Wednesday, November 6, 2013

When the Vicar of Christ Imitates Christ, Why is it so Alarming?

By Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

Much of the criticism of Pope Francis is not expressed as a concern about his words themselves, but rather about how he subjects himself and his words to exploitation and misinterpretation in the secular media. To defuse such a concern, the October issue of Catalyst, the Journal of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, published an eye-opening survey of fifteen leading American newspapers and their editorial coverage about the Pope. The news media is hearing Pope Francis more clearly than we think, more clearly even than some in the Church who fear his priorities. Here are some examples:

Kansas City Star, March 13, 2013: Pope Francis will not “waver from the Church leadership’s strident opposition to abortion, gay marriage…”

Chicago Tribune, March 14, 2013: Pope Francis has ”forcefully opposed” such subjects as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2013: Pope Francis is not going to change the Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 14, 2013: “The Pope is no free-thinking reformer”; and July 30, 2013: Encouraged by Pope Francis’ statement about not judging gays, but…the “door is closed” on women’s ordination.

The Boston Globe, April 3, 2013: “No one expects Pope Francis to be ordaining women anytime soon.” 

In the same issue of Catalyst, Catholic League President Bill Donohue summed up the first months of Pope Francis’ papacy in reassuring terms:
“Not in my lifetime have I seen such an outburst of enthusiasm for a newly minted pontiff. And not just from Catholics: Pope Francis has won the plaudits of everyone, from people of all faiths to die-hard secularists…So far the New York Times has said nothing about our new pope. That will change. Liberal Catholics tend to be happier with Pope Francis than conservative Catholics. That will also change. The Holy Father is just as traditional on moral issues as his predecessors…” (“How’s the Pope Doing?” Catalyst, Oct. 2013)
That subheading was the title of a September 20 editorial by Phil Lawler at I have not always agreed with Phil Lawler, Editor of Catholic Culture and Catholic World News, especially on a few points about what constitutes justice in the U.S. priesthood scandal. However his editorial at Catholic Culture was a beacon of light and clarity amid lots of public distortion. It reminded me that perhaps I should be listening more closely to Phil Lawler.
Consider this:
“If the pope’s main responsibility is to keep us all comfortable, then Pope Francis is failing miserably…But there’s a precedent for [his] way of speaking. Jesus made people uncomfortable. The Lord’s words and gestures were often misinterpreted, and His critics found it easy to put things in an unfavorable light…Would it be better, really, if the Pope limited himself to statements that could not possibly be distorted? Should he stop trying to make subtle distinctions, or making new observations about controversial topics? That would be a form of self-censorship: shaping the message to suit the media.” (Phil Lawler, Sept. 20,
Even putting aside the needs of the Church, about the last thing the world needs is another leader whose views accommodate neat, acceptable little media sound bites, shallow and substance free. Pope Francis shakes my complacency too, but I hear something in his words that the Church and the world desperately need to hear. He is speaking as the Vicar of Christ, and in the words of Christ, and it’s alarming with its lack of cushioned and subtle nuance – just as it was alarming for the hearers of Jesus... (continued)