Pope & Press: The Honeymoon Will End

The current headline over Carl Olson’s Catholic World Report blog is When will the media turn on Pope Francis?” Others are asking the same question too. The new Pope’s friendly and casual manner has charmed a lot of the liberals into supposing that if he’s such a sweetie pie he must be one of them. This illusion is fostered by such stories as that of the Swiss Guard discovered by the Holy Father outside his apartment in the Casa Santa Marta: when the Pope discovered he had been standing all night, he fetched a chair and told him to sit down: when told that he couldn’t, he was under orders from his captain to remain standing, the Holy Father replied: “Well, I’m the Pope, and I’m ordering you to sit down.” He then went into his apartment and prepared him a snack of bread and jam.

Such stories, combined with a certain habit of spontaneity in the way he teaches the faith, have alarmed conservatives (who tend to think that doctrine ought to be weighed carefully before public utterances are made) and reassured liberals, who like a bit of informality (and preferably downright sloppiness) in these matters.

For instance, the Pope’s homilies in the morning Mass he celebrates in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae are preached completely off-the-cuff; they are also recorded: but according to Sandro Magister, they are not transcribed from the audio recording, cleaned up in thought and expression, then submitted to the Pope and finally made public in an approved text. What happens is that partial summaries are provided, by Vatican Radio and by L’Osservatore Romano, redacted independently of one another and therefore with a greater or lesser content of actual quotations from the resulting text. Here is one such quotation (the sermons are preached, of course, in Italian):

When the Church wants to throw its weight around and sets up organisations, and sets up offices and becomes a bit bureaucratic, the Church loses its principal substance and runs the risk of turning itself into an NGO. And the Church is not an NGO. It is a love story … But there are those guys at the IOR … Excuse me, eh?… Everything is necessary, the offices are necessary … okay, fine! But they are necessary up to a certain point: as an aid to this love story. But when the organization takes the top spot, love steps down and the Church, poor thing, becomes an NGO. And this is not the way.

The remarks about the Vatican bank (made in the presence of employees of the IOR, hence “Excuse me, eh?”) were cut out by L’Osservatore Romano but not by Vatican Radio. The point is that all this seems to be very much part of the Pope’s style, this is how he likes to get himself across. As Sandro Magister comments: “It is not known whether this practice—aimed both at safeguarding the Pope’s freedom of speech and at defending it from the risks of improvisation—will be maintained or modified. The fact is that what becomes known of these semi-public homilies is by now an important part of the oratory typical of Pope Francis. It is a concise, simple, conversational oratory, tethered to words or images of immediate communicative impact.”

All this is going down, it seems, particularly well in liberal Catholic circles. Conservatives, as I say, tend not to like this kind of thing. But it’s not the only thing against which a few of them are already reacting. According to John Allen, not only are “the Church’s conservatives … not the ones most enchanted with the new Pope,” some are, in fact, “openly alarmed.” He gives the example of the Italian liturgiologist Mattia Rossi, who last month published a piece in the daily Il Foglio suggesting that Francis’s decision to convene an advisory body of cardinals represents a step toward the “demolition of the papacy” because it replaces the notion of a divinely instituted authority with a fuzzy concept of collegiality, thereby transforming the papacy, according to Rossi, from primus super pares to primus inter pares.

At the other end of the Catholic spectrum, says Allen, “liberals may feel more simpatico with Francis than with either of his immediate predecessors, but they’re inoculated from overheated expectations of any pope by their low view of hierarchs. Moderates in the Catholic fold [by which I assume he means liberals: he’s a liberal himself, though normally an unusually sensible one, so there’s bound to be a tendency for him to suppose that “conservative” means extremist] … seem almost giddy with enthusiasm, and that’s where the danger of exaggerated expectations is most acute.”

