Two days ago at the Divine Word Seminary in cool, lofty Tagaytay, dozens of priests, seminarians and nuns, two bishops, and one cardinal heard a talk that ought to have been broadcast to Filipino Catholics nationwide on Radio Veritas: veteran Vatican journalist John Allen Jr.’s 90-minute remarks and open forum on Pope Francis and the immense transformation he has undertaken in the Catholic Church.
Next week, my three-part article will present key insights from the morning discussion and afternoon press conference, which were part of the SVD religious order’s celebration of its seminary’s half-century in the Philippines.
Among the coming column topics: the three major tenets of Francis’s Papacy, the four endearing traits he shares with Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, and the Church’s likely directions in such issues as the family, celibacy, women priests, and international politics.
Plus how Filipino Catholics, especially the planet-wide diaspora of priests and laity, are shaping the future of Catholicism. (Not-so-trivia in Allen’s latest Boston Globe column “All Things Catholic”: There are 1.5 million Catholics among Saudi Arabia’s 29 million people — one in every 20. Four-fifths of that congregation, or 1.2 million faithful, are Filipinos.)
Today, however, this article ponders one insight Allen shared about the media’s excitement over the Holy Father, and why it is likely to endure. And what he said about Pope Francis could very well apply to President Benigno Aquino 3rd.
The narrative’s the thing
In his talk, Allen highlighted as Francis’s biggest achievement in his first year as pope the 360-degree swing in the way public and press see the Pope and the Church.
For at least a decade, this “narrative”, as Allen calls it, was about the scandalous, nasty aspects of Catholicism. Before Francis, whatever good things the Church and recent popes might have done, the story that media kept highlighting projected a shady, doctrinaire Vatican blocking reform while hiding clergy abuse and financial sleaze.
That narrative got even more negative under Benedict XVI, whose past position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cemented the media’s view of him as the top dogma policeman. In 2000, Allen himself wrote a book on then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger calling him “The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith.”
As a result, even when Benedict advanced reform, as he did in revising Canon Law to tighten clergy discipline, the media stuck to its well-worn story. Nor did his healing dialogue with clergy abuse victims in the US in 2008 do much to improve his image.
Once the press has invested in a particular narrative, Allen explained, it hates to change it. Apart from having to, in effect, admit it was wrong, the media would need to recast the perspectives not only of its staff, but also its readers and viewers, who presumably like its coverage partly because they agree with its narratives.
Bergoglio and Aquino: No baggage
Fast-forward to March 2013: Pope Francis disarms the world when the former Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio faces the teeming multitude at Saint Peter’s Basilica Square in unadorned white attire, and asks for the faithful’s blessing.
More humble gestures follow: paying his Vatican hotel bill, riding with cardinals in a bus, personally calling nobodies in Rome and Buenos Aires, and washing the feet of convicts, including two Muslims, on Holy Thursday. He moves into a hostel for visiting clergy which doesn’t even have central heating, instead of the plush papal apartments, and rides a 30-year-old Renault rather than the Mercedes papal limo.
Suddenly, Allen recounts, the narrative on the Church is recast from autocracy and scandal to that of an unpretentious man of the people preaching God’s mercy and embracing the poor. It helped, Allen says, that Francis had no baggage burdening him from the past. Not to mention, one might add, the perceived contrasts between him and Benedict, which media played up, sometimes to denigrate the German Pope Emeritus.
Aquino too benefited from being little known till his widely beloved mother died nine months before the May 2010 election. The interment projected him as a grieving, dutiful son; and media was keen to portray him as potential successor to the unpopular Gloria Arroyo who would address corruption issues dogging her administration. Aquino’s campaign capitalized on that perception of an honest leader cleaning up graft, and he buttressed the image with his moves to eschew vehicle sirens, set up a commission to probe Arroyo-era sleaze, dismiss her “midnight appointees,” and eventually oust the Ombudsman and the Chief Justice for allegedly favoring her.
Mainstream media supported this narrative, even when Aquino was quick to defend his allies against charges, rather than investigating them.
The persistence of perception
Allen believes the Francis narrative will likely last, for the same reason that Benedict’s unflattering portrayal persists. Apart from not wanting to change its tune, the media also gains from having a celebrity pope whose every word and action gets people buying papers, tuning in, and logging on. Nor is the world willing to admit that it was hoodwinked into believing a false image of Francis.
Not that the people’s Pope is fake. Far from it: Francis is delivering on reform. He has opened Vatican finances to external audit and created the Council for the Economy to oversee it. He walked his talk on a greater role for the laity by appointing seven of them to the new council, the first policy-making Vatican entity to include laymen. He has stressed the imperative of mercy for sinners, not condemnation. And the Holy Father has affirmed his avowed collegial style by letting cardinals openly debate major issues.
Judging from surveys, Aquino’s anti-graft image is largely holding up as well, despite the tripling of pork barrel and smuggling under his watch, the almost-exclusive focus of his anti-corruption campaign on the opposition, and the breaking of his election promise to prioritize the Freedom of Information Bill. Mainstream media has largely gone along, not even pressing the President to have his own pork barrel releases as a senator audited and made public, along with disbursements during his term.
Plainly, when media and masa embrace a narrative, they find it very hard to let go.
Even when the emperor clearly has no clothes.