With but a few exceptions, the "Francis is nicer than Benedict" meme continues to entrance the Anglophone press. It appears that many who were once hostile to the Catholic Church have been encouraged to see in the new pontiff a reflection of their own social and political desires. Some of these assertions about what the pope believes and what he will do as head of the Catholic Church have bordered on the fantastic.
In choosing the pope as its "person of the year", Time magazine's editor Nancy Gibb wrote Francis had:
done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.
The new pope was a kinder, gentler man, Time believed, who had rejected "church dogma." He was teaching a softer, more inclusive Catholicism, noting his:
focus on compassion, along with a general aura of merriment not always associated with princes of the church, has made Francis something of a rock star.
This is rather mild compared to some liberal paeans to the pontiff. The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland quipped "Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall."
When the gay-lifestyle magazine, The Advocate, named Francis its "person of the year", it explained its choice by stating:
Pope Francis's stark change in rhetoric from his two predecessors — both who were at one time or another among The Advocate's annual Phobie Awards — makes what he's done in 2013 all the more daring. First there's Pope John Paul II, who gay rights activists protested during a highly publicized visit to the United States in 1987 because of what had become known as the “Rat Letter” — an unprecedented damning of homosexuality as “intrinsically evil.” It was written by one of his cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI. Since 1978, one of those two men had commanded the influence of the Vatican — until this year. ...
The Advocate saw in Francis the potential for change in church teaching.
Francis's view on how the Catholic Church should approach LGBT people was best explained in his own words during an in-depth interview with America magazine in September. He recalled, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”
While these stories have focused on Francis in the context of feature or "people" stories, the meme has also made its way into straight news reporting. A story in Saturday's Independent illustrates the Francis effect on reporters. "Pope Francis tripled crowds at Vatican during 2013" should have been a straightforward story. It begins with:
Pope Francis attracted over 6.6 million viewers to his audiences, Masses and other events in Vatican City in 2013. Since being elected for the position in March, the first Jesuit Pope attracted almost triple the number of visitors that gathered to watch former Pope Benedict XVI speak at Vatican City in the whole of 2012.
The story shifts as it then notes Francis had been named by Time and The Advocate as their "person of the year" with a quote used as a segue to what it sees as the pope's contradictory statements on homosexuality.
However, his track-record as a champion for gay rights in the Catholic Church was marred after he apparently expressed “shock” at gay adoption in December 2013. The Bishop of Malta alleged that Pope Francis gave him his blessing to “speak out” against the Maltese Civil Unions Bill that aims to legalise gay adoption, in his Christmas Sermon.
The first half of the story prompts me to ask, so what? What does the rise in visitors to St Peter's Square mean? Is this a gauge for something, if so what? What happened to the number of visitors to St Peter's when Benedict became pope? Why is this news, and not a "fun fact"?
Should we assume, as The Independent does, that the changing tone on homosexuality has prompted a rise in the number of visitors to the Vatican? The Independent may think this to be the case, but from where does the evidence or authority for this assertion arise?
The second half of the story is bizarre. The Independent assumes Francis is a "champion for gay rights". What does that mean? Is he pushing for a change in doctrine or discipline? When did this happen? Or has The Independent confused style with substance?
The two parts to this piece, short as it is, do not hang together as a news story. There is no context, no balance, no sourcing to this piece. Though presented as a news story, it is an editorial making the argument that the church should get with the times and ditch its old fashioned teachings on human sexuality -- "See how the people flock to Francis because he is a champion of gay rights!"
Should any news story make the assumptions The Independent makes about Pope Francis? Not if they want to practice quality journalism. It has confused fantasy with reality.