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William Oddie FAITH MAGAZINE May-June 2013

Pope Francis and the Media

“Reacting with unusual swiftness,” The New York Times reported, two days day after the present Holy Father’s election, “the Vatican on Friday rejected any suggestion that Pope Francis … was implicated in his country’s so-called Dirty War during the 1970s.”

“On a day”, the paper continued, “when Francis delivered a warm address to his cardinals and continued to project [my italics] humility” (for all the world as though the new Pope were performing some kind of PR operation) “the Vatican seemed intent on quickly putting to rest questions about the Pope’s past, dismissing them as opportunistic defamations from anticlerical leftists. The swift response contrasted with past public relations challenges during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, when the Vatican often allowed criticisms to linger without rebuttal.”

“There has never been a credible accusation against him,” said the Rev Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, adding that such charges “must be rejected decisively”. On the contrary, he said, “there have been many declarations of how much he did for many people to protect them from the military dictatorship.”

All undeniably true: but he did continue to talk to the dictator, and there is an embarrassing photo of the two men smiling together: but all that means is that he continued to be a pastor to powerful sinners as well as to the virtuous poor. But this, clearly, is going to be a most profitable line of attack, just as Pope Benedict’s alleged failure to confront paedophile scandals continued to be the main line of attack during his pontificate. We’ve been here before, of course, from the “Hitler’s Pope” allegations through Saint Josemaria Escriva’s alleged support for the Franco regime.

What is never speculated about is what might have been said behind closed doors: you never, for instance, hear the story of Saint Josemaria entering Franco’s office and announcing that he has come to talk to the Generalissimo about he will say to God on the day of judgment. There are perfectly good and valid answers to accusations of complicity in the case of the then Cardinal Bergoglio, and before that of Father Bergoglio during his time as Jesuit provincial. The trouble is that they cannot, in the nature of things, be proved.

And the attacks are only to be expected: he’s not vulnerable over paedophilia, so the media needed some other issue. In the words of the admirable Laura Ingraham, radio talk show host and Fox News contributor (herself a convert): “I would have been stunned if the secular progressives had come out just lauding this man for his career of service and his humility and his charity, [but] that just wasn’t gonna happen, right? It’s just not gonna happen. He’s not here to be loved by the secular progressives.”

I ought to have expected all this, but didn’t. Indeed, as the Cardinals were preparing to be locked in, I somewhat naively wrote an article headlined “Now the conclave is about to begin, we can look forward with relief, not only to having a pope again, but to the secular media’s sudden loss of interest.” Father Lombardi had written on the Vatican Radio website that the conclave was “an event that can be really understood, and lived serenely and peacefully, only from the perspective of faith”. But serenely and peacefully, was not, I noted at the time, “how the secular media want to understand it. They are interested only in superficiality and, if at all possible, prurience.”

“Wary cardinals seek holy man to oust ‘dirty dozen’ ” was the headline over a ludicrous piece in The Sunday Times by someone called John Follain. The “dirty dozen” turned out to be a blacklist of cardinals drawn up by an American victims group which claims they failed to take a stand in child abuse scandals. The “wary cardinals”, however, had almost certainly not heard of this blacklist. It included Cardinals Ouellet, Scola and Sandri. According to a “senior Vatican official”, many cardinals had misgivings about Cardinal Ouellet. “All the cardinals know him, but the trouble with Ouellet is that his brother was convicted of sexual assault on an underage girl. How can you ignore that?”

A barrage of such stuff, pouncing on any scandal that could be dug up and chipping away at the pontificate of Pope Benedict, not to mention the usual stuff about the need to elect a pope who would change the “policy” of the Church over such matters as abortion, gay marriage and women priests, had been unleashed almost immediately, once Benedict had been congratulated for bringing the papacy into the 21st century by resigning.

The interregnum was a difficult time for most of us. “The challenge”, wrote Father Alexander Lucie-Smith in his Catholic Herald blog shortly after the Holy Father had announced his resignation, “will be in having to watch the airwaves fill with a whole load of people who are very marginal to Church life, and yet who will be invited to pontificate on all matters papal and religious, giving it their own particular slant, which they will advance as a mainstream view.” Hans Küng of course sprang to his mind, and Küng duly pontificated.

I thought of another academic, just as hostile to traditional Catholicism (indeed, unlike Küng, to the Catholic Church itself), who I thought would probably be all over the media spouting stuff supposedly mainstream: Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the Church at Oxford University, and a fellow of my own college (if I had still been a fellow of St Cross at the time, I would have voted against his election), who is himself an unbeliever.

