“Conservative” Catholics, Pope Francis, and CNN Spin

It’s an unfortunate fact that secular media outlets so often resort to sensationalism, shallow reporting, and partisan rhetoric when addressing the complexities of Catholicism

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)

There 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 mind—well, 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. 

First, 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. 

Secondly, I asked what he meant by “conservatives” since there are at least three large but fairly distinct groups that might be described as “conservative”:

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 warming. 

2. Republicans: 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 relationships—personal, 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 hyperbole—especially in more informal settings and interviews. 

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:

Since 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 Benedict XVI)

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? 

Yes, 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 opinions—many of them clearly fringe and extreme—and 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.

He’s 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.”

The 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 piece—written by Adam Shaw for FoxNews.com—is 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 rhetoric. 

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.)

Pope 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.

“Could 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. 

The 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 people—including far too many Catholics—are 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. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.