Pope Francis and the Vatican PR of the Papal Reboot
No sooner had the white smoke erupted from the chimney, after the curious case of the duck-and-cover retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, did the optimistic adulation for Pope Francis I, a Jesuit and the first non-European pontiff, commence.
Benedict XVI had been a disaster for many levels of the Church, except perhaps for “the women do the washing up” members of Opus Dei or other cadres of conservative zealots. Professorial, aloof, academic, nicknamed “God’s rottweiler” for his willingness to excommunicate first and ask questions later on matters of theological debate … compared to Emperor Palpatine in appearance … oh, and that stuff about joining the Hitler Youth … B16 was not the web 2.0 upgrade over the media savvy Pope John Paul II.
Thus, the post habemus papam euphoria that followed Francis I’s election seemed more a cry of relief than endorsement. The first Latino pope in Church history, with a religion whose membership is largely from those regions! A paladin for social justice and the poor. Vatican news outlets speedily offered us humbling pictures of this beatific man: from Argentina, he understood the rule of dictators (though never spoke out against them) and the conditions of poverty in his homeland. A very solid pedigree of activism for the disenfranchised, he considered himself one of the people, even taking the bus to work. A bus! (I’m now imagining a children’s propaganda comic book showing a fuzzy, haloed grandpa putting his pesos in the fare box — next panel, a smiling vantage point on his fellow passengers whose workaday week has been enlightened by this show of the beatitudes in motion on public transit).
So many of my friends — from ardent atheists to yoga teacher new agers — all choir-chorused in agreement on one interpretation: “He seems like a nice guy.”
I don’t disagree: He most probably is. A beautiful bloke. Loves a cuppa. Gentle wit of a conversationalist. Likes cats. The Vatican PR department certainly produced images intended to give a very un-Benedict like portrait. Breaking somewhat from liturgical rubrics, Francis washed the feet of women during the ritualistic re-enactment of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, one of Catholicism’s high holy days of mystery drama. Such a gesture must seem middling to non-Catholics, but nonetheless arose much cranky consternation of conservatives. (Inclusivity theatrics, Act I: Wash the wimminfolk’s feet, but don’t let them have any authority in the church).
Then the massively over-reported story of Francis sneaking off at night, in cognito, bringing clandestine food to Rome’s homeless. A story met with almost nil incredulity, in fact. (Note to Francis: your cover has been blown.) But, really — ask yourself, do you think a theocracy like the Vatican would allow its supreme figurehead to just wander off into dim alleys like that? Or is it more likely the incidents were orchestrated and reenacted? They’ve done this before: Popes shooting off into the darkness of night is not a new sidebar to humanize an aloof monarch of St Peter’s. Indeed, the Vatican circulated similar anecdotes about Benedict XVI donning a threadbare cassock and, Sherlock style, returning to the role of a near-sighted scholar, living in a tiny one bedroom sublet studying a Latin concordance to St Aquinas under the yellow of a student’s desklamp.
“He seems so nice. So human.” I hand it to Francis 1 — he has a very polished kind of angelic pragmatism about him. And with that the papal reboot really got underway: Francis I became Time magazine’s “Man of the Year”, and media critics fist-pumped in appreciation. I wasn’t too surprised: Benedict XVI oversaw a reign full of banking scandals, unanswered sex abuse questions, and a rather oddly timed exit to Pope Emeritus. Everybody expected something fresh.
But then the heavenly chicanery really commenced: The Advocate magazine, voice of LGb(t) folks everywhere, declared Pope Francis their “Man of the Year”, to the exclusion of thousands of more worthy queer candidates. And Advocate readers cheered like a discarded vuvuzela from the World Cup.
Question: How do you win Advocate‘s person of the year as a statue of arch ecclesiastical authority?
Answer: Make off-handed, out of context remarks that are little squibs of demagoguery about how gays are people too.
The ‘positive vibes’ culture of media receptivity gravitates towards the media optics of something optimistic, no matter what the actual actions may be. And, sure compared to this guy, Pope Francis practically seems permissive and positive in acknowledging the inherent human decency of gays as human beings — or, in Catholic-speak, persons who “struggle with homosexual orientation” But Man of the Year? From the Advocate?
… are people actually reading what the Pope has stated, or just scrolling through headlines guided by an algorithm of confirmation bias?
Against my better judgment, I began posting to the comments threads of these major LG newspapers that were heralding, unassumingly, their newfound friend Francis. I pointed out that the current pontiff already had excommunicated an Australian priest for the crime of arguing for more inclusion of gays and women in the church.
But wait, Advocate readers rushed to tell me: Pope Francis was just following protocol! I replied: There is no protocol: only papal orders. Didn’t you know that Francis had acted vociferously to shut-down same sex marriage in Argentina, warning that such matrimony had been demonically inspired?
And then this: Pope Francis declares homosexuality to be “regressive anthropology”, which is Catholic-speak for “against the natural order established by God.” What does that even mean? Of course it’s nonsense. But this is what Vatican PR has been playing at: revising the church’s canon of slurs.
