Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Strike the Shepherd! Behind the Campaign to Smear the Pope

From Fr. Gordon J. MacRae at These Stone Walls:

A little over three years ago, I wrote an article for Catalyst, the Catholic League Journal, entitled “Due Process for Accused Priests.” The article was in part about a phenomenon called “Availability Bias” and how it influences justice when Catholic priests are falsely accused. The concept has crept into all aspects of the media, not just in the reporting of news, but in marketing and advertising as well. The science behind it was formulated and dissected by psychologist, Daniel Kahneman with amazing results.

In 2002 the Catholic priesthood sex abuse scandal was the focus of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team which then spread the “pedophile priest” scare and sound bite to virtually every diocese in the United States. Also in 2002, and ironically, Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on “Availability Bias.” It was described in a 2007 lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal (“The Science of Gore’s Nobel,” Dec. 5, 2007) as “the human propensity to judge the validity of a proposition by how easily it comes to mind.”

Kahneman’s research examined how marketing and the media have exploited human suggestibility through “Availability Bias” which he analyzed using two studied phenomena. The first he called “Availability Cascade,” described as “the way a proposition can become irresistible simply by the media repeating it.”

The best example is the smear, “Hitler’s Pope” which comes almost immediately to mind for many at the mere mention of the name of Pope Pius XII. As described in my post referenced above, the smear was widely believed, and still is despite massive evidence to the contrary, simply because the media has repeated it for decades. Its origin is not in the news media, however, but in the propaganda of a repressive Totalitarian regime. The news media was just its all-too-willing microphone.

Daniel Kahneman’s second studied phenomenon in support of “Availability Bias” was what he called “Informational Cascade,” described as “the propensity of humans to abandon or replace their beliefs in favor of the crowd’s beliefs.” I used a famous example in my Holy Week post, “Pope Francis, the Pride of Mockery, and the Mockery of Pride.” One of the criminals crucified with Jesus adopted the mockery of Jesus from the very crowd that had placed that man on his cross. The ability of a crowd to modify our views and beliefs and positions is powerful. Pontius Pilate himself modified his stance about the innocence of Jesus simply through the force of a mob chanting, “Crucify him!”

For “Informational Cascade” to work – for beliefs to be abandoned or replaced in favor of the crowd’s beliefs – one ingredient is necessary: a crowd, shaken or stirred, or at least the appearance of one. Some readers may have noticed a campaign of vile comments about Pope Francis posted at some websites and blogs that are popular among traditional Catholics. Many of the comments were an effort to sow suspicion and discouragement. Naturally, tradition-minded Catholics hold out hopes for how any new pope will address their concerns. I share those hopes.

But when the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would offer the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper in a Rome juvenile prison instead of in Saint Peter’s Basilica or the Basilica of St. John Lateran, it stirred concern about the Pope’s sensitivities toward tradition. When the news media captured Pope Francis washing the feet of 12 prisoners – including two women, one of whom was Muslim – that concern for tradition took on a sort of frenzy.

Was he making a statement about his views toward Islam? Was he making a statement about the ordination of women? After all, the Apostles were all men, and Jesus washed their feet – and theirs alone – at the Last Supper. Theologically – and this is a perspective supported by the Church’s tradition – the washing of the feet is not a statement about the recipients of the action of Jesus, but about Jesus himself, and the humility he wished to convey in the model for spiritual leadership it implied. The identity of the recipients is immaterial. As the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis was well within theological tradition to make this statement of Christ-like humility. There is no evidence for believing it was anything else.


Intermixed with the crowd’s already stirred concern, however, was some carefully choreographed mob manipulation. As Pope Francis washed the feet of twelve young offenders, some critics posted vile comments accusing the Holy Father of “grooming” behaviors suggestive of dark and nefarious agendas right before the world’s eyes.

I am not at all concerned for the many comments posted about the emotion regarding tradition that Pope Francis has stirred. These concerns are natural, and I believe they should be raised and will have answers that are clearer to us all in time. However, when tradition-minded blogs also post vile comments attacking without just cause the character and morals of the Holy Father, a line of justice and decency has been crossed, and those blogs and bloggers have diminished themselves and their credibility. You would never see such comments on These Stone Walls. Never! It is because we take very seriously the responsibility for justice and truth that are essential parts of the stewardship of a Catholic blog... (continued)


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