Papal War? What Papal War?

COMMENTARY: Elements of the mainstream media have concocted a fake fight between Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict.

L to R: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have both clearly stated Church teaching on a variety of topics.
L to R: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have both clearly stated Church teaching on a variety of topics. (photo: World Meeting of Families 2012/CNA; Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

“It’s so rotten, gossip,” said Pope Francis in February 2014. “It fills the heart with bitterness and also poisons us.”

This has been a refrain throughout Francis’ papacy, as have warnings of outright “calumny.”

“Calumny comes from a very evil thing,” he said at the start of his papacy. “It is born of hatred. And hate is the work of Satan. Calumny destroys the work of God in people, in their souls.”

Francis has borrowed a more popular phrase: “fake news.” And just last week, he denounced “false news, lies that fire up the people and make them demand justice. It’s a lynching.”

I’m reminded of this as I watch an ideologically driven media stage a fight between Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict. The current fuel to try to fan a papal war are Benedict’s words in an interview with Peter Seewald. Those in the media who frame Benedict as a retrograde right-winger are using his comments to pose Benedict as the anti-Francis — the bad “traditionalist” trying to sabotage good Francis’ “progress” on issues that liberal journalists care about most, like abortion, same-sex “marriage” and homosexuality.

Such are the antics of a hostile media bent on tearing down Benedict and building up Francis for the sake of a political-cultural agenda. Much of the slanting is due to ignorance by liberal reporters who never fully understood either pope.

Here are two current examples:

Britain’s Daily Express newspaper, in an article flagged by the Drudge Report (thus generating a huge number of clicks), crafted this incendiary headline: “Pope Benedict ‘doing absolute best to sabotage Pope Francis,’ amid gay-marriage Antichrist row.” The article claims:

“The former pope … claimed that people who oppose homosexual unions in today’s world are ‘excommunicated from society.’ He said that it was ‘the same thing with abortion and creating human life in the laboratory,’ adding that it was natural for those who oppose it to be concerned about the ‘spiritual power of the Antichrist.’ ... The remarks have sparked fury among Vatican observers, who say this is the latest in a long line of passages used as an attempt to curb Pope Francis’ liberal agenda.”

The article quoted only one source — Lynda Telford, the author of a book called Women of the Vatican: Female Power in a Male World, who deplored to the Express that she “pitied Francis deeply” after reading Benedict’s words. She leveled a striking charge at the pope emeritus:

“Benedict’s doing his absolute best to sabotage all the reforms that Francis is trying to bring in. Divorce reforms (so divorced people can take Sacrament[sic]), reaching out to LGBT people, contraception, the lot.” She added: “Benedict has no right to interfere. Putting him under the same roof as Francis, so he’s never free of him, is appalling.”

The article contended:

“As Francis embarked on a journey to revitalize the Vatican and draw new worshippers to the church, some experts have said that Benedict is still attempting to use his power to ensure his traditional principles remain. In the newly published book, Benedict attempted to smooth these allegations by saying his friendship with Francis had ‘not only endured but grown.’ His comments on gay marriage and abortion, however, left many feeling like an attack on the liberalism Francis is trying to install.”

And what does Pope Francis believe about these issues? The Express offered only two quotes from the totality of Francis’ seven-year papacy:

“Previously, Pope Francis has spoken out in support of welcoming those in the LGBT community to the Catholic faith. In the year he was chosen to replace Benedict, Francis said that the ‘key for the Church is to welcome, not exclude.’ He added: ‘If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?’”

The piece ends there, with a breathtakingly selective and grossly ignorant presentation of Francis’ numerous statements on these issues.

The Express is far from alone. The news agency AFP, in a report circulated by Yahoo News, claimed: “Traditionalist former pope Benedict XVI accuses opponents of wanting to ‘silence’ him while associating gay marriage with ‘the Antichrist’ and attacking ‘humanist ideologies’ in a new authorized biography.” AFP also took a shot at Cardinal Robert Sarah:

“Some observers had accused the former pope of back-seat driving when a book defending the hot topic of priestly celibacy appeared, bearing his name alongside that of arch-conservative Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah. … [H]e has not given up intervening in social debates, offering a fresh blast against gay marriage in the new biography.”


