Framing Pope Benedict XVI: What, pray tell, is the opposite of a Catholic 'reformer'?


At the moment, Catholic leaders and news consumers are in a kind of holding pattern during the crisis linked to the life and career of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Everyone is waiting to see if Rome's current strategy -- silence at the Vatican and the slammed doors (metaphorically speaking) in most Catholic offices -- is going to work. Will it inspire journalists to dig deeper or will pros in elite newsrooms retreat, since many may not want to hurt progressive Catholics (who are on the right side of history, after all)? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the coverage has slowed down a little, with most stories focusing on the kinds of background details that frustrate editors yet keep the chess match alive.

Take, for example, the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: "Pope Benedict, in retired seclusion, looms in the opposition to Pope Francis."

The old news is that there are currently two popes and this could -- repeat COULD -- change games of Vatican chess. More old news: The retired pope has, once again, remained silent. The potential news there? What does Benedict's silence mean, in light of the public testimony offered by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano? Inquiring minds want to know, and all that.

The answer to that question is certainly above my pay grade and, besides, this Post piece does a decent job exploring some of the theories linked to Benedict. No, what struck me about this feature is that it is a perfect example of what your GetReligionistas call the "frame game." Early on, big issues that loom in the background are framed in such a way that the whole editorial product leans to one side. Pay close attention to this crucial section:

Although many people hoped to hear from Benedict amid new allegations that a coverup of sexual misconduct reached the highest levels of the church, he has established that an ex-pope should maintain a vow of silence about church matters — even during crises and even though he is particularly well positioned to affirm or knock down the accusations.
Some Vatican watchers and insiders say the mere fact of Benedict’s 2013 abdication has made the modern papacy more vulnerable, emboldening voices of dissent. They say it’s hard to imagine a letter like the one released last week by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, provoking Pope Francis with a call to resign, without Benedict having created the possibility that modern popes might give up their seats before death.

Wait for it.

Try as he might to stay out of the fray, Benedict has been used as a symbol of resistance for a segment of traditionalists who oppose elements of Francis’s reformist papacy and see Benedict’s vision of Catholicism as more aligned with theirs.

I'm sorry, but we really have to Go There Again. What is the meaning of the word "reformist" in this context?

This leads -- since the whole point is to pit Francis against Benedict -- to the ultimate question: In terms of symbolic press language, what is the proper term to pin on a leader whose stance opposes that of a "reformer"? Clearly, the word is "traditionalist."

As a refresher, here is another look at what dictionaries tend to say about the word "reform."

1. To improve by alteration, correction of error, or removal of defects; put into a better form or condition.
2. a. To abolish abuse or malpractice in: reform the government. b. To put an end to (a wrong). ...
3. To cause (a person) to give up harmful or immoral practices; persuade to adopt a better way of life.

What about using "reform" as a noun?

1. A change for the better; an improvement.
2. Correction of evils, abuses, or errors. ...

Thus, those who clash with "reformers" are people who are defending policies, beliefs or traditions rooted in error, abuse, malpractice, immorality and, of course, evil.

This is what it means to defend ancient traditions and doctrines, you see. What was that popular "Star Wars" meme that the Catholic left used in social media during the Benedict era? Here's one of many variations found online:


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Of course, the Post piece doesn't go that far. It simple states that Benedict and his people are opposed to "reform" in the Catholic church.

On the other hand, that crucial paragraph in the story does contain some wiggle words, such as "a segment of" and "oppose elements of." Maybe there is a hint of gray in this black-and-white narrative about the retired pope. Maybe.

Later on, the Post states -- as a simple fact -- that the world's Catholics are with Pope Francis, in a way they never were with Benedict. Does that mean, in this "reform" clash, that a majority of Catholics support the cardinals who promoted and defended McCarrick and the system they have created to shield some members of the hierarchy from the consequences of their actions?

Also, while the story makes it clear that Benedict was known as a quiet, bookish and unaggressive pope, the Post team also pulls out one of the Catholic left's favorite labels for him:

Once known as “God’s Rottweiler,” Benedict was not embraced by Catholics worldwide during his eight-year pontificate. But he won admiration among those who respected the depth of his academic work and his conviction that church teachings shouldn’t bend with the times.

Thus, Benedict was a smart traditionalist, the kind of man who was respected by Catholics who are convinced that ancient Catholic doctrines are not, well, built on a foundation of error, abuse, malpractice, immorality and old-fashioned evil.

So here is my question for readers: What do you think editors at the Post, and in many other newsrooms, are saying when they identify one side of an argument as the "reform" stance and the other side as "traditionalist"? 

Words matter, people. Be careful out there.

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