Still not convinced yet? Can I wave my hands about and shout, “I’ve been telling the lot of ye since AUGUST?” And I write this as a liberal Catholic in a strange ecclesiastical climate in which a dog can attend Mass unimpeded, but me–a transsexual woman–basically cannot without being unwelcomed by the severest criticism of my very existence.
I wasn’t playing nice though, according to my fellow Advocate commentators. With shout-outs about bringing only positive energy, ones that would’ve made the white drum circle feminists defending Ani Di Franco blush, the Advocate readers told me I was being uncivil and judgmental. One apologist — a straight guy — first coyly noted to me that he “was no philosopher” but then preceded to schoolmaster me with such moral lessons as, “You need to be more tolerant if you expect tolerance.”
Yes. Aoife v the Pope in Cards against Humanity. That’s the power dynamic of tolerance in play? A bit of an unfair weight advantage in that fight. An irrational fear of someone you hold as disfigured in love outweighs my right to exist and be a human being and be treated decently in word as well as deed?
I was decrying the acquiescence of the internet’s recapitulation machines that don’t respond, but just repeat. To me, the Pope was playing a disguise variation of feeding the homeless: adopt the rhetoric of theatrical inclusivity and be applauded for accessibility. You can count on a renewed rush to goodwill, since most people are fairly pleased Benedict XVI shuffled off with the cloud of abuse allegations trailing behind him.
With the new rays of a rebooted, sunnier pope — everyone was so charmed at the change in the weather, not really noticing the floods still on the ground.
But is Francis really halfway to being a liberation theologian, as some of the naive approval suggests? It’s just too early to tell! Francis’s first teaching document, Evangelii gaudium, robustly critiqued the free range capitalism that clearly has pushed the rich-poor divide to Dickensian levels. His fierce rejection of the Gospel of the Rich admirably seeks a more equitable world. But Francis really didn’t blaze any socialist trails with this one: Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in veritate, fiercely critical of global grabinomics, had also received massive rebukes from the American banking elite as championing communism-lite. Francis, while more outspoken than Benedict, cannot be called a renovator of the Church’s teachings on the poor, although the endless sequence of scandals in the Vatican banking system might be a more back garden problem to address.
But think happy thoughts; we’re told Rome wasn’t built in a day. How fast was the Vatican rebooting the media hype of the magisterium? Pretty speedy? So don’t harsh the vibe! These awards, we’re told, can function as an attributional incentive: positive reinforcement from the secular world to generate a context of hospitality for a more progressive church.
Huge salutes and astronomical accolades — the macrocosmic equivalent to an ally cookie. Take a lukewarm position of basic human decency in suggesting to not auto-hate on LGBT people. And for that somehow he’s a pontifical poet of the catechetical avant-garde.
Then I heard about this: a Jesuit clergyman, vaguely associated with the Pope at Francis’s ‘home church’ in Rome, held a funeral for a murdered, homeless trans woman to show that Christmas is all about the dispensing of mercy on those outcasts. As per usual, a trans woman is most valued after she’s dead.
So the new boss is the same as the old boss. That’s no surprise. The lingering question for me — why the rush to applause? It is this theatre of inclusivity, through the optics of sensitivity, that drives the soft power of the Vatican’s PR reboot. I’ve read several articles that debunk Francis’ pretense to being a reformer, but none have yet, to my mind, addressed the point as to where this rampant fawning arises from. Perhaps you need to be a badly practised Catholic to notice:
Francis is at the forefront of the soft-power that is repackaging the church’s antagonism to LGBT people. Take, for example, the much cited comment “who am I to judge?” observation about gays. For reasons that utterly mystify me, the popular opinion read this as a statement of recognition if also inclusion.
In fact, this is simply a reworded gentility on church dogma: hate the sin, love the sinner. The Church, recognising it has a rather unhealthy obsession with sexual sins over all others, has adopted a softer approach that emphasizes that homosexual orientation is a sin in the same manner of anything other — an offense against God’s will. When Francis says he “doesn’t judge”, he could make the same claim about any perceived breaking of Church law. God judges. It’s His almighty decorum.
There’s a crucial context here of the church recalibrating its rhetoric: the brimstone sermons have been melted down to a more pliable, molten heat that can be temperature gauged. The Church avoids saying “gays”, which they declare speaks to a political ensemble of opinion, and emphasizes “persons with homosexual orientation” — that is, a temptation to sin that must be overcome. Persons with homosexual orientation are not judged, so long as they don’t fall in love, marry, have sex, or experience any form of meaning in same-sex relationships. Such soft power mechanisms allow the Pontiff to shift rhetoric while keeping the status quo accusation but with snazzier tact: it’s ok to “struggle against a homosexual inclination” so long as you repress and deny this ancillary “gay”. This concession, this enrollment in a bridge to total shame, usually means to no longer be anything but extremely repressed and destined for depression. Anyone who has said otherwise has proven to be a hypocrite that humbles all hypocrites before them. Remember the guy from Exodus International coming clean about this “reparative therapy” horror show nonsense. Be aware: the Catholics in the ex-gay movement are at t harder than ever … and if you listen to their spiel, you get a sense of this discursive distinction as tiny policy shift from the hellfire: homosexuality is an abject condition to be absolved of, healed from, redeemed out of — and that is the precondition to not being judged.
