Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Pope Francis is a PR dream: World's new pin-up or a Pope fiction?

People's Pope: Francis makes a point of greeting children and kissing babies at St Peter's Square every week
Francis with a tearful boy dressed as the Pope himself
People's Pope: Francis makes a point of greeting children and kissing babies at St Peter's Square every week

Pope Francis is a PR dream; a 'pin-up' for liberals worldwide. But as his papacy reaches the one-year mark, how much of it is show and how much substance, asks Malachi O'Doherty.

Pope Francis is just the sort of change the Catholic Church needed to save itself. If, in the last days of his own reign, Benedict XVI had pulled together some of the best image manipulators in the world and asked them for a strategy to make the Church lovable again, this is what they would have come up with.

He fits with the occasional fantasy in literature and cinema of a pope who is actually saintly, actually Christian in his humility. Charles Saatchi and Alastair Campbell banging their heads together couldn't have come up with anything better.

He is a sinner, too, a repentant one. And he's lovely, with his chubby cheeks and his granda manner. He's not at all like his predecessor; that reptilian creep with his sharp temper, his impossible ideals and his presumption of royal distance.

Much of the world's media has fallen for Francis. Jonathan Freedland, in the Guardian, said in November that, with Barack Obama's image fading, Francis could be the new 'pin-up' for the world's liberals and progressives.

And if his travelling in a Ford Focus, carrying his own suitcase and kissing sick people is all just the product of professional image-making, then, says Freedland, "they convey a powerful message, one of almost elemental egalitarianism".

Benedict draped himself in ermine and jewellery. So, indeed, did John XXIII, the Pope who ushered in the reforms of Vatican Two. It was John who inspired fiction like The Shoes of the Fisherman, the story of a simple, decent, vulnerable man who becomes Pope.

John was clung to by liberal Catholics as the model of the type of pope that might come again, yet he didn't think of laying off the ermine and the royal trappings. Worse, he had funny ideas about the moral danger of being in the company of women. Francis is, basically, a king. His office is known within the Church as the Magisterium.

He is the trustee of the Catholic Church's stock of infallible truths about God and the life we should all live to get into Heaven.

Even if he was to walk naked through St Peter's Square, like a Jain ascetic, or a fakir, he would still be the embodiment of a collation of ideas which he understands to be unquestionable truth.

These ideas include the insight that homosexuality is an "intrinsic disorder", that babies are born with original sin, that termination of a pregnancy is a crime above all others in that it leads to automatic excommunication and a lot more. Many of these same ideas are held by other Churches, too.

He is also the head of a Church which is the custodian of the evidence of global child-abuse by priests whom the Church ordained, but which it decided, when it suited it, were not its employees.

And in what many saw as his first big gaffe as a new humble Pope, he has said that the Church has moved faster than anyone else, "with more responsibility and transparency" in dealing with the child-abuse. This isn't how the UN saw it. The United Nations agency for children's rights said the Vatican had enabled priests to rape children.

But if Francis is all image, then that still counts for a lot in a world which notices image before substance.

He hasn't changed – and probably won't change – the Church's teachings on sexuality, contraception, abortion, or the Virgin Mary, but he is saying that the messages can be delivered more humanely.

"If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?" he said on flight back from Brazil last July.

But what would that mean in practice for a gay Catholic?

Doesn't the Church always judge? Isn't that what it does when it refuses communion to sinners – people in second marriages, for instance.

The frenzy with which the media and others parsed that line seems to betray a determination to find evidence that Francis is a liberal when there isn't much else to go on.

Next month, he will officiate at a ceremony in Rome to canonise two of his predecessors. He will make it official that John XXIII and John Paul II are now in heaven and have access to God, through which they can work miracles on earth.

He will acknowledge that they have already, in fact, done so.

Also present will be Benedict XVI, the emeritus pope, the man who was architect of two papacies – John Paul's and his own – and whose own clear distance from Francis would be more reassuring.

Both men presumably do actually believe this hokum and hope to be saints themselves in their time. The more cynical will view the canonisation of popes by popes as a mechanism for preserving legacies and reputations, which are likely to be unpicked and analysed by historians of the abuse scandal and this whole period.

How will Francis conduct himself that day? He will not be able to disown the difficult predecessor; John Paul and he will surely have to deal with thousands of eager faces among the faithful, those who just know in their hearts that he is a saint, too.

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