Pope Francis doesn’t always sound like Mr. Nice Guy

Pope Francis doesn’t always sound like Mr. Nice Guy February 20, 2014

Dear reporters:

You’re full of you-know-what.

Sincerely, Pope Francis

Not quite the missal you’d expect from the man who enjoys the media-crafted image of a mild, friendly, non-judgmental granddaddy. But there’s another side to Pope Francis.

Like when he described journalists in vivid terms:

“Sometimes negative news does come out, but it is often exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal. Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia, which is a sin that taints all men and women, that is, the tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive aspects.”

Coprophilia? Coprophagia?

Yep, they are real words, and not nice ones. The first is a love of feces. The second is consuming it. So in the Holy Father’s eyes, journalists tend to love the stuff.

This picture of a potty-mouthed pope is a far cry from the benign view of Francis pushed in much of the media, as Laurence England says on CNN. He notes that writers often contrast the nice-guy Francis with his “mean-spirited, judgmental and arrogant predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.”

England, for one, finds those caricatures “laughable”:

[Benedict] was ever the gentleman. Even his criticisms of trends in modern society that run contrary to the church’s teachings on life, marriage and the family were delivered in courteous language.

And when Benedict did say something likely to be deemed offensive, he was often extremely careful about the way in which he said it.

In fact, he was much more careful not to offend than his successor on the throne of St. Peter.

Only recently have some stories come to grips with the reality of a sharp-tongued pontiff. “The pope is actually the vicar of snark,” says a well-researched story in The Week. Like England’s piece, The Week says Pope Benedict XVI was nicer than his public image, and Francis is not quite as nice:

Pope Benedict was a warm and often misunderstood scholar … Even when much of what he offers is criticism, it comes with a light and inviting touch.

The unnoticed part of the “new tone” in the church is that Francis is practically an insult comic. Where Benedict sought to condemn errors in the abstract, Pope Francis makes it personal and attacks tendencies within certain groups of people, usually in highly stylized papal idioms.

Those “papal idioms” can sound abstract, as The Week notes. People won’t get their backs up at insults like “Pelagians” or “Christians of words” or “querulous and disillusioned pessimists.”

Probably not, but Laurence England found more common invective among Francis’ quotes:

Indeed, here’s some of the names the Pope has actually called people: “pickled pepper-faced Christians,” “closed, sad, trapped Christians,” “defeated Christians,” “liquid Christians,” “creed-reciting, parrot Christians,” and, finally, those “watered-down faith, weak-hoped Christians.”

Catholics who focus on church traditions are “museum mummies,” the Pope says. Nuns who fail to inspire faith in the church are “old maids,” and the Vatican hierarchy has at times been “the leprosy of the papacy,” in Francis’ words.

Indeed, men of the cloth face the brunt of Francis’ fulminations. He has called some of them “vain” butterflies, “smarmy” idolators and “priest-tycoons.” He’s described some seminarians as potential “little monsters.”

“The Pope didn’t say these things just to insult people,” England says. “Rather, he was often making a larger point about the kind of church he wants to lead: open, merciful and unafraid.” Hmmmm, except, maybe, for that crack about reporters who feast on feces.

It’s an interesting question to ask why many media prefer to play up Francis as the Good Cop to Benedict’s Bad Cop, as did Rolling Stone’s adoring cover story. Fair guesses would include his “Who am I to judge” remark about gays, plus his disdain for the elaborate trappings of past popes.

Another likely reason was the disdain for Benedict by many in the media. Both as pope and as former head of doctrine for the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict hung tough on traditional values: marriage, sexuality, birth control, a celibate male priesthood. His successor would have to be better, wouldn’t he?

Even knowing Francis’ occasional harshness, though, one writer did hit back, with an odd blend of self-deprecation and self-congratulation. Andrew Brown of The Guardian specifically likened reporters to dung-loving bluebottle flies — though he also blamed his subjects for serving up the crap.

A religious journalist might respond that the world we cover serves up plenty to sate the coprophiliac appetite. If you’re a religious news journalist most of your job consists of talking to Christians so that they can tell you lies about each other. If you cover the Vatican, this is certainly true. I don’t know anyone who has been converted by the people they cover.

Ah, but keep reading. Brown cutely twists the metaphor back on the pope by saying maggots, the children of flies, serve a valuable purpose:

The maggot looks less appetising than the full-grown fly (unless you’re a fish) but it is on the side of health. Maggots will nibble away at rotting tissue to clean up wounds. A wound with flies on it is infected; a wound with maggots in it is on its way to health. Some journalists may even be caterpillars, industrious vegetarians who will one day turn into butterflies. Of course the sight of maggots is unpleasant, but they are not coprophiliac.

Leave it to a secular journalist to despise his sources and his own craft, yet still see some value in it all.

PHOTO: Pope Francis greets pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St Peter’s square at the Vatican on Jan. 8.

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2 responses to “Pope Francis doesn’t always sound like Mr. Nice Guy”

  1. Once again, we have a bit of religion that journalists need to get: a German theologian is not like a Latin American pastor. Both Christians and Catholics, but very different cultures and professional backgrounds.

  2. As for Mr Brown, and his “I don’t know anyone who has been converted by the people they cover.” consider the Book Salt of the Earth and Pope Benedict. The reporter who interviewed him for the book started out asking snarky, atheist media-style questions and by the time the book was finished, the reporter had returned to the church.

    As for Pope Francis and his media treatment, you must understand something. Right after Pope Francis was selected, when the media agreed he was a conservative, we saw stories about what a nut he was for focusing on the devil (The AP). We saw stories about his probably complicity in illegal disappearances in Argentina during the reign of the junta. Stories about how serious the sex abuse situation had been in Argentina. But then the Pope spoke the magic words “Who am I to judge”.
    And the magical words transformed him from a dullard stuck in medieval times into a sophisticated man of the world, the greatest communicator ever, a man of the people par excellence, a charming, loving man for all seasons.
    Expectations rose very high; he was going to name women as cardinals, he was going to make homosexuality a grace rather than a sin, he would find a way to make women priests.
    After a year, it is now dawning on people that the Pope is not going to change things – at least in the way their fevered imaginations led them to hope. . The dissatisfaction is slowly growing. . As a result we are seeing the “Pope Francis is a bad guy” articles. The “snark” article is among the first. The steady drumbeat of “Francis the Magnificent” articles has slowed. The media doesn’t “Get Francis” now. Wasn’t he going to change everything? There is a pause, a confusion.
    Once this current consistory finishes with no radical stories of change, change, change, the media will start with the poison darts.

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