January 8, 2019 (CatholicCulture.org) – “It was not a good year for Pope Francis,” says Sylvia Poggioli of NPR. Nicole Winfield of AP is a bit more forceful: “It has been a wretched year for Pope Francis…”
At last, reporters for the secular mainstream are waking up to the reality that this Pope, whose first weeks in office provided such exciting prospects for reform, has failed to deliver. In fact, on the question that secular reporters generally (and rightly) consider most important, the response to sexual abuse, things at the Vatican are much worse now than they were when Pope Francis was elected.
In Lost Shepherd I quoted one reporter from a mainstream newspaper, who observed that most of his colleagues were sympathetic toward Pope Francis, supported his efforts to change Church policies, and were therefore loath to write critical stories. “I can't imagine what it would take” to turn the media against the Pontiff, he said. Well, maybe now we know. It would take a full year of revelations about prelates who were tainted by the abuse scandal, but still protected (if not promoted) by the Vatican. It would take months of stonewalling by Vatican spokesmen, including the Pope himself. It would take dozens of promises, promises, promises – without any effective action. It would take an unprecedented volley of criticism from a former Vatican diplomat, and impatient statements from scores of American bishops. Then finally, looking back across 2018, reporters would have no choice but to observe that it wasn't a good year – it was a wretched year – for the Pope.
“If he had judged his advisers more scrupulously at the start of his pontificate on their abuse and cover-up records, he might have retained more credibility in 2018,” writes Winfield. Yes, but it wasn't just at the start of his pontificate. And it isn't just a matter of their records on abuse; there's the moribund “reform” of Vatican finances to consider as well. Not to mention (because the secular media won't mention it) the burgeoning homosexual scandal and the theological question marks that are now sprinkled across the annals of this pontificate.
But take another careful look at Winfield's last sentence, and her reference to how the Pontiff “might have retained more credibility in 2018.” That certainly implies that he lost credibility this year. Can he regain it in 2019? Will secular reporters be willing to clear the slate and give the Pontiff another chance to restore their confidence? Or will Pope Francis be subject to a steady barrage of the critical coverage that, to date, he has mostly escaped?
The answer, I suggest, will be clear in February, when the Vatican brings together the presidents of the world's episcopal conferences to discuss the sex-abuse scandal. If that meeting does not produce clear and decisive action – statements won't do the trick – the patience of the Vatican-watching media corps will be exhausted.
Published with permission from CatholicCulture.org.