Today the CNN Belief Blog announced the triumph of Pope Francis yet again. Only this time, it was something even less significant than winning the internet. Today I learned from multiple sources that lots of American Catholics* like Pope Francis. According to the information in the article, his popularity may be higher than Pope John Paul II, which was pretty high before the sex abuse scandals came to light and it was seen how badly they were handled.
At the end of the article, Daniel Burke points out that we don’t know how long this popularity will last. Fortunately, he holds the answer in his hands, as do all the journalists covering religion in American media outlets. The American media outlets are the filter for the information about the Pope that reaches most American Catholics*. They get to choose what gets reported and how the issues are framed. In effect, they are the ones deciding how popular the Pope will be among American Catholics* who don’t often read primary sources, which is probably most of them.
Thus far, they have decided that Pope Francis will be very popular indeed by marketing an overarching narrative of his Papacy as a reform of the Catholic Church, something which has been much anticipated for many decades. A quick Google search makes this obvious. A search using the terms “Pope Benedict” AND reform netted about 2,600,000 results, showing relatively few entries from major American news outlets. A search using the terms “Pope Francis” AND reform netted about 27,500,000 results, showing a plethora of entries from major American news outlets. 10 times the results and a much larger presence for major America media outlets? What a coincidence, right?
All this despite the fact that Pope Benedict was explicitly engaged in a “Reform of the Reform” with regard to the post conciliar Church. One would think that the Pope who did things like send the first Papal Tweet, meet personally with sex abuse victims, had a phone call with astronauts, got positive results in improving relations between Christians and Jews, made headlines with his comments about a legitimate use for condoms, made repeated attempts to foster peace in dialogue and cooperation with Muslims, urged improvements in the treatment of women, and has moved more aggressively against abusers than his predecessor and expedited the defrocking of abusive priests before he was even Pope… would get more attention for reform than his successor, who has so far started a commission on dealing with sex abuse and made no statements nearly as substantively controversial as Benedict’s statements regarding condoms.
None of that matters, of course, because the dominant narrative of Pope Francis as the vibrant reformer and Pope Benedict as the stodgy doctrinal hardliner are much more marketable narratives which grab our emotional attention and satisfy our childish need to see the world in terms of the good guys and the bad guys, the progressives and the conservatives, the capitalists and the socialists.
Merry Christmas, American Catholics*! Your major media outlets have given you a popular Pope this year. Enjoy it while it lasts.
*Catholics in this context is intended to refer to people who identify as Catholic regardless of whether they are in full communion with the Church in terms of doctrine or practice.