Locking the two popes into one flawed news template

As has been our practice since day one, your GetReligionistas rarely write posts about editorials, op-ed pages or opinion stories.

There are exceptions, however. Unfortunately, the most common exceptions are when we write about opinion essays and analysis pieces that are supposed to be, or are alleged to be, news stories.

Another exception, however, is when a journalist or religion pro writes an editorial piece that is about a crucial issue directly linked to our turf — the state of religion-news coverage in the mainstream press. From time to time, we will pass along a chunk or two of that kind of piece and point readers toward the whole text.

This is one of those times.

As the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway noted the other day, Pope Francis has been doing a smashing job of freaking out mainstream journalists by serving up healthy doses of orthodox Catholic doctrine — often straight out of the Catechism — with a more casual and surprisingly quotable style and, above all, a more cheerful tone.

I read a lot of Catholic blogs and, truth be told, there are a few Catholic conservatives out there who are not fond of this new pope’s style. There are also scores of traditional Catholics online who are getting tired of the press producing blaring headlines suggesting that Pope Francis has uttered radical, progressive proclamations when a careful parsing of his words shows that he has not.

But more than anything, lots of conservative Catholics are getting really tired of press reports that contrast the DOCTRINAL content of Pope Francis’ words and actions with the actual DOCTRINE proclaimed by, all together now, the bookish, formal and (insert derogatory adjective here) patriarch Pope Benedict XVI.

Over at the New Liturgical Movement website, editor Jeffrey Tucker finally blew a gasket. After praising the content of the new papacy, and admitting he is a bit tired of the style, he gets down to business:

Here is what has been going on and has from day one. Hardly anything that Pope Francis does goes uncompared with Benedict XVI. Francis holds a press conference and this fact is compared with the supposed aloofness and severity of his predecessor. He carries a briefcase and this is proclaimed as an astonishing act of service-based humility (which, hint hint, his predecessor did not display). He rides in a compact car instead of a sedan and this is supposed to be an unprecedented and revolutionary display of rebuke to the whole of modern papal history.

We all want to scream: this not true!

Some bloggers and commentators have made a minor sport out of showing how Francis is not doing anything that Benedict didn’t do, that there is nothing truly amazing out of any of this. It is just being interpreted in a different way. Yes, the two papacies have different styles about them, but this does not amount to the Jacobin upheaval that the press hopes for.

What is extremely tricky here — and it becomes nearly a full-time job for watchers of Church issues — is to somehow separate the press spin from the reality. That is not always easy.

The key, he adds, is that this Francis vs. Benedict riff has turned into a “template” into which far too many reporters are now jamming a few facts, while ignoring just as many additional facts or even more. As critics of the press often do, Tucker chalks this up to laziness and a desire to sell newspapers.

In the end, the actual content of Benedict’s work is being ignored. Key facts are missing in the coverage. All that matters is that some of his actions were praised by Catholic traditionalists and that is bad.

The narrative of Benedict XVI was that he was a closed-minded reactionary dedicated to cracking down and turning back the clock. After that, nothing else mattered. It didn’t matter how much he reached out, how much he liberalized the ritual, how much he displayed openness, praised religious freedom, called for social justice and the like. The narrative stuck.

So it has been with Francis. The press decided early on that he is humble, spontaneous, liberal, broad, pro-poor, tolerant, and ready to revise doctrine. After that, the fix was in. Everything he does is interpreted in that light. Every headline presumes that underlying template. It’s the only story.

Read it all. And note, in particular, this comment attached to the original essay from a reader in the native land of Pope Francis. Ironic.

I agree with what you say 100%. Here, in Argentina, the press is super hyped about everything the pope does, labeling every detail as “a first,” “a new way,” “unprecedented,” “heart warming,” “decontracté” — a lot more of absurdities.

When Cardinal Bergoglio was our archbishop, the same media outlets yawned in disdain when he talked.

Discuss the journalism of all this.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    This “analysis” from AP continues the meme: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/07/31/analysis-pope-francis-revolutionary-comments-about-gays-and-women-dont-please/ There’s this interesting graph:

    “Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, had coddled traditionalist
    Catholics attached to the old Latin Mass and opposed to the modernizing
    reforms of the Second Vatican Council. That group greeted Francis’
    election with concern — and now is watching its worst fears come true.
    Francis has spoken out both publicly and privately against such
    ‘restoratist groups,’ which he accuses of being navel-gazing retrogrades
    out of touch with the evangelizing mission of the church in the 21st
    century.”

    “Coddled”? Like they’re some kind of outlaw group of people?

    Then there’s this: “Even more mainstream conservative Catholics aren’t thrilled with Francis.
    “In a recent interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Philadelphia
    Archbishop Charles Chaput said right-wing Catholics ‘generally have not
    been really happy’ with Francis.”

    Does this imply that Archbishop Chaput is a “right-wing” Catholic? I don’t think he would think of himself that way. And I seriously doubt that he’s not “thrilled with Francis.”

    This “analysis” is a great example of what Jeffrey Tucker is saying.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    It’s not as though Francis has not directly been asked about his relationship with Benedict XVI; from the Vatican transcript of that interview on the plane, run through Google Translate (so mangled English not my or their fault):

    Father Lombardi: For the Spanish group, then, now we have Pablo Ordaz, El País:

    Pablo Ordaz: [We would like to know what his working relationship, not only of friendship and collaboration with Benedict XVI. There has never before been a similar circumstance, and if you have frequent contact and is helping in this work. Thank you very much.]

    Papa Francesco: [I think the last time there were two popes, or three Popes, have not spoken to each other, they were fighting to see who was the authentic one. They came to be three during the Great Schism. There is something ...]

