The Pope and the Media

Editor’s Note: Our dear friend Hadley Arkes is absent from his regular slot (for the first time ever) because his beloved wife Judy died suddenly on Thursday. We ask your prayers for her, him, and all those touched by her unexpected passing. – Robert Royal

Is the media honeymoon with Pope Francis coming to an end? Not exactly. What’s happening is something superficially similar but substantially different – something that in the long run could be a good deal healthier, for both the pope and the press, than merely prolonging the honeymoon.

As Francis’ program for the Church has begun to move from talk to action – the Synod of Bishops in October and the appointment of a new archbishop in Chicago are concrete instances of that – criticism has moved from the margins of the Catholic right to something nearer the mainstream. And the media, without turning on the pope, are taking note of what’s happening and starting to report it.

As John Allen of the Boston Globe puts it, “we are entering Phase Two of Francis’ papacy, in which a period of good feelings has given way to an era of edge.”

The turning point in the media may have been a post-synod column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Douthat, a conservative Catholic, said what others had said before – the pope risks fracturing the Church if he pushes too far and too fast for changes he prefers – but he said it emphatically, at considerable length, and in a setting of unique prominence, the Times op-ed page.

Noting that up to the synod Francis had received strong criticism “only from the church’s traditionalist fringe,” Douthat pointed out that the pope can get what he wants without unsettling settled doctrine. “But if he seems to be choosing the more dangerous path – if he moves to reassign potential critics in the hierarchy [as in cashiering Cardinal Raymond Burke?], if he seems to be stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change – then conservative Catholics will need a clear-eyed understanding of the situation.” Douthat went so far as to speak of “schism.”

The sobering-up process in the press continued with the American bishops’ November 10-13 meeting in Baltimore. One way of telling the story was to discern growing tensions between Francis and the bishops, as in a variation on Good Pope/Bad Bishops by Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press who claimed to see Francis “pressing U.S. bishops to make…a wrenching turnaround” by abandoning the culture war and consulting lay people.

But the pope himself is no slouch when it comes to talking about social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, and he has surrounded himself with a small circle of clerical advisors. Laurie Goodstein of the Times got closer to the truth when she wrote that the October synod “reawakened a split in the church between theological conservatives and liberals that had remained relatively dormant during the 20-month honeymoon. . . .Now Francis’ pontificate has entered a more delicate phase, with some bishops asking whether he has a coherent vision of where he wants to take the church and a plan for how to get there.”

Pope Francis meets the press during his recent trip to Albania
Pope Francis meets the press during his recent trip to Albania

Goodstein then offered an astonishing quote from an interview with newly-retired Cardinal Francis George of Chicago: “He [Pope Francis] says wonderful things, but he doesn’t put them together all the time, so you’re left at times puzzling over what his intention is. What he says is clear enough, but what does he want us to do?”

This kind of questioning seems likely to be the direction that coverage of Francis will take in the immediate future. But adulation still exists, especially in liberal Catholic circles where he is viewed as the best hope for their issues. Thus an editorial in the October 25 issue of The Tablet of London hailed his closing remarks to the synod as “a superb exposition of Catholic teaching on marriage and family life.”

Strange. The text says almost nothing about marriage and family life. Instead Francis contrasts unacceptable extremes (“hostile inflexibility” vs. “a destructive tendency to do-goodism”), perhaps meaning to imply that the speaker is a man of moderation with whom reasonable listeners should agree.

Liberals aside, however, adulation may be hard to sustain much longer. The synod raised too many questions for that. But this shift in coverage and commentary is by no means a bad thing, either for the media or the pope. Here the example of Barack Obama and the press is instructive.

Back in 2008, many journalists swooned over candidate Obama, and the honeymoon persisted through his first term. Now that’s changed. Once-friendly territory like the Washington Post’s op-ed page has become a minefield where previously adulatory journalists detonate verbal bombshells accusing the president of being more spectator than participant in his own presidency.

Things are unlikely to reach that pass with Pope Francis. Respect for the papacy guarantees that questioning and criticism in the Catholic mainstream will be more muted, and the media coverage, if at all responsible, will mirror that.

But the pluses for the media in a less adoring approach to Francis are obvious. Factual reporting and fact-based analysis are what they exist for. Fairness is all. Cheerleading isn’t part of a journalist’s job description. Not even cheerleading for a pope.

There also is potential advantage here for Francis: the media as reality check. Under criticism from journalists, Barack Obama seems to have retreated into aloof resentment, and it’s done him no good. If the pope is smart, honest reporting about the problems he faces could help keep him on track.

Goodstein of the Times quoted another unusual remark by Cardinal George, who is being treated for cancer: “I’d like to sit down with him [Francis] and say, Holy Father, first of all, thank you for letting me retire. And could I ask you a few questions about your intentions?”

Cardinal George will probably not get a chance to do that, and certainly the rest of us won’t. But if we’re lucky, the media will do the job for us. To some extent, they’ve already begun.

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity (Ignatius Press).