A Tale of Two Popes

Yesterday, the Anchoress and I were talking about how astounding the shift has been in the positive media response to Pope Francis after the overwhelmingly negative response to Pope Benedict. I said it seems that the secular world is pitting these popes against each other on imaginary pedestals, with the pope they hate embodying all they hate of Christianity (sin, mostly, seen as rules, doctrine, authoritarianism, hate, etc) and the pope they love embodying all they love of Christianity (love and mercy).

Literally five minutes later, my neighbor called to tell me that Fr. John Wauck, an Opus Dei priest and a professor of literature at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (and incidentally, the uncle of the fiercest and most fabulous history professor to ever walk the earth, Dr. Susan Hanssen), was giving a lecture at AMU about communication in the age of Francis. The Ogre had a class to teach, but I miraculously found a babysitter at the eleventh hour and tripped merrily off to hear the lecture.

The whole talk was awesome and I took seven pages of sloppy, scrawling notes. But there were a few things he said that struck me as helpful in attempting to tease out some of the underlying reasons for such a dramatic swing in media response.

As anyone who’s paying attention can see, there is literally no substantive difference in the things Pope Francis said in the America interview or on the plane ride back from Rio than in the myriad of things Pope Benedict said during his papacy. They’re preaching the same Gospel, referring to the same Catechism, trying to lead people to the same Truth that was always there. The marked difference is in their approach.

Fr. Wauck said that Benedict had a self-effacing humility in front of the Truth. He didn’t want people to look at him, he wanted them to look at Christ, so he tried (maybe unconsciously) to make himself invisible in front of Christ. Essentially, the goal of his papal style could be boiled down to “letting the world see the Truth.”

Pope Francis’s style is utterly different. Fr. Wauck said that modern technology allows us to see that Pope Francis literally never looks at crowds. He always looks at individual people in the crowd. His gaze is always focusing on a person instead of roaming across a faceless mass of people. Fr. Wauck even told a story about how during one Wednesday audience, the Pope was waving at a crowd of people and for one second, his wave turned into a three and then a zero and he winked, then continued on waving and smiling. Pope Francis later told the Italian National Soccer Team that he had seen a man in the audience holding up a banner for the the San Lorenzo soccer team from Buenos Aires, the Pope’s favorite team. The night before, they had won 3-0.

It might be my UD lit background kicking into overdrive, but I think the implications of this difference in style are huge, and enormously helpful in understanding the massive shift in cultural response to the Pope.

Lots of people have said that the problem with Pope Francis’ idea of a “field hospital for the wounded” is that the “wounded” will never admit that their wounds could be related to sin no matter how much we try to give them treatment. I’m inclined to agree with the general sentiment of that. Our modern, Western culture has very much lost any real belief in sin. But why, then, is a culture who refuses to acknowledge its own sin so desperately clinging to a Pope who promises mercy? After all, mercy isn’t mercy unless there’s something to forgive, right?

It’s important to note here that the secular media is actively suppressing (or at least ignoring) reports on things Francis has done that show a continuity with the “harder” teachings of the Church. The excommunication of the priest in Australia, for example. Under Benedict, that would have caused widespread anger. Under Francis? *crickets* Never in living memory have I seen the secular media deliberately choose a narrative of love over a narrative of hate when it comes to Christianity, but with Francis, they are genuinely ignoring the things they don’t want to see…or perhaps, the things they’re not ready to see.

I suspect our culture has grown weary of its own sin. I think there is a general undercurrent of exhaustion with all this decadence, and despondency over the emptiness it breeds. I think our culture is absolutely desperate for mercy, but unable to understand why. And I think that’s why they are latching onto Pope Francis so voraciously. When an entire culture has lost a common vocabulary with which to discuss things like sin, forgiveness, and morality, they’ve lost the ability to see the truth, even if the successor of Peter is vanishing into it, the better to hold it up before their eyes. But if the successor of Peter steps out of the truth and looks straight at them, holds out his hand, and says, “let me heal your wounds”…well, that’s a different story. I don’t think the secular culture will be able to see Christ until they have been seen by Him. A patient who is dying of dehydration is usually so confused and disoriented that he or she doesn’t even understand what’s wrong with them. Why would it be any different with desperate afflictions of the soul?

All this is not to say that Francis’ approach is somehow the right one and Benedict’s was the wrong one. I think Pope Benedict laid the ground work necessary for Pope Francis’ approach to work, by strengthening the faith and understanding of us Catholics already safely ensconced in the arms of the Church. It’s no use bringing in a second wave of wounded if the first wave are still occupying all the beds, or if the doctors and nurses are themselves too wounded to give aid. (Yeah, I’m stretching the metaphor, but you know what I mean.) I also think the long-term value of Pope Benedict is simply immeasurable. He left us (and is still leaving us!) a treasure trove of brilliant writing to enlighten and assuage the faithful in the years to come.