Two Popes, One Teaching

Note the narrative: These media sources portray Benedict’s views on abortion, same-sex “marriage” and homosexuality as completely contrary to Francis in belief and tone. In truth, they’re fully in sync. Francis has been remarkably consistent in opposing abortion, same-sex “marriage” and homosexuality. Sure, he has talked about not judging and loving (as has Benedict), but he still has been critical. A year ago, I wrote a 5,600-word piece for Crisis magazine laying out Francis’ lengthy record on these issues — a catalogue of statements to make liberals scream. I will not reiterate that catalogue here, but consider a few telling examples:

As for abortion, Francis has equated it to Nazi eugenics with white gloves. “The entire world was scandalized over what the Nazis were doing to maintain the purity of the race,” he said in June 2018. “Today we do the same thing, but with white gloves.”

Pope Francis also compared abortion to hiring a hit man. “Is it right to hire a hit man to solve a problem?” asked Francis in October 2018. “You cannot … it is not right to kill a human being, regardless of how small it is, to solve a problem. It is like hiring a hit man.”

That’s far more provocative than anything that Pope Benedict said about abortion.

As for homosexuality, Francis is careful not to make homosexuals feel unwelcome, but he’s also careful about not welcoming them into places like the seminary. In May 2018, he warned Italian bishops: “If there’s a doubt about homosexuality, it’s better not to have them enter the seminary. If you think that the guy is homosexual, don’t put him in the seminary.”

When it comes to same-sex “marriage,” Frances thundered: “It is not marriage!” Before an audience of 7,500 at Pope Paul VI Hall on Oct. 25, 2014, Francis remonstrated: “What they are proposing is not marriage. It is an association, but it is not marriage! It is necessary to say things very clearly and we must say this!”

He has said this emphatically and frequently. “The family is hit!” Francis shouted. “The family is knocked and the family is debased. … Can everything be called a family? How … much relativism there is in the concept of the sacrament of marriage!” The Holy Father condemned the “new forms, totally destructive” of marriage.

Ever since same-sex “marriage” came on his radar, Francis has blasted the concept. In 2010, when he was a cardinal in Argentina, he declared same-sex “marriage” a diabolical effort of “the father of lies.” He was responding to an effort by Argentinian leftist lawmakers to legalize same-sex “marriage.” He stated flatly, “Let us not be naïve. This is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

As to “gay couples” adopting children, he condemned that notion, as well, stating that it would target “the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”

He has reiterated that same position on adoption as pope. In November 2017, Francis insisted that “children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.” He had said the same in November 2014 at the Vatican’s three-day interfaith colloquium on “The Complementarity of Man and Woman,” among other occasions.

Those are merely examples on abortion, marriage and homosexuality. If Francis’ liberal admirers would read more deeply, they would be apoplectic over his fulminations against gender theory, which he has called “demonic,” comparable to “the educational policies of Hitler” and the “doctrine” of “the Hitler Youth,” to fascist youth groups in Mussolini’s Italy, and to “nuclear arms.”

“Today, in schools they are teaching this to children — to children! — that everyone can choose their gender,” Francis has protested. “This is terrible!”

Francis is no fan of transgenderism. Remember headlines like this one from February 2015? “Pope Francis Compares Transgender People to Nuclear Weapons.”

Francis has openly complained: “Behind all this we find gender ideology. In books, kids learn that it’s possible to change one’s sex. Could gender, to be a woman or to be a man, be an option and not a fact of nature?”

Many of these things Francis has not hesitated to describe as literally Satanic. His words have been much more strident than anything Benedict said.


Real Fake News

And yet, liberal journalists are either unaware of these statements or willfully ignore them in order to foment a false dichotomy between the two popes and further an ideological agenda. The childish games that some reporters engage in smacks of Francis’ November 2013 warning of “adolescent progressivism.”

In my experience, most of this poor journalism is based not on willful malice but on ignorance by people who read only sources they agree with. They are unaware of the other side because they’re closed-minded to beliefs they don’t want to even consider. The result: false narratives, fake news and, now, a fake fight between two popes who, in reality, like and treat one another with respect.

In February 2018, Francis condemned “fake news,” calling it a “sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes” that “leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred.” This, too, he grimly warned, is the work of the “crafty serpent.”

The ongoing effort by liberal reporters to appropriate Francis as “one of them” — a fellow traveler in progressivism — and shape their enemy Benedict as Francis’ enemy is wrong. To borrow another Francis phrase, they are “ideologizing” the relationship between the two popes to advance a political-cultural agenda. It is divisive, it is rotten, and it should stop.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

His books include A Pope and a President, The Divine Plan and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism.