A few years ago, it was the fashion in certain circles to refer to fans of Pope Francis as “ultramontanists” – that is, people who give too much power to the papacy. Perhaps this term was correctly applied to some, but in my case my defense of and admiration for the pope has very little to do with his office, and much to do with who he is as a person.
Had the College of Cardinals voted in a raging reactionary given to mouthing nonsense about women “feminizing” the church, or a bloated oligarch drunk on power, I would have felt and acted very differently. Maybe it makes me a bad Catholic in that my allegiance is to the gospel and presence of Christ and not to the seat in Rome – but, I think it makes me a less crappy Christian.
I was attracted to the simplicity and directness of his approach from the first moment of his papacy, when he tentatively raised his hand in a “hi, you all,” gesture. When he chose the name “Francis” I was astonished and delighted. And in the difficult times since, I have counted him on the list of “reasons why I am still Catholic.” I have seen him attacked and vilified by the reactionary Right who have rejected the spirit of Christ to wallow at the feet of Trump; I have seen my former colleagues, at a university that brands itself as the last hope of Catholicism, call for his resignation. But at the same time I saw so many wanderers who had been hurt by the church beginning, cautiously, to creep back. For a while, it made me proud to call myself Catholic, thinking not only of the millions of unnamed laity and religious who have done courageous works of mercy and justice over the centuries, but also of our Jesuit pope with his Franciscan name and spirituality.
So it would be devastating to me if the allegations that Pope Francis was involved in cover-ups turned out to be true.
Denial would not be an option, however. One of the painful aspects of this whole scandal, and the broader scope of #MeToo, is that it has forced so many of us to rewrite our entire lives in terms of who we thought was a “good guy.” Our heroes have fallen. Some have turned out to be, not heroes, but crooks.
Because of the work I did with students for years, and because of my present work in Catholic media, I hear more stories than just the ones that see the light. It’s been a series of punches to the gut. And facing reality is painful, but it must be done.
Earlier this year, my friend Jenn Morson wrote a meticulously researched piece for the National Catholic Reporter, in which she exposed a troubling culture of assault cover-up and rape apology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She included in her piece troubling quotations from published works and syllabi of FU faculty, direct accounts of students who had been victims, and accounts of those who had tried to help – including my own statement about how, after hearing troubling things from several students, I had initiated a letter-writing campaign involving a number of alumni, and directed at several university administrators.
Backlash and Victim-Blaming from the Reactionary Right
The backlash against Morson, and anyone associated with her, was extreme. People did not want to face reality, even when it was carefully documented. People with no real journalistic credibility or training immediately denounced her work as “bad journalism” simply because they did not agree or want to hear what she had to say – because it made them uncomfortable. Others thought it was an unfair attack on the university, and that we should have tried other ways to reach them, first (ignoring, apparently, the fact of the extensive letter writing, as well as that Morson approached them for comment before publishing). And as always, people questioned and blamed the victims.
Far-right tabloid pieces went so far as to attack Morson as a shady George Soros operative, with the usual anti-semitic slurs to be expected from the Combox warriors who follow Church Militant, Crisis, and LifeSite.
These are people who will pervert the facts in any way they can, rather than face an unpleasant truth.
And for the most part, these same people are practically salivating over the accusations against Pope Francis.
Yes, a carefully documented and professionally reported account of abuse cover ups, with multiple witnesses, is a Soros hit piece on a sacrosanct institution – but a hearsay accusation in a tabloid is proof positive.
Before you jump on the anti-Francis bandwagon, you might want to consider what Morson had to say, recently:
From the mixed up files of Ms. Catholic Journalist: a tale of two (or more) publications.
The first time I pitched to National Catholic Reporter, I had come across some fairly damning evidence about a bishop. I presented it to the editor, investigated, found that the bishop himself was unaware, and thankful to be informed. His office gave me permission to say so. I had the delightful task of letting my editor know that I was wrong, and would be writing essentially the opposite story. It was a relief to all involved, of course, because said bishop was doing good, and the truth was allowed to breathe. My editor did not press me to keep my original pitch, which might surprise those folks who dismiss NCReporter as being a liberal rag. Not at all. He thanked me for pursuing truth.
The second time, my story was a lot worse than I had ever imagined. I spent months writing it. The response from the “other” catholic publications included claiming I was part of a vast conspiracy to tank orthodox institutions. I reached out to the editor of CNA who refused to remove false information about me and other writers. LifeSite even went so far as to publish an “article” by Austin Ruse, claiming he had repeatedly interviewed several sources (in reality, he had tweeted at them threateningly) – and that I had “fingered” (no comment) Prof. Anne Hendershott because I was a George Soros shill. In the comments section, several people attempted to defend me and others. Those comments were deleted. Left there, however, were anti-semitic comments suggesting that my Jewish origins indicated I was full of a Jewish spirit of thirst for power.
All of this to say: I have zero confidence in the journalistic integrity of Lifesite News or National Catholic Register. Make of that what you will.
LifeSite news has a history of false and hysterical reporting, and its mission appears to have nothing to do with defending life, everything to do with destroying people.
Add to this the fact that the nuncio who has accused Francis a) was already at odds with him, and may even have a personal vendetta, and b) more importantly, in accusing Francis, has in fact outed himself as one who knew what was going on, but remained silent.
Is it possible that Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò was aware all along, and spoke out at this moment simply in an effort to use the momentum of this horrible crisis, and the just anger of the laity, to take down the pope? Is it possible that while many of us are mobilizing to bring about much-needed reform, in the midst of our sadness and anger, others are seizing the opportunity to advance an agenda that has nothing to do with justice for abusers or healing for victims?
I feel uncomfortable with any speculations beyond this, without any evidence. But on the basis of the evidence of past action, it does not seem to me that the far-right tabloid crowd has any interest whatsoever in defending victims, while it is quite heavily invested in undermining the pope.
There is a vast difference, too, between believing a victim who finally, painfully speaks out – and believing a powerful man already known to engage in shady machinations to get his way.
For now, I am suspending judgment, and I would encourage you all to do likewise. If it were to turn out that a beloved spiritual leader were guilty of covering up criminal assault, this would be a tragic moment in our shared history as Catholics. But we would owe it to the victims to face the truth, no matter how painful, because their pain is the greater.
As of yet, though, we have reached no such moment.
image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pope_Francis_in_Prato_(87).JPG