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Pope Francis floors the media

Attacks on the Pontiff from the press were expected but are undeserved

By on Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Pope Francis meets Argentine President Cristina Kirchner (CNS)

Pope Francis meets Argentine President Cristina Kirchner (CNS)

On Wednesday evening, minutes after Habemus Papam, the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger tweeted: “Was Pope Francis an accessory to murder and false imprisonment?” Rusbridger guided his Twitter flock towards a sensational article by Hugh O’Shaughnessy, published in 2011, which accused the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of abetting Argentina’s military dictatorship in the kidnapping and killing of Jesuit priests in the 1970s. O’Shaughnessy’s evidence was dubious, to put it mildly, and after Catholic readers cast strong doubts over his claims, the Guardian was forced to back-pedal. On Thursday, its online editors removed the key allegations against Cardinal Bergoglio from the text.

On Friday, however, the paper went back on the attack. The ever lucid Simon Jenkins produced a strangely unbalanced column about the papacy. He denounced the new Vicar of Christ for asserting “undemocratic authority over civil societies” and called Catholicism “a reactionary sect”.

It wasn’t just the Guardian, of course. Across the world, Lefty agitators have been accusing Pope Francis of having been complicit with the creepy Argentinian junta, while liberal progressives have settled for grumbling about Catholicism’s perennial failure to “move forward” on gay rights, sex and women.

At the same time the English Right-wing press has worked itself into a furious lather over the new Pope and the Falklands. A speech given by Cardinal Bergoglio last year – in which he seemed to say that the islands rightly belonged to Argentina, not us – has been seized on as proof that he is some sort of Argie-bargy nationalist with a chip on his shoulder about British colonialism. Even David Cameron felt obliged to rebut the new Pope’s so-called Falklands position last week.

There’s more than a whiff of anti-Catholic paranoia here. But Catholics should not be equally paranoid in response. Taken as a whole, on Left and Right, the press reaction to Pope Francis has been overwhelmingly positive. The stock assessment is that he’s a humble man who loves the poor, and nobody wants to argue with that. I’ve heard several commentators applaud his “good start”, as if he were a cyclist in the opening stage of the Tour de France.

According to the perverse laws of media gravity, however, Francis’s relative popularity now may work against him later. Benedict XVI was instantly caricatured as an arch-conservative, so his image could only improve. Hacks were mystified when “God’s Rottweiler” produced an encyclical called God is Love. Francis has the opposite problem. The bien pensant pundits who hail him will only be disappointed – and bitter – when he turns out to be as stubbornly opposed as his predecessors to gay marriage and condoms.

Not that Pope Francis will be thinking in such crass PR terms. He seems to take a similar line to Hugh Grant and the Hacked Off campaign as to the merits of the Fourth Estate. “Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia,” he once said, a quotation that has endeared him to just about everyone (including, bizarrely, most journalists.)

It is, of course, quite right for a man of God to show such disdain towards the wordly meedja, and the Pope should ignore those self-appointed experts who took to the airwaves last week to tell him how to fix the Church’s image and detoxify Catholicism’s global brand.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis must think seriously about how the Church can engage with this era of 24-hour news, the internet and “global interconnectivity”. Too often, Church officials have spoken of anti-Catholic bias as a way of deflecting blame and not accepting responsibility. Vatican officials dismiss sincere journalists as “enemies of the Church” just because they ask difficult questions. The clerical sex abuse scandals and the VatiLeaks affair have proved that sometimes the grubby hacks are more interested in the truth than senior figures of the Roman Curia or various representatives of the bishops’ conferences.

Let’s not be afraid of the cliché: the Church has a communications problem. The answer isn’t more “transparency”, necessarily. Transparency is a word often used to mean better spinning. Rather, the Church just needs to be open and honest. Happily, Pope Francis seems to exemplify both those

How about a first encyclical on social media? That might sound absurd. How can we expect a 76-year-old man who has hitherto shied away from interviews to wrestle with the issues surrounding instant messaging and online networking? The internet has, however, profoundly changed the human experience – it has re-ordered the way we live, work, and think about each other and ourselves. It doesn’t seem overblown to say that digital technology has altered our moral universe.

Popes are expected to address such momentous social shifts and interpret them in light of the Magisterium. Often a degree of papal detachment from the world lends weight to their pronouncements on the world. The Pope Emeritus, for instance, writes everything in longhand. Yet he was quick to note the mixed blessings of the internet. He warned young people of the dangers of confusing their virtual lives with reality, though on the plus side he observed that “the web is contributing to the development of new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons”.