The liberals are indeed, I am sure, going to be disappointed, if they expect to continue feeling “more simpatico with Francis than with either of his immediate predecessors.” As soon as Pope Francis was elected, I wondered what Fr Fessio, founder of the Ignatius Press, and one of the first Jesuits I ever met (he published my critical book on feminist theology, What Will Happen to God?, before I was even a Catholic—I think I was at the time the only Anglican to be published by a Catholic publisher, certainly by an orthodox one like Ignatius) thought about it. Fr Fessio, of course, has suffered greatly at the hands of apostate fellow Jesuits, but has always kept the faith, so his opinion weighs greatly with me. This is what he had to say: “I’m overjoyed. He is a great Jesuit, a traditional one. He’s ‘progressive’ in the sense that he loves the poor, and—more importantly—lives a life of simplicity. But he is completely faithful to the Church’s teaching. So he really is a ‘pontifex maximus,’ which is Latin for ‘the greatest bridge builder.’ He bridges the Old World and the New, doctrinal orthodoxy and service to the poor.”

Sooner or later, the liberal media—secular and Catholic—are going to get the message. As Sandro Magister says: “This benevolence of the media toward Pope Francis is one of the features that characterize the beginning of this pontificate. The gentleness with which he is able to speak even the most uncomfortable truths facilitates this benevolence. But it is easy to predict that sooner or later it will cool down…. The first warning came after Pope Bergoglio, on April 15, confirmed the strict approach of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in dealing with the case of the Sisters of the United States represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The protests that were immediately raised by these sisters and by the ‘liberal’ currents of Catholicism, not only American, resounded as the beginning of the breaking of a spell.”

So, to get back to the question with which I opened: “when will the media turn on Pope Francis?” Any time now, I should think. As Carl Olsen concludes his CWR piece: “The media honeymoon will soon end, and while criticisms of Pope Francis will likely be more muted than they were of Benedict, they will surely grow in both quantity and volume. The bottom line is simply this: most criticisms of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis are not, in the end, criticisms of those particular men as much as they are rejections of their office and the teachings, authority, and beliefs of the Church. It simply comes with the territory, as should be expected.”

Precisely so. It always comes down to that in the end. There’s really no such thing as a liberal pope; it’s just not what popes are for.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared Wednesday, May 1, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. The photo above pictures the first meeting between Pope Francis and members of the press.

Dr. William Oddie


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

  • Guest


  • Make no mistake about it, the press’ ‘turning on’ Pope Francis would be a good sign, a sign of hope and a cause for rejoicing. It would mean that the Holy Father is proclaiming the Gospel and is being effective in its proclamation. We should only wish that the press and others were persecuting the Church in America more than they are already. When we start producing martyrs here in America – and I mean REALLY producing martyrs – then the Church in America will be back on her feet. We can only hope that the first of these martyrs are the clergy – especially the bishops – since then we will be assured that the leadership of the Church is on the right path.

    • I agree, however, perhaps, this Pope will bring about the conversion of some of the liberal Catholics in the media and in the pews to orthodoxy. Or is that just wishful thinking?

  • Barry

    Rather than waiting knowingly for the press to turn on the new pope, adamant that the world must hate us if we’re doing it right, it might be better to spend our time considering what has made them so open to what he has to say, if only for now. That is, after all, what we want, right? Whether we’re talking about the media or the Catholic people or the rest of the world, if the deliverer of the message is not perceived to be worthy of a hearing, the message can never be heard. So perhaps we should add these qualities to what it takes to be a great teacher of doctrine in our day: simple human warmth, humility, respectfulness, simplicity, clear attentiveness to the poor.

    • MarkRutledge

      To be fair, Barry, much of the reporting is laced with anticipation the Pope will embrace the fashionable liberal causes of the day (same-sex-marriage, women’s ordination, and the like). Their admiration is not genuine.

