Beware the Praise of Your Enemies

by Edwin Faust
August 12, 2013

Similarities between Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis have been noted in the Catholic blogosphere, with approbation for the new Pope’s re-presentation of those qualities that made the old pope congenial to the media and, presumably, to Catholics in general: simplicity, optimism, spontaneity and, most importantly, a seeming disdain for doctrinal rigor and those who espouse it.

One commentator enthused about the two popes sharing the same pastoral “master gene”. Even the secular media, no fan of things Catholic, gave favorable coverage to World Youth Day events in Rio, showcasing the papal panache. Some Catholics, no doubt, welcome the apparent truce in the culture wars that have been waged between the media and the Church. But the wise should be wary. When your enemy praises you, it may be a sign that he no longer fears you.

Pope John XXIII may be considered our first “media” Pope. It was during his papacy that reporters, flocking to Rome to cover the opening of the Second Vatican Council, began to dispatch “color pieces” on the pontiff’s style. Pope John was characterized as a relaxed and jovial man-of-the-people, in contrast to his predecessor, Pope Pius XII, who was seen as stiff, regal and remote.

And it was Pope John’s style that set the tone for the Council, preferring the “remedy of mercy” to the “weapons of rigor”, as the Pope said in his opening address. Now, it would seem, we have another Pope who has no use for the weapons of rigor, that is, doctrinal emphasis. Even more than his visits to the slums and the carnival atmosphere during the Masses on Copacabana beach, the media were delighted by the Pope’s impromptu airplane press conference on the return trip to Rome.

Asked about the festering scandal of the gay lobby in the Vatican and, in particular, about the sordid homosexual history of his recent appointee to the Vatican bank, Monsignor Battista Ricca, Pope Francis’ attitude can only be described as cavalier and even dismissive. He said his background check on Ricca revealed nothing objectionable, thus skirting the well-documented case of cosmetic records keeping and deliberate deception, and said, almost as an aside, that the sins of youth can be forgiven and forgotten. But Ricca’s documented “sins” were anything but youthful missteps, and there is no evidence of repentance and reform.

As for the gay lobby, the Pope said his problem is not with the “gay” part of the phrase, but with the “lobby” part. The Pope said that if someone is gay but looking for the Lord, “who am I to judge?” But lobbies are, apparently, more of a problem than the homosexual orientation of a significant number of the clergy who help to govern the Church. The Pope dislikes the narrow, personal interests of lobbies, no matter what those interests may be, and wants the hierarchy to work for the universal good of the Church.

The Pope also talked about streamlining the annulment process to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. Annulments, which have increased exponentially since the Second Vatican Council, are too slow and cumbersome in the Pope’s estimation.

So, the media had a feast on the plane ride to Rome. And we now have a Pope who has won the admiration of some of the Church’s adamant newsroom critics. But what, precisely, has the Church won?

There is an old saying: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If the Pope is now regarded in a friendly light by the media, that is only because he is seen as distancing himself from the Church’s media-despised teaching on homosexuality and marriage, no matter how misconstrued that perception may be.

It should be remembered that the media, in general, are incapable of understanding the nature of a principle, let alone a defined dogma. Reporters and talking heads live in the world of politics, where everything is negotiable. They regard the Catholic Faith as more of a political platform than a doctrinal and disciplinary structure. Pope Francis is seen, at the moment, as a reformer, a new broom that may sweep away all the old teachings on sexual morality and marriage that have made the Church persona non grata in the public square of liberalism.

The media will be disappointed. And the Pope may learn that impromptu press conferences and unguarded statements are luxuries that he cannot allow himself. Pope John, for all his media approbation, convened a council whose disastrous results are still wreaking havoc in the Church. His pastoral style has been the apologia for countless vagaries in the post-conciliar epoch. The Church now is not in need of another Pope John.

One can almost wish that Pope Francis had chosen the name and adopted the zeal of another great 12th Century saint: St. Dominic. If the doctrinal and disciplinary chaos that is ravaging the Church is to be stopped, the weapons of rigor must be taken up again.

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