The media's Pope Francis problem
The media does not understand Pope Francis.
It's not just that The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets delight in reporting on the pope's off-the-cuff utterances without any necessary context, as if his criticisms of capitalism and his concern for the environment were controversial and not totally in line with the social magisterium of the church and 100 percent in keeping with the thoughts of his immediate predecessor, while ignoring Francis when he says that liberal attitudes about gender are more dangerous than nuclear weapons. And it's not just that reporters who would kick themselves for not knowing that Brookings is an "Institution" rather than an "Institute" can write pieces about the impossibility of using gluten-free matter for consecration at the altar, a teaching that is 2,000 years old, as if it were a gripping headline-making issue of the day. The church has a history and clearly defined teachings that you should be at least passingly familiar with if you're going to pronounce on her.
Much less excusable is the absurd standard of ostensibly Catholic media outlets reporting on Vatican affairs. Just last week OnePeterFive, an online news organization devoted to "Rebuilding Catholic Culture, Restoring Catholic Tradition," reported that Pope Francis declined to renew the appointment of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller as head of the Vatican department devoted to the promulgation of doctrine because Müller refused to say that he is in favor of "ordaining" women to the sacrificing priesthood, something that has always been recognized by the church as impossible, like drawing a four-sided triangle. The source for the story was — bear with me — an anonymous "trustworthy German source" who claimed to have spoken to someone who claimed to have witnessed a lunch at which Müller told the story.
Only a day after its appearance the story was updated with a note saying that both the Vatican Press Office and Müeller's personal secretary called the story absolutely false. A normal American journalist reporting on goings-on in the White House would be guilty of a dereliction of duty, as would his editors, if something like this appeared in a newspaper, especially without trying as hard as possible to obtain comment from the involved parties and independent verification. But this is not just a question of journalistic ethics. For a Catholic to calumniate the man we believe is Christ's vicar on Earth —unambiguously accusing him not only of pettiness but of the grave sin of heresy — on the basis of such flimsy evidence is simply inexcusable.
The Catholic Church is not a mere institution or organization like the Heritage Foundation or the Republican Governors Association. Her head is not like the president of the United States. The pope is different. He cannot by definition of his office say anything false while speaking from the chair of St. Peter on the subject of faith or morals. This is not because he is carefully screened by the cardinals who vote in papal conclaves — though one would like to think that they take that part of their office seriously — but because it is on its face impossible. If a pope attempted to teach heresy — if the words "Jesus was actually a myth" or "The eucharist is only a symbol" were to form on his lips — the Holy Ghost would literally prevent it from happening. Sounds a bit far-fetched, I know, but this is what we Catholics believe. To treat the papacy as if it were some mere political appointment is not only wrongheaded; it is in defiance of what every Catholic must affirm. You don't have to like Francis as a man, but you must submit to his authority and afford him the deference that is his due as pope.
It is hard to say why things like the OnePeterFive story happen so frequently. Part of it is that Pope Francis' character is not very well understood, either by his gushing admirers, within Catholic ranks or otherwise, or his would-be opponents. Francis is often considered a liberal by secular onlookers and traditionalist Catholics alike, a view that does not stand up to scrutiny. In reality he is a practical, no-nonsense, hard-headed shepherd of immortal souls, a man who loathes pretense and idle chatter. Where Benedict XVI was a retiring intellectual most comfortable discussing matters of dogmatic theology with his former students and St. John Paul II a gregarious public-minded man who flourished in the limelight, Francis is a kind of ornery grandfather figure, stern but affectionate and given to outrageous and often hilarious pronouncements — all within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy.
Misguided opposition has led some of the pope's closest friends to launch equally wrong-headed counter-attacks. The best case in point is the Italian Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro's recent essay about a supposed alliance between so-called Catholic "integralists" — people who believe that secular authority has a duty to the church — and American evangelical conservatives, which reads like a decently executed caricature of OnePeterFive and the popular traditionalist Catholic website Rorate Caeli. Both of these outlets claim to be devoted to safeguarding the church's traditions, not only her sacred liturgy but her teachings about faith and morals as well. Yet they are happy to ignore more than a century's worth of Catholic social teaching in favor of blindly supporting President Trump and the Republican agenda, even when it is plainly at odds with the magisterium on issues such as the just wage and our duties toward the poor. Meanwhile, many Catholic integralists I know supported Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.
It is unfortunate that Fr. Spadaro seems to be unfamiliar with actual Catholic integralists such as the editors of The Josias online magazine or Pater Edmund Waldstein, a Cistercian monk equally unabashed about his opposition to capitalism and his support for monarchy who has praised Francis' social encyclical Laudato si as a "magnificent and wonderful" rebuke of the modern world and its ills. The church is not "liberal" or "conservative" in the crude journalistic senses of the words; being faithful to her teachings in today's world is not a simple matter. There are not just two teams here — or rather there are, but they are God's and the devil's, and most of us have been known to bat for both of them now and again.
The solution to all of this is very simple. Catholics must treat one another — including the pope — with charity. They must turn away from gossip, rash judgment, slander, backbiting, and other sins against the Eighth Commandment. They must pray for the pope and the bishops and all the clergy and for one another. They must pray the rosary and receive the sacraments of confession and Holy Communion.
In other words, they should just be Catholic.