The PR Pope: The Media Finally Sees Francis for Who He Really Is

A senior bishop from Malta has said that Pope Francis was “shocked” by an initiative to let same-sex couples adopt, and at last the media sees through its own hype to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis for the conservative he has always been.

Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who has reportedly been very busy over the festive season writing to many of Malta’s MPs so he could rally against a gay civil unions bill, used his Christmas sermon to continue his attack on gay rights and specifically a portion of reform legislation that would allow same-sex couples in Malta to adopt.

Scicluna reportedly told his congregation that Jesus was raised by a man and a woman, and not by two men or two women. Therefore, and to paraphrase, what’s good enough for Jesus is more than enough for us.

Is it too on the nose to bring up Jesus’ two dads, the Immaculate Conception or any of the other transmundane and off the beaten path of so-called “tradition sexuality” issues surrounding Jesus’ purported coming into the world? Apparently Scicluna decided to gloss over those, though. Go figure.

As is now pleasingly common, Scicluna faced a backlash — even among some Catholics — for what was perceived as his uncharitable politicking on what is supposed to be an occasion of peace and good will. To defend himself, Scicluna employed logical fallacy by appealing to authority: namely, the authority of the TIME and the Advocate’s person of the year, Pope Francis.

Scicluna told The Sunday Times of Malta that he’d met Pope Francis on December 12, whereupon they had a good old natter about his controversial sermon. What was the Pope’s verdict on the new Maltese law to grant same-sex parent adoption equality? “Shocked,” says Scicluna.

“When I raised the issue that’s worrying me as a bishop [gay adoption] he encouraged me to speak out,” said Bishop Scicluna.

Holy See, Batman!  The media went into meltdown about this story. “Pope Francis ‘Shocked’ by Gay Adoption!” the breathless headlines read, and it’s not hard to see why this is causing a fair bit of hand-wringing. How does the media’s painting of Pope Francis as the great reformer stand up now? For a mainstream press that has spent the better part of a full year elevating Francis to near Sainthood, this indeed must come as quite a shock.

Except that it shouldn’t. Let’s be clear here: these comments are secondhand, and there’s been no official word from the Vatican that Pope Francis has admitted to saying them. That caveat out of the way, the remarks do give us a much needed opportunity for a trip down memory boulevard.

Before he was a media darling, Pope Francis was archbishop of Buenos Aires as the then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. During his tenure as Cardinal, Argentina gilded the pride flag and raised it high with a sweeping marriage equality bill that made Argentina the first country in Latin America to recognize the marriage rights of its same-sex couples. Yet, Bergoglio fought hard against the bill and used every “Think of the Children” technique he could.

“The Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family,” he is reported to have written to the four monasteries in Argentina. “At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”

He also went on to say the marriage equality effort was Devil-sent, alluding to it being an attempt by the “Father of Lies” who, he said, wanted to “deceive” the “children of God.”

The then Cardinal did make a bit of a conciliatory effort though, and begrudgingly supported civil unions (minus adoption rights) as the lesser of two evils.

Ah, but that was when our now Pope Francis was a Cardinal. Has he not changed his spots? Aren’t his comments, that for instance he does not think gay men in the priesthood should be condemned, enough to convince us that he’s backing a new, gentler tone?

If tone was all that mattered, certainly we’d have to say that Pope Francis is positively charming when compared to the always grave Pope Benedict XVI who, let’s not forgot, regularly implied gay people were not fully developed humans.

Yet tone isn’t all that matters. The substance behind Pope Francis’ words are crucial, and the media has routinely turned its eyes away from seeing the obvious: Pope Francis is a PR Pope. Dig down into what he’s actually saying, and sparing a bit of sugar it’s much the same as it was under Benedict XVI’s tenure.

For instance, and citing a document that wasn’t widely publicized in the mainstream press, the Vatican recently released the Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), what’s referred to as an apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis in which he touches on a variety of issues, including same-sex marriage:

(66.) The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children. Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. But the indispensible [sic] contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple. As the French bishops have taught, it is not born “of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of the obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life”.

And on abortion access:

(213.) Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual”

As an even more recent example of Pope Francis’ conservative credentials, he is known to be supporting an effort in Spain that would severely restrict abortion access. As Francis writes later in the Evangelii Gaudium, while echoing Pope John Paul II,: “I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations.’ It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”

So while the media’s been busy lionizing Pope Francis, made weak in the knees by his shunning chauffeur driven cars and his message that the Church must embrace asceticism, the Vatican has been grinding on in largely the same way as it always has, opposing change and using scurrilous memes that aim to deprive gay people and women of their rights.

It’s not that Francis isn’t doing good; certainly his focus on helping the poor is laudable (though again actions more than words are what is needed), it’s that it was about time the polish came off and we got a better measure of the man for all that he is. Whether the media will attempt to remake their hero and smooth over this little blip is unclear. The thing is, and something our media-friendly Pope should reflect on with caution, as much as the media loves a hero, they absolutely adore a fall from grace.

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales).


David Casker
David Casker4 years ago

Sorry -- I went on too long and got cut off.

