Papal Bull

TIME Magazine: Sorry, but Media Coverage of Pope Francis is Papal Bull

First of all: I am not the person who made that pun. It’s a source of great sadness for me. I’m writing about the article partly because it is an interesting and uncommon take on a popular media topic, and partly because it is the closest I can come to reaching out and touching that pun. God. God.

ANYWAY. Tosummarize: That article speaks, angrily, to the tendency of media coverage of the actions of Pope Francis to forget that he is Catholic.  Let me explain.

Look– the thing about the Catholic Church is that it is Old As Balls.

credit: Kate Beaton

The Church traces its own history back multiple thousands of years. In a symbolic kind of way, it considers itself to have sprung into existence not very many years after the actual death of Christ. A lot of people have worn the Shoes of the Fisherman, and though they have, on the whole, agreed on little and brought a whole lot of their own personal bullshit into the position, they have all existed within the same vast institution.

Popes are not Presidents. Popes, for the most part, do not do many revolutionary things, and they almost never do things in contradiction of the laws of the institution in which they exist. This is something that the article has right: Media coverage of the Pope tends to forget this. The Catholic Church does not make statements unsupported by as many years of history as it has available to it. The Catholic Church sets precedents, and does not lightly abandon them. This is the strength and the terror of the Church: Its consistency; its methodical approach to communication; its deep roots, and its deeper mistrust of sudden and spontaneous change.

Many friends linked me to articles about Pope Francis declaring that God is not a magician with a magic wand. It was a good thing to hear. It was also a good thing to hear in 1950, when Pope Pius XII decided that no contradiction between Catholicism and the theory of evolution existed. It was also a good thing to hear when Pope John Paul II reaffirmed it in 1996. The TIME article is correct: That statement was far from the focus of Pope Francis’ talk, given to the Papal Academy of Sciences. …which we have, guys, we have an Academy, we– we think about science, okay, the Catholic Church has always involved itself in science, and it’s been a long damn time since we were burning people for writing about the heliocentric model–


In my opinion, the most revolutionary thing Pope Francis has done so far in his papacy has been calling the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family this year, which is examining (with the help of a WHOLE TWO MARRIED COUPLES in addition to the bishops) the ways in which modern Catholics interact with traditional Church teachings on marriage and the family. This is, in most cases, how the Church enacts revolution: By asking just one or two questions that have not been asked before, and then spending multiple years having several hundred people within the institution think about the answers in light of everything that has already been decided about it. Not by overturning its entrenched beliefs, but by allowing people, bit by bit, to change the way in which they believe them.

The most important part of that TIME article, I feel, is at the end:

[T]his furor seems to occur most often when hot-button Western political issues can be tied to the Pope’s statements—evolution, death penalty, gay marriage.

It’s true. On the one hand, the mere fact of this tendency speaks to a fascinating shift, to me: To people’s desire to see not the Pope we have, not the Church we have, but the Church and the Pope we want. On the other hand, it is… dangerous is a strong word, I think, but not necessarily an incorrect one– it is dangerous to force the Church into a role, into a belief system, other than the one that it actually has. The Church is bigger than you. It is bigger than us. It is bigger and older and rooted more deeply in itself than many countries, than many political systems, than any single person in its service, even a Pope. It needs to change! It must change. It will change. But as a Catholic who would very much like to see it change, and more quickly than it is doing: Attempting to fling a veil over it, painted in American political slogans and a big smiley face, is not the way it is going to happen.

It just looks a little like this, guys, I’m sorry.

As a Catholic, or not – understanding the Church, and where it comes from, and the unique and terrible way it makes its decisions, and the fervency with which it refuses to deviate – that is what is going to change it, in the end. Slowly. Over years. Over a long, long time, and many more Popes. This isn’t going to end with Francis – it just might be that, a century from now, we might look back and allow ourselves to believe that some of it– sort of, in a way– began with him.

I’ll end by quoting the Catechism: Part Three, Section Two, Chapter Two, Article 8, Part V, number 2496:

The means of social communication (especially the mass media) can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers of what is said or shown. Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media. They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences.

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