Yet Another Press Misreading of Vatican News

Both England’s Tablet and the United States’ Commonweal incited debate last week with their accounts of an exclusive interview Archbishop Georg Gänswein granted the German television network ZDF. While the Tablet took more editorial liberties than Commonweal, Commonweal signaled tacit approval of the Tablet’s editorial stance.

The bottom line: Gänswein’s interview indicates the Prefect of the Papal Household has come “unbound,” that he doesn’t much care for his new boss; and so, it is time for him to go, according to the Tablet. Perhaps, he should pack his bags and vacate Rome.

The first round of comments came from the Tablet’s deputy editor, Elena Curti. On March 19, she claimed the interview revealed that the archbishop “would have preferred other candidates to succeed Benedict XVI” and that “By stating that he would have preferred that someone other than Pope Francis had been elected to the Chair of Peter he has made his own position untenable.” So, she concludes that Gänswein should “devote himself exclusively to serving the Pope Emeritus—or leave Rome altogether.”

What was it that ticked her off? Commonweal’s associate editor, Grant Gallicho, honed in on the controversial statements from the March 13 ZDF interview, indicating that


In the … interview, [Gänswein] … mentioned that Francis was not his choice to succeed Benedict. “I had favored other candidates,” he said. “I was wrong—but then so were other people.” Pope Francis may be fawned over by the media, he continued, “but that won’t always be the case.” … The pope is not “everybody’s darling,” he added—in English.

But, the left-of-center magazines might not have released all the facts in this issue. Here are some details the two editors failed to mention.

What Did the Archbishop Really Say?
In English, the verb “to favor” can be used in two different senses. One can “favor”—i.e., endorse—a particular person for papal office while “favoring”—i.e., expecting or anticipating—the election of another candidate. Archbishop Gänswein told ZDF that he had “favored others” (hatte anderen favorisiert) to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. So, how should one read that statement?

Consider the following.

Gänswein conducted the interview in German. The third edition of the Oxford German Dictionary describes the verb “favorisieren” as a sporting term. And, the fifth edition of the HarperCollins Unabridged German Dictionary defines it in terms of betting odds, in particular. Those definitions seem altogether fitting given the question that occasioned the archbishop’s statement.

A journalist had asked the archbishop about his reaction to Cardinal Bergoglio’s election. In answer, he informed his interlocutor that he had favored others because of the mood and the general assumptions surrounding the conclave. In other words, the election of Pope Francis surprised the archbishop because others were considered likelier to be elected. Gänswein’s use of the verb “favorisieren” suggests the language of betting given the larger historical context of the March 2013 conclave.

Back in 2005, Cardinal Bergoglio curried favor in both senses of the word. Vatican watchers considered him one of the two most favorite front runners of the second from last conclave. Later, Vaticanistas learned that he had made it known he didn’t want to be elected. In effect, that announcement rocketed the Panzer Kardinal into the lead and secured his election. That’s the moment Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.

Enter the conclave of 2013.

Things had changed. This time around no one favored—i.e., expected or anticipated—Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election. It was well-known that the cardinal wanted to be left alone back home in Buenos Aires. So, Vatican watchers looked elsewhere to find a suitable successor to PapaRatzi. And, the game of speculations commenced.

The week of the conclave, I was stationed inside the Holy See’s Sala Stampa. The most seasoned Vaticanistas were holding court there. Whoever could get past the phalanx of guardsmen stationed outside “the fortress,” did. SalSta was the premier place to be camped out casting bets. As such, workspace was at a premium. I had to file articles and conduct radio and television interviews for news networks back home in the United States perched atop a filing cabinet in the briefing room.

As I listened to the conversations around me, I heard people mentioning names like Scherer, Ouellet, and Dolan, among others selected from a short list. Zenit’s Junno Esteves told me that, unlike the last conclave, the current one lacked a clear front runner.

So, when fume bianco did emit from the makeshift smokestack of the Sistina, the election of the first non-European pope in over a millennium and the first Latin American pope ever came as a surprise to the journalists—who had descended upon Rome in the thousands—as much as it did to the pilgrims gathered in the square.

In all fairness, then, Archbishop Gänswein wasn’t alone in favoring—i.e., expecting or anticipating—the election of a cardinal other than Bergoglio. And, if one reads his statement about Pope Francis’ election in that light, then there’s something altogether unremarkable about his comment.

Take another look at Commonweal’s highlighted selections of the ZDF interview, however. According to both the Tablet and Commonweal, Gänswein said he had “favored others.” Yet, nowhere does he claim he didn’t favor—i.e., endorse—Bergoglio. Sure. Heading into the conclave, he might have “favored”—i.e., expected or anticipated—the election of another cardinal. Like Gänswein himself said: So did others.

