The Pope’s New Groove

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Radoslav Dragov's picture

Drum your fingers at the following fact: the Vicar of Christ (a.k.a. the Pope) uses hash-tags in his tweets. Personally I would have been more surprised only if Keith Richards was proposed for sainthood. Incidentally Pope Francis drew twice the crowd (3 million) at the Copacabana Beach than the biggest Rolling Stones concert on the same spot (1). The hash-tagging and the smashing success of Pope Francis’ recent visit to Brazil solidified my impression that the new pope knows how to exploit modernity. This essay will look at the reasons for the new pontiff’s success and examine the potential dangers of a charismatic pope. 

The Dawn of a New Age 

Since the beginning of the Enlightenment the history of the Catholic Church was marked by its seemingly never-ending struggle with modernity. In 1846 Pope Pius IX issued “Syllabus of Errors” document which condemned rationalism, liberalism, separation from church and state, divorce and other attributes of modernity (2). Results were hardly better when the Vatican tentatively tried to embrace the changing times. In a moment most probably devoid of divine providence Pope Pius XII (1958) proclaimed St Clare of Assisi the patron saint of television (2). Pius XII should have made another famous Catholic the holy protector of television: John F Kennedy. 

In the first televised presidential debate (1960) the fresh-faced Kennedy debated the pale and sickly looking Nixon. Famously television audience overwhelmingly declared Kennedy as the winner while radio listeners chimed that Nixon was the clear winner (3). Television ushered in the age of style over substance. Television – ostensibly the most “mind-dumbing” invention – has many side-effects, one of which is a process called “personalization”. It is a process best described by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people”. 

TV Reality and Reality TV 

On TV political news started to concentrate on individuals rather than institutions or abstract processes (4). This created simplified but catchy narratives which the public readily gobbled up. Example: “the leader of the “Conservative Progressive” party helped an old lady across the street and then went to the pub to grab a beer”. Reaction: “wow, he is just like us normal people; his party is clearly my top choice”. Likewise a charismatic pope who revels in the media spotlight could easily garner goodwill for the whole Catholic Church or divert public attention from problems within it. 

Personalization often goes hand in hand with another media-driven phenomenon: “celebritization”. Celebritization is a process endemic to modernity whereby people can become famous regardless of merit or accomplishments (5). I hardly need to give any examples: just look at any media outlet. 

Enter Karol Wojtyła 

The processes of personalization and celebritization are well illustrated by arguably the most beloved and written about pontiff of all time: Pope John Paul II (1978-2005). With him in charge the Vatican finally found an aspect of modernity which actually benefited the Church. 

Pope John Paul II was a larger than life figure who was tailor-made for the media-infested landscape: he was confident, assertive and revelled in the spotlight (6). His fame stems largely from his media-friendly persona and numerous country visits: clogging around 1 200 000 kilometres in 129 countries. John Paul II was also a crowd-pleaser: he canonized 482 saints (more than all his predecessors put together). 

However, his constant push to centralize decision making in the Vatican had a whiff of authoritarianism. Many bishops who went to synods to discuss doctrine and administration found out that the Pope had already made his mind on most issues. Overall he was a conservative or even reactionary pontiff (6). The outbreak of AIDS didn’t make him change his stance on the use of condoms. The pope referred to homosexuals as “intrinsically disordered” and stated that the Church had no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women. 

The main point is not that John Paul II has no truly great accomplishments (e.g. the galvanization of Poland) but that his media-friendly persona glossed over personal problems and issues with the Church’s doctrine. Stripped out of the charisma his papacy and the decisions he made were largely retrograde. 

Pope of the People 

"If John Paul II had not been Pope, he would have been a movie star” wrote one Vatican expert. I think that the new pope (Francis) would have been a successful politician. Like John Paul II he understands how to get sympathy from the public and use media-driven narratives for the benefit of the Church. But will that ultimately be to the detriment of the Church? 

Francis’ great innovation was to become a “pope of the people” by publicly displaying modesty and frugality. “Very important person mingling with commoners” is a narrative that the public likes and politicians try to exploit. The wealthy ex-nominee for US president Mitt Romney made a point of tweeting pictures of him eating fast-food and using low-cost airlines such as Southwest (7). They are countless examples of obscenely rich politicians “slumming” for public approval. Unlike them Pope Francis has lived modestly all his life. 

