Pope Francis, between just communication and unjust polarization
Before Pope Francis’ trip to Panama, Cardinal Walter Kasper underscored in a few seconds interview that there was a plot behind the sex abuse scandal, to delegitimate the Pope and have a new conclave.
Also before the Pope’s trip, Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication, lowered the expectations on the meeting on the protection of minors scheduled for Feb. 21 – 24 at the Vatican. Pope Francis, in the inflight presser coming back from Panama on Jan. 28, said the same, and shed light on the fact that nothing will completely eradicate abuse, and that abuse cases will continue to emerge, because sin is human.
These two messages were then combined with another one delivered during Pope Francis’ trip. On Jan. 24, Pope Francis met with the SEDAC, the regional organization that gathers the bishops of Central America. Pope Francis said: “I am worried about how the compassion of Christ has lost a central place in the Church, even among Catholic groups, or is being lost – not to be so pessimistic. Even in the Catholic media there is a lack of compassion. There is schism, condemnation, cruelty, exaggerated self-praise, the denouncing of heresy…”
Andrea Tornielli promptly commented on these words in an op-ed on Vatican news, published in English, and after that in an interview to the English section for the same Papal outlet.
In his intervention, Tornielli explained that Pope Francis’ words are “like a photograph of the reality which unfortunately is plain for all to see,” that is “the spread, even among media that proclaims to be Catholic, of the habit of wanting to judge everything and everyone by putting one’s self on a pedestal and rage against one’s brothers and sisters in the faith who have different opinions”.
Tornielli added that this attitude cannot be considered “a transitory phenomenon, linked only to the daily criticism of the present pontificate,” but “at the root of this attitude lies something deeper and less incidental: the belief that, in order to exist and confirm my identity, I must always find an enemy against which direct my rage”.
This is the framework, which helps to understand the full pictures. There are two issues to be considered.
First issue: Cardinal Kasper spoke about the attacks against the Church because of the clergy sex abuse scandal as part of a plot to force Pope Francis to resign. This perspective is dangerous. Saying there is a plot against the Pope, the Papacy is reduced to one person.
The truth is that the sex abuse by clergy issue has been the main reason for attacks against the Church. Real cases were mixed with exaggerated or fake cases. The strategy implied the preventive denigration of the priests before the actual sentence of guiltiness (or not guiltiness) came out.
This is not part of a plot against Pope Francis. This is a wider plot against the Church as an institution. This attack was launched during St. John Paul II’s pontificate, it was vigorously reiterated under Benedict XVI and it was carried forward under Pope Francis, despite the initial Papal honeymoon with the media.
Reducing all of this to a mere attack against Pope Francis means not to take into consideration the institution. Pope Francis, and this is also true, aims at a Church that is always less of an institution and always more pastoral. This way, there is a strong worldliness, because nothing is more worldly than identifying the institution with its leader. This is what is happening.
Second issue: the personalization of the pontificate is leading to a polarization of communication. The narrative built around the Pontificate comes then into question. This narrative sorts out people as good and bad, and every critical voice raised is considered as part of the opposition or a sower of hatred.
It does not seem by chance that Tornielli’s op-eds were published in English: he perhaps aimed to reach the audiences of American conservative media, considered to be more than anyone else opposed to the Pope.
In acting as the official interpreter of the Pope’s thinking, as part of his position as editorial director that is shaping as that of a shadow spokesperson, Tornielli somehow legitimates the phenomenon of personalization. Though conceding that the anti-Papal attitude is not linked to the pontificate, the final outcome of his rationale seems to be: whomever criticizes the Pope holds some sort of a grudge against the Pope. There is no way out of this consequence.
However, it is difficult to establish who is actually in line with Pope Francis’ thought and who is not. Pope Francis’ in flight presser on his way back from Panama was a clear example of what not to expect from Pope Francis: no opening on the removal of celibacy can be expected; no revolution coming out of the meeting on the protection of minors can be expected; no response to any doctrinal question (a hidden reference was to the dubia of the four cardinals) can be expected, and this because the Pope said he prefers not to make pronouncements on dogmatic issues, but rather likes to act.
Beyond the openings that are typical of his Jesuit belonging, there is nothing in Pope Francis’ words of the progressive agenda built behind his back. Pope Francis’ thought seems also to be far from the thought of many who, during this pontificate, enjoyed his trust.
Who is actually in line with Pope Francis’ thought? Who incarnates the Pope’s idea of Church, with no exceptions? The answer to this question is not easy. The answer is not based on doctrinal issues. The answer is trust, which allows, in particular situations, quick adaptations and changes in perspective.
