It is usually not a promising sign, when attending an event to discuss the Pope and public policy, to find that the average age of those in attendance is about 62. One could almost hear the faint clatter of tambourines being stuffed into PBS tote bags as the attendees filed into Gaston Hall at Georgetown University, my alma mater. One could also have spent hours playing that classic Post-Vatican II spotting game, “heterodox nun, or feminist liberation theologian?” Still, unlike when President Obama last spoke there, Georgetown decided not to cover up the cross and “IHS” monogram on the proscenium, and that is to their credit.
Last evening’s gathering, “The Pope, Politics and Policy” to discuss what has become known as “The Pope Francis Effect”, was sponsored by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Moderated by the Initiative’s director, John Carr, the panel discussion featured John Allen of the Boston Globe, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, and Kerry Robinson of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. I was unsure before the evening began as to why Ms. Robinson was put on the panel, given that a third journalist or an academic would have made more sense in the context of the discussion. After the event ended, I remained unsure as to why she had been put on the panel, since she contributed nothing of any interest to the discussion. So we shall have to leave that to the ages.
Although billed as a discussion of the new Pope’s effect on public policy and politics, the most interesting comments of the evening were Mr. Allen’s, with respect to understanding the differences and similarities between the present and preceding popes. On top of which, he had wonderful stories to share, like the time Pope Francis showed up early at a parish in suburban Rome, and told the parish priest he wanted to hear confessions before mass if there were any takers. The pastor then dashed into the church and grabbed 8 people, telling them: “You’re going to confession. Now.”
Perhaps the most salient point made by Mr. Allen was his observation on why Pope Francis is receiving a different media reception than did his predecessor. Whereas for the media Pope Francis was basically a blank slate, Pope Benedict XVI was thought to be a known quantity. Joseph Ratzinger was “Der Panzer-Cardinal”, “God’s Rottweiler”, and so on, and the coverage he received from the mainstream media was tailored to that narrative. For example, even though as is now well-known, Pope Francis paid his own hotel bill and thanked all the staff after his election, no one talked about how Pope Benedict went back to his apartment, alone, after he was elected, packed his own bag, and went around thanking the neighbors for their service.
In another example, Mr. Allen pointed to a visit Pope Benedict made to Brazil back in 2007, which he himself also attended. As the reader is probably well-aware, Pope Francis incurred the ire of certain conservatives as a result of some of his statements on the evils of putting profits ahead of people. Yet back in 2008, the supposedly ultra-right-wing Pope Benedict gave a speech in Brazil railing against unregulated capitalism in no uncertain terms, a speech Mr. Allen described as making Pope Francis look like “milquetoast” by comparison, which was largely ignored.
During one of his responses to the questions posed during the evening, Mr. Douthat addressed an issue which I myself raised on the Catholic Weekend show this past Saturday: at what point will the media turn on Pope Francis? It is likely, as Mr. Douthat pointed out, that at some point the narrative will change, and the media will decide that Pope Francis has somehow failed to live up to their expectations. There will no doubt be great wailing and gnashing of teeth at The Grey Lady, and elsewhere, once the honeymoon is over, yet this is an almost inevitable result, due to the nature of present-day media coverage of world leaders, celebrities, and so on.
One cannot continue to sell copies of one’s magazine telling the same story over and over again. The press in general prefers to see a star fall from grace rather than remain on an even keel, because then they are able to sell copy on the way up, as well as copy on the way down. Thus, the only reason Pope Francis is on the cover of Rolling Stone this month, in an article which even Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, had to decry as being “superficial” and of “surprising crudeness”, is because the Pope has been on every other magazine cover, and Rolling Stone needs to sell copies. A year, perhaps two years from now, Mr. Douthat wondered, what sort of cover stories will we see from these same publications?
By way of conclusion, it was clear that the general tone of the evening was agreement on a single point: the widespread interest in this pope is a good thing, and not just for making people reconsider what they may previously had thought about Catholicism. As Mr. Allen noted, some of the cardinals might, privately, if pressed, express a bit of surprise that Pope Francis is not quite as conservative as they had thought him to be, at least on liturgical matters. However, his election has changed things for the better for many of them, when it comes to doing their duties at home.
Now, when the cardinals visit parishes or attend functions, people approach them not in anger over the sexual abuse or banking scandals, but to tell them how they are fascinated by the new pope. It allows the cardinals some breathing space, and this, hopefully, will give them the time they need to think about what direction the Church is headed in, rather than being chained forever to answering for the mistakes of the past. In the end, perhaps that respite, that time for prayer and reflection, and whatever results from it, will turn out to be the real “Pope Francis Effect”.