Vatican Reporter John Allen on the Francis Effect and the War on Christians
On Sunday, November 3, National Catholic Reporter Vatican correspondent and CNN analyst John L. Allen stopped by American Martyrs Catholic Church in Manhattan Beach, CA, on a lecture tour that is also promoting his most recent book, The Global War on Christians: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution.
Beforehand, Allen sat down in the church's "crying room" to talk to Breitbart about Pope Francis, and the many corners of the world where Christians worry less about threats to religious liberty and more about threats to life and limb.
On how Pope Francis has changed the global conversation about the Roman Catholic Church:
"That's a question you have to answer on multiple levels. As a media professional, I continue to be completely astonished at the way Francis has completely changed the narrative about the Catholic Church. As of March 12 (the day before Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to the papacy), I can tell you for sure that stories we were doing about the Catholic Church were sex abuse and Vatican scandal and bruising political fights. None of those things have gone away, but the narrative has completely changed.
"Today the dominant media narrative about the Catholic Church is 'rock star pope takes the world by storm,' and so, that's an astonishing thing. ...If one of the hats a pope wears is Evangelist-in-Chief, the fact that he has been so completely able to re-brand Catholicism in the media universe in a very short period of time, almost immediately, is nothing short of remarkable."
On why some in the media and elsewhere have insisted on pitting Francis against his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:
"There's this idiotic perspective that has taken shape in the media and other quarters, which basically works like this: 'Francis good; Benedict bad,' as if everything that is attractive about Francis is somehow a repudiation of Benedict, which is just nonsense."
On why the papacy didn't just discover humility in March:
"There was, of course, Benedict's almost unprecedented decision to resign that set the stage for everything we're seeing now. Beyond that, I was there two days after Benedict was elected, when he went back to his apartment, packed his own bag and carried it back to the Apostolic Palace."
"Before he did that, he went around knocking on the doors of the other four residences in his little complex to thank the nuns who did the cooking and cleaning for being such good neighbors when he had lived there. So this notion that the humility of a pope was somehow born with Francis is a little exaggerated."
On the media's need to make up for past sins by heaping praise on Francis:
"I frankly think there's some media guilt here. There is a residual understanding that we spent the last eight years beating up on the pope, and so, now that we've got a guy we can like, we really, really like him."
On the greatest potential gift of Francis' papacy:
"Objectively speaking, what's happened here is that Providence has handed us an astonishingly promising teaching moment, to reintroduce Catholicism in a positive key to the wider world. I would just hope that the kind of internal ferment that you're starting to see take shape around this pope doesn't end up derailing that momentum, and seeing it squandered in the kind of internal battles about who this pope is, and what he represents, and what we should make of it."
On Francis' appeal even to anti-Catholics:
"I just did a radio show in Alabama; I think it was some conservative Christian outfit. The guy told me, after we talked about the book, he then wanted to ask a question about the pope. So he did, and I gave him an answer. At the end of it, he said that he was an old-school, Catholic-hating Baptist. His dad wouldn't have walked across the street to spit on a Catholic church if it was on fire.
"But there's something about this pope that just turns him on. That is the quintessential Francis reaction."
On considering the source when reading about Francis in the Italian media:
"Look, Italian journalism has many strengths, but a passion for factual accuracy is not among them. It is what it is."
And on the controversial interview with Eugenio Scalfari, the atheist editor of Italian newspaper La Reppublica, which the elderly Scalfari--having neither recorded the conversation nor taken notes--recreated from memory:
"The takeaway is, the big picture is accurate. I don't think, in any fundamental way, he misrepresented the pope's thought. But I also think it's impossible to know where Francis ends and Scalfari begins, at the level of detail. I would just be very careful. I, myself, will not take any direct quotes out of that interview and present them as coming from the pope."
Regarding the ongoing reports of a "gay lobby" at the Vatican that conspires to benefit and protect its members:
"Two decades of covering the Vatican tells me that there's less there there than people want to believe."
On how the U.S. bishops view the new boss:
"My read would be that there are some who are wildly enthusiastic; there would be others who would have concerns. Most of these guys are just trying to get through the day. The fact that people seem positively inclined to the pope is a good thing in their lives. It's one less thing they have to worry about, that somebody's going to come at them with a pope gripe."
And on who's going to win this week's election for the new head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, replacing outgoing Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City:
(That would be Pennsylvania-born Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, currently the Archbishop of Louisville, Ky.)
On the persecution and murder of Christians around the world, and what impact Pope Francis can have on that:
"The election of Francis, alas, didn't fundamentally change the dynamic of the early 21st century, which is that Christians around the world are getting their teeth kicked in. Now, one would hope that the popularity and political capital of this pope provides him a platform from which to engage this issue. My suspicion would be that, as we go on, he's going to do that."
On what can be done at a grassroots level:
"We've got to steal a page from the Jewish community. If there is a swastika spray-painted on a synagogue anywhere in the world tonight, by tomorrow morning the global Jewish community will have raised holy hell about it, and God bless them for doing that. They're absolutely right to do that."
On why the mainstream media has paid little attention to the destruction of Christian churches and the murders of believers, from Nigeria to Morocco to Egypt to Syria to Pakistan to Indonesia:
"Listen, you and I are both media people; we know the power of narratives in shaping the way that we in the media approach stories. The narrative about Christianity is that it is this big, massive, rich, politically wired institution that controls everything, which makes it very hard for media people to get their minds around the idea that Christians could actually be the victims of persecution, as opposed to the inflicters of it.
"The problem with this narrative is it doesn't do justice to reality. Two-thirds of the 2.3 billion Christians in the world today live outside the West. The majority of them are poor. They are often members of ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities, so they're doubly or triply at risk. That's the reality on the ground, who Christians are today.
"So we've got to change the narrative. Once a narrative has taken hold, the hardest thing in the world to do is to dislodge it. But that's the task we're up against. The good thing about Francis is he's got a kick-ass narrative. Bear in mind what I said about changing narratives. This narrative, having been set, it's going to be very difficult to dislodge it."
On the big picture:
"The big picture would be, if you and I had opened a betting line eight months ago on the idea that, within a year, the most popular figure on the planet would be the pope of the Catholic Church, I would think the odds would have been fairly long."