Pope Francis passes a crucifix as he walks down steps during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 4. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic New Service

Pope Francis passes a crucifix as he walks down steps during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 4. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic New Service


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(RNS) No doubt about it, Pope Francis is generating the kind of Internet buzz and sky-high Q Scores that brand managers can only dream of. But is the pontiff becoming a victim of his own good press?

The Vatican once again had to dispel media reports that went well beyond what Francis actually said, as his spokesman formally denied that the pope had signaled an openness to same-sex unions in a recently published conversation with leaders of religious orders.

During the November discussion with leaders of the Jesuits, Franciscans and others, Francis said they needed to engage “complex” situations of modern life, such as the prevalence of broken homes and the growth in gay couples rearing children.

He noted in particular the case “of a very sad little girl” he knew of who confessed that her mother’s girlfriend “doesn’t like me.” After citing the example of that lesbian couple he seemed to warn against being quick to condemn: “How can we proclaim Christ to a generation that is changing? We must be careful not to administer a vaccine against faith to them.”

And that was quickly interpreted as a papal blessing of sorts of gay families.

The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, on Monday issued a statement saying that while Francis certainly wants to “affectionately accompany” people no matter their circumstances, the pontiff had “absolutely not expressed” his opinion on gay unions and that some reports had “forced” such an interpretation.

On Tuesday (Jan. 7), another Jesuit and papal confidante, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, wrote to a leading Italian daily to protest that Francis has no intention of “legitimizing any behavior that’s inconsistent with the doctrine of the church.” Spadaro said any other reading was an effort at “manipulation.”

Still, it’s not the first time this has happened, and it probably won’t be the last. Consider:

  • On New Year’s Eve, Lombardi put out a statement to counter a column by a prominent Italian journalist and atheist, Eugenio Scalfari, claiming that Francis “has abolished sin.” Lombardi had to reiterate that those “who really follow the pope daily know how many times he has spoken about sin.”
  • After fevered speculation that the pope might break with tradition and name women as cardinals, Francis himself denied the rumors. “I don’t know where this idea sprang from,” he told an Italian journalist in an interview in December. “Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.”
  • In early December, the Vatican categorically denied a media report that Pope Francis has been slipping out at night to visit the homeless in Rome. The stories, while appealing and in keeping with Francis’ intense concern for the poor, are “simply not true,” Vatican officials said.
  • In September, the Vatican “firmly denied” that Francis had called a gay man in France to assure him that “your homosexuality doesn’t matter.” No way, no how, said Lombardi.
  • And last May, the Vatican called the claim that Francis had performed an exorcism on a handicapped man in St. Peter’s Square “absolutely false.” Francis often embraces the sick and disfigured when he mingles with the crowds, and those images often go viral. But that wasn’t enough for some.

Indeed, the exaggerations have become so commonplace that a parody blog post last month claimed Francis had convened a Third Vatican Council (there have been only two) to declare that “all religions are true,” there is no hell and there’s nothing wrong with supporting abortion rights. What’s more, the piece went so viral so fast that Catholic blogs and even the myth-busting website Snopes.com rushed out disclaimers.

Pope Francis addresses journalists on his flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome July 29. The pope spent 80 minutes answering questions from 21 journalists on the plane. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Pope Francis addresses journalists on his flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome July 29. The pope spent 80 minutes answering questions from 21 journalists on the plane. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

So why all these overbaked reports? There are several reasons:

One: The media and the public, especially in Italy, are always hungry for something new and surprising, especially when it comes to a tradition-bound institution such as the Vatican. Just think of the 2010 hubbub over Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks that seemed to indicate condoms could be OK if used to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Two: Francis is actually doing a lot of new and newsworthy things, like driving his own car — a used one at that — and cold-calling strangers and upending all manner of sacred papal customs. He also keeps insisting that the church needs a “new balance” in its approach that emphasizes the poor and suffering rather than just fights over abortion and gay rights.

