The media giveth, and the media taketh away.
The media likes three things: 1) Building people up; 2) Tearing people down; and 3) The Narrative (sometimes at the expense of facts).
When it comes to Pope Francis, the media has certainly enjoyed building him up. He was Time's Person of the Year in 2013, for crying out loud! And he hadn't done much of anything by then!
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
It would be foolish to deny that some of the positivity is due to the man himself — his obvious joy and personal holiness, his style, his approachability, his oratory. But it would be equally foolish to deny that some of the good vibes come from The Narrative, namely that Pope Francis is a man with a plan to "reform" the Catholic Church, with the word "reform" having one and only one meaning: aligning the Catholic Church with the social progressivism held dear by the vast majority of the members of the professional media.
Francis has indeed done a few things that validate The Narrative of a "progressive Pope." But he persists — to the constant befuddlement and frustration of the media— in stymying The Narrative in other ways. Why, it's almost as if he's bigger than the media's cookie cutter portrayal of him!
How long can Francis expect to enjoy the media's favor?
The problem is that, when it comes to Popes, there are really only two Narratives to choose from. You either have the good, friendly, kind, progressive, Cool Dad Pope, or you have the evil, reactionary Pope who is brimming with anger. Thus Benedict XVI was "God's Rottweiler" even though everyone who has laid eyes on the guy for more than 30 seconds can agree on his humility, shyness, and personal gentleness. No feel-good stories about Benedict's love for cats or his passion for the piano! Red Pradas from here to eternity! (Never mind that they weren't Pradas, and that papal red shoes symbolize the blood of martyrs that the church and papacy are built on — hardly a symbol of idle luxury.)
Given the journalistic tendency to view everything through a political lens, all coverage of the papacy must be confined to those two categories. You can either be on Team Good Guys (the left) or Team Bad Guys (the right). And once the media finds out that Francis isn't on Team Good Guys, it is inevitable that they will place him on Team Bad Guys.
So when will Francis become the bad guy? This year? Sooner, later?
I think I can pinpoint the exact date: Oct. 25 of this year.
That is when the second session of the Synod on the Family will close. This is the body of bishops that is supposed to help Francis come up with ideas and initiatives on the theme of the family.
Many people, including many bishops, expect Francis to prove his credentials as a reformer by changing church doctrine on a key issue: whether Catholics who are divorced and remarried can be allowed to receive holy communion. This is the big "reform" that everyone is awaiting, the one that is so dearly expected, not just because it would soften the church's morality on sex and relationships, but because it would signal that, despite the bleatings of so many conservative Catholics, church doctrine on sex and relationships can be changed.
That would open up the floodgates on other positions previously thought unchangeable, such as on contraception, women priests, gay marriage — you name it. This, in turn, would ensure that, like so many other Christian denominations, the Catholic Church devolves into a debating society much too preoccupied with navel-gazing and Robert's Rules of Order to do its actual job of serving the poor, healing the sick, and lighting the world on fire with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Which, if you believe in the devil, as Francis does, is exactly what he would want.
Unlike progressive Catholics who expect it with bated breath, and conservative Catholics who fear it, I don't think Pope Francis will change church doctrine. Instead, I think he will boringly reaffirm it, along with the church's other inconvenient rules, and thereby destroy The Narrative.
Until then, I fully intend to enjoy the next 10 months of positive coverage of the papacy while I can.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.