Simply put, I don’t think the irritation and even anger over the (real or perceived) differences between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have any merit. I see an astounding harmony between these two Popes, in substance obviously, but also in style.

Did you know that, according to Fr. Wauck, the Vatican doesn’t have a strategic communications office? Not the way we think of it. By that I mean, there are no “handlers” for Pope Francis, and there weren’t for Pope Benedict. They don’t even have the common PR strategists that bishops in the US have. A few people have expressed fear over that fact, but if anything, I think that only proves what an almost miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit these two Popes are to us as a Church, and to the world at large. More than a gift, really. They’re like a one-two punch: first Pope Benedict showed us the Truth, and now Pope Francis is showing us how to live it.

  • jen

    I think it also says something about our culture that our bishops need an office of strategic communication and the pope doesn’t.

    • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

      I doubt anyone would dare such a thing. The Pope must be his own head of strategic communications; it’s his job. I am sufficiently unhappy about modern politicians not writing their own speeches.

    • Paul Adams

      But the pope does need one, judging by the interview and its reception (including an ad in the NYT from NARAL thanking him on behalf of pro-choice women). Or else he needs an Admonitor, like the superior-general of the Jesuits has. As I understand it, Francis kept his own people, including the bishops and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which was meeting in Rome, in the dark while providing advance copies to the media under embargo. The bishops were blindsided and the media had a field day. If, as I assume, this was not intentional (me and my Jesuits against the bishops), it does suggest the need for something like a an office of strategic communications. To be fair, given the way the media seized, negatively of course, on some of Benedict’s unofficial remarks (in the wonderful Regensburg Address, the heart of which few got because of the uproar about a comment on Islam, or the comment about condoms and AIDS on an airplane over Africa), Benedict, for all his precision and clarity, could have used such an office too.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Not only don’t they (modern scularists) believe in sin, but they believe in divinity. And in my opinion, what they perceive as mercy they are interpreting to be sympathy which is different. Personally I don’t know if this love affair with Francis will last.

  • Michelle

    I totally appreciate this post.

  • Fiddlesticks

    Don’t wish to pour cold water, but I tend to agree with Manny that this won’t last. The secular media like this Pope because they think he’s saying ‘I’m going to shut up about all that stuff you don’t agree with – like that abortion and gay marriage are wrong. I’m just going to talk about the being nice to people bit that we agree with.’ They think this is a stepping stone to letting the teachings fade and die out altogether. The idea that secular society thinks they might be missing something – that the Church might have something that they need? Nope. Not buying that.

    • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

      Thanks. The question on the secularists who seem to be embracing the new Pope is whether they will eventially repudiate abortion and the other issues? I don’t think so, but let’s hope I’m wrong.

  • Paul Adams

    Excellent column, Calah! I was quite demoralized and disheartened by the interview (which, if it was meant to tell us to de-emphasize the burning moral issues of the day and focus more on the central Gospel message, actually had the opposite effect), by its treatment in the media, and not least, by the media’s (and some of my friends’) relentless use of Francis to bash Benedict. This piece raised my spirits and restored some balance and equanimity to me, at least. Wish I’d known about the lecture, I’d have been there. Thank you.

  • Danielle Kuboushek

    As you wrote about in your first response to the interview, God can use evil for good. It seems like the popularity of Pope Francis among the secular and his presence in the media could, in fact, inspire fallen away Catholics to come home.

  • http://www.geeklady.wordpress.com/ GeekLady

    I think you’re spot on here. Our culture is rather like Helen Keller when it comes to sin and truth and mercy. Or even the Dwarfs in The Last Battle.

  • Anon

    Manny, Fiddlesticks, and to a lesser degree, Paul:

    Romans 12: 3-21

    I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than
    you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
    Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
    Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
    Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    If you could explain how your cynicism–and it is cynicism–fits within the context the gospel, it might serve as food for thought. Otherwise… we’re told to cling to hope, which Francis is doing, as is Calah. You could do far worse than attempt to do the same.

    And a useful disclaimer: I am myself a very cynical person, but I keep that cynicism to myself, choosing not to propound it in the public square, which Calah has, I think convincingly, in case anyone can’t see it for themselves, argued is now largely social media–blog comment boxes included. Something about heresy not actually being heresy until it is taught–or propounded publicly.

    • Fiddlesticks

      I’m afraid I have to object. Of course, if people are genuinely seeking Christ then, as the Pope says, who am I to judge? Perhaps they’ve had an abortion, perhaps they’re in a gay relationship, perhaps they struggle with a point of doctrine. I’m pretty blind about a lot of stuff myself and increasingly disappointed in my ability to actually put this stuff into practice.

