Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The New York Times on this papacy: confused yet revealing

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 30, 2018

An April 28 report in the New York Times, entitled Pope Francis in the Wilderness, presents what seems at first a puzzling perspective on the papacy, but actually reveals a great deal about how the secular media see the Catholic Church.

Right from the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis became a “global force in geopolitics,” writes reporter Jason Horowitz. But recently the Pope’s power has ebbed, he suggests:

Today, Francis is increasingly embattled. The political climate has shifted abruptly around the world, empowering populists and nationalists who oppose much of what he stands for.

Do you see what’s happening here? The Times account has focused on the geopolitical power of the papacy. So any resistance that the Pontiff encounters must perforce be seen as political resistance. “Within the Church, Francis, a Jesuit, has been assailed by conservatives,” Horowitz reports. But what constitutes a “conservative,” for purposes of this discussion? In his somewhat confused explanation of the Pope’s declining popularity, Horowitz quotes Henry Sire, the author of Dictator Pope—who, to the best of my knowledge, is neither a populist nor a nationalist. I was chagrined, I admit, that the Times did not mention my own book, Lost Shepherd, but no one who knows me would mistake me for a nationalist or a populist, either.

Finally, in the 20th paragraph of his story, Horowitz offers a different, non-political perspective on his topic:

But the main rallying point for conservatives has been the doctrinal opposition to the pope’s exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which contained a footnote that seemed to open the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive holy communion.

Exactly. The major sources of tension in this papacy have been doctrinal, not political. Donald Trump has not offered any comment on Amoris Laetitia (and his own personal history suggests that he would more likely sympathize with the Pontiff than with his critics); Trump’s hyperactive Twitter account is silent on the question of whether hell exists. It’s not all about politics.

The Times cites Joshua McElwee, a reporter for the radical-left National Catholic Reporter, to advance a claim that the Pope “appears to be winning the battle with his conservative critics.” That argument appears to contradict the analysis that appeared at the top of the column: the report that the Pope “is increasingly embattled.” It’s fascinating to see how McElwee explains his view: “He is one of the last monarchs in the world…“ Thus the proponent of the open, democratic, decentralized Church concludes that the Pope is winning the argument because he has the power to overcome resistance. Once again, political clout rules the day.

Yet still the Times is not convinced that Pope Francis is winning his battles within the Church. So the story leaves the last word to the Pontiff himself, noting that a prophetic voice often faces resistance: “Sometimes truth is not easy to listen to.”

Ironically it is precisely on questions involving truth—immutable truths of Catholic doctrine—that the Pontiff has caused the greatest controversy. At the Chrism Mass this year, Pope Francis cautioned the clergy of the Rome diocese against “the temptation of making idols of certain abstract truths.” That sort of statement certainly does make truth harder to listen to.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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