A new pope: headlines are simple; the truth is complex

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
16 Mar 2013

Just before Pope Francis (as Cardinal-Archbishop Bergoglio of Argentina has become) emerged on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica as the new head of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics on 13 March 2013, there was a telling event. Silence in the Square and around the globe.

This was the silence of uncertainty and bemusement. Actually, who is this man, people were asking?

Journalist Mark Dowd summed up the media cloud of unknowing very well: "The Catholic Herald [newspaper] of two weeks ago profiled around 15 Cardinals who were thought to be in the running. Then, 'as a sort of back up', listed very briefly about another 20 men who were possibly papabile. They merited a sentence or two at most. So there, lying in position number 35 at the foot of the page, was a 76-year-old railwayman's son from Argentina..."

Of course, just as number 35 is nowhere in headline terms, so "don't know" isn't a concept the digitally-driven media likes or accepts readily. The trade (market, let's face it) is one based on instant analysis and opinion.

Put most cynically, the game goes as follows: "We haven't really heard of this guy; let's get the usual talking heads on the screen, together with anyone who appears to know a wee bit about him, plus someone who's fast at internet searching. Get them to speculate as much as they can. Fill in the gaps with snippets of information coming into our earpieces from researchers desperately scurrying around to find out who knows something more. Right, now we we have some angles. Let's shape the story on the basis of the best soundbites, images and dredged facts."

My own first take on Pope Francis (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18166), supplemented by a comment on the resonances of his name (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18168) and another on the Jesuit link (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18167), was all produced within a couple of hours of his election. Together with Ekklesia's pre-commentary and background material, it remains slightly in advance of the level of superficiality some of the hastier commentary displayed, I hope. But I would not pretend that it was much more than surface pontificating (if you'll pardon the pun). I am still learning, thinking, reading , discussing and reflecting.

But back to the train of reportage. After some 'images that grab' have been filtered and the initial assessments have begun to shape into a 'frame' (humble and simple man, compassionate towards the poor, conservative on life issues and sexuality, mixed reaction over his role during the Argentinian dictatorship, could be a surprise package), the next phase of the media game is that commentators start to be divided into keen supporters and vociferous critics for the purpose of producing "a debate".

So far, those readily characterised as supporters are probably "winning the storifying competition", a news anchor suggested to me yesterday. The "Argentinian stuff is shadow, but so far there's no smoking gun". So what we are left with is that, essentially, this is "the pope of the poor", and "a man whose humility will change the face of an often remote institution".

Well, yes, but... As someone else observed to me, "individuals can sometimes change institutions, but institutions have a regular habit of changing individuals." Or words to that effect. Expectations can be dangerous things.

I realise this gives a depressing picture of how the complexity of reality all-too-easily gets media-ised and packaged in convenient but unhelpful ways. But something closer to the multilayered, fallible nature of truth is out there, I believe. To nudge into it you have to probe more deeply and more widely. Inevitably, instant judgements will be called and issued in the aftermath of major events. The important thing is to be able to suspend, reconsider, recast and reshape them into something more resonant with the awkward character of reality.

One of the probings I would definitely recommend at the moment is a 30 minute + video discussion between necessarily provocative Catholic theologian Mary E. Hunt (Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual) and Sarah Posner (editor of the excellent Religion Dispatches, and author of God's Profits).

Mary Hunt argues that even though Francis is the first Jesuit pope, he will essentially continue on the path set by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. She suggests that "compassion for the poor" isn't the real issue. The real issue is why people (particularly women) are made poor or disenfranchised and what can be done to change that. On AIDS and HIV there is still straightforward denial, she says.

She also tellingly compares the Church's murky, dishonourable role in Argentina's Dirty War to the sex abuse scandal in the US, not least because of the instinct within the Church hierarchy to mask the difficulty and institutional failings that allowed awful crimes to continue. (Jonathan Watts and Uki Goni in Buenos Aires have approached the confusion around this in a fine article entitled 'New pope's role during Argentina's military era disputed' (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/15/pope-francis-argentina-milit...), incidentally.)

Mary Hunt’s telling experience of, and insights into, Argentinian Catholicism, as well as her active knowledge of feminist theology, liberation theology and efforts to reform the Catholic Church, result in her questioning the emerging narrative about the values and history of Pope Francis -- the idea of the simple man who has come to Rome to bring change, while holding on to 'traditional values'. Above all, she locates Francis' personal attributes (virtues as well as failings) within a bigger story about power, its use and abuse, in both Church and world. And she admits that she is learning, and doesn't necessarily know. The assessments many of us are making are as much on the reactions as on the subject of those reactions, naturally.

These are important issues. There will naturally be different 'takes' on Pope Francis to Mary Hunt's. But her particular strength lies in asking us not to recoil from difficult or challenging questions and observations. Instead, she points towards a strong counter-narrative that needs to be heard if anything like a rounded picture is to emerge.

Another Catholic theologian with a thoughtful approach - one that is at once critical and loyal to the Church, and always worth attending to - is that of Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University. She is not surprised by the new pontiff's past pronouncements, nor what some would see as the contradictions in them.

"He's conservative on sexual issues, but they all are," she told the Guardian this week. However, she added, in a tone perhaps more hopeful than Mary Hunt, Pope Francis's personal experiences of, and commitment to, the marginalised might yet lead him to confront some of the issues that Pope Benedict XVI was simply unable to grasp.

"If he is listening to the voices of the poor, he will hear things about women's lives that the last pope was totally deaf to and unaware of," she says. "Any pope who listens to the poor and struggling people will hear women's voices if he really wants to."

That, of course, is a Socratic positing rather than a simple affirmative stating. It invites a verdict on behaviour and response, rather than just rhetoric. The proof of the pudding remains in the eating; or, as the Jesus of the Gospels puts it, "By their fruits you will know them." That, of course, is true of all of us. It is surely the direction a mature assessment of the new pope (and the trajectory of his Church) will need to move in, beyond the "instant reactions" and judgements based as much on what we want to hear as on what is being said or unveiled.

* WATCH the Bloggerheads interview, Mary E. Hunt in conversation with Sarah Posner, here: http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/16257

* More on Pope Francis from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/PopeFrancis

* Background to the papal conclave: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/PapalConclave

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A member of the Scottish Episcopal Church with strong Anabaptist/Mennonite leanings, he has worked at a Catholic university college in the past, as well as within the ecumenical movement. He has a long-standing interest in, and appreciation for, Catholic spirituality and liturgy, alongside the peace and justice traditions of the Catholic Church.

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