Last week. Fr. Hermann Geissler, director the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, resigned following allegations of harassment of Doris Weber, a former nun. Speaking at a public conference, she never mentioned Fr. Geissler but gave precise information that led the media to name him and publish his picture, although the allegations were still not proven, and a canon procedure was ongoing and yet to produce any outcome. The presumption of innocence was not applied, in his case. Fr. Geissler, on the other hand, applied the principle that institutions must be protected and, in order to do so, he stepped down.
Perhaps, Geissler paid the price of not being considered substantial to Pope Francis’ project. On the other hand, there are similar situations not handled the same way. For example, that of Archbishop Gustavo Zanchetta. He is facing grave accusations, that the media has broadcasted. The outcomes were different. Zanchetta has been suspended from his work as an assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See – a position that was tailored to him, and that has no job description. But he did not resign, nor was he subjected to pressures to resign. He will defend himself from allegations, and things will be pondered when the trial is over.
The same approach was applied to Cardinal George Pell. Cardinal Pell is now in Australia to defend himself from infamous allegations, but he did not resign from his position as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.
Speaking of the sex abuse scandals in Chile in his way back from the trip to Peru and Chile, Pope Francis defended the principle of the the presumption of innocence. Only after, he started the work of purification of the Chilean Church, and complained he did not get all the proper information.
The presumption of innocence principle is sacrosanct. But this statement must be followed by facts. The truth is that, often, people who make the decision to leave do so to protect the institution, even if the institution often does not support them.
In the end, the institution selects whom to support, in a case by case assessment, without a fixed protocol.
This way, the institution seems to mirror Pope Francis’ decisions. Pope Francis handles issues personally, he approaches issues case by case. Pope Francis does not like filters, he does not have a secretariat or better he does not involve his secretaries in everything, all the issues end on his desk. His decisions are personal, and often they are based on his personal intuition. There are no protocols, nor certainties.
Likewise, the institution adapts to Pope Francis’ rationale, and does not apply protocols, adopting the case by case approach. In general, faithful people are the first to leave, and unfaithful people may never step down. The first ones look up to honesty, the second ones to relations, and relations become more important than facts.
This is also an outcome of the personalization of the Papacy. The push for a correct narrative on the pontificate does not simply turn into propaganda, but also into a further polarization of the discussion. Vatican communication responds then to the conservative world described as hostile to the Pope with the same hostility, and labels any critics as filled with venom, following the “hate speech” strategy.
Is it true that Pope Francis is simply the object of hatred? Not at all. Benedict XVI made a very detailed description of the attacks he had to face following his decision to lift the excommunication to four lefevbrist bishops, that were validly, but illicitly ordained (that is, without the Papal consent).
The Pope emeritus was stuck by the heated discussion, that reminded him of the “bite and devour” behavior mentioned by St. Paul. He did not take any steps back on his decision, and he simply explained the rationale behind it.
Andrea Tornielli, together with Paolo Rodari, collected all the attacks against Benedict XVI in the book “Attacco a Ratzinger”. Tornielli did the same with the most recent book “Il Giudizio Universale”, co-authored with Gianni Valente.
The difference is that “Il Giudizio Universale” points the finger at an specific reality and describes it as a lobby plotting against Pope Francis’ message (and many of the assertions are left unproven) with the aim of taking Peter away from his throne. It can sometimes be true. But it is also true that, in general, perplexities and criticism are politely raised by people who are faithful and at the same time find difficulties in understanding Pope Francis’ pastoral actions. It is legitimate, it has always happened.
Before, it was tolerated, and even listened to. Now, raising perplexities means losing some consideration. Even honest people are targeted by the media with the aim of demoting them if they are not part of a particular circle.
It is obvious, legitimate and sacrosanct that the Pope calls to his side collaborators he trusts and that he holds in great esteem. And it is legitimate to have a generational turn. It is, however, difficult to accept the generational turn when it takes place in a traumatic way, without considering the achievements of the past and with the perceived design to destroy everything that was built in the past.
These are the fruits of the polarization of the discussion and of the personalization on Pope Francis. The great challenge of Vatican communication is, today, that of going beyond this polarization, defending the good things achieved and put every story in continuity with the past. In the end, it means going beyond the petty battles, since these are just squabbles rather than constructive discussions.
Is this possible? Pope Francis asked, in his Christmas greetings to the Curia, not to say that the media was attacking the Church, but rather to thank the media because they help the Church to clarify the issues.
If the Holy See institution continues to weaken her foundation as a result of some of the provisions said to be in the offing, it is deprived of the possibility to defend itself and obliged to carry the cross also when allegations against it are not true.
Pope Francis’ image is thus strengthened. The image of the institution is weakened. And many, within the Holy See, in the “hidden Vatican” that works for the institution, are surrendering.