Among its many splendors, a papal conclave affords a refreshingly unguarded window into the media’s parochial view of the larger world.
This time around the pre-conclave press saw a series of pieces suggesting that two American cardinals were seriously being considered as papable. (With all due respect to Cardinals Dolan and O’Malley, they had only a slightly better chance of being elected pope than The Scrapbook did.) Then there was the line of thinking that sees the church as just another political organization in need of diversity training, typified by a Washington Post piece headlined, “Has the time come for a pope of color?”
When Catholicism’s cardinals meet in the Sistine Chapel to select a new pope, they will be surrounded by an explosion of divine artistic images in one of the most famous places on Earth to seek the face of God.
And pretty much all they will see when they look on the walls and ceilings are white faces—of Jesus, Mary, God, Adam, Eve, angels, prophets. That will also largely be true when they lower their eyes and look at one another. . . .
After centuries and centuries of white European popes, a developing-world pope could further alter the modern concept of Christianity, and by extension the modern concept and geopolitical tilt of power.
In conversations, comparisons to Barack Obama’s election as the United States’ first black president readily arise.
After Francis’s election there was more of the inanity of treating a conclave as a party convention. The New York Times reported that in his native Argentina Francis was viewed suspiciously because of his “hard-line conservative views on a range of issues, including gay rights and artistic expression.” The Times then dutifully procured quotes from the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals and a “conceptual artist.” It wasn’t clear from the Times’s reporting if either of these critics was actually Catholic, but kudos to them for finding two Argentinians who weren’t ecstatic about their new pope. Who says investigative reporting is dead?
The media’s obsession with the Catholic church’s stance on gay marriage was on display all week. Of the 14 stories the Times ran about Francis, 5 mentioned gay rights. The Washington Post brought up the subject in 4 of the 13 pieces it ran on the new pope. Other major papers had similar ratios. It’s not clear why the secular press cares so much about whether the Catholic church permits same-sex marriage—what’s it to them? But boy, do they care.
Of course, it wasn’t just the major media that covered themselves in provincialism last week. The New Republic kicked off its coverage with a piece by an honest-to-goodness professional Catholic journalist: National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters. Mere hours before Francis was elected, Winters wrote a piece explaining why “White Smoke Is Good News for Cardinal Scola,” in which he went on to handicap the conclave and explain how the chances for several cardinals would grow or diminish as the conclave wore on. Funnily enough, Winters did not even mention Bergoglio’s name.
After Bergoglio was announced, Winters wrote another piece defending the new pope by insisting that, whatever his shortcomings, at least Bergoglio had never been a “neo-con capitalist” or followed the “neo-con American Catholics.” It wasn’t quite clear what Winters meant by this—in no sense of the term, traditional or post-9/11, does “neoconservatism” really exist within the Catholic hierarchy. And as far as free-marketeering goes, even the church’s supposed “hardliners”—such as Popes John Paul II and Benedict—have always been deeply critical of what they saw as the inherent moral limits of capitalism. And for that -matter, “neo-con capitalist” doesn’t even make sense outside the church: Actual neoconservatives have never been a prize breed of running-dog capitalist. (Winters may want to consult Irving Kristol’s canonical text, “Two Cheers for Capitalism.”) In the end, Winters’s defense of Francis makes sense only if “neo-con” is shorthand for “something I do not like.”
Like the secular journalists writing about Pope Francis, Winters seemed less interested in telling readers about Pope Francis than in telling them about himself.
Comparing the election of a pope to the election of Barack Obama; defending the pope from being a “neo-con”; attacking him for being hostile to gay marriage—it’s all of a piece. It’s a way for reporters to make sure that even in the context of “reporting” on religious news, their readers understand whose side they’re really on.