But, what about after the election? Did he “favor”—i.e., endorse—his new boss, then? Gänswein himself set the record straight, stating that

He is a very direct, very uncomplicated and very authentic man. That goes for encounters with large groups, with the masses, just as it does for private audiences or individual groups. He is the same now as bishop of Rome and pope as he was as archbishop of Buenos Aires. To me, this comes across as very authentic and very honest, it is not a way of strategically trying to gain points, the pope actually is the way he appears.

Later, according to the Tablet, Gänswein claimed his new boss might be “fawned over by the media … but that won’t always be the case … [he’s not] everybody’s darling.” Commonweal described the comment as “ominous” as if to insinuate it revealed the archbishop had a sour taste for his new boss. And, the Tablet’s Elena Curti went so far as to claim that

What instead rings hollow is Archbishop Gänswein’s claim to be an effective “bridge” between his two masters. The tears he was seen shedding as Benedict left office bear testimony to his closeness to the Pope Emeritus and his recent words show where his loyalties lie.

Truth be told, Curti’s take reveals more about her misconceptions than the archbishop’s comment indicates about his fitness for office. For Curti, the man who cried for Benedict cannot be a man who laughs with Francis. In other words, there is a gulf between the two men and it cannot be bridged.

But, Gänswein himself discredits that view.

In the interview, he stated that, “the two Popes have a very good relationship [and] there is no ‘atmospheric’ difficulty for me either to reconcile both realities. I perceive no problems whatsoever, no conflicting goals, no conflict of loyalties, like I often had to read at the beginning ‘that I could not serve two masters,’ that’s beside the point: I’m not serving two masters, I enjoy fulfilling my tasks and I try to do them both justice to the best of my ability.”

The archbishop’s comment doesn’t sit well with Curti’s editorializing. But, it does make a fundamental truth about the papal office quite plain: No matter who wears the shoes of the fisherman, there will be those who admire and love him and there will be those who dislike and detract from him. In the words of Blessed Pope John Paul II, the pope is a sign of contradiction. He might be favored—i.e., endorsed—one moment, but he’ll be disliked the next. And, that’s a fact of the office—a narrative as old as the office itself. Before his own election, Pope Benedict said we live in the midst of a dictatorship of relativism. And, beneath its shadow, nothing is stable—nothing is permanent.

In the end, then, both the Tablet and Commonweal rushed their narratives, making human resource recommendations on the basis of wild speculation and incomplete information.

Here are just three things the rest of us can learn from that mistake.

1)   On the one hand, the overzealous editors seem intent to lob off on their readers the narrative that the old guard is dissenting. To hear them tell it, ours is a new age. But, that editorial lens demands a hermeneutic of rupture, which Archbishop Gänswein himself—a sort of living link between the “old” and the “new” guard—discredits. In the same interview, he tells of the collaboration and friendship between the two popes. He relates how Pope Francis seeks out the wisdom and opinion of his predecessor.

As Inside the Vatican’s editor in chief, Dr. Robert Moynihan, noted, the archbishop’s comments show “that there is more continuity between the pontificates than many in the mainstream media [think], who continually suggest that Pope Francis is setting a ‘new course’ for the Church and ‘breaking’ with Pope Benedict in a ‘revolutionary’ way.”

2)   But, on the other hand, the interview confirms that the election of Cardinal Bergoglio was a shock, even for those in the innermost circles. Yet, to be certain, the designs of the Spirit are secret, coming to light at the appointed moment. And so, along with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., we can be “absolutely convinced that Pope Francis is the pope whom the Spirit gave to the Church today.”

3)   And, third, although it is illicit to understand this hour in the Church’s life through a hermeneutic of rupture, we can appreciate the new emphases of the present pontificate. As Archbishop Gänswein said,

Clearly [the two pontificates] are in accordance with regard to substance. There is a marked and visible difference with regard to presentation, to gestures, in the way Pope Francis approaches people. It’s a difference that’s not worse or better, it’s simply a difference that suits his disposition. Each pope brings his character to the papacy. A certain character is bestowed by grace and if the Lord has given him this character we can only say Deo gratias [“to God be thanks”].

So, far from the free-wheeling editorializing of Elena Curti and others, the Gänswein interview doesn’t signal mutinous intrigue aboard the bark of Peter. But, it does afford us reasons to celebrate being alive at this moment in the life of God’s pilgrim people.

(Photo credit: Archbishop Gänswein and Pope Francis / CNS / Paul Haring.)

John Paul Shimek


John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. Prof. Shimek earned his graduate degrees in theology and philosophy from Catholic University of America, and maintains a website and blog entitled John Paul Shimek – The Pilgrim Journalist.

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