Pope Francis has never claimed to be perfect. “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” he was asked soon after his election. “I am a sinner,” was the answer.
One of the reforms of the papacy the Jesuit Pope has enacted is a willingness to admit mistakes publicly and apologize for them. In another shift from recent tradition, he’s also given his full support to media freedom. If something goes wrong, Francis doesn’t send Vatican officials to spin on his behalf or issue clarifications setting out what the Pope really meant to say.
His authentic communication style, spontaneity and refusal to be scripted is a recovery of the original Petrine tradition. After all, St. Peter, who tended to jump in too quickly and then rue the consequences, became the Church’s chief apostle despite his human failings.
This shift from a monarchical to servant-leader model has helped make this Pope the most respected religious leader in the world today; yet it has also seen him face unprecedented attacks.
Beginning soon after his election, the 84-year-old Pope has come up against a powerful and well-funded network of Catholics who have been conducting a guerrilla warfare against his papacy.
In my book, The Outsider, I document more than a hundred of these attacks that originate from a range of sources including Fox News, populist politicians, President Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon and Rome-based cardinals. We are not talking about the normal criticism you would expect of a leader, but a politically motivated campaign. And it is rooted in politics.
Those opposing Francis are unnerved by his bold, prophetic stance on social issues, including his critiques of the capitalist system, appeals for refugees and call to end the death penalty. An outsider pope who has associated himself with outsiders has made those used to calling the shots inside Catholicism very uncomfortable.
Offering a megaphone to those opposing Francis is the world’s largest religious broadcaster, EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network), which has been a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump’s politics.
One of their flagship programs, hosted by Raymond Arroyo, a regular Fox News contributor, runs unrelentingly negative attack lines against Francis. This hostility has seeped into some other areas of the network. In September 2019, a priest used his homily to attack the Pope during an EWTN live-streamed Mass, while the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register was one of just two websites that in 2018 released the text of former papal diplomat Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s “testimony” calling on the Pope to resign.
Francis has decided to call some of this out. Without naming EWTN, the Pope has spoken of “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope.” He explained that “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the church does not deserve them.” He added, “They are the work of the devil.”
His comments made a distinction between criticism of Jorge Bergoglio, “a sinner,” and the office of the papacy, the instrument of the Church’s unity. The issue is not about a Catholic media outlet criticizing the Pope, but fueling division through one-sided coverage. This is why he referenced the devil: the original meaning of the Greek word, diabolos, can be translated as “to divide.”
Even after Francis’ remarks, EWTN’s response has been to double-down and say nothing. Arroyo’s latest show saw him spend half an hour talking down the global synod reform process with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a longtime Francis critic. At one point Müller, the Vatican’s former doctrine chief, said consulting people during the synod was “unnecessary.”
Despite the increasingly politicized attacks, the Pope is not backing down. During an address to community organizers, he said he was willing to “make a pest of myself” with his demands for a fairer distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, for arms dealers to end their activities and for businesses to stop polluting the earth. The Roman Pontiff compared the demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd to the Good Samaritan and he urged the media to avoid the “logic of post-truth, disinformation, defamation…” All of what he said is an application of the Church’s social teaching.
“It saddens me,” he said, “that some members of the Church get annoyed when we mention these guidelines that belong to the full tradition of the Church. But the Pope must not stop mentioning this teaching, even if it often annoys people, because what is at stake is not the Pope but the Gospel.”
As anyone who has overseen reform can attest to, coming up against opposition can be a sign you’re going in the right direction.
Christopher Lamb is Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet and author of The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church.