Over at Aleteia, I run down the list of things the media got wrong about Pope Francis in “2014: The Year In Pope Francis Misunderstandings.”
The media got Francis wildly wrong again and again.
• The media said he wants to change the Church’s teaching on communion for Catholics who are divorced (and not annulled) and remarried. He didn’t, and he said so.
• The media said he thinks any religion is as good as another. No, this radically Christ-centered man thinks no such thing.
• The media said he wants to change the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. No he doesn’t.
• The media said he demoted Cardinal Burke from his prefecture because of the Synod on the Family — but in fact, he extended Cardinal Burke’s prefecture to include the Synod.
• They said he proclaimed that dogs go to heaven. Except he didn’t.
He really didn’t say any of it. And yet … and yet … comments on the post in various places still won’t concede that Pope Francis is something other than what the media has portrayed him to be.
Where there is smoke, there is fire, they seem to say. And even if he is an okay guy, the misunderstandings at least mean he should be speaking less.
But is that true?
First: Is it true that where there is smoke there is fire?
This reminds me of Bush Derangement Syndrome. George W. Bush was a decent man who made some bad mistakes, some innocent mistakes and did some things right, too. But that is not the impression people have of him, because the media hated him beyond all reason.
They painted his every action and misdeed — military actions, domestic spying, avoiding the press — as the embodiment of unadulterated wickedness. So the consumers of media figured he must be a detestable man. But the media loved Obama, despite his military actions, his much worse domestic spying and his Nixonian treatment of the press — so he has been given the benefit of the doubt throughout much of his presidency.
That is because the modern media doesn’t just report what happens. It provides a “narrative.” Even when the information doesn’t fit, we still fall for the narrative:
• Rupert Murdoch is evil so his company’s phone hacking for news in the UK was dastardly. But our media are the good guys so when they share Sony emails hacked by terrorists, it is just juicy, fun, behind-the-scenes gossip.
• The Rolling Stone UVA rape story fit an urgent and important narrative about the rape culture on campus, so it went viral without any serious attempt to find out if it were true.
• Mitt Romney’s wealth was part of the narrative about him, so it was used to support the picture of him as a modern-day Mr. Howell. Hilary Clinton’s wealth doesn’t matter; it is dismissed as irrelevant.
The examples are endless. But like the used-car customer who knows he is being suckered and likes it, we keep falling for media narratives. Are we falling for the Pope Francis narrative? The media has decided he is loopster-in-chief to a Church that needs to change, so the media misreports him to support that idea, and we blame … not the media, but him.
Sometimes there truly is no fire … just someone blowing smoke.
But what about option 2: Since he is so misunderstood, wouldn’t it be better for him to just stop talking?
Perhaps. There is a reason Church officials have carefully scripted means of communicating with the world. But this is also the reason that anyone in Catholic journalism knows that the typical “cardinal interview” is the least revealing, least interesting expression of the faith available. “My answer to your first question is this paraphrase of vaguely applicable Church teaching. My answer to your second question is a series of Church jargon about unity, prudence and patience.”
On the one hand, we want Church figures to stop making the faith seem boring and irrelevant to the real world. On the other hand, we get upset (understandably!) when they are misunderstood.
Yet, it is not unusual for religious figures to be misunderstood. It happened to Jesus all the time — and from his own apostles, no less.
Ultimately, “Don’t speak up. People might get the wrong idea,” is a defensive posture, not an strategy for proclaiming the Gospel. To convince people you have to risk misunderstanding and be honest.
Perhaps the best solution to the problem of the misunderstood Pope is for his flock to back him up, and stop helping the media’s narrative grow.
How about this narrative: Pope Francis is trying to energize the Catholic Church by showing how the true teaching of the Church is relevant even in the modern world.
Now that’s a narrative that has the ring of truth.