Pope Francis ought to explore those horizons. He is already a step ahead of his predecessor on the technology front – he uses a typewriter. As Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, moreover, he had a Facebook profile and reportedly gave his blessing to an online prayer group in his diocese – though apparently he had no idea how it worked.

All to the good, I say, but will Francis please also recognise that we are, as they say, all journalists now? Thanks to Twitter, and so on, we can all respond to global developments with the alacrity of an Alan Rusbridger. We are all at risk of coprophilia.

Freddy Gray is assistant editor of The Spectator

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, March 22 2013

  • paulpriest

    I’m just jaw-droppingly incredulous this got printed anywhere..let alone in an online Catholic newspaper.
    The editorial staff do understand what these words mean?!!!
    [bangs head against wall!]

  • Paul Demunnik

    Frankie and Benny

    Now Frankie and Benny
    were co-popes

    Oh Lord, how they did love

    Swore to be true to each other true as the stars above

    They were both men and couldn’t do no wrong

    Being infallible.

    Now Benny went down to the country

    Just to get away from the throng

    He said I’ll leave the Vatican to Frankie

    A man who wouldn’t do me wrong.

    Because he’s also infallible.

    Benny’s valet said I ain’t gonna lie papa

    That Frankie ain’t singing your song

    If he’s humble, you were vain

    And if he’s thrifty, you spent without restraint

    He’s the man in Rome now but he’s doin’ you wrong.

  • w.oddie

    Could you say a little more?

  • paulpriest

    20 years ago I had to study Luther and call me little-miss decorous but I had an aversion to his somewhat faecal obsession. Now I understand that Spanish-speakers don’t have such reticence when it comes to bodily functions to the extent of even having their model little boy doing his business in their nativity cribs – but I don’t particularly revel in paroxysms of ecstasy to hear it reported back with glee that my present Pope has resorted to Latinisms which are interpreted in a completely different way in the Western world – Freddy’s reported and utilised these with a western approach when they are socio-culturally contextual and mean something very different – and outrageously so!

    I had enough problems with His Holiness using a euphemism referring to abortion as ‘sending a child home to its Maker’…it doesn’t mean the same thing to a Western audience and it’s real contextualised meaning should be scrutinised and portrayed in such a light.

    To end a report with ‘we are all at risk of C—” is just…just…I’m dumbstruck. It’s not even earthily chaucerian – it’s just…sick!

  • Luisa Navarro

    ‘Western’ audience or just monolingual Anglo-saxon?

  • paulpriest

    What might be only referring to a mental disposition in a spanish context means something redolent of the content of extreme pornography in other cultures.

  • Luisa Navarro

    Perhaps. But the church is called “Catholic”, right?

  • paulpriest

    Yeah…and Catholic journalists and Vatican communications officers/advisers should realise it too…and maybe advise His Holiness that certain national euphemisms aren’t au fait with global cultural understandings.

    There’s the tale of the northern english priest who went to stay at a US Seminary and at breakfast bawled across the busy refectory table

    “Sorry I’m late some daft bugger forgot to knock me up this morning” pointing to a blushing cleric
    What meant ‘some idiot forgot to wake me up’
    was understood by the clerical students and staff to mean

    ‘some stupid homosexual forgot to have sex with me this morning’

    Or the southern Italian priest who was in Northern Italy and didn’t understand that ‘blackberrying’ was a euphemism for committing adultery and so didn’t think there was anything wrong in repeating what he’d heard in the confessional to the confessee’s spouse ” did your wife enjoy her time out in the country blackberrying?’

    I used to run a meat factory production line with glaswegians, lithuanians and portuguese workers – now to a Lithuanian calling someone a dog or a snake is the most terrible form of swearing imaginable – so imagine how they felt when the portuguese were incessantly using one insulting word which referred to a part of the male anatomy – and when the glaswegians started the Lithuanians thought it was the end of civilization as we know it…even if the glaswegians were using an awkwardly phrased term for hello!!!

    Language matters!!!
    And it isn’t something to be jovially trivialised by a Catholic journalist who thought he was being funny and a bit risque.

  • Luisa Navarro

    (Sorry, was busy trying to google since when Spain stopped belonging to ‘the West’).
    So, back to the Malabar rites controversy, I see.
    It shall prove extremely difficult to neuter and sanitise language -which language, anyway?- so as to not cause misunderstandings or (gulp!) offence to some group or another.
    Any suggestions? (and good luck with such endeavour!)

