Although the largely liberal media is no more a friend of the Catholic Church than it was in 2002, it sees Francis as a fellow liberal who will champion the “right” causes.
When the first sex-abuse scandal broke in 2002, the secular media carried a lot of anti-Catholic commentary. Popular columnists such as Maureen Dowd and Christopher Hitchens savaged the Church with gusto.
By contrast, media coverage of the current abuse crisis in the Church has been rather restrained. Take the treatment of the just-concluded Vatican summit on sex abuse. The reporting was not all sunshine and roses, but it could have been much harsher.
For example, there was relatively little coverage of Pope Francis’ own role in ignoring or covering up for abuse. A recent allegation that Francis knew about the abuse of students at Catholic schools for the deaf in Italy and Argentina, but apparently took no action, was not widely reported.
Had it been so minded, the media also could have exploited the case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta who was protected and promoted by Francis despite repeated allegations that Zanchetta had abused seminarians in Argentina. A Fox News headline proclaimed: “Argentine bishop case overshadows pope’s sex summit.” But other media outlets seemed less interested in the story than Fox. If they were truly determined to put Francis on the spot, the Zanchetta story provided the perfect occasion. Yet the coverage was either minimal or restrained.
The truth is that the media prefers not to put Francis in an awkward position. Although the largely liberal media is no more a friend of the Catholic Church than it was in 2002, it sees Francis as a fellow liberal who will champion the “right” causes, and who will nudge the Church in a more “progressive” direction.
Another opportunity to “bash” Francis came in the form of the recent and controversial book titled In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy by Frederic Martel, a gay French sociologist. But once again, the secular media decided to forego the pleasure of going after the pope. To the extent that columnists discussed the book, they tended to adopt the author’s own ideological view—namely, that the problem in the Vatican was not homosexuality per se, but rather a virulent homophobia among conservative clergy which forces gay priests into leading unhealthy double-lives. According to Martel, Pope Francis is really the hero of the story because he fights the “rigidity” behind which, in the pope’s words, “there is always something hidden, in many cases a double life.”
In his review of Martel’s book, columnist Andrew Sullivan adopts the same line of reasoning. He writes:
The only tiny consolation of the book is the knowledge that we now have a pope—with all his flaws—who knows what he’s dealing with, and has acted, quite ruthlessly at times, to demote, defrock, or reassign the most egregious cases to places where they have close to nothing to do.
Donald Cozzens followed suit in the National Catholic Reporter by observing:
What puts these prelates [rigid, orthodox homophobic prelates who are actually closet homosexuals] at considerable dis-ease, however, is the realization that Francis is on to their games—that the carnival may soon be over.
The Francis-to-the-rescue theme is also present in several media treatments of the pope’s defrocking of Cardinal McCarrick in February just before the summit. A typical account informs us that McCarrick was elevated to cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001, and then goes on to leave the reader with the impression that nothing was done about McCarrick until Francis came along many years later and lowered the boom. What these accounts conveniently leave out is the fact that Benedict XVI imposed sanctions and restriction on McCarrick which were later lifted by Francis. It was Francis who put McCarrick back in circulation, making him a trusted advisor and unofficial global envoy. So the portrait of Francis as the man who will finally clean house doesn’t quite fit the facts. And it is further belied by his very recent appointment of McCarrick protégés such as Cardinals Cupich and Farrell to key positions.
How much longer the media will cover for Francis is difficult to say. If he should deviate from the liberal party line, he will come in for some rough treatment. If, for example, he speaks out too strongly against the normalization of homosexuality, or if he reverses his position on mass migration, he will probably fall out of favor with the press.
Likewise, if it turns out that there are other skeletons in Francis’ closet besides Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, Monsignor Battista Ricca, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Father Julio Cesar Grassi, and other embarrassing friends, the media may begin to look on him as more of a liability than an asset. In that case they will drop him like the proverbial hot potato, and the media’s wait for a more progressive pontiff who is also more prudent will begin.
This article originally appeared in the February 25, 2019 edition of Catholic World Report.
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