Luke Coppen begins his cover article on Pope Francis for the United Kingdom’s Spectator wondering why Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari would write that the pope has in effect “abolished” the traditional conception of sin. He blames Scalfari’s confusion on a manipulative media: “Why would anyone, let alone a very highly regarded thinker and writer like Scalfari, believe the Pope had done away with such a basic tenet of Christian theology? Well, since he took charge last year, Francis has been made into a superstar of the liberal left.”
What goes unmentioned in Coppen’s article is the pope’s interview with Scalfari — an interview taken down from the Vatican’s website but not repudiated by it (papal spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi has called it generally reliable and “faithful to the thought” of the pope). In that interview, Pope Francis is quoted as saying to Scalfari: “Each one has his idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight the evil as he understands them.” In a previous letter to Scalfari, the pope made similar declarations.
Might such comments have something to do with Scalfari’s interpretation? Might the fact that the pope gave an interview to him, an atheistic ex-Catholic, in which he told him that he didn’t want to convert him have anything to do with it? Might have Scalfari’s unchallenged gushing in the interview about “an openness to modern and secular culture of this breadth, such a profound vision between conscience and its autonomy, [which] has never before been heard from the chair of St. Peter,” had anything to do with it?
Coppen, who is editor of the Catholic Herald, doesn’t engage this obvious source of the confusion and argues instead that liberal Francis is a pure media invention. But isn’t that as comforting a myth as the one he seeks to debunk?
While some of the media’s claims about Francis are excessive, at least one is dismayingly real, one which Coppen never allows: that Francis is more liberal than his predecessors. Indeed, not a week passes without some new papal statement or action to puzzle conservatives and embolden liberals.
This week, for example, we have the curious spectacle of a pope who commends the reading of the Koran: “Francis to Refugees: Christian or Muslim, The Faith Your Parents Instilled in you Will Help you Move on.” That headline comes not from an angling, wish-fulfillment media but from the communications office of the Sydney archdiocese, which quotes a papal speech to migrants in which Francis places Christianity and Islam on the same plane:
Sharing our experience in carrying that cross, to expel the illness within our hearts, which embitters our life: it is important that you do this in your meetings. Those that are Christian, with the Bible, and those that are Muslim, with the Quran. The faith that your parents instilled in you will always help you move on.
The pope’s high regard for Islam — “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence,” he has said previously — is not a figment of the media’s imagination. What Coppen calls “Fantasy Francis” is real enough.
Coppen argues that we should focus on “what the real Francis says and does,” but his article contains no such focus. Wholly ignored in the article is Francis’s all-too-real rejection of the restorationist priorities of Benedict’s pontificate.
Did the media invent the story about Francis washing the feet of a Muslim woman on Holy Thursday, a practice Benedict condemned? Did the media force Francis to say that the Church is too preoccupied with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception — a clear repudiation of Benedict’s emphasis on the “dictatorship of relativism”? Did the media appoint to his special commission of cardinals dissenters from Church teaching like Cardinal Reinhard Marx? Did the media initiate the harassment of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate for supposed traditionalist offenses? Did the media put the words “who am I to judge?” in the pope’s mouth as he talked about homosexuality? Did the media orchestrate his interview with heterodox fellow Jesuits in which he proudly said “I have never been a right-winger”?
Is it also a media-driven fantasy that the cardinals closest to Francis are calling for liberal changes and rejoice in the “discontinuity” with Benedict’s pontificate? If so, real liberals keep popping up around “Fantasy Francis.” This week the chairman no less of the pope’s special commission of cardinals let it be known that he thinks the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith needs liberal reeducation on the question of Communion for the divorced-and-remarried. Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga said of Archbishop Gerhard Muller: “He's a German, one has to say, and above all he's a German theology professor, so in his mentality there’s only truth and falsehood. But I say, my brother, the world isn't like this, and you should be a little flexible when you hear other voices. That means not just listening and then saying no."
Vatican reporter John Allen noted that “Francis has himself signaled openness to some flexibility on access to the sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, saying during a press conference on an airplane during his return from Brazil in July that perhaps Catholicism could learn something from the practice of Eastern Orthodox churches of recognizing a second marriage.”
Coppen doesn't acknowledge any of this changed atmosphere in the Church, insisting that the pope’s liberalism is merely perceived. He even resists the notion that the pope’s economic views admit of any liberalism, chalking conservative criticism of his comments about “trickle-down” economics — a phrase he has used more than once — up as yet another “misapprehension.” The papacy has apparently been mistranslating itself.
The secular media is no doubt as untrustworthy as Coppen says. But a fawning Catholic media that provides little honest reporting about the obvious progressive tendencies of this pontificate is fostering a fantasy of its own.
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