  • spudbynight

    Not the thing to say to Mr Priest

  • James M

    “Lefty agitators have been accusing Pope Francis of having been complicit with the creepy Argentinian junta”

    ## It would be a great mistake to underestimate the vileness of the Videla regime – this was a regime that killed and tortured on a very respectable scale; its Catholic victims – which is probably the majority – don’t deserve to be treated as something to be forgotten. Or does tyranny not “cry to Heaven for vengeance” ? Men may ignore the blood of the innocent – God does not.

    It is not the outlook of a speaker that matters, but what the speaker says. A true accusation, even if made by a Satanist, remains a true accusation. A triangle can have only three angles, even if miracles are worked to prove it has seven. Or is relatism perfectly OK, provided it helps to protect the Church ? That amounts to saying that the end does indeed justify the means.

    Whether the Pope has been complicit, in any degree that makes him culpable, is a matter of fact, or fiction. If he has been complicit – that is not something that can be idly dismissed. A man elected to be Pope is supposed to reflect Christ the Good Shepherd, & to do so in an eminent degree: he is a bishop, and a bishop, as St. Thomas shows in the Summa Theologiae, ought to be a Saint. It matters whether a Pope was complicit in the oppression of his fellow-men, many of them his fellow-Catholics, or not. Or is truth important only off and on ?

    “Rather, the Church just needs to be open and honest.” Not the Church – bishops, and the Vatican. The Church is not a club for clerics.

  • James M

    “and so didn’t think there was anything wrong in repeating what he’d heard in the confessional”

    ## That is a violation of the seal. Here’s hoping that didn’t happen.

    Good post.

  • paulpriest

    It actually did’s one of the classic canonical tribunals test-cases on the inadvertent breaking of the seal – the priest so absolutely disconsolate that he’d done such a terrible thing by accident and threw himself at the Church’s feet pleading forgiveness from the Pope – the reason it’s so famous is because breaking of the seal so rarely happens and deliberate violation of the seal is so rare or obscure or non-existent that technically a canonist will tell you that it doesn’t happen and if it has ever happened there’s no record of is one of those inscrutable, ineffable mysteries that even the most evil, deplorable, vile monsters who have become priests who have committed the most depraved things even within the confessional or used the details of the confessional for their own ends to blackmail corrupt etc…they stll never broke the seal of confession – it’s like some mystical line or barrier in reality that hasn’t been transgressed…

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    “…..the Malabar rites controversy..”

    Controversy or not in these days, THEY ARE THERE more FRUITFUL in the PROCLAMATION of GOD’S WORD and the CHURCH keeps GROWING as a result.

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • Paul Boire

    Entertaining. Thankyou. I can recall a priest friend telling me about some folks who wouldn’t say ‘copra’ if they had a mouth ful. No copra. :-)

  • Ronk

    IF it is true (which I greatly doubt due to the absence of names, dates or any other details) it was not “inadvertent”. Priests are not allowed to repeat ANYTHING they hear in the confessional. The seal does not apply only to the sins which are confessed. If a penitent mentions in Confession some totally non-sinful fact which the priest did not previously know, the priest is not allowed to mention it or act upon it outside the Confessional unless and until he hears it again outside the Confessional.

  • Ronk

    You must have read a different article. I have never seen here or anywhere else anyone saying that it doesn’t matter whether the future pope was complicit with the Videla regime.

  • Perry Hicks

    People should look at what he is doing so far as Pope. He is truly a magnificent, humble man. I think he is just what the Catholic Church needs right now

  • Rescue

    This is Ridiculous. The entire world media has been fawning over Pope Francis since he was elected, every thing he does is a sensation, every thing he does is humble. Completely country to the way Pope Benedict was crucified every day by the world media during his pontificate. If catholics are so thin skinned it’s no wonder to thirds of british christans think they are persecuted.

  • James Callender

    It seems like whatever a Pope, Priest or Bishop says, you have something to criticise them about.

  • paulpriest

    Nice to see you spending time with your family on this glorious season :)

  • Ronk

    If the media said that I did some things that showed humility, and they also claimed that I was complicit in mass murder, then I would rather that they said neither. Bizarrely you seem to think that saying the former trivial praise nullifies the latter allegation of monstrous evil.