Right now there’s a fascinating drama unfolding in the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria, where Pope Francis has thrown down one of the most authoritarian gauntlets we’ve seen any pope fling in a long time. He’s threatened every priest of the diocese, no matter where they are in the world, with suspension unless they write to apologize for spurning a bishop appointed five years ago because he doesn’t come from the dominant ethnic and linguistic group.
Crux’s Inés San Martín reports that the letters the pope demanded are trickling in, though it’s far from clear they’re going to resolve the situation.
What all this got me thinking about is the following: Had any other recent pope done such a thing, howls about abuse of power and over-centralization probably would have been deafening, especially from the press, where the rebel priests likely would have become folk heroes. Francis, however, gets more or less a free pass. (This is quite apart from the merits of the Ahiara case, which are mind-bendingly complicated and elusive.)
Yes, some coverage has been more critical of late, especially Francis’s handling of the sexual abuse scandals in the wake of the criminal indictment of one of his top aides, Cardinal George Pell, in Australia. Even then, however, the tone tends to be, “Francis is such a great guy, so why is this area lagging behind?”
Naturally, I’m referring here to the mainstream secular media. Intramural Catholic discussion is a different animal.
From the beginning, we’ve been waiting for that honeymoon to end, since that’s the usual pattern. However, there are always a handful of exceptions, personalities whose images as either heroes or villains become so set in stone they’re impervious to reconsideration.
In our time, Nelson Mandela was one such figure. Even five mixed years as President of South Africa, and the dubious successor he left behind in Thabo Mbeki (who doubts the link between HIV and AIDS and banned retrovirals in public hospitals, arguably making him responsible for the premature deaths of nearly 400,000 people), didn’t put a dent in Mandela’s secular halo.
Today, Donald Trump illustrates the same principle in reverse. As a thought experiment, ask yourself this: What would it take for the mainstream American media to suddenly embrace Trump as a good guy? A zombie apocalypse? A covert CIA brainwashing operation? You get the idea.
Pope Francis seems surrounded by the same sort of essentially irreversible narrative.
Just for the sake of it, however, can we envision anything that might change the equation? Sure, I can tick off at least three such possibilities, but none seems even remotely likely.
If Pope Francis were to be caught up in some sort of personal scandal that appears to stick – if he were personally caught with his hand in the Vatican’s financial cookie jar, for instance, or if there were some sensational allegation of abuse in his past that surfaced – that might do it, under the law of “equal and opposite reaction.”
He’s got such a reputation as a reformer, as the antidote to the bad old days of clerical privilege, that if a truly credible report of corruption were to come to light, the disillusionment might set a new land speed record for upending his narrative.
The odds of that, however, seem awfully long – first, because whatever else one may think of Francis, he genuinely seems a man of integrity, and second, because if there were such a bombshell out there, it probably would have gone off by now anyway.
Crackdowns on Perceived Good Guys
There certainly have been personnel controversies and allegations of heavy-handedness by Pope Francis, most recently his decision to move German Cardinal Gerhard Müller out of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith shortly after dismissing three priests who worked in Müller’s office.
To the general public, however, such developments come off as routine bureaucratic shuffling, and besides which, the people involved are either anonymous or perceived critics of Francis, which means the narrative tells us they had it coming.
So, who would he have to target to revise such impressions?
Well, maybe if he announced a massive new investigation of American nuns to finish the work left undone last time, that might move the needle. Or, if he were to stroll into St. Peter’s Square and announce that any theologian unwilling to sign a personal loyalty oath to uphold Church teaching on X will henceforth be excommunicated, that might do it too.
The problem is that any such scenario one could conjure up is so improbable as to be basically a non-starter.
A Success Blows Up in His Face
Pope Francis gets credit for a string of perceived diplomatic and political breakthroughs, including helping to avert a Western anti-Assad war in Syria in late 2013, paving the way for ending Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, making a peaceful transfer of power possible in the Central African Republic, and pushing a peace deal in Colombia across the finish line.
Suppose, however, that when he goes to Colombia in September to take a victory lap, something he says or does, obviously unintentionally, sparks a new round of violence, and the deal unravels? If the bloody conflict comes roaring back, the narrative could shift from “moral hero works his magic” to “reckless meddler makes things worse.”
Again, however, that seems improbable – not so much that violence could return, because it’s hardly as if all the wounds from the world’s longest-running civil war have healed – but that it would be seen as Pope Francis’s fault, when so much of his energy has been invested in promoting peace.
Bottom line, arguably the single greatest asset Francis enjoys as pope is his narrative.
Catholic bishops in every corner of the world today, no matter their personal opinions on the papacy, will tell you they enjoy strolling through airports because so many random people will come up to them, often non-Catholics and even unchurched, to say how much they love this pope. The popular narrative about Francis — humility, simplicity, understanding, mercifulness — opens doors. It changes moods as well as conversations, making people inclined to at least listen to what the pope and the Church have to say.
The narrative is not a magic wand, of course. It doesn’t automatically fill up churches or generate vocations, it doesn’t reverse centuries-long secular trends, it doesn’t guarantee victory in every cultural battle, it doesn’t necessarily keep persecuted Christians safe, and it certainly doesn’t mean that every choice Francis makes as a governor, a teacher and even a pastor is beyond reproach.
However, the narrative is nevertheless a powerful missionary calling card. Catholics may be used to it by now, even rolling our eyes sometimes at the occasional superficiality of it, but it’s a resource the institutional Church hasn’t had at its disposal for an awfully long time, and may not see again soon after Francis is gone.
For once, in other words, the all-important “narrative” – that largely unconscious set of assumptions, which forms the bedrock of the media’s mostly unstated faith – is Catholicism’s friend. Perhaps rather than endlessly debating whether Francis deserves it, the real question ought to be, what kind of job is the rest of the Church doing at taking advantage of it?