ROME—When covering Pope Francis, the story is often reduced to liberals versus traditionalists. Yet spending 15 minutes at a bar in Rome, or pretty much anywhere else in the world with a semi-strong Catholic culture, would prove that not everything is so black and white.
In reality, the vast majority of Catholics sit in the middle, not to mention those interested in the Church even though they might profess another faith, consider themselves religiously unaffiliated or deny the existence of God.
Often, I find myself working from a Roman bar or coffee shop. Sometime that’s because I’m in-between meetings, or working on a deadline, or simply trying to avoid the temptation (I wish!) of doing laundry and cleaning. In any event, I’ve continued this tradition I picked up from my mom back in Argentina.
In an attempt to improve my Italian skills, when I can afford the time, I try to engage whoever is around me in conversation, and after two or three sentences, the cat comes out of the bag: I’m a reporter covering the Vatican.
This usually leads to a monologue from the other person.
Some people throw out the usual concatenation of misinformed and misguided facts, ranging from “the pope has one lung” to “how can the Church speak about x, y or z when every priest is a pedophile?”
But more often than not, I run into one of the many Catholics “in the middle,” who listens to and respect “the popes” because the office comes before the person. These are generally people who see in Francis a man who’s done many good things, but also some they find questionable.
A minority of the men and women I speak with have actually read Francis’s document on the family Amoris Laetitia, and they often ask me what all the buzz is about: Most never read footnotes, including the famous footnote 351 on the divorced and civilly remarried. Then there are those who have read it all, and who usually say they wish the pope had been more black or white, or had made it part of the text, or had not included it at all.
But beyond this document, virtually everyone I engage with has a list of both praise and criticism, which doesn’t make them either Francis-haters or Francis-lovers.
The pope himself has said on several occasions that he appreciates criticism.
Yet, more and more, the voices of those capable of both praise and reproach are missing from the conversations being held in the media: they don’t hold press conferences, nor do they send out snarky tweets. Finding them requires looking beyond the “contacts” tab in smart phones and emails.
It implies getting out of the comfort zone, to engage those who might not agree with one’s view. It also implies leaving aside the preconceptions on all sides.
I meet people who reduce those who want to raise any criticism regarding the pope to a small set of extremist cardinals who nobody likes anyway, wearing all this medieval plumage cheered by groups of ultra-traditionalists who believe the earth is flat and it doesn’t revolve around the sun.
Then there are those who reduce Francis’s supporters to kumbaya-dancing, tree-hugging, papal Kool-Aid drinkers who are incapable of perceiving the Argentine pontiff as anything other than God’s greatest gift to humanity.
Though both of those extreme categories do exist, the majority of those who dare say something outside the “pope good-pope bad” narrative are not deeply weird lunatics.
They might often come off as if they are, however, because for a liberal [or, for that matter, conservative] media to include the voice of a smart, articulate alternative voice that doesn’t fit the frame is apostasy.
And yes, there are articulate voices on both sides of the trenches. I’ve met them, run into them at random places in Rome.
Most of those folks, however, are found far away from the magic realm of Twitter, because strong and nuanced arguments can rarely be made in 140 characters.
For journalists to reduce the coverage of the Catholic Church to “supporters v. enemies” of the pope is too easy an exercise.
Sure, five minutes on Twitter will confirm that there are people blindly supportive of and blindly hostile to Francis, of his predecessors or the Church in general, just like there are people out there extremely in favor of or against Tom Brady and those who love to hate Roger Federer, or hate those who don’t love him.
But this reductionist take doesn’t do justice to how most people actually think. It does nothing to address the real conversations being had at coffee shops or among friends all over the world.
Even worse, it deepens this seemingly unstoppable trend towards gated societies, where we only interact with people who think like us, dress like us and binge-watch the same TV shows that we do.
Thus, the challenge for journalists — those covering the Church, and beyond — becomes being able to reach out to every side, listen to what they have to say and give them a fair shot at expressing their points of view.
Perhaps that would lead to authentic conversations, and not only with random strangers in coffee shops and bars.