    Is there anything that qualifies my relationship with Benedict: I love him so much. Still I loved him. For me he is a man of God, a humble man, a man who prays. I was so happy when he was elected Pope. Even when he resigned, was for me an example of greatness! A great. Only a big does this! A man of God and a man of prayer. He now lives in the Vatican, and some say to me, but how can you do this? Two Popes in the Vatican! But, do not cluttered with him? But he does not make you the revolution against? All these things they say, right? I found a sentence to say this: “It ‘s like having your grandfather at home,” but the wise
    grandfather. When a family’s grandfather’s home, is revered, loved, is heard. He is a man of prudence! Do not meddle. I said many times: “Your Holiness, you
    receive, make his life, come with us.” It ‘came for the inauguration and blessing of the statue of St. Michael. Well, that sentence says it all. For me it is like having your grandfather at home: my dad. If I had a difficulty or a thing that I did not understand, telefonerei: “But, tell me, I can do it, what?”. And when I
    went to talk about the big problem of Vatileaks, he told me everything … with
    a simplicity to the service. It ‘s something that you do not know if you know it, I think so, but I’m not sure: When we spoke in farewell speech, on February 28, told us: “Among you there the next Pope: I I promise obedience. ” But it is a great, this is great!

  • teacon7

    The American political process is responsible for this. The only tools the American media has to understand the new pope are political ones: after his “term limit” came up, Benedict retired; Francis’ platform looks and smells different, so they spin his press releases to suit their own ideological ends. Without an understanding of the doctrinal continuity of the Roman See, the next best analogue is our own political process.
    How are the foreign, non-American or non-democratic media outlets reacting to this?

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Part of the irony of the semi-hysterical or almost comical misrepresentations of the pope’s words is that the media is virtually treating everything the pope says as if all his words were “ex cathedra” (that is infallible doctrine). Benedict XVI knew this was a problem. Consequently when he wrote some books as pope which included much personal and scholarly speculation, he made it a point on occasion to remind people that not everything a pope says or writes carries the same weight. (Francis kept saying that he embraces the Catechism’s teachings as his own, but much of the media ignored those words.”
    If the media keeps mis-reporting or mis-headlining what Francis says, can anyone blame him if he becomes the proverbial clam. The media whines when presidents and popes tend to not want to talk to reporters off the cuff–we are now seeing why. But, of course if Francis starts getting more tight-lipped (which would be my advice) then guess who the media will attack for that happening.

  • James Patton

    I am going to judge these two Popes by the enemies they have. As of this moment, Pope Francis is clearly the front runner by making the same enemies as mine. He is the closest to emulating Christ on Earth.

  • David M Paggi

    Terry:

    The press has had 8 years to learn the truth of the gentle pastor,
    intellectual giant, erudite professor, and reluctant Pope now Emeritus and
    disdained to do so; they certainly won’t now. It may be that this spin is less
    an endorsement of Pope Francis than it is an unseemly press burial of Pope
    Benedict XVI. Ironically, having finally laid down the burden of decades of
    outstanding and difficult service to the Church at the very highest levels, it
    is quite certain the Pope Emeritus is enjoying obscurity; his brother has said
    he will not write any more. That may also be a cross for the former professor,
    who has published extensively.

    This mess illustrates four unfortunate characteristics that are all too common
    in today’s media:

    1) Buzz: Perhaps it is the inevitable result of the 24-hour news cycle, nevertheless it seems much of what passes for coverage today is more about what the current buzz is and less about facts or events that actually matter. This is why some stories mindlessly “go viral” out of all proportion to their real merit, while too often the story line shifts from the event itself to coverage of its coverage,
    particularly when another outlet makes an embarrassing mistake.

    2) Sound Bites: With the ubiquity of TV comes universal time compression. So the story that “gains traction” is the one with the best sound bites, which may or may not reflect its real news value. It may now be such an occupational hazard that some media folks may actually think in sound bites. Besides the obvious political and moral conflict, some of the animosity directed at our Pope Emeritus may have its origin in his unwillingness to be sufficiently superficial. How inconvenient!

    3) Monoperspective: Media people seem to speak, write, and think in exclusively political categories. Perhaps they gravitate to the field because they want to be influencers of public opinion. For example coverage following the 2005 papal election often used the language of “crisis”, focusing on the number of people leaving the church or disagreeing with her teaching. Invariably their advice consisted of the usual suspects, women and married clergy & so forth. There was one remarkable exception. Business Week, to its credit, pointed out the Church, having survived for 2000 years, has a much longer-view perspective so speculations about significant changes anytime soon were out of place.

    4) Hubris: The media seem to suffer from the conceit what
    makes stories important is that they cover them; not that they cover them
    because they are important. It must really grate on them that the Church
    teaches what she teaches regardless of its popularity with them or anyone else.

    Of course these definitions are exceedingly oversimplified for the sake of
    brevity. Also, the terms above are for convenience of discussion; as a
    practical matter all these travel together and mutually support one another with no
    sharp distinctions. To use a clinical term they are comorbid.

    For these reasons and others the media are riding along in a sort of self-induced
    fog, so they mistake a change in style for a change in substance, and will soon
    learn to their collective astonishment that Pope Francis is Catholic. Unlike
    Pope Benedict, who had to endure blatant hostility from the first day, Pope
    Francis has been granted a sort of press “honeymoon” analogous to a newly
    inaugurated President. Father Longenecker and others predict the press will
    inevitably “turn” on Pope Francis, and I see no reason to disagree with them.
    Since they have entertained such mistaken ideas of who Pope Francis actually
    is, when they find out they will blame him rather than their own negligence, so
    they will likely be quite ferocious.