      Nevertheless, I really think that I’m being realistic rather than cynical when I say that what secular society is hoping for is that the Pope will just drop the Church’s teaching on these things. They’re entirely confident that they’re right on these topics and that the Church is lagging behind – but maybe this ‘nice’ Pope who’s open to listening to people will catch up – or at least stop trying to influence politicians and doctors. At least, that’s what I’m seeing on Facebook and discussion threads. I don’t blame them. They have their own agenda and their own beliefs that they feel very passionately about – of course they want those things affirmed.

      That doesn’t mean the Pope’s approach is wrong, of course. If it touches just one heart to see the Church in a different light and start seeking, then it’s all worth it.

      • Fiddlesticks

        P.S. Yes, Christ said all those things – ‘do not be overcome by evil, but overcome what is evil with what is good’. But he also said ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.’ I’m rather afraid that if the Pope persists in doing things that rile people (like his advice to doctors) that the same people who are praising him now will tear him to pieces.

        • Paul Adams

          I think Anon. is citing Paul to admonish us (with bold and underlining added to make sure we get the point). Jesus was blunter, as your quotes indicate. I don’t see anything cynical here either. But rather than fire off biblical quotes in response to Anon’s salvo, I’ll just link to Fr. Longenecker’s latest post, which simply states the fact of the matter. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2013/09/did-pope-francis-undermine-us-catholic-bishops.html

          • Anon

            I did read Longenecker’s piece. And it does state the fact of the matter. You are both missing my point.

            Longenecker speaks of the current love affair the media has with Francis as a ‘tactic,’ and the battle metaphor is the problem. The cynicism I spoke of is not realism. In any battle, there is a potential winner and loser. The realist approach, which is a euphemism for the cynical approach, sees what is happening as a tactic in an ongoing battle–which assumes the Church, and by extension God, could lose. He can’t.

            Another way to see this, if you ‘realists’ want to persist with the tactic metaphor, is that if this is battle, then it is, as Calah mentioned a few posts back, a battle against the devil, not against culture. If that’s the case, then it’s not we who are fighting the devil–that’s beyond us, as all but the saints, and probably even most of them, can barely fight ourselves… so the devil is waaaay above our paygrade–but rather God who is fighting the devil. Again, if that is so, then this is battle in which we are not even alive to see a single maneuver, much less a fully implemented tactic. To assume that we can see the scope of this battle, much less the war, is at best absurd and at worst presumptuous to a nearly unforgivable degree.

            None of this is to say that we don’t have a role in this ongoing battle, but to say that our role is best fulfilled by clinging to the hope that Christ gave us and then asked that we cling to. That means loving our neighbor; that means choosing not to despair of our culture; and that means not presuming to doubt the efficacy of the Pope chosen, not without God’s assent, to lead His church.

            So, yes to the insight into the tactics of the media.

            But, no to your general outlook on the whole situation. If you’re going to quote Christ, Manny, start with something simpler. You say:

            I’m rather afraid that if the Pope persists in doing things that rile people (like his advice to doctors) that the same people who are
            praising him now will tear him to pieces.

            So maybe a good place to start is: “be not afraid.”

          • Fiddlesticks

            You really want to stop bolding and underlining things that don’t advance your point at all. I haven’t questioned the Pope or his approach. I also didn’t say there was any press ‘tactic’ going on. People hear what they want to hear, and what they want to hear at the moment is a Pope saying that abortion, gay marriage, contraception are inconsequential matters that only mean minded people care about and that the Church is going to drop them altogether. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan Savage tried to co-opt him into his ‘Not All Christians Are Like That’ campaign. There is a definite effort being made in some quarters to neutralise the Church.

            You really want to stop misquoting things too. When Jesus said ‘be not afraid’ he meant us not to be afraid to proclaim our beliefs even in the face of fierce opposition. He didn’t mean blindly believe that the opposition is going to come round in a few years and decide they like you after all.

            I’ve got to say that I have never seen a culture less ‘weary of its sin’ than our present one. ‘a general undercurrent of exhaustion with all this decadence, and despondency over the emptiness it breeds.’? Perhaps, but I don’t see people flocking to the Church because of this. In fact, I’d say that was one of the key reasons for the strong support for gay marriage. People just can’t imagine living without love – love is the ultimate justification. Love meaning being accepted for who you are and having all your choices affirmed and justified. At the moment, the Church isn’t offering that, so what’s the appeal?

            By all means, drop the ‘culture war’ language and get out and serve people and heal the wounded. But don’t expect people to come round. A few will, but most won’t. We should do these things anyway.

  • Eugene John Flynn IV

    Irony of ironies! I was at Fr. Wauck’s talk last Friday here at UD; in the discussion after, one of the professor’s (I don’t recall her name) mentioned the work you’re doing. I had no idea before then that you were an alum!

  • Monty Ehrich

    I love the Church. I converted five years after I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why?
    Well, I didn’t want to settle for crumbs when I could have the whole loaf.