Three: Because of those novelties, many liberals are ecstatic and expecting more, while many conservatives are picking up on any stray signal and hyping it to show that Francis is in fact a danger to their traditional agenda and must be opposed. As Spadaro wrote in his article, the exaggerated claims about Francis come “from his ‘detractors’ on the right, as well as those who exalt him in order to take advantage of him on the left.”

Four: From the start of his pontificate in March, Francis has said he wants a church that “runs the risk of an accident,” as he put it. In July in Brazil he encouraged millions of young people to go out and “make a mess.” So he’s not one to lose sleep over what people say about him. He’ll just keep talking.

Pope Francis in his popemobile on the way to Copacabana Beach in Brazil for the re-enactment of the Way of the Cross. RNS photo by Robson Coehlo

Pope Francis in his popemobile on the way to Copacabana Beach in Brazil for the re-enactment of the Way of the Cross. RNS photo by Robson Coehlo


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Five: Francis is a Jesuit and a pastor, accustomed to engaging people and dealing with the ambiguities of life, and he likes to talk about that. Most churchmen tend to be theologians and canon lawyers who deploy the kind of clear-cut, “abstract” concepts that Francis disdains. But such concepts don’t lend themselves to misinterpretation so easily.

Finally: Francis has focused so relentlessly on the mercy of God rather than the judgment of the church that the shift in tone and emphasis has led many — like  Scalfari — to think that perhaps anything goes under this pope.

But in a follow-up column this week to his earlier piece, Scalfari himself repented of his claim that Francis had abolished sin and instead focused on the pope’s message of mercy despite sin.

So maybe, after nearly a year of both genuine changes and overblown expectations, perceptions of Pope Francis are actually catching up to reality.

KRE/MG END GIBSON

 

22 Comments

  1. “Francis said they needed to engage “complex” situations of modern life, such as the prevalence of broken homes and the growth in gay couples rearing children.” What can be more complex than forced sex, forced pregnancy, unwanted children and alcoholism, plus grooming catholic children with rape initiations, molestations, and misogynistic programming by catholic priests and a culture that forbids gay sex and relationships yet whose hierarchy and clergy contain a high percentage of actively gay men and women many preying (praying) on children and on their fellow priests?

    • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

      Tina–it is clear how much you hate Catholics and their church and her clergy .
      But how do you feel about NAMBLA (The North American Man Boy Love Association.)????. According to news accounts this organization gets the biggest cheers from gay viewers of Gay Pride parades. And they make heroes of those who promote sex with juveniles. Is your solution is to promote the NAMBLA agenda???.

      • With all due respect, Deacon, NAMBLA is a fringe group and is as loathed in the gay community as it is in the straight community. These “news accounts” you cite are making it up — NAMBLA has been banned from participating in any pride parade anywhere in the U.S. for decades.

  2. All that glitters isn’t gold. The shine, which Francis initially had is quickly fading. He needs to stop all the P.R. B.S. and engage the “complex” situations of the prevalence of clergy rearing children.

  3. Is Pope Francis “still Catholic”? Absolutely he is. It’s just that he’s also the first Catholic Pope to **de facto** support legalized gay marriage, regardless of his private beliefs on the topic. And THAT, is no exaggeration.

    Let’s start with “gay unions.” As reported by the New York Times by Simon Romero and Emily Schmall, (03-19-2013), Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis), “spoke at a meeting of Argentinian bishops in 2010 and advocated a highly unorthodox solution: that the church in Argentina support the idea of civil unions for gay couples.”

    Perhaps the Vatican spokesman, Rev. Lombardi, will address THAT report soon. Meanwhile, America’s oldest gay-activist magazine, “The Advocate”, gave Pope Francis its “Man of the Year” title — which it has never done for any Catholic Pope in history.