Third, let's look at what Francis has actually DONE in less than a year in office: he has reformed the extremely corrupt Vatican bank; he has removed zealots from positions of power and replaced them with moderates. He has instructed people to "back off" on obsession with sexual matters, and concentrate on the true message of the gospel, which is not sexually-obsessed at all, but actually pretty much against unrestrained capitalism, which inevitably exacerbates poverty and related ills.

The fact is that in many cleric's eyes, "marriage" is the sacramental -- not just legal -- authorization of sex. And sex HAS to be potentially procreative. So opposing "gay marriage" is consistent with that dogma, whether you or I like it or not. (And I speak here as a gay man.)

But to write this Pope off as "the PR Pope" is simplistic and unfair.

David Casker
David Casker4 years ago

I have waited some time before responding to this post. It offended me on first impression, because 1) it seemed to take the word of one bishop from Malta as somehow definitive of this papacy, and 2) it seemed to assume that a truly sincere Pope would overturn fundamental Catholic doctrine within 10 months, if ever. First, let me say that going off on hearsay "evidence" is not intellectually sound, unless you have a whole lot of corroborating evidence. Hearsay is just that. So to the extent that a Maltese bishop says something, we're going to take that as somehow definitive and conclusive? Give me a break. Second, Catholic dogma states that all "non-procreative" sex -- that is sexual acts that are not capable of pregnancy -- is a sin. That includes masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, use of contraceptives of any sort, etc. This Pope has effectively said that the Church should not change dogma in that regard, but should stop obsessing about it. Good?? Sure. If you don't like that teaching, don't be a Catholic. Or if you are a Catholic, wiggle your way around it. Every 15 year-old Catholic boy is for sure going to hell if you take it at face value. But if you expect Frances to simply overturn that doctrine in one fell swoop, you certainly need to get a grip. Third, let's look at what Francis has actually DONE in less than a year in office: he has reformed the extremely corrupt Vatican bank; he has removed zealots from positions of power and replaced them with mode

Wisteria K.
Past Member 4 years ago

Is this a critic of the pope, the Catholic Church, Christianity or what?

Kamran Ather
Kamran Ather4 years ago



Lynda W.
Lynda W4 years ago

This is the first Pope I feel that is true to the teaching of Christ and his church, refreshing to see and badly needed.

Elizabeth Csicsery-Ronay

Scott, there are a number of things in your messag that leave me dumbfounded. What do you mean about the "supposed Holocaust." What "failed Holocaust of 1919"? Mother Teresa did not go to India to convert, but to help the sick and dying that nobody else cared about. It is not true that the Catholic church does not care about the poor. It has and it does, only recently it has been taken over by the dogmatic and conservative ideologues who have focussed on sexual issues, like divorce, contraception, abortion, celibacy, etc. that have distorted their message. This pope is restoring the focus on the poor, following St. Francis of Assisi, a true saint.

Of course, the bible is poetry and not fact.

And atheists have arguably done more damage, see Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. etc. than religion. I live in a country that had horrible experiences with atheistic Communism that persecuted pirests and religious people, killing them, putting them into labor camps, etc. etc. So don't tell me about the virtues of atheists. I know the opposite. I tell you again, it is not religion, but human nature. Unfortunately.

Gene Jacobson
Gene J4 years ago

"Is it too on the nose to bring up Jesus’ two dads, the Immaculate Conception or any of the other transmundane and off the beaten path of so-called “tradition sexuality” issues surrounding Jesus’ purported coming into the world?"

Now that is a conundrum, isn't it? Jesus had, and was raised by, two fathers and a mother. At 12 he was found in a church doing his "father's" work, not Joseph's, he was a carpenter, so his other father then. Now, we all know conception can, and does, occur without intercourse, it happens now, it could have happened then. So what if the immaculate conception was just heavy petting? And Jesus an exceptionally gifted child? We have those today. Jesus was Jewish, he had nothing to do with the religion that sprang into being a century or two after his death and in his name. There is no evidence of any kind supporting any form of Christianity other than texts written by people who lived centuries after his death. And there are many wonderful books on the subject among them, Who Wrote The New Testament by Burton Mack, a professor of theology. So, leaving that aside, I think it too early to render judgment on this Pope's legacy, he is brand new and has said some very good things, and some I think not so good. How about we give him a chance to DO something before we elevate him to sainthood? Just saying...

Jelena Radovanovic
Past Member 4 years ago

Looks like this Pope is going to be the first one to "walk the talk". I'd like to see that.

Angela J.
Angela J4 years ago

Interesting article.

Deborah W.
Deborah W4 years ago

Francis IS RESPONSIBLE for teaching the base tenets of the Catholic Church, now and ever the same in content, HE IS NOT THE EMPOWERED JUDGE of what the masses, through their own personal free will choices, do after being so informed ... that's on them, not him.

For those who believe in the power of prayer ... the Pope's universal intention for January of 2014 is "that all may promote authentic economic development that respects the dignity of all peoples". I invite you to add your energy to this cause.