On March 5, the mainstream media gave Pope Francis yet another welcoming hug on the first anniversary of his papacy. Francis gave an Italian paper a wide-ranging interview to mark the anniversary. If you read the mainstream the media you would have thought the Pope was his genial, vague self, suggesting just enough openness to conform to the portrait of the man the media would like him to be – charming, winning, and willing to change the church.
Headlines emphasized the Pope’s plea that others not consider him a superman, but just a “normal” guy. The Pope wants you to “get over him” as The Washington Post proclaimed.
They also leapt at his suggestion that maybe the church wouldn’t oppose civil unions for the purpose of ensuring insurance coverage for same-sex couples.
The print media was nothing compared to the broadcast outlets. Panelists – all Catholic — on ABC’s This Week gushed so much, it was embarrassing.
But most reporters buried the lede. In the interview, the Pope, when asked about the pedophilia scandal, viewed the church as a victim. He claimed that most abuse occurs in family situations, and implied that such abuse remains hidden and unaccountable. The church, on the other hand, had been the only public institution to handle the matter with “accountability and transparency,” he said. “And yet the church is the only one attacked.”
That is really an outrageous comment. The institutional church was guilty of a massive cover-up, permitting abusers to repeat their crimes as they were quietly transferred from parish to parish. Journalists and victims willing to come forward held the church accountable. It didn’t happen voluntarily.
If Pope Benedict XVI had made the same comment, you can bet that reporters would have been all over it. The master narrative for Benedict is that he was a cranky old man, a narrow-minded censorious nitpicker. Not so for his replacement.
The Boston Globe, which had relentlessly covered the sex abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese, was the exception among mainstream media. The paper made the sex abuse comment the centerpiece of its coverage of the interview.
But that wasn’t all the Pope said.
He also had kind words for Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical that banned artificial birth control, a document the late Rev. Andrew Greeley claimed had led to American Catholics’ massive disillusion with their church.
Pope Francis praised his predecessor’s “genius” and “courage” in siding against the majority, and putting “a brake on the culture,” although he acknowledged that individual cases must be considered with much care by priests.
The Pope has done good things. His simple lifestyle, his condemnation of the excesses of free-market capitalism, and his compassion for the poor have inspired the world. But he’s also the leader of more than one billion Catholics, and an institution that deserves to be scrutinized with journalistic care. Instead, reporters have failed to cover the Pope with dispassion. They downplay the comments that don’t fit into the master narrative of Pope as pop hero, and emphasize his warmth, casual banter, and charm.
So who is the Pope? If journalists were not so beguiled by the style, they might look more at the substance. The Pope is a hard-liner with a smile. He’s not giving an inch on doctrinal matters, although he sweetens the approach with compassion.
That’s not a small thing. Kindness and trying to relate church doctrine to real-life situations is certainly a welcome improvement. But it doesn’t signal that the Church under Pope Francis will make waves when it comes to reversing long-held church views on contraception, and abortion. Homosexuals may be more tolerated, but homosexuality won’t be. And a growing role of women in the church? Well, don’t hold your breath.