among all the faithful, the commitment to proclaiming and witnessing to the Gospel, the ardour of love for all, especially the poorest and lowliest.” Yep, that’s right—Benedict XVI. Back to Magister:
It is a popularity that acts as a screen for the other more inconvenient things that he does not neglect to say – for example, his frequent references to the devil – and that if said by others would unleash criticism, while for him they are forgiven.
The silence on this point is fascinating, as has been noted on this blog by Catherine Harmon. Magister than provides some further examples:
In effect, the media have so far covered up with indulgent silence not only the references of the current pope to the devil, but also a whole series of other pronouncements on points of doctrine as controversial as they are essential.
On April 12, for example, speaking to the pontifical biblical commission, Pope Francis reiterated that “the interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures cannot be solely an individual scholarly effort, but must always be compared with, inserted within, and authenticated by the living tradition of the Church.” And therefore “this entails the insufficiency of any interpretation that is subjective or simply limited to an analysis incapable of accommodating within itself that overarching sense which over the course of the centuries has constituted the tradition of the whole people of God.”
This salvo of the pope against the forms of exegesis prevalent also in the Catholic camp went practically unnoticed, amid the general silence of the media.
On April 19, in his morning homily, he lashed out against the “great ideologists” who want to interpret Jesus in a purely human vein. He called them “intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness. And of beauty we will not speak, because they do not understand anything.”
In this case as well, silence.
On April 22, in another morning homily, he said forcefully that Jesus is “the only gate” for entering into the Kingdom of God and “all the other paths are deceptive, they are not true, they are false.”
With this he therefore reiterated that indispensable truth of the Catholic faith which recognizes in Jesus Christ the only savior of all. But when in August of 2000 John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger published precisely on this the declaration “Dominus Iesus,” they were bitterly contested from inside and outside of the Church. While now that Pope Francis has said the same thing, everybody quiet.
This last point is an especially excellent one by Magister, who knows well how then-Cardinal Ratzinger (and Pope John Paul II) were maligned and attacked from both inside and out because of Dominus Iesus, a document that is essential reading for any serious Catholic. Magister’s conclusion to all of this is, I think, right on the mark:
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 and give way to a reappearance of criticism.
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.
I’m not sure, however, if “spell” is the right word. Quibbles aside, the largely positive reaction to Pope Francis parallels, in many ways, the largely positive initial response to John Paul II upon his election. Much of this was due to the factor of surprise and the excitement of the unknown that came with a non-Italian, originally obscure, semi-mysterious, personally engaging, and often surprising pontiff (all of which apply to both John Paul II and Francis). After all, it’s hard to attack a target when you aren’t even sure what the target is.
Benedict, of course, was quite another matter, for he was already well known, having been in the Vatican for decades prior to his election and his many works available in English translations. The perception of Benedict as reactionary, old-fashioned, aloof, arrogant, and harsh was completely unfair, but it had been set in stone years prior, during his time as head of the CDF, a job that can only be viewed with suspicion and even hatred by those keen on undermining Church authority and doctrine. This negative presentation of Benedict was aided, without doubt, by his own retiring and quiet nature. In almost hilarious fashion, nearly everything done by Benedict was immediately judged as guilty until proven innocent, yet with innocence not being an option for a substantial number of pundits and journalists, who were either petty, superficial, or clueless in their coverage of his pontificate. (And then there was Hans Küng, who doesn’t even have the excuse of being a journalist!)
Magister is undoubtedly correct: 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.