The rhetoric, my friends: “Persons with homosexual inclinations”, sinners to be saved from the invented culture of gayness. Likewise, see “transgenderists” — a nefarious -ism to be labelled and shelved. And that funeral for the dead trans woman? What about us while we’re alive? We promote an agenda of deviance against the innocent. Benedict XVI lectured that saving humanity from transsexual perversions as profound a truth as preserveing the rainforest to stave off environmental apocalypses. As far as the deadly signs go, we’re on the top of the charts.
I conclude with a personal story as to why this soft-power of shifted rhetoric, this optic of inclusivity, can be very dangerous.
Around the time of my first suicide attempt as a young teen, discussed here, I confessed to my priest, whom I was very close to, about my severe gender dysphoria. Almost wheezing with apprehension in that claustrophobic booth of wood paneled silence, I was surprised that his response did not come back with condemnation or accusation. He spoke seemingly softly, which can be just as brutal as the brunt of blame. The words ‘sin’ and ‘defect’ appeared only initially, but Father retooled his rhetoric to ‘cross’ and ‘challenge’. Crosses could lead to sainthood, and challenges overcome pleased Almighty God and his Mother.
Repress, put aside, overcome.”This wish you have to be a girl — it’s incorrect. And it’s against the loving plan God has for your gender,” he advised. “This is your cross to bear. This is your way to sainthood. Be a saint! What else is there worth being?”
A rather rousing pep talk for a terrified thirteen year old who wanted to implode upon herself like a dying star.
My very pores wanted to scream — being a girl? This isn’t a ‘wish’ … but an incessant prayer whose immediacy was almost routine: every bit of birthday cake candle light, every internal sigh of longing when a girl passed by, every fountain splashed penny, every shooting star and my urgent yearning, elbows kissed, eyelash flicked, and dandelion fluff.
Please, please, God, why didn’t you let be a girl? (I’d long abandoned the prayer asking to ‘make me’ one, as this wasn’t going to happen.)
Drawing sketches of the unattained me, in skirts and long hair; nocturnal verses offered up to blackroom ceilings, imagining incarnational variations; metamorphoses and magical rings of transformation. WHY AREN’T I A GIRL? Spent an entire month’s work of pocket money on a puddle of votive candle wax before a plaster saint who clearly hadn’t adhered to my urgency. I’m a girl. Help.
And no help arrived. Especially from this priest, the first person to whom I turned in my desperation.
Here’s my concluding point: In no way was Father B a bad person, as such. On the contrary, he pleasantly had a breakfast after Mass for me, as I often found my mornings with an empty stomach after serving at the altar. A frequent visitor to the Netherlands, one of my favorite places, his admiration for Rembrandt gave him a very urbane demeanor, so unlike the parochial folks I knew. He loaned me coffee table books of art. His withered left hand that required aid in hoisting up for certain gestures during the Eucharistic Prayer. He was a devoted, honest priest, suitable for soft focus framing. And he followed church teaching to the letter: the rigid dogma that only accounts for gender dysphoria in one way … a Satanic imposition to be conquered at all costs, including the selfish pursuit of personal peace.
A woman? Me? Myself?
Don’t be yourself! Be a saint!
That hagiographical injunction remanded me to the closet for years — or should I say, a burning labyrinth with no centre and no exit. Rather than direct me to someone who could address my situation, instead, the priest gave me a litany to recite in repression to subdue the hurt of not being able to be a girl.
I didn’t stay in the closet: I remained trapped in that confessional. And all the wasted tallow of unheard crying.
I must be clear here: shutting down one’s trans feelings is an impossibly torturous act that will preclude any chance for inner harmony.
This isn’t about “offering it up” like fizzy drinks for Lent. We’re talking a total abdication of what medical literature has amply demonstrated to be the one therapy for trans folks to find happiness. And I refuse to romanticise absolute self-negation. I wanted the chance to love God as I was. A life lived lifelessly is only animated death to be. And, really, if one is to pray — how is real prayer possible without an abiding loving acceptance for one’s own self?
So I’m urgently saying, be careful with this soft power approach of the papal reboot, of saying “I don’t judge” but replaying dogma that does exactly that. Of telling a child that her medical condition resulted from Satanic interplay. Of scolding a little, terrified girl to “offer it up” a week before a suicide attempt. Be careful when a man wearing a gold cross says, “We don’t judge you. We accept you …” with a sotto voce “if” hissed in parenthesis. Remember how excited we all were when Obama was elected? That Nobel Peace Prize? There’s a precedent for why we shouldn’t hand out endorsements based on optimism and promise alone.
Over two decades would pass since that bit of priestly admonition, proffered before a drizzly morning mass, in which my damnation came intoned as softly spoken words.