As a rule, I post "think pieces" -- posts pointing readers toward essays about trends on the religion beat -- on the weekend. I'm going to make an exception because I can't imagine waiting a few more days for readers to see this one.
I mean, we're talking about a John L. Allen, Jr., analysis piece at Crux with this headline: "Can anything burst Pope’s media bubble? Nah, probably not."
Prepare to chat away.
The piece starts off with a complicated drama in the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria, where -- as Allen puts it -- Pope Francis has "thrown down one of the most authoritarian gauntlets we’ve seen any pope fling in a long time."
It's the kind of move, literally threatening the status of every priest of the diocese, that would freak out mainstream reporters if attempted by any other recent pope. But it's not the kind of thing that sticks to Pope Francis, because everyone knows what he is a friendly, populist kind of man who is gentle and kind, etc., etc. As Allen kicks things into gear, he writes:
What all this got me thinking about is the following: Had any other recent pope done such a thing, howls about abuse of power and over-centralization probably would have been deafening, especially from the press, where the rebel priests likely would have become folk heroes. Francis, however, gets more or less a free pass. ...
Yes, some coverage has been more critical of late, especially Francis’s handling of the sexual abuse scandals in the wake of the criminal indictment of one of his top aides, Cardinal George Pell, in Australia. Even then, however, the tone tends to be, “Francis is such a great guy, so why is this area lagging behind?”
The heart of the essay is a bit of speculation about what it would take to pop this amazing papal media bubble.
For example, with this pope's image as a frugal, humble, good guy servant leader, it would really hurt if he was caught up in some kinds of financial scandal. Allen also says that the freewheeling style of Pope Francis in foreign policy could "blow up in his face," perhaps with a papal initiative in some place tricky, like Columbia, leading to new violence.
However, there is the passage that really caught my attention, running under the sub-headline: "Crackdowns on Perceived Good Guys."
Check this out. Allen is a very savvy fellow, of course. But do do you see anything interesting lurking between the lines of this passage? Here is the whole thing:
There certainly have been personnel controversies and allegations of heavy-handedness by Pope Francis, most recently his decision to move German Cardinal Gerhard Müller out of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith shortly after dismissing three priests who worked in Müller’s office.
To the general public, however, such developments come off as routine bureaucratic shuffling, and besides which, the people involved are either anonymous or perceived critics of Francis, which means the narrative tells us they had it coming.
So, who would he have to target to revise such impressions?
Well, maybe if he announced a massive new investigation of American nuns to finish the work left undone last time, that might move the needle. Or, if he were to stroll into St. Peter’s Square and announce that any theologian unwilling to sign a personal loyalty oath to uphold Church teaching on X will henceforth be excommunicated, that might do it too.
The problem is that any such scenario one could conjure up is so improbable as to be basically a non-starter.
Let's go back to that sub-headline for a moment: "Crackdowns on Perceived Good Guys."
Here is my question: What wing of the Catholic world gets to do the labeling when it comes to saying who is a good guy (or gal) and who is not? Who gets to play the crucial perceiving role? Note that Allen's stumbling-pope examples are both hypothetical swipes at the cultural and academic left.
So is the message here that, to lose favor with the mainstream press, Pope Francis would need to take a shot or two at the doctrinal and cultural left? That would wake up, oh, The New York Times columnists? Get the progressive culture warriors at Fordham University stirring?
Read it all. This stuff really matters, because journalists have, in large part, established the "narrative arch" of this papacy. Or, as Allen says:
The narrative is not a magic wand, of course. It doesn’t automatically fill up churches or generate vocations, it doesn’t reverse centuries-long secular trends, it doesn’t guarantee victory in every cultural battle, it doesn’t necessarily keep persecuted Christians safe, and it certainly doesn’t mean that every choice Francis makes as a governor, a teacher and even a pastor is beyond reproach.
However, the narrative is nevertheless a powerful missionary calling card.