The Media’s Fictional Francis

In the year since his election to the papacy, Pope Francis has received many accolades and honors. But will this acclaim further his efforts in the New Evangelization, or hinder them?

Last week, La Stampa’s Vatican Insider reported that Pope Francis has been nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. According to the news brief, other nominees include Vladimir Putin, Edward Snowden, and Malala Yousafzai. While the Norwegian Nobel Committee holds the details of nominations in secret for five decades after their submission, the committee did announce that 2014 saw the greatest number of candidates to date. In fact, the names of 278 candidates were forwarded to the committee for consideration, including the names of 47 organizations, topping the previous record of 259 nominations submitted last year. The winner will be announced in October.

While the nomination is itself an honor for Pope Francis, as well as for the universal Church, could winning the Nobel Peace Prize occasion an even higher level of misunderstanding about the Latin American pontiff’s principles and positions? Put another way, do such prizes provide platforms for the New Evangelization—something Francis has discussed often and at length—or do they further confuse both Catholics and others about the goals and priorities of the Holy Father?

In considering these questions, one needs to think about the larger context of the nomination. If Pope Francis’ Nobel nomination meets with success, the accolade will be added to a list of other honors. In 2013, Pope Francis was named Time’s “Person of the Year,” The Advocate’s “Person of the Year,” and Esquire’s “Best Dressed Man of the Year.” When Time announced its selection, it referenced Pope Francis’ humble, simple, and principled approach to papal politics, noting his willingness to work toward the reform of the Church. Howard Chua-Eoan, Time news director, and Elizabeth Dias, Time reporter on religion and politics, explained that Pope Francis “took the name of a humble saint and then called for a church of healing,” adding that the “septuagenarian superstar is poised to transform a place that measures change by the century.”

To be sure, Time’s explanation is grounded in fact. Pope Francis has been working to bring reform to the Roman Curia. Prior to the papal election last spring, cardinals discussed the need to transform the Vatican’s central office structure. During pre-conclave general congregations, many cardinals expressed the need to make the Roman Curia less like a network of bureaucratic offices and more like the pope’s helping hand in the cause of the New Evangelization. The discussion resulted in concrete measures. Following his election on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis appointed an eight-member Council of Cardinal Advisers. In recent months, the Pontiff has introduced reforms of the Institute of Religious Works—the so-called Vatican Bank—and in just the last several weeks he has announced the creation of an economic secretariat to manage the Holy See’s assets with transparency and efficiency.

However, over the course of the past year, papal words and actions have been interpreted in wildly different ways, sometimes occasioning confusion about the direction in which the Pope wants to take the Church. Accolades Pope Francis has received, such as being named The Advocate’s “Person of the Year,” have been used to advance interpretations and agendas that are at best curious, at worst deliberately misleading. Thus, while it is true that Pope Francis has been keen to reform certain aspects of the economic and administrative structure of the Holy See, there are those advancing the narrative that he has been doing much more than working to reform curial offices, ecclesial institutions, and administrative structures. In fact, some pundits, media outlets, and commentators present the Pope as a proponent of a dogmatic and doctrinal revolution.

The selection of Francis as “Person of the Year” by The Advocate warrants specific examination. The cover of the December 2013 issue features a profile shot of the pontiff with the slogan “NO H8” (No Hate) superimposed on his cheek, along with the quote: “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” In an article explaining the magazine’s choice, Lucas Grindley reports,

As pope, [Francis] has not yet said the Catholic Church supports civil unions. But what Francis does say about LGBT people has already caused reflection and consternation within his church. The moment that grabbed headlines was during a flight from Brazil to Rome. When asked about gay priests, Pope Francis told reporters, according to a translation from Italian, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”

The brevity of that statement and the outsized attention it got immediately are evidence of the pope’s sway. His posing a simple question with very Christian roots, when uttered in this context by this man, “Who am I to judge?” became a signal to Catholics and the world that the new pope is not like the old pope.

