October was a crucial month for Pope Francis: the Pope asked all the faithful to pray daily the Rosary and the St. Michael the Archangel prayer to protect the Church from the Great Accuser. Pope Francis reiterated this request at the end of the Synod of Bishops.
It was a crucial point because Pope Francis’ initiative was strongly rooted in Christian piety, but also pointed to a plot against the Church, that needed to be faced and fought. In the media, the plot against the Church has become the plot against Pope Francis, as for the media characters are more important than facts.
Is there really a plot against Pope Francis?
This question has been circulating since the beginning of the pontificate, and no definitive answer has been found yet. Some say that Pope Francis is targeted by big international powers, that are scandalized by the Pope’s support for the poor and calls for a more just society. They also say that the Pope is attacked by mainstream media for his clarity and for the way he goes against the trends of current society. And they say he is attacked by conservatives, that see in his pontificate a breaking point.
Some others say Pope Francis is praised by a mainstream media that is eager to politically exploit some of his messages, especially those on migration. They say the Pope is loved by secular people rather than by believers because of his revolutionary approach. And they also say progressives back him, as they build behind his back an agenda they keep on promoting.
What is the truth?
One has to realize that all the questions about a plot against the Pope start from wrong premises.
First of all, these questions do not take into consideration historic data. There have been hundreds of alleged plots against popes. Just a few remember that even a story of a mordkomplott, death complot, against Benedict XVI once circulated. John Paul II was subjected to all kinds of rumors in 27 years of pontificate. Paul VI was a victim of the anti-Humanae Vitae campaign. Pius XII image is still paying the consequences of a defamatory campaign that accuses him of having been silent while the Shoah took place, while in fact the Pope helped many Jewish during that time.
The second reason why the premises of the question are wrong is that the narrative of a plot always take one part of the story, but is barely able to give a wider overview. In fact, there have always been groups that tried to promote their agenda behind Pontiffs’ backs. Circumstances might change, as agendas do. However, pressure groups have always existed.
It is easy to prove it: suffice it to re-read Pope Francis’ magisterium with no biases. Pope Francis is not only the Pope who speaks for the poor and migrants, but he is also the Pope who is restless in denouncing abortion. Pope Francis is not only the Pope who seems to wink to progressives with some of his choices, but also the Pope who always underscores that the Church is one, Holy, hierarchical mother, shedding light on his very traditional way of thinking.
There is no doubt that Pope Francis’ pontificate bears some responsibility for controversies. The notion of an ever open Synod, almost made official during the last Synod, risks to create some confusion. The application of the Amoris Laetitia, left to the sensitivity of bishops, generated several problems, and brought four cardinals to draft a list of dubia, asking the Pope for clarification. Pope Francis’ idea of the “reforms made in the walking” gave the Roman Curia a draft of reforms that need to be checked, with further adjustments.
At the same time, saying that there is a plot against Pope Francis is mostly part of a rhetorical practice of responding to accusations with accusations, waging a war before the war begins, so that the other party will not be able to begin in turn.
The notion of a plot, in the end, is more likely the outcome of media pressure around Pope Francis.
How do the media look at the Pontificate?
First of all, the media personalize issues. In the media, there is almost no difference between the institution of the Papacy and the person of the Pope. As an outcome, even when the Church as an institution is under attack, in fact it is reported there is an attack against the Pope.
Secondly, the media like polarization, and polarization results in the emergence of two opposed parties, an anti Pope Francis and a pro Pope Francis. This roughly reflects the divide between progressives and conservatives, a way of thinking that particularly spread during the Second Vatican Council. This narrative, in typical political terminology, was applied to the Council, and then to the Church.
Thirdly, media are no longer called to choose the news. They are called to choose which side they might take. News are now everywhere on the web. Everything depends, in the end, on the angle the media takes. We are not dealing with reporting anymore. We are dealing with declarations of intent.
Blog proliferation takes care of the rest: everyone is entitled to give his opinion and take sides. As a result, analysis is missing, while commentaries are proliferating. Almost everyone says that people should think differently about everything, but almost no one reports things as they are, leaving people without references to guide their judgment.
This has always happened, in every field, and it is happening always more. It is inaccurate to say that under Pope Francis the counter-position has climbed up to a climax. It was there already before.
The book “Il Giudizio Universale” by Andrea Tornielli and Gianni Valente is just out. The authors’ goal is to explain from where these attacks against Pope Francis come from. The same Andrea Tornielli had written, back in 2010 and together with Paolo Rodari, the book “Attacco a Ratzinger,” with the goal of showing how Benedict XVI’s pontificate was under attack.
So, there is nothing new under the sun. It is the opposite.
The discussion that rose also showed how difficult it is to get out of the mood of partisanship.
Like never before, nothing, during this pontificate, escaped partisanship.
Under Pope Francis, issues like the dubia letter were taken as treason, while just a few people tried to give a peaceful response to the questions posed, or to understand the reason why these questions were posed.
Likewise, the Viganò case was described as “character assassination,” while precise and objective responses to his allegations have been missing. It was a strategy, as well. In the end, it is almost impossible to escape the need to pass on a strong judgment.
However, this is not new. Benedict XVI was prevented from visiting the Sapienza University in Rome because some of the professors revolted against the invitation and issued a manifesto with many inaccurate quotes, taken from Wikipedia. This was reported in many media, but in many cases the reports were accompanied by strong judgments on the professors.
When Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of four illicitly ordained Lefebvrists bishops, there were widespread protests. Benedict XVI published a letter, addressing the “bite and devour” practices within the Church. The promoters of “bite and devour” vehemently denied the practice exist, but none of them tackled the issues raised by Benedict XVI.
Beyond issues that Pope Francis’ pontificate can bear some responsibility for, there is also an issue in the media. Headlines are more important than news, audiences more important than truth. This is good for those who do not see the Church as a spiritual reality centered on the Eucharist, but as a regular group of men linked to power that use theology and liturgy as political instruments.
Not that Churchmen are exempt of faults or sins. It is perhaps time to distinguish between men and institutions, and to analyze reality from a given perspective, but trying to avoid partisan comments.
In the end, a certain naïveté in handling things becomes a naïveté in reading facts. The Papacy, and not Pope Francis, is under attack. A plot against Pope Francis, or against a Pope in particular, exists just in relative terms. There is rather a constant attack against the Church, which degree of danger to the Church correlates with the extent to which the Church is torn by sin from within.