    Why did they do that? Because Francis has offered de facto statements of surrender such as, “Who am I to judge?” and “I am not a right-winger”. Francis denies that the church has any right to “interfere spiritually” in the lives of gays and lesbians — which implicitly denies the church’s right to publicly oppose legalized gay marriage, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have done.

    Catholic legislators in Illinois even cited Francis’s “Who am I to judge” one-liner as they voted for gay marriage. Francis never once said they were wrong to do so, he never once distanced himself at all.

    Bottom line: Pope Francis is Catholic, but he is also the best supporter and accelerator of gay marriage since Barack Obama.

  4. Is Pope Francis “still Catholic”? Absolutely he is. It’s just that he’s also the first Catholic Pope to **de facto** support legalized gay marriage, regardless of his private beliefs on the topic. And THAT, is no exaggeration.

    Let’s start with “gay unions.” As reported by the New York Times by Simon Romero and Emily Schmall, (03-19-2013), Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis), “spoke at a meeting of Argentinian bishops in 2010 and advocated a highly unorthodox solution: that the church in Argentina support the idea of civil unions for gay couples.”

    Perhaps the Vatican spokesman, Rev. Lombardi, will address THAT situation soon. Meanwhile, America’s oldest gay-activist magazine, “The Advocate”, gave Pope Francis its “Man of the Year” title — which it has never done for any Catholic Pope in history.

    Why did they do that? Because Francis has offered de facto statements of surrender such as, “Who am I to judge?” and “I am not a right-winger”. Francis denies that the church has any right to “interfere spiritually” in the lives of gays and lesbians — which implicitly denies the church’s right to publicly oppose legalized gay marriage, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have done.

    Catholic legislators in Illinois even cited Francis’s “Who am I to judge” one-liner as they voted for gay marriage. Francis never once said they were wrong to do so, never once distanced himself.

    Bottom line: Pope Francis is Catholic, but he is literally the best thing to happen to gay-marriage activists since…Barack Obama.

  5. The Pope may still be Catholic, but most Catholics pay absolutely no attention to what he says, according to virtually every poll ever taken. In fact, most American Catholics seem to believe exactly the opposite of what the Pope and the Catholic Church teaches. No one appears to pay any attention to what the Pope says, so what difference does it make what he says?

    • Ron: your comment that people pay, “absolutely no attention to what he [Pope Francis] says,” is not true.

      “olls show Francis to be highly popular, especially among U.S. Catholics. A Washington Post-ABC poll, released today, finds that 92% of American Catholics have a favorable impression of him, including 63% who have a “strongly favorable” view. Similarly, 85% of Catholics in the United States say they approve of the direction in which Francis is leading the Catholic Church, including 54% who strongly approve.

      More broadly, the Post-ABC poll finds that 69% of all U.S. adults (including non-Catholics) have a favorable impression of Francis. And a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, also released today, shows that 57% of Americans say they have “positive” feelings toward the pope, up from 35% in July. By comparison, just 42% of the poll’s respondents express positive feelings toward Barack Obama.”

      (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/11/pope-francis-big-year/)

      What you may be alluding to is the fact that most American Catholics (and probably more Europeans) listen to the Church’s teachings… and then act according to their conscience. It seems to me that this means they follow Church teaching on most administrative things (rituals, sacraments, parish life), but diverge when it comes to abortion or contraception.

    • Ron, I think your remarks about American Catholics are not far off the mark. Twice a majority of them who voted in presidential elections voted for the would-be dictator who keeps trying to eliminate religion from the public square and to ignore the First Amendment. Then there are other indications that a majority of Catholics do not believe or practice some Catholic principles that get the most attention, including birth control. A majority favors redefining marriage, it seems.

      Then there’s the embarrassing question for the Church’s hierarchy: How did this happen? Easy answer: most clergy, especially bishops are Democrat in their political affiliations. They simply don’t want to take on a Democrat president. This all has filtered down–been doing so for decades–to the pulpit, where sermons will not address “political issues.”

      Liberals are liberals before they’re anything else.

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