Religion News Service reporter David Gibson is really enjoying himself these days. The left-leaning journalist has been playing first horn for the media trumpet section covering the fledgling pontificate of Jorge Mario Bergolio. In an August 8 RNS wire article, Gibson ostensibly gives voice to conservative Catholic concerns about Pope Francis’s “new direction.” In thinly veiled triumphalist language, he laughs his way through a string of quotes from orthodox quasi-luminaries (like Jeffrey Tucker, Raymond Arroyo, and someone named Katrina Fernandez, whose claim to fame is a blog) designed to show that, after thirty-five years of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the pontifical tables have finally turned. Now, he suggests, you right-wingers will see how it feels, how much it hurts to be at loggerheads with the Supreme Pontiff.
It is important to note that Gibson’s article, “Pope Francis Is Unsettling — and Dividing — the Catholic Right,” is just another example of the media’s extended honeymoon treatment of a new Pope, about whom they know next to nothing: reportage thrown together haphazardly to create the effect of dissension, upheaval, confusion, and general disenchantment among the so-called Catholic Right.
Gibson begins with the dubious assertion that, for the past three decades, “the Vatican of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI operated on a version of the conservative maxim, ‘No enemies to the right.’” That’s disingenuous, and a veteran like Gibson ought to know better. Has he so quickly forgotten both Popes’ struggles with the leadership of the Society of St. Pius X (especially now-banished Bishop Richard Williamson) and the silencing and exile of Fr. Marcial Maciel and the virtual dismantling of his Legion of Christ, arguably the premier conservative Catholic congregation of the past two decades? How can Gibson pretend to know nothing of the harsh criticism conservatives heaped on John Paul II for his approach to pontifical liturgical celebrations, his kissing of the Koran, his participation in the ecumenical prayer festivals at Assisi and the annual World Youth Days, his authorization of the revised Code of Canon Law, and his seeming lack of concern over the priestly sex scandals? Why does Gibson choose to ignore both Popes’ criticisms of Western consumerism, the excesses of capitalism, and the lack of due concern for the most vulnerable among us — sore subjects for members of the Catholic Right? Has he never heard of Centissimus Annus, Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical on Catholic social teachings, much beloved by Pope Francis? Hardly a case of “no enemies to the right.”
Contrary to the media-manufactured myth, neither John Paul nor Benedict went on witch hunts to ensnare imagined theological or liturgical enemies on the left as part of some perverse political vendetta. Part of any Pope’s duty is to maintain the integrity of the faith — and sometimes that means disciplining theologians and other churchmen who have deviated from the mainstream of Church doctrine so much that they are leading the faithful astray. Gibson invokes bad-old-days rhetoric to suggest that in the near future, under the sunny skies of the Francis pontificate, liberation theologians, clown-Mass advocates, and wanna-be womenpriests can come back out to play without having to fear heavy-handed reprisals from some pontifical boogeyman.
The most hilarious bit here is that the “bad old days” are no longer those pre-Vatican II years of the 1940s and 1950s and earlier but the pontificate of John Paul II — when the Church in the U.S. was run by the likes of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (disgraced archliberal and now deceased, rumored to have died of AIDS), Roger Cardinal Mahony (archliberal and now disgraced), and Archbishop Rembert Weakland (also archliberal and now disgraced). Remember, it was John Paul II who appointed Mahony and Bernardin to the two largest U.S. archdioceses and made them cardinals. Let’s be honest here: Gibson is simply advancing the vilification and caricature of an easy public target. What a short memory he and other members of the media have — and that’s being generous, because no doubt among the older set many of those memories are highly selective, and as for the newbies under age 35, they probably can’t even spell Wojtyla, and wouldn’t know who he is anyway.
But back to Gibson, whose second assertion is equally as sophomoric as his first. He claims that while left-wing theologians were “silenced” and moderate bishops were shunted aside in favor of “hard-liners,” traditionalists were courted and “cultural conservatives” were given “direct access to the apostolic palace.” Seriously, it’s hard to believe that Gibson has been covering the Church beat for the past decade. Anyone who even entertains the idea that doors to the apostolic palace have been open only to conservatives needs to take a refresher course on the post-Vatican II Church. Liberals and moderates and conservatives all abound. Does Gibson honestly believe that the leftover corps of Vatican curia that seeks to “handle” Francis and so-mishandled Benedict XVI is made up of staunchly conservative churchmen?
Gibson goes on to quote one of his ideological colleagues, Michael D’Antonio, who wrote in Foreign Policy (July 30) that the current conservative Catholic constituency “cannot sustain the church in the long term.” The church, said D’Antonio, “now needs a figure able to bridge the gap between its rightward movement and the reality that Westerners are leaving the church in droves” — a classic case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the fallacy that says that since one thing happened after another, the first was the cause of the second. Hey, D’Antonio and Gibson, where have you been for the past four decades? Westerners were already leaving the Church in droves during the liberal Catholic heydays of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. It’s only the re-invigoration of orthodoxy that has encouraged young Catholics to remain committed to the faith into adulthood.
Even the National Catholic Reporter, which prides itself on being the flagship organ of U.S. Catholic liberalism, doesn’t (always) try to paint this kind of rosy future for the Francis pontificate. The same day Gibson’s piece on the Catholic Right was published, NCR published Michael Sean Winters’s article “The Left Grudges Pope Francis Too.” Winters actually takes to task some liberal Catholic commentators, including the vigilantly pro-abortion Mary Hunt at the Religion Dispatches blog, who wonders when Pope Francis will get around to saying something positive and encouraging about abortion. Doubtless there are others on the left chomping at the bit to have Francis sign on to their particular liberal agenda, whether it’s for womenpriests or same-sex marriage, condoning contraception or encouraging cohabitation. But this is all absurd wishful thinking. (Yes, in case you were wondering, many actually believe that Francis will start overturning “outdated” Church practices and doctrines like Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the Temple.) When Francis encourages Catholics — and everyone else for that matter — to care for the poor and marginalized, he’s not revising Catholic doctrine or indeed saying anything out of the ordinary. The Pope is merely reiterating a particular part of already existing Catholic teaching. Francis isn’t inventing anything new.
Just because Gibson and his ilk don’t get it right doesn’t mean that there aren’t conservative Catholics out there with legitimate concerns about the direction Pope Francis is taking the Church — or about his style or emphases. Some are distressed by his informal liturgical style, others by the way he’s dealt with the appointment of Msgr. Battista Ricca (see our New Oxford Note “Dances With Wolves, Vatican Edition,” Sept.), or by his off-the-cuff utterances that are so prone to misinterpretation by the likes of David Gibson, particularly the Pope’s bizarre “Who am I to judge?” comment when asked about the sexual peccadillos of gay priests. Both Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Archbishop Charles Chaput have commented on the concerns some conservatives have. In fact, Chaput told NCR that Francis “will have to care for [conservatives] too, so it will be interesting to see how all this works out in the long run.”
The fact is that things are different in the Vatican now with Bergoglio. He’s got the world’s most difficult job. It just ain’t easy being Pope these days. And yes, we’ll see how this all works out in the long run. Stay tuned.
The foregoing article, "Is Francis Flogging Conservative Catholics? " was originally published in the New Oxford Review (October 2013), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.
[Hat tip to JM]