Last week, the magazine took a further step, portraying Francis as appearing to nod in approval of homosexual civil unions. This most recent report stemmed from the Pope’s March 5 interview with Ferruccio de Bortoli of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “Many nations have regulated civil unions,” Bortoli said. “Is it a path that the Church can understand? But up to what point?” Francis responded (translation provided by the Vatican Press Office’s Father Thomas Rosica):

Marriage (matrimony) is between a man and a woman. Civil states want to justify civil unions in order to regulate (normalize) different arrangements of cohabitation; – prompted by the necessity of regulating (normalizing) economic aspects among people, for example in providing health insurance or benefits. This consists of different kinds of living arrangements which I wouldn’t know how to enumerate with precision. We must consider different cases and evaluate each particular case.

The Advocate seized upon the Pope’s words as confirmation of his support for civil unions for same-sex couples. Under the headline, “Pope Francis Says Church Must Examine Civil Unions,” Michael O’Loughlin stated that “Pope Francis called on the Catholic Church and its leaders to explore civil unions and how they provide for the economic security and well-being of same-sex couples.” He added: “In his role as president of the Argentine bishops’ conference, then-Cardinal Jose [sic] Bergoglio reportedly offered a compromise to the more conservative faction of Catholic bishops there, who opposed any change in marriage laws, and the government that was pushing marriage equality. He purportedly suggested that civil unions would not be at odds with the Catholic Church.” To hear the editors of The Advocate tell it, LGBT individuals pursuing the legalization of same-sex marriage have someone “on the inside” working for them now.

After the publication of Pope Francis’ interview with Corriere della Sera, the Vatican Press Office made an effort to set the record straight. Father Rosica, the English-language assistant to the press office, sent an email to journalists accredited to the Vatican, stating:

Journalists have asked if the Pope was referring specifically to gay civil unions in [the interview]. The Pope did not choose to enter into debates about the delicate matter of gay civil unions. In his response to the interviewer, he emphasized the natural characteristic of marriage between one man and one woman, and on the other hand, he also spoke about the obligation of the state to fulfill its responsibilities towards its citizens.

By responding in this way, Pope Francis spoke in very general terms, and did not specifically refer to same-sex marriage as a civil union. Pope Francis simply stated the issues and did not interfere with positions held by Episcopal Conferences in various countries dealing with the question of civil unions and same sex marriage.

We should not try to read more into the Pope’s words than what has been stated in very general terms.

Yet reading more into the Pope’s words than he has stated has become something of a cottage industry. So much so that papal statements and interviews are commonly met with fundamentally divergent readings, as the above example demonstrates. As L’Espresso’s Sandro Magister has noted, many people within and outside the Church have expectations “of a change of Catholic teaching and practice not only on the question of the divorced and remarried, but on other aspects on the agenda today such as homosexual unions….” Such expectations are growing and “will become even stronger and more pressing when the [bishops] meet for their [Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization] in October.” Magister suspects that what is happening is similar to “what unexpectedly happened with Vatican Council II,” alluding to the insight of Benedict XVI into the two “versions” of the Second Vatican Council.

On February 14, 2013, Benedict met with priests of the Archdiocese of Rome. In reflecting on his personal experience of the Second Vatican Council, Benedict suggested that there were two Vatican Councils: the Council the bishops and the whole Church experienced through the hermeneutic of faith, and the Council of the media:

There was the Council of the Fathers—the true Council—but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council in and of itself, and the world perceived the Council through them, through the media. So the…Council that got through to the people, was that of the media, not that of the Fathers. And while the Council of the Fathers evolved within the faith, it was a Council of the faith that sought the intellectus, that sought to understand and try to understand the signs of God at that moment, that tried to meet the challenge of God in this time to find the words for today and tomorrow. So while the whole council—as I said—moved within the faith, as fides quaerens intellectum, the Council of journalists did not, naturally, take place within the world of faith but within the categories of the media of today, that is outside of the faith, with different hermeneutics. It was a hermeneutic of politics. The media saw the Council as a political struggle, a struggle for power between different currents within the Church. It was obvious that the media would take the side of whatever faction best suited their world.

