Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Tedious Press Narrative of Pope Francis

Truth: I've personally found many aspects of this papacy to be annoying, and struggled against that feeling from the beginning. I'm hardly alone in this. Many Benedict partisans have felt this way. Every day and in every way we are being told how glorious it is that the bad old days are gone and the new good days are here.

To be sure, people who are not embedded in Catholic opinion culture do not share this view. I've had many people come up to me and say how much they have gained in appreciation of the Catholic way just from watching this Pope, and that sense serves as a good check on my annoyance.

Still, it is painful to think that the fame of this Pope and affection for him has come at the expense of his grand predecessor. That implication truly does hurt us all and deeply. It makes people like me very defensive.

Here is what has been going on and has from day one. Hardly anything that Pope Francis does goes uncompared with Benedict XVI. Francis holds a press conference and this fact is compared with the supposed aloofness and severity of his predecessor. He carries a briefcase and this is proclaimed as an astonishing act of service-based humility (which, hint hint, his predecessor did not display). He rides in a compact car instead of a sedan and this is supposed to be an unprecedented and revolutionary display of rebuke to the whole of modern papal history.

We all want to scream: this not true!

Some bloggers and commentators have made a minor sport out of showing how Francis is not doing anything that Benedict didn't do, that there is nothing truly amazing out of any of this. It is just being interpreted in a different way. Yes, the two papacies have different styles about them, but this does not amount to the Jacobin upheaval that the press hopes for.

What is extremely tricky here -- and it becomes nearly a full-time job for watchers of Church issues -- is to somehow separate the press spin from the reality. That is not always easy.

The press is lazy. There's not a great deal of depth or historical context there. Also, the press needs to sell newspapers and click throughs. To do this, it is best to have a narrative. Everything that happens has to fit into the narrative. The narrative begins in the first hours of the papacy and it tends to stick. (It's not just Catholic news that is treated this way; this is how the so-called news works in every sector.)

The narrative of Benedict XVI was that he was a closed-minded reactionary dedicated to cracking down and turning back the clock. After that, nothing else mattered. It didn't matter how much he reached out, how much he liberalized the ritual, how much he displayed openness, praised religious freedom, called for social justice and the like. The narrative stuck.

So it has been with Francis. The press decided early on that he is humble, spontaneous, liberal, broad, pro-poor, tolerant, and ready to revise doctrine. After that, the fix was in. Everything he does is interpreted in that light. Every headline presumes that underlying template. It's the only story. Everything that contradicts that is thrown out, and every utterance is framed in that preset context.

So, remember this, my friends. There is a lens. It is manufactured by the industry that writes that story. It probably will not change for the duration. That's why this is going to be such a long and bumpy ride.

The only way to fight back against this is to think independently. Don't let the press control your understanding and interpretation of this papacy. Look for context, full quotes, mitigating factors, hidden details, accurate translations, and the like. I know this sounds like a slog and it is. But it is essential if we are to see what is true.

In many ways, I feel bad for Pope Francis. He is no more allowed to escape this spin that we are. Just remember that he doesn't write the stories, and he didn't set out to design this template for himself. It's not even clear that he knows that this is happening or what he could do about it if he did.