Pope Francis floors the media

Pope Francis meets Argentine President Cristina Kirchner (CNS)

On Wednesday evening, minutes after Habemus Papam, the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger tweeted: “Was Pope Francis an accessory to murder and false imprisonment?” Rusbridger guided his Twitter flock towards a sensational article by Hugh O’Shaughnessy, published in 2011, which accused the then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of abetting Argentina’s military dictatorship in the kidnapping and killing of Jesuit priests in the 1970s. O’Shaughnessy’s evidence was dubious, to put it mildly, and after Catholic readers cast strong doubts over his claims, the Guardian was forced to back-pedal. On Thursday, its online editors removed the key allegations against Cardinal Bergoglio from the text.

On Friday, however, the paper went back on the attack. The ever lucid Simon Jenkins produced a strangely unbalanced column about the papacy. He denounced the new Vicar of Christ for asserting “undemocratic authority over civil societies” and called Catholicism “a reactionary sect”.

It wasn’t just the Guardian, of course. Across the world, Lefty agitators have been accusing Pope Francis of having been complicit with the creepy Argentinian junta, while liberal progressives have settled for grumbling about Catholicism’s perennial failure to “move forward” on gay rights, sex and women.

At the same time the English Right-wing press has worked itself into a furious lather over the new Pope and the Falklands. A speech given by Cardinal Bergoglio last year – in which he seemed to say that the islands rightly belonged to Argentina, not us – has been seized on as proof that he is some sort of Argie-bargy nationalist with a chip on his shoulder about British colonialism. Even David Cameron felt obliged to rebut the new Pope’s so-called Falklands position last week.

There’s more than a whiff of anti-Catholic paranoia here. But Catholics should not be equally paranoid in response. Taken as a whole, on Left and Right, the press reaction to Pope Francis has been overwhelmingly positive. The stock assessment is that he’s a humble man who loves the poor, and nobody wants to argue with that. I’ve heard several commentators applaud his “good start”, as if he were a cyclist in the opening stage of the Tour de France.

According to the perverse laws of media gravity, however, Francis’s relative popularity now may work against him later. Benedict XVI was instantly caricatured as an arch-conservative, so his image could only improve. Hacks were mystified when “God’s Rottweiler” produced an encyclical called God is Love. Francis has the opposite problem. The bien pensant pundits who hail him will only be disappointed – and bitter – when he turns out to be as stubbornly opposed as his predecessors to gay marriage and condoms.

Not that Pope Francis will be thinking in such crass PR terms. He seems to take a similar line to Hugh Grant and the Hacked Off campaign as to the merits of the Fourth Estate. “Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia,” he once said, a quotation that has endeared him to just about everyone (including, bizarrely, most journalists.)

It is, of course, quite right for a man of God to show such disdain towards the wordly meedja, and the Pope should ignore those self-appointed experts who took to the airwaves last week to tell him how to fix the Church’s image and detoxify Catholicism’s global brand.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis must think seriously about how the Church can engage with this era of 24-hour news, the internet and “global interconnectivity”. Too often, Church officials have spoken of anti-Catholic bias as a way of deflecting blame and not accepting responsibility. Vatican officials dismiss sincere journalists as “enemies of the Church” just because they ask difficult questions. The clerical sex abuse scandals and the VatiLeaks affair have proved that sometimes the grubby hacks are more interested in the truth than senior figures of the Roman Curia or various representatives of the bishops’ conferences.

Let’s not be afraid of the cliché: the Church has a communications problem. The answer isn’t more “transparency”, necessarily. Transparency is a word often used to mean better spinning. Rather, the Church just needs to be open and honest. Happily, Pope Francis seems to exemplify both those

How about a first encyclical on social media? That might sound absurd. How can we expect a 76-year-old man who has hitherto shied away from interviews to wrestle with the issues surrounding instant messaging and online networking? The internet has, however, profoundly changed the human experience – it has re-ordered the way we live, work, and think about each other and ourselves. It doesn’t seem overblown to say that digital technology has altered our moral universe.

Popes are expected to address such momentous social shifts and interpret them in light of the Magisterium. Often a degree of papal detachment from the world lends weight to their pronouncements on the world. The Pope Emeritus, for instance, writes everything in longhand. Yet he was quick to note the mixed blessings of the internet. He warned young people of the dangers of confusing their virtual lives with reality, though on the plus side he observed that “the web is contributing to the development of new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons”.

Pope Francis ought to explore those horizons. He is already a step ahead of his predecessor on the technology front – he uses a typewriter. As Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, moreover, he had a Facebook profile and reportedly gave his blessing to an online prayer group in his diocese – though apparently he had no idea how it worked.

All to the good, I say, but will Francis please also recognise that we are, as they say, all journalists now? Thanks to Twitter, and so on, we can all respond to global developments with the alacrity of an Alan Rusbridger. We are all at risk of coprophilia.

Freddy Gray is assistant editor of The Spectator

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, March 22 2013