      • Barry

        You may be right, Mark, but I haven’t seen too much of that myself. My impression is that it’s more his unique and winsome style that they’re taken with. (And it’s true that if that’s the case, the honeymoon will indeed end once Francis begins addressing the hot-button issues.) As one scholar I saw put it, “The melody may be the same, but the sound is completely different.”

    • TomD

      “. . . simple human warmth, humility, respectfulness, simplicity, clear attentiveness to the poor.”

      Isn’t this exactly the “style” that Jesus used . . . rather than an “aggressive” style. Those of us who are orthodox in belief could learn much from this approach.

      Doctrinal orthodoxy, in substance, coupled with pastoral “meekness,” in style, sounds very much like Jesus to me.

  • Uuncle Max

    “Most criticisms of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis are not, in the end, criticisms of those particular men as much as they are rejections of their office and the teachings, authority and beliefs of the Church.”

    Nicely summed up – either you believe or you don’t.

    I do.

  • Uuncle Max

    Day 15 of the 54 day Novena

    • 12Maria34

      Been lighting candle a week before PBXVI’s final day, for him and for the new pope.

  • Reets46

    I read recently that the Pope encouraged Bishops of Argentina to refuse communion to public figures/politicians who openly promote abortion and other issues contrary to the teachings of the church. The honey moon will soon be over. Habemus Papam…with a backbone.

    • patricia m.

      Time to do this elsewhere as well, specially in the US, when the kinds of Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden declare themselves pro-choice Catholics.

  • AcceptingReality

    Your opening salvo was spot on. Liberals do think…..”if he’s such a sweetie pie he must be one of them.” They also think that they themselves have cornered the market on being concerned about the poor. So, they think he must be one of them because he has demonstrated compassion his for the “least of My Brothers”. His combination of doctrinal orthodoxy and service to the poor is great expression of true Catholic/Christian witness. They are the very things that I try to promote in my little circle of influence at our local conference of St. Vincent de Paul Society. Those things seem so central to living the Catholic life…..and guess what, by no stretch of the imagination could such a faithful Catholic be described as liberal. Liberals hold positions and promote an ideology that is in disagreement with so many Church teachings that they embody the very definition of cafeteria Catholics. Rather than striving to conform themselves to Church teaching with regard to faith and morals they lament a Church which is too slow to conform itself to them. So sophisticated is their self-deception that falsely believe that you don’t have to accept all the Church’s teachings to be in full communion with the Church. This Pope will no doubt ruffle their feathers as time passes.

    • FernieV

      This comment should have been part of the article! Thank you.

  • Tom_ATK

    There is a third option to consider. The so called “secular world” is a bit of an empty myth. Each one of these journalists has a soul that thirsts. Its it the role of the Church, that means all of us, to reach out, to be an example in our deeds, than our words.

  • Roberto

    I think the “honey moon” will last for a long time… the media will just create a Pope Francis distinct of the real Pope Francis, and will sell it to the world. The Pope’s affirmation that there is no Jesus outside the Church was enough to create a huge mediatic polemic, but it did not happened since the media silenced that and continued only focusing in that aspects of him that are more sympathetic.

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  • FernieV

    You cannot be both faithful to Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God Made Man, and the liberal press, who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. And since Pope Francis is trying to be faithful to Christ, ergo… The clash will soon come, as the amazing Dr William Oddie predicts

  • duggthom

    Why is the New World service to the poor? I think you concede too much. When I think of “new” as it relates to the Church, I don’t think of service to the poor. In fact, in Latin America, service to the poor, with the advent of liberation theology, became something to scorn, and wherever that same current exists (whether it calls itself liberation theology or not), service the poor is equally scorned. In its places is rhetoric and political lobbying of a type that has shown very little fruit for the actual poor, in my opinion. The “Old World” of Catholicism seems to have a very solid track record of service to the poor, solid enough to claim the likes of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, the labor movement and Rerum Novarum. Proponents of the “New World” are going to have to fall back on some other positive contribution to the Church to convince me that there’s really anything they’ve given to us worth keeping.