“Rebranding” is all the rage today in corporate communications, and one question gurus on the subject often find themselves pondering is the following: When you get a hot new CEO who succeeds in creating an appealing narrative, what happens to older stereotypes and prejudices about the brand?
If Pope Francis is any indication, what sometimes happens is that those stereotypes are re-tasked, to use another bit of corporate jargon, to support a new storyline of internal opposition to the boss.
This comes to mind in light of a controversy that’s broken out in Italy centering on Archbishop Luigi Negri of Ferrara-Comacchio, generally seen as a leader of the conservative wing of the Italian Church.
Last Wednesday, the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano ran a front-page story based on what it described as eyewitness accounts of a conversation Negri was alleged to have had a month ago aboard a train to Rome with his priest-secretary.
In it, the 74-year-old prelate supposedly said he hopes the Madonna will work a miracle and cause Pope Francis to die, referring to the example of Pope John Paul I, who died after just 33 days. Allegedly, Negri also had some nasty things to say about recent bishops’ appointments by Francis in the Italian dioceses of Bologna and Palermo. (In both cases, the pontiff tapped men seen as center-left.)
The comments were widely picked up by other Italian media, and from there made the rounds of the world.
None of the alleged eyewitnesses were named, and so far no one has come forward to assert that he or she actually overheard the conversation. Negri has denied the report strenuously, saying it’s based on “inventions” so fantastic that the author needs “treatment for neuro-delusions,” and has threatened legal action for defamation of character.
Certainly Negri is a compelling candidate for the role of the “anti-Bergoglio,” as Fatto Quotidiano dubbed him, a reference to the given name of Pope Francis.
Negri was the right-hand man of Don Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation, a movement launched in Milan in the early 20th century and generally seen as strongly conservative. (When news of Negri’s alleged comments first broke, the movement issued a statement indicating he hadn’t held any position of responsibility in it since 2005 and professing its loyalty to “every gesture and word” of Pope Francis.)
In Italian politics, Negri is viewed as supportive of former conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, even after charges that Berlusconi had sex with an under-age prostitute. He’s also among the most outspokenly pro-life prelates in the country.
Among other things, Negri has blamed Italy’s economic woes in part on the legalization of abortion, saying it’s meant “six million Italians were never born” and that a scarcity of children has led to “collapse.” Negri also said he would not give Communion to center-left Italian Catholic politicians who support civil unions for same-sex couples.
Making him an even more irresistible target, he’s spoken out in defense of the Crusades and recently gave a lecture on Satan during a celebrated annual Roman seminar for exorcists.
Perhaps this background helps explain why a newspaper would run phrases attributed to Negri in a banner headline with quotation marks, without citing sources, and without checking with the alleged speaker. Even by the usual standards of Italian journalism, in which it’s considered acceptable to attribute hypothetical language to public figures based on what they might have said in a given situation, it seemed a stretch.
It’s all the more remarkable given that just two months ago, Negri gave an interview in which he said that the pope’s decision to call a special Holy Year of Mercy caused him to feel an “increase in gratitude.” In the wake of the recent controversy, he’s said he wants an audience with Francis to restate his loyalty.
Here are two thoughts on the Negri frenzy, quite apart from the factual question of what he actually said.
First, no matter what happened on that train, there are undoubtedly plenty of bishops who share some of the sentiments attributed to Negri. They probably wouldn’t pray for the pope to die, which is considered a terrible breach of Catholic etiquette, but Negri would hardly be the only one disconcerted by some of Francis’ policy and personnel moves.
News flash: In any institution, middle managers sometimes gripe about the boss.
There was grumbling among bishops about St. John Paul II for almost a quarter-century, and about Benedict XVI for the full eight years of his papacy. Indeed, popes have always had problems with some of their bishops — it’s a feature of Catholic life that goes all the way back to the New Testament and clashes between Peter and Paul.
Perhaps the blowback seems more sensational now because it generally comes from the ecclesiastical right rather than the left, but that betrays a short memory. If anything, the opposition encountered by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI both during and after the Second Vatican Council, mostly from tradition-minded prelates, makes today’s tensions seem like child’s play.
In other words, let’s not exaggerate. To the extent there’s resistance to Francis from some bishops, it’s nothing new, and probably no more intense than any other recent pontiff has faced.
Second, precisely because old stereotypes never die but are simply re-tasked, there’s a temptation today to see opposition to the pope even when it’s not actually there, in part because it adds to the sense of drama.
These days, prelates perceived either as ideologically conservative or personally elitist — the kind of bishop, say, who enjoys black-tie galas and meals at fine restaurants more than visiting slums — have become especially powerful magnets for this sort of speculation.
That’s not to say that many bishops who fit those profiles don’t have doubts about Francis. Human nature being what it is, they almost certainly do.
As the Negri case may illustrate, however, a dose of caution is in order about specific claims of what such figures have said or done vis-à-vis this pope, because it’s sometimes difficult to know whether what’s being served up is the reality of the situation or the lure of an almost irresistible narrative.