It is fascinating to watch the mainstream media create a narrative around Pope Francis that they hope will set the tone for his upcoming visit to the United States.
The latest effort in this regard—an essay by Paul Vallely in New York magazine—fashions the Pope as a scheming liberal political strategist, outmaneuvering his conservative adversaries through a series of calculated subterfuges. Vallely variously describes Francis as “shrewd,” “sophisticated,” “diplomatic,” “crafty,” “subtle,” and, of course, “wily.”
Vallely’s endeavor follows on the heels of other failed attempts to coopt the Pope, such as the ridiculous Washington Post article pitting the supposedly liberal Francis against a sour group of disenfranchised conservatives, or the Politico piece that called Francis the “anti-Donald Trump.”
Like most pundits, Vallely sees the Pope through the prism of American political categories, transposing labels of “conservative” and “liberal” to an ecclesial context foreign to U.S. culture wars. He calls the Pope a “centrist,” placing him in the crosshairs of a cohort of scary conservatives anxious to see him fail.
For instance, Vallely says that Francis “inherited a Roman hierarchy that was staunchly conservative,” an entirely meaningless phrase, except to try to create a perception of distance between Francis and his predecessors. The author claims that under Francis “love and inclusion now come before judgment and condemnation.” Relying on his readers’ collective historical ignorance, Vallely omits the fact that early in his pontificate Pope John Paul II penned an entire encyclical letter on the mercy of God—Dives in Misericordia—and that Pope Benedict’s first encyclical letter was on God’s love—Deus Caritas Est. For Christians, love and inclusion have always come before judgment and condemnation.
Vallely says that, until Francis said “Who am I to judge?”, the Church “did judge,” decreeing gay sex “intrinsically disordered.” But if this is judging, Francis is just as guilty of it as any of his predecessors. Francis, too, believes that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered. This is the man who said that same-sex marriage would “gravely wound the family” and that an attempt to legalize it was “an attempt to destroy God’s plan” inspired by “the envy of the devil.” Efforts to pass gay marriage, he said, are “a move by the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
Like any good Christian, however, the Pope is able to distinguish between sin and the sinner, judging sin while simultaneously withholding judgment on the sinner—a distinction that apparently eludes Vallely and his ilk.
Unable to take the Pope’s honest pastoral efforts at face value, Vallely attributes them to political craftiness, as if nothing could simply be what it seems. So when the Pope announced that during the upcoming Jubilee Year priests would be able to absolve women who have had an abortion, Vallely claims Francis had to include “all manner of caveats to keep the conservatives from protesting,” such as that “the woman had to be contrite,” a move that Vallely describes as “revolutionary.”
The “conservatives” Vallely conjures up to protest absolution for women who have aborted simply do not exist; they are the product of his overactive imagination. For example, all the priests in the archdiocese of Philadelphia—run by Archbishop Charles Chaput, described by Vallely as the “ideological leader of the Church’s U.S. conservatives”—already have the faculty to absolve women from the sin of abortion, long before the Pope’s announcement. Also, for the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II himself declared that all priests in the Church could absolve this sin, which makes Francis’ declaration more traditional than “revolutionary.”
Moreover, the “caveat” that a person who had an abortion would have to be sorry to be forgiven is no concession to plotting conservatives, but the most ordinary condition for the Sacrament of Penance. It’s really simple. No contrition, no forgiveness. To make this into a political ploy on Francis’ part is to engage in the most ludicrous act of yarn spinning.
Thankfully, Americans do not need to rely on the scripts offered by the mainstream media to size up Pope Francis. When the Pontiff comes to the United States later this month, Americans will be able to see him for what he is.
Words unlikely to come to anyone’s mind? “Shrewd,” “sophisticated,” “diplomatic,” “crafty,” “subtle,” or “wily.”
What they will see is a sincerely believing Christian who cares deeply about people and wishes to ignite in the heart of every man, woman, and child the fire of God’s love.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.