Insights into the dynamics of a ‘Papal Health Scare’

Insights into the dynamics of a ‘Papal Health Scare’

Media gather outside of the Gemelli Polyclinic, where Pope Francis was hospitalized Sunday, in Rome, Monday, July 5, 2021. Pope Francis was spending his first morning convalescing on Monday in a Rome hospital following intestinal surgery under general anesthesia and reportedly doing well. The Vatican has given scant details about the operation Sunday evening in Gemelli Polyclinic, a major Catholic hospital in the Italian capital, although it did say he responded “well” to the surgery. (Credit: Riccardo De Luca/AP.)

Combine intense media interest with an informational vacuum, and what you usually get is chaos.

News Analysis

ROME – As Pope Francis recovers over the next week in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital from surgery on Sunday for colon diverticulitis, this seems an apt moment to lay out the nature and trajectory of the disease such a situation inevitably involves.

I’m not talking about the colon condition that prompted Francis’s surgery, which is, according to medical experts, fairly common among adults and more common as people age, and not in itself life-threatening. Instead, I’m talking about the distinctive media fever known as the “Papal Health Scare.”

Here’s the thing: Popes generally are old men, and thus prone to various forms of health issues. Most of the time it’s not really a big deal, just normal wear and tear, but of course you never know when something might turn serious – and, in an absolute monarchy, any threat to the monarch’s health is, ipso facto, a threat to the kingdom.

As a result, media organizations quickly develop a fever at any sign of papal illness. It’s generally fed by a near-total communications blackout from the Vatican, refusing or delaying the release of even basic details about the pope’s condition. The stubborn Vatican mantra often is that such matters pertain to the pope’s private life.

Combine intense media interest with an informational vacuum, and what you usually get is chaos. As we move through the next few days, here are three points about papal health scares to bear in mind.

First, every pope gets one free pass regarding his health, meaning one occasion when people are inclined to believe the reassurances they’re given and to take Vatican statements about the situation at face value, and Francis has now used up his.

During the free pass stage, when the Vatican says “the pope is suffering from x,” you don’t immediately get an avalanche of skeptics speculating that it’s really the far more serious y. When the Vatican says “the pope has decided x” during his recovery in the hospital – appointed a bishop, say, or approved a document – most people accept that it really was the pope, as opposed to some shadowy Vatican figure manipulating a weakened or diminished pope to pursue his own agenda.

In the same vein, when the Vatican says this simply a temporary setback and the pope will soon be back on the job at full capacity, people generally take that seriously too.

Yet from here on out, every time Francis is sidelined by a health issue again, the tendency will grow not to be so easily reassured, and to push back harder against soothing official communiques that project an air of “nothing to see here” while simultaneously refusing to address obvious questions about what’s really happening.

So, Pope Francis’s team should enjoy the present climate of trust while it lasts – because, inevitably, it won’t last long. We’ll see, actually, if it even outlasts this episode.

Second, the next seven days, which is the length of time Pope Francis is projected to remain at the Gemelli, are likely to marked by much higher-than-normal levels of Vatican coverage in press outlets. News organizations are paying to have people in position in Rome, some at the Gemelli and some working out of offices or hotel rooms, and aside from what’s likely to a brief and anodyne medical bulletin each day at noon, there won’t be much news about the pope’s condition to report.

Yet the media, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and there’s only so many times a correspondent on an expense account can tell his or her editor there’s nothing more to say. As a result, we’re likely to see coverage of all sorts of Vatican and pope stories which, otherwise, might not break through the noise.

This point, by the way, is why one insta-theory which popped up Sunday never really held water. Some observers wondered if the Vatican had deliberately withheld any advance announcement the pope would be getting surgery on Sunday in order to create a sensation and distract attention from Saturday’s announcement of ten criminal indictments, including a cardinal, for their alleged roles in an embarrassing financial scandal centering on the Secretariat of State’s efforts to buy property in London.

To begin with, there’s no reason the Vatican would want people to ignore that story. The indictments can be framed as proof that Francis’s reforms are working, and the fact they include a means suggests nobody is above the law anymore. Beyond that, anybody who’s been around a papal health scare before knows there’s now a flock of journalists in Rome who will be in need of something to report, and the indictments and looming trial seem tailor-made to fill the void.

If you like Vatican news, in other words, this week should be prime time.

Third, part of the nature of a papal health scare is that we tend to over-interpret both good and bad news. If the day’s medical bulletin tells us the pope is doing fine, we’ll wax about his indomitable spirit and his remarkable recovery; if we hear his return to the Vatican might be delayed due to a post-operative complication, then we’ll float grim prognoses and start rolling out backgrounders on various worst-case scenarios.

(One time-honored example of the genre is the piece about how there’s no mechanism in Church law for removing an incapacitated pope who’s incapable of making that decision for himself. If I had some loose change for every time somebody did that story in the St. John Paul II years, I’d never have to sweat the rent again.)

The trick is not to be seduced either by the highs or the lows, realizing that in all likelihood they’re both exaggerated. Just average out what you hear over the next week, and you’ll likely be fairly close to reality.

In some ways, these papal health scares often seem a bit silly when they’re over, as if we all got carried away for nothing. The reason they keep happening, however, is because one day it won’t just be a “scare” – and the thinking seems to be, better to overreact to something minor than to underreact to something potentially mammoth.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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