Hip to be Square 

Pope Francis knows which demographic is most important: the youth. His first overseas visit as pope was to Brazil for the World Youth Day. Can’t blame the new pope - the 18-30 olds are the most desired demographic for any corporation or political party. They are the future and who doesn’t want to control the future. Appealing to them is not an easy job. For Obama it was “slow jamming” the news with an R&B band. Australia’s Prime Minister even takes group “selfies” (front phone-camera photographs taken at arm’s length) with young voters (8). In a more dignified fashion Pope Francis urged young people to energetically spread the word of Christ and fight complacency in the Church. 

Even the potential minefield of the trio women-homosexuals-contraception was handled cleverly. Pope Francis stressed the importance of women in the Church and his desire for their greater participation in the administration but women cannot be priests. Homosexuals are not intrinsically sinful but homosexual actions are. Birth control is still not permitted. Practically, these are exact same views as his predecessors but with a nice ribbon tied around them. 

Believers VS Beliebers 

This verbal tight rope act is cleverer than you might think. Religious movements survive on their ability to regulate prohibitions and restrictions. Paradoxically, relaxing the rules too much would reduce the number of followers (9). First because loose rules diminish the sense of shared community and some followers leave for secular temptations. Second, the core group of most zealous followers might get disenchanted and leave. The second outcome is worse because the ultra-orthodox believers are the iron core that holds everything together (9). 

The same rules apply for secular saints: the word fan comes from fanatic. Why is Justin Bieber a multiplatinum singer with a ubiquitous social media presence when so many people dislike him? Bieber has a veritable army of fans (or “Beliebers”) who follow and spread his every word like gospel. The intense hatred and ridicule of outsiders strengthens the resolve of the Beliebers and their sense of shared community. 

The Church cannot ignore modernity nor fully embrace it. The Pope made the safest (in the short-term) option by keeping the old doctrine intact but giving it a new friendlier face. This way both “casual” and ultra-orthodox Catholics are not repelled. 

Revelation 

The personality of the new pope is nicely distilled in the following anecdote. An Italian student wrote a letter to Pope Francis and the pontiff gave him a call on the phone (10). The student was struck by the Pope’s informal tone said it was the best day of his life. Here we see a cheerful pontiff who is very dedicated to help the youth deal with contemporary problems. 

I am amazed by the pope’s natural ability to tug at heartstrings and pander to the media’s appetite for tearjerker stories. At the same time I am frightened by the fact that this trifle news circled the globe and generated a large amount of goodwill. Again we see the process of personalization whereby the doctrines and complex inner workings of the oldest institution in the world are replaced by the extra-curricular activities of one person. Very forward-looking but shy and introspective popes like Paul VI (1963-1978) risk being forgotten or unappreciated because they lack showmanship.

Too Much of a Good Thing

By all accounts the new pope is a genuinely kind and generous person not a scheming politician. I appreciate his dilemma of trying to appease both the conservative and liberal voices within Catholicism. The problem is that the glossy image of a media-friendly pope can hide a pile of dynamite under the carpet. We saw how Pope John Paul II’s backward looking papacy was not challenged by the public because of the pontiff’s charisma. 

Old and new problems of the Church go unnoticed like smoke through a keyhole. However, the problems are accumulated not lost. They are ready to resurface once a less media-savvy pope steps in. Then it may be too little, too late. 

References:

(1) “Pope Francis celebrates Brazil Mass on Copacabana beach”; 29 July 2013; BBC.co.uk; url: http://goo.gl/upF4sj 

(2) MacCulloch, D. (2010). Christianity: The first three thousand years. Penguin. com. Chicago 

(3) Webley, K. (2010). “How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World”, Time.com; url: http://goo.gl/oH8Ab2 

(4) Langer, A. I. (2007). A historical exploration of the personalisation of politics in the print media: The British Prime Ministers (1945–1999). Parliamentary Affairs, 60(3), 371-387. 

(5) Driessens, O. (2012). The celebritization of society and culture: Understanding the structural dynamics of celebrity culture. International Journal of Cultural Studies. 

(6) O'Malley, S. W. J. (2009). A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present. Government Institutes. 

(7) Parker, A. (2011). “Mitt Romney Has Some Down-to-Earth Tastes, He’d Like You to Know”. NY Times. url: http://goo.gl/RcoU4A 

(8) Curran, E. (2013) Australia Leader Tries 'Selfie' Snapshots to Connect with Youth Vote; WSJ.com; url: http://goo.gl/iAmkjX 

(9) Porter, E., & Dixon, W. (2011). The Price of Everything: Solving the mystery of Why We Pay What We Do. Portfolio Penguin. 

(10) Squires, N. (2013) “'Hello, it's Pope Francis': Italian teenager gets surprise phone call”; “The Telegraph”; url: http://goo.gl/r1V3r8