While working on Anglican matters earlier this week -- as in Canterbury's call for a crucial, but rather unofficial global gathering about the future of the Anglican Communion -- I bumped into a rather interesting commentary by a Canadian Anglican about the mainstream press and, you guessed it, Pope Francis.
Needless to say, I expect that we will be running quite a few posts this week about mainstream coverage of the pope's visit to the Acela media zone in the urban American Northeast. I will probably include several "think pieces" about religion-news issues in that mix, even though we normally only point readers toward essays of that kind on weekends.
This piece by Father Tim Perry of Ontario -- "Francis: A Pope of Our Own Making?" -- was actually written fairly early in the Francis media storm, but it still makes timeless points worth pondering right now. He starts off with the immediate assumption that the CONTENT of the Francis era will be quite different from that of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Let us attend.
While it is certainly the case that Francis is, and will be, different, I notice in these claims a curious pattern which has little to do with the three Popes, and much more to do with their coverage in the Western media. In short, the media quickly (subconsciously, I expect) decide on the “papal narrative,” and then over-report the stuff that fits and under-report the stuff that doesn’t.
Note the stress on underreporting the parts of the work of Pope Francis that do not fit the chosen media narrative -- such as this pope's remarkably consistent discussions of Confession, the work of Satan in the modern world and the centrality of family life in God's creation.
So, for example, during Benedict’s pontificate, any item that reinforced the narrative of “God’s Rottweiler,” the nickname then-Cardinal Ratzinger acquired while heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was accentuated while other items that challenged the narrative went almost unremarked. ...
We are hearing from pundits on the right and on the left that (Francis) is soft on gays, abortion, women’s ordination and atheists. Again, the entirety of his remarks suggest otherwise. For example, on the hypothetical case of a gay priest, Francis says, “If a man is repenting of his sin and has a good will, who am I to judge?” This is, of course, what one would expect any Christian, and especially the Pope, to say. What many sources reported, however, was highly selective. “Who am I to judge?” wrenched out of its original context suggests something that Francis did not, in fact, say. Or, when Francis said, “I will not talk as much about abortion, gays, or women’s ordination because Church teaching is settled on these matters,” far too many reports stopped quoting before the “because.” If the whole sentence is acknowledged at all, that acknowledgement is buried several paragraphs down. A final example: Francis’ “I believe in God, not the Catholic God,” has been presented as an enlightened affirmation of all faiths when it is, again in its proper context, a ringing denial of relativism that affirms “the god of your choice.”
Close observers of press coverage of Francis will want to read all of this. However, let me note one other very interesting Perry observation -- focusing on the very first major piece of writing that emerged from the Vatican under Francis.
However, there was a twist there that few reporters noted, that:
... Francis’ first encyclical was actually written by Benedict, only completed by Francis and then signed by both -- a papal first -- has been rarely talked about, even though the theological and political -- for lack of a better word -- implications for official Catholic teaching strike me as very significant indeed. These implications have been left largely unexplored because there is little desire to assume a measure of continuity from Benedict to Francis that runs against the grain of the narrative. ...
This suggests to me that the collective consciousness of the media has decided that Francis is the liberal anti-Benedict. Every quote will be filtered through this narrative, translated through this canonical assumption, and exaggerated or ignored accordingly.
It will be interesting to see (a) if Francis continues, during his U.S. visit, his practice of constantly quoting St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and then (b) if any of these quotes make it into media coverage. I will pay special attention to the text of the sermon at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, since both of the previous popes also visited the Catholic University of America campus and delivered remarks there.
And in conclusion? This observation is clearly linked to this pope's drumbeat calls for people to go to Confession.
It is therefore fitting to end with Francis’ own self-description–again under-reported outside Christian media. To the question, “Who is Francis?” he replied, “I am a sinner.” That is perhaps the most remarkable thing any Christian leader has said in a long, long time.