On the last day of 2013, one of the weirdest religious stories for ages appeared on the news wires. The Vatican had officially denied that Pope Francis intended to abolish sin. It sounded like a spoof, but wasn’t. Who had goaded the Vatican into commenting on something so improbable? It turned out to be one of Italy’s most distinguished journalists: Eugenio Scalfari, co-founder of the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica, who had published an article entitled ‘Francis’s Revolution: he has abolished sin’.
Why would anyone, let alone a very highly regarded thinker and writer like Scalfari, believe the Pope had done away with such a basic tenet of Christian theology? Well, since he took charge last year, 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 Scalfari, suppose that he is as hostile to church dogma as they are. They assume, in other words, that the Pope isn’t Catholic. Last year few left-leaning commentators could resist falling for the foot-washing Jesuit from Buenos Aires. In column after column they projected their deepest hopes on to Francis — he is, they think, the man who will finally bring enlightened liberal values to the Catholic church.
In November Guardian writer Jonathan Freedland argued that Francis was ‘the obvious new hero of the left’ and that portraits of the Supreme Pontiff should replace fading Obama posters on ‘the walls of the world’s student bedrooms’. Just days later Francis preached a homily denouncing what he called ‘adolescent progressivism’, but people see and hear what they want to, so no one took any notice of that.
That is how the Pope has come to be spun as a left-liberal idol. Whenever he proves himself loyal to Catholic teaching — denouncing abortion, for instance, or saying that same-sex marriage is an ‘anthropological regression’ — his liberal fan base turns a deaf ear. 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.
Some pundits have noticed the gulf between what you might call the Fantasy Francis — the figure conjured up by liberal imagination — and the actual occupant of the Chair of St Peter. James Bloodworth, editor of the political blog Left Foot Forward, recently urged his journalistic allies to show some restraint. ‘Pope Francis’s position on most issues should make the hair of every liberal curl,’ he wrote. ‘Instead we get article after article of saccharine from people who really should know better.’
Is Bloodworth’s remark a sign of a coming secular backlash against the new 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.
Consider the Obama analogy. Like Francis, the US president was a telegenic figure who followed an unpopular predecessor with a promise of radical change. Like Francis, he rose to worldwide prominence with incredible speed, bringing a complicated personal history that could be read in multiple ways. And like Francis, he inspired an almost eerie consensus among the commentariat. The most influential media outlets decided he was essentially a decent guy and judged him thereafter on his intentions rather than his achievements, blamed his failures largely on his enemies and backed him whenever he needed it most. Francis is not, of course, the new Obama, but he enjoys the same charmed relationship with journalists. Yes, the honeymoon will end, as it did with the president, but this looks like the start of a happy, lifelong marriage.
There’s only one case I can think of in which the media would turn on Francis: in the unlikely event that his private character were dramatically at odds with his public persona. He would have to be caught, say, building a death ray in the Vatican Gardens. (Even then some outlets would present it in the best possible light: ‘Pope Francis develops radical cure for human suffering.’)
Journalists also have a clear economic motive for sticking with the Fantasy Francis narrative: people will pay to read about it. After all, he was the most discussed person on the internet last year. Post a cute photo of him hugging a child, or posing for a ‘selfie’ with young admirers in the Vatican, and you’ll see a satisfying spike in page views. Francis has become one of the world’s most reliable online commodities. What sensible hack would want to threaten that?
Actually, Pope Francis has already survived a secular backlash. Barely an hour after he first appeared on the balcony above St Peter’s Square last March, the editor of the Guardian tweeted: ‘Was Pope Francis an accessory to murder and false imprisonment?’ The answer was ‘no’, of course. But allegations about Francis’s behaviour during Argentina’s Dirty War featured in bulletins for the next 24 hours, before fizzling out. The backlash lasted one entire news cycle. The idea of a left-wing pope, who had come to tear down the temple he inherited, turned out to be a far better story.
Perhaps the real challenge for the Pope this year will come from a different quarter. In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis criticised ‘trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice’. In classic Vatican style, that was a mistranslation of the original Spanish, which rejected the theory that ‘economic growth, encouraged by a free market alone’, would ensure more justice.
Such nuances didn’t concern the American conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who accused the Pontiff of espousing ‘pure Marxism’. Clearly this was just another version of the Fantasy Francis — a misapprehension of the man and his message that the Catholic hierarchy has done little to correct. But there is a price to be paid in allowing such myths to grow — a price that may have been paid, for example, by the Archdiocese of New York, which may have lost a seven-figure donation. According to Ken Langone, who is trying to raise $180 million to restore the city’s Catholic cathedral, one potential donor said he was so offended by the Pope’s alleged comments that he was reluctant to chip in.
Under Francis, the church is deeply committed to what theologians call ‘the preferential option for the poor’. But in order to opt for the poor, the church has to court the super-rich. A few generous multi-millionaires, for example, fund most of the major Catholic initiatives in England and Wales (including a significant part of Benedict XVI’s state visit in 2010). If just one of them was put off by the distorted ‘Marxist’ image of Francis, the church here would be in trouble.
Of course if those who caricature the church as bigoted and uncaring are forced to take a second look, then Pope Francis can claim he is doing his job. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, says that Roman Catholicism had been ‘out-marketed’ by its Hollywood critics — but now Pope Francis is changing the tone, without changing the substance.
But while the Pontiff has succeeded in appealing to those outside the church, his boldness has upset some within it. The Vatican analyst John Allen describes this as the Pope’s ‘older son problem’ — a reference to the parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the faithful brother gripes when his father welcomes back the wayward one. Allen writes that ‘Francis basically has killed the fatted calf for the prodigal sons and daughters of the postmodern world, reaching out to gays, women, non-believers, and virtually every other constituency inside and outside the church that has felt alienated.’ But some Catholics feel Francis is taking their loyalty for granted. ‘In the Gospel parable,’ Allen notes, ‘the father eventually notices his older son’s resentment and pulls him aside to assure him: “Everything I have is yours.” At some stage, Pope Francis may need to have such a moment with his own older sons (and daughters).’
You might think: why bother? The Pope should be focused on reaching out to the alienated, rather than on tending his followers’ wounded egos and stressing that he has not come to tear down Catholic teaching. But Francis needs an eager workforce if he is to realise his beautiful vision of the church as ‘a field hospital after battle’.
Catholics are having just as much trouble as everyone else distinguishing the real Francis. Just last week a devout, well–informed laywoman asked me if it was true that Francis had denied the existence of hell. It turned out that the Pope had overturned 2,000 years of Christian teaching at the end of the ‘Third Vatican Council’ — as reported exclusively by the ‘largely satirical’ blog Diversity Chronicle.
The true Francis will be moving fast throughout this year. The 77-year-old knows he must quickly finish the financial reforms launched by his predecessor Benedict XVI, overhaul the Roman Curia (which liberals and conservatives agree is in desperate need of reform), impose rigorous global norms on the handling of clerical sex abuse cases, continue to press for peace in Syria, nudge Israelis and Palestinians closer to an agreement during his Holy Land visit and oversee a contentious synod of bishops that could shift the Church’s approach to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Meanwhile, the Fantasy Francis will continue to throw out dogmas, agitate for class war and set trends in men’s fashion. But don’t be fooled: this is as much of a media-driven illusion as the idea that the Catholic church is obsessed by sex and money. What matters is what the real Francis says and does. And that should be more interesting than even the most gripping invention.
Luke Coppen is editor of the Catholic Herald.