Like most of you, I was surprised when I learned that the Holy Father was apparently disparaging EWTN in his private conversation with the Jesuit community in Slovakia. My reaction to the news, which was dropped by Father Spadaro, the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, took several stages of deduction.
First of all, I was surprised at the disproportion of a pope jousting with a Catholic medium of communication. “Aquila non capit muscas” was the phrase that came to mind: an eagle does not hunt flies. Hugo Chavez once quoted the proverb when he explained why he was not going to respond to criticism by a deputy of the Assembly in Venezuela. He was above all that, he said smiling to his cheering partisans.
Secondly, I thought it was embarrassing to see the sensitivity of the Vicar of Christ (even though he supposedly doesn’t like the title) to comments that were deliberately couched not to be disrespectful to him personally or ecclesiastically, even though they were expressions of disagreement. St. Paul spoke much more vigorously against St. Peter, the first pope, as is seen in the Letter to the Galatians. This is a pope who has almost said “let a thousand flowers bloom,” with regard to thinking about the Church. Didn’t he say to the superiors of the religious communities in Latin America that we should not be afraid to make mistakes? In the same remarks to the Jesuits in Slovakia, the pope praised freedom and said that some were afraid of the intellectual consequences of spiritual freedom. Is the alleged dissent of some commentators at EWTN excepted from the new freedom the pope promotes?
Thirdly, I remembered a historical incident. Plutarch recounts how Julius Caesar, when he defeated Pompey, came into possession of that leader’s correspondence with important people back in Rome. Instead of reading the secret letters, Julius Caesar had them burned. It was an example of the strength of the virtue of magnanimity. A genius at leading men, he knew that focusing on past antipathies would frustrate his plan of uniting the nation. Continuing rancor was not in the interest of the victor. He was more interested in reconciliation than in settling scores. A magnanimous person is willing to acknowledge differences of opinion without letting them cripple future relationships.
Fourth, I considered that the boundaries of public and private have been practically erased in our media-manic (especially social-media-manic) age. It used to be that after the death of a leader we would learn of his private opinions and defects. Not any more, to be sure. But what the tsunami of information about the personal defects and sins of prominent people has done is make us lose all sense of privacy and also justified an extraordinary amount of judgment of others. “Judge not lest ye be judged,” is often erased from the memory of those who say they have the right to know all.
Auden has a line saying: “Private faces in public places/ Are wiser and nicer/ Than public faces in private places.” What the endless leaks about celebrities have given us is a lot of public faces in private places. If I am reading the poet correctly, the old TMI has robbed us and the public figures of any sense of interiority. We all suffer from rash statements that express our personal discomfort but are better left in confidence. I have sympathy with a man as sensitive as the Holy Father thinking that some people wished his latest surgery had not been successful, but that pain could have been left to our imagination for the common good.
When I first read Table Talk of Martin Luther, I was shocked that the leaders of his religious movement would have permitted such an unflattering display of the Reformer’s personal opinions and animadversions. He certainly doesn’t sound saintly. I would think that some would have wished to know a little less of him. I am glad we have the biographical detail, and perhaps some of the stuff we see about persons of power and influence now will be enlightening for the historical record, but I can’t see how it is useful to the goals of leadership to be so frank about antipathies or alleged antipathies. I remember how the pastor of my first parish would sometimes give us his estimates of the faithful, which, although most of the time I learned were accurate, I think would have been disastrous for his ministry.
Fifth, another Latin phrase came to mind, cui bono. Who stands to gain from the targeting of a Catholic medium whose mission is clearly to build up the Church and which has special care about fomenting devotional life? There are “progressive” laity and members of the clergy who do not like certain emphases and styles that are characteristic of certain Catholic media. Who is stopping them from trying to produce their own platforms in the modern Aeropagus? Could certain magazines be jealous of the audience of other outlets and therefore do their best to relay a papal judgment on them?
Sixth, who is telling the pope that he is being disrespected? Is he well-informed about the subject? I was surprised the other day that he seemed to ignore that some people are hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccines because of the means by which they were (and are) produced and developed. Could he not know that there are some people still worried about stem cells from aborted fetuses? He seemed to see the issue in terms of doubt about the efficacy of the vaccines, which is confusing to me. The Holy Father doesn’t even watch television, so where does he get the idea that the papacy is being disrespected on one outlet?
Seventh, shouldn’t we look at who is pushing this narrative downstream the information highway? Father Spadaro once said he was not completely convinced that 2+2=4 was applicable to theology. I suppose he remembered Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, where it is said, “I agree that two times two makes four is an excellent thing; but if we are dispensing praise, then two times two makes five is sometimes a most charming little thing as well.” I remember the remark and it makes me cautious about others coming from La Civiltà Cattolica.
The final step of my reflection was a question: Should we be worried about something like this— a personal reaction that is based on secondhand information shared privately to brothers in a religious community, evidently an expression of confidence in sympathetic response? I will not be worried about it and suggest no one else should be.