Professor MacCulloch was, indeed, soon to be observed putting himself about in the liberal media; and in an article in The Times he began an unusually spiteful piece by laboriously comparing the Church, in the wake of Pope Benedict’s abdication, to the sandcastles he used to build as a boy at Clacton: “Quite suddenly there came a point where the waters’ onrush became irresistible. In a few minutes, all my ingeniously constructed defences, my frantic scrambles from turret to reinforcing bulwark, were overwhelmed beyond repair and the builder could only stand helplessly on the eroding heap, contemplating the end of his efforts.”

You get the point. That’s what was happening to the Church as a result of the Pope’s retirement: it was falling apart. He began by sneering at the Pope himself: “His very title, though perhaps a slight improvement on my immediate suggestion of Pope Father on the analogy of Queen Mother, is fraught with unfortunate implications. One emeritus professor, when asked to explain his title, explained that it was derived from the Latin ‘e’, meaning ‘out’ and ‘meritus’, meaning ‘deserves to be’.

“Now we watch Benedict’s conditions for retirement [my italics] unfold: continued use of his papal name, continued use of the white garments reserved exclusively for the Pope, the continued position of his faithful companion Georg Gänswein (a newly minted archbishop) as adviser not merely to Benedict but to the next incumbent Pope… A common syndrome among the reluctantly retired is wanting to have their cake and eat it.”

If ever there was an undeserved slur, it was surely that: MacCulloch’s sneering suggestion that Pope Benedict is “among the reluctantly retired” is simply nonsense. As for the contemptible snigger that he wants “to have his cake and eat it”, the late Holy Father’s palpable humility – visible to everyone except McCulloch – makes it unnecessary to waste any time on thinking up some sort of retort.

The point about all these pontifications, I thought at the time, whether over the airwaves or in the print media, either by secular commentators or by the kind of Catholics the liberal media like to give a platform to because their views on the Catholic tradition are so similar to their own (it seemed by the beginning of the conclave that it had all been going on for ever) was – or so I reflected then in my simple way – that this wonderful free-for-all was the only chance for many of them to be heard at all on this subject.

As soon as the excitement following the election of a new pope had died down, comment editors would abruptly decide that they were all poped out, and move on: and we would all return to the secular world’s usual condition of indifference to the Church. “Then at least,” I wrote at the time, “left to ourselves, we will be able, under the guidance of a new Holy Father (who will, I hope and pray, see it as his aim to complete the work of the pontificate which has just come to such an unexpected end), and with God’s help, return in the light of a new Eastertide to the business of building up the Church once more, free of the attentions of the roving media protagonists who so rarely care a jot about what, for a week or so, is currently attracting their fitful attention.”

How wrong can you be? “Argentina ‘Dirty War’ accusations haunt Pope Francis” announced the BBC website (with barely disguised satisfaction) two days after his election as Pope. “I see a lot of joy and celebration for Pope Francis, but I’m living his election with a lot of pain”: thus, the BBC [] reported the words of Graciela Yorio, the sister of Orlando Yorio – a priest who was kidnapped in May 1976 and tortured for five months during Argentina’s last military government. Ms Yorio accuses Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as he was then, of effectively delivering her brother and a fellow priest, Francisco Jalics, into the hands of the military authorities by declining to endorse publicly their social work in the slums of Buenos Aires, whichinfuriated the junta at the time.

“Their kidnapping took place”, continued the BBC report, “during a period of massive state repression of left-wing activists, union leaders and social activists which became known as the ‘Dirty War’. Orlando Yorio has since died. But Fr Jalics said in a statement on Friday that he was “reconciled with the events and, for my part, consider them finished”.

The BBC concedes that “there is no evidence [my italics] that he was in collusion with the regime”, but it adds that “the actions of the Roman Catholic Church during the Dirty War are still being called into question”, whatever that means. Whether online or on air, the BBC makes a great display of impartiality; but it’s how the story is told that counts. Thus, the “pain” of Graciela Orio is emphasised near the top of the BBC piece.

Only near the end (when most readers’ attention has flagged or switched off entirely) are we told of the views of the Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel. A human rights activist at the time, he was arrested by the military in 1977 and suffered 14 months of clandestine detention during which he was tortured severely. He told the BBC World Service Spanish language service: “There were some bishops who were in collusion with the military, but Bergoglio is not one of them.”

Mr Perez Esquivel strongly supports Pope Francis. “He is being accused of not doing enough to get the two priests out of prison, but I know personally that there were many bishops who asked the military junta for the release of certain prisoners and were also refused. There is no link between [the Pope] and the dictatorship.” But the BBC described him as “a religious person himself”: in other words, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

It will be interesting to follow this story in the months ahead. The secular media now has a new bone between its teeth and is unlikely to let go before it has extracted the maximum journalistic satisfaction from it and inflicted the maximum damage with it. “Cardinal Bergoglio”, concedes the BBC, “was never investigated as there has been no strong evidence that links him in any way [my italics] to one of the darkest chapters of Argentine history”. But does anyone really believe they will leave it at that?

Faith Magazine