As Magister and others have suggested, a similar phenomenon has emerged during the pontificate of Pope Francis. There is the Francis of the media—the Francis who is named The Advocate’s “Person of the Year”—and the Francis of the Church, the Francis of faith. As Bishop Robert Morlino of the Diocese of Green Bay told the Wisconsin State Journal, “The mass media are trying to create a spirit of Pope Francis, just as they created a spirit of Vatican II.” The media’s spirit of Francis is created and shaped through misrepresentations, inaccurate reporting, and selective quoting, as well as through the awarding of certain accolades and honors. Bishop Morlino said, “Many Catholics fell for that the first time. I hope they won’t fall for that again.”

Thus, there is something dangerous, if not altogether pernicious, about some of the awards and titles being conferred on the Pope. Those accolades may appear to be honoring the Pope but, upon closer inspection, it seems evident they can be used to make Francis appear to be someone or something he is not. Perhaps that is the reason Pope Francis told Ferruccio Bortoli, “Sigmund Freud used to say, if I’m not mistaken, that in every idealization there is an attack.… Depicting the pope as a kind of superman, a kind of star, seems to me offensive.”

Could something similar take place with the Nobel Peace Prize nomination? Of course, there is no reason to believe there is anything sinister about the nomination itself. And, again, nearly 300 different people and institutions have been nominated. But if Francis does win the Peace Prize, there is good reason to think it could be manipulated against the best interests of the Pope. Some of that is due to the often-skewed media presentation of Francis, while part of it is also due to the increasingly politicized nature of the Nobel Peace Prize. In recent decades, it has been awarded quite regularly to outspoken supporters of progressive political policies, including liberalized abortion rights and legalized homosexual marriage. For instance, Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, and US President Barack Obama both received the coveted medallion in recent years.

While the Norwegian Nobel committee never cited the abortion or same-sex politics of either Annan or Obama as rationales for their selections, their failure in recent years to award the prize to other—perhaps more deserving—candidates with outspoken opposition to those policies does occasion questions about the political and moral convictions of the award committee. Despite the fact that he had helped to bring about the end of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe, Blessed Pope John Paul II never received the Nobel Peace Prize.

If the Norwegian Nobel committee does select Pope Francis, it will issue a statement explaining its choice. That communique, if past statements are any indication, will likely be worded in vague and circuitous terms. Reasons will be given, but interpretations and justifications will immediately follow, and many of these will aim to use the prize to further the narrative of the Francis of the media. Some pundits will seize upon vague words or turns of phrase in the official committee statement. Others might even suggest that the Pope is bringing his own version of “hope and change” to the Vatican after the pontificates of his two stalwart orthodox predecessors. And, quite likely, new controversies will ignite over what Pope Francis said about this or that issue, and what he really meant. Once again, the two Francises—the Church’s version and the media’s version—will be set before us.

If Pope Francis is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and chooses to accept it, he will have the chance to offer his own statement upon receipt of the award. That statement could be issued in the form of actions, not just words. Perhaps he will follow the example of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta—whose selection seems more surprising and surreal with each passing year—who refused to attend the banquet the committee had planned in her honor. Instead, she insisted that the funds be spent on serving the poorest of the poor.

Pope Francis, the man from Buenos Aires who paid his own hotel bill the morning after his election to the oldest monarchical office in Europe, could surprise us all and seize the moment to send a clear, immediate, and unequivocal message to the secular world—and, indeed, to all of us. In the meantime, we are all challenged to see and know Francis as he really is, and to avoid reading more into his words than what he has actually stated.

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About John Paul Shimek 0 Articles
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.