Is the Pope Francis Media Honeymoon Over?

Catholic Herald editor Luke Coppen has a scathing piece in the Spectator (UK), critiquing the media’s coverage of what he calls the “Fantasy Francis,” who “has been spun as a left-liberal idol:”

Francis has been made into a superstar of the liberal left. His humble background (he is a former bouncer), his dislike for the trappings of office (he cooks his own spaghetti) and his emphasis on the church’s concern for the poor has made liberals, even atheists like [La Repubblica co-founder Eugenio] Scalfari, suppose that he is as hostile to church dogma as they are. They assume, in other words, that the Pope isn’t Catholic. 

Similarly, at Religion News Service, David Gibson dissects some well-worn myths about Francis’s alleged lefty cred:

During the November discussion with leaders of the Jesuits, Franciscans and others, Francis said they needed to engage “complex” situations of modern life, such as the prevalence of broken homes and the growth in gay couples rearing children.

He noted in particular the case “of a very sad little girl” he knew of who confessed that her mother’s girlfriend “doesn’t like me.” After citing the example of that lesbian couple he seemed to warn against being quick to condemn: “How can we proclaim Christ to a generation that is changing? We must be careful not to administer a vaccine against faith to them.”

And that was quickly interpreted as a papal blessing of sorts of gay families.

The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, on Monday issued a statement saying that while Francis certainly wants to “affectionately accompany” people no matter their circumstances, the pontiff had “absolutely not expressed” his opinion on gay unions and that some reports had “forced” such an interpretation.

On Tuesday (Jan. 7), another Jesuit and papal confidante, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, wrote to a leading Italian daily to protest that Francis has no intention of “legitimizing any behavior that’s inconsistent with the doctrine of the church.” Spadaro said any other reading was an effort at “manipulation.” 

Even as it becomes clear that Francis has done (or even could do) little to change church teaching on homosexuality, at the Advocate, which, along with TIME, named Francis Person of the Year, there still seems to be a bit of held-out hope:

Still, the pope — named 2013 Person of the Year by The Advocate — does seem to be continuing to approach LGBT people and their concerns in a more welcoming, less condemnatory way than his predecessors. Last year he said it is not necessary for church leaders to continually emphasize opposition to abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, and he stated, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”

As Gibson points out, because “Francis has focused so relentlessly on the mercy of God rather than the judgment of the church that the shift in tone and emphasis has led many — like  Scalfari — to think that perhaps anything goes under this pope.” Indeed Scalfari had erroneously reported that the Pope had abolished sin, which prompted a refutation from the Vatican and a retraction from the reporter. 

Conservatives, of course, have an interest in portraying Francis as loyal to doctrine. Yet when a Maltese bishop claimed that Francis had recently re-confirmed his prior statements that gay marriage represents an “anthropological regression,” the Vatican did not dispute this account of his views. But in September, Gibson reports, “the Vatican ‘firmly denied’ that Francis had called a gay man in France to assure him that ‘your homosexuality doesn’t matter.’ No way, no how, said Lombardi.” 

Coppen argues that Francis’s “liberal fan base” turns a deaf ear to such stories:

Last month America’s oldest gay magazine, the Advocate, hailed Francis as its person of the year because of the compassion he had expressed towards homosexuals. It was hardly a revolution: Article 2358 of the Catholic church’s catechism calls for gay people to be treated with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’. In simply restating Catholic teaching, however, Francis was hailed as a hero. When a Maltese bishop said the Pope had told him he was ‘shocked’ by the idea of gay adoption, that barely made a splash. Time magazine, too, made Francis person of the year, hailing him for his ‘rejection of Church dogma’ — as if he had declared that from now on there would be two rather than three Persons of the Holy Trinity. But for cockeyed lionisation of Francis it would be hard to beat the editors of Esquire, who somehow managed to convince themselves that a figure who wears the same outfit every day was the best dressed man of 2013.

Because the media is so in love with its own portrait of Francis, Coppen doubts that there is a “coming secular backlash” against the Pope:

For a while, it seemed inevitable that the new Pope’s fans would come to realise he is not about to bless women bishops, condom use, gay marriage and abortion — and then they would turn on him. Now, that seems unlikely. Having invented the Fantasy Francis, his liberal well-wishers may never want to kill off their creation.

These reporters cover the church. They understand its doctrine, its modes of communication, its public relations machinery. They are telling readers to take a deep breath and step back from their creation of Francis. (See also the wise words of our own Mary Hunt.) As Coppen puts it, “What matters is what the real Francis says and does. And that should be more interesting than even the most gripping invention.”