Is defining the pope the same as defaming the pope? In US politics, there are entire television networks given over to this game of defining and defaming. Spinning information to praise or punish a political figure can provide personal advantages to the “spinner” (or an ideology). Sadly, the tactic can be imported to commentary on our new pope. Bill Maher has chosen to attack the Holy Father by cynicism: George Weigel veils his self-promoting opportunism with predictions for the next pontificate. I don’t know which is worse.
Maher, it will be remembered, is a tart-tongued cable TV host. Lately he has been complaining that the media makes too much fuss over Pope Francis. I grant that celebrity status often foists more than 15 minutes of fame on undeserving candidates, even when the celebrity is the pope. However, exaggeration of the “bad” for the Church -- as in the lurid details about clerical pedophilia -- did not bother Mr. Maher. Laudatory coverage of the new pontiff’s humility is what has provoked Maher’s ire.
Maher has built a career on snide commentary, dripping with cynicism. I suppose that approach is the reason people watch his show, grant him interviews and listen to the clever ways he ridicules what he doesn’t like. His film, Religulous. takes the premise that religion is “ridiculous” (hence the title) and sustained only because of gullibility and ignorance. Religion, as Maher seems to say, has no future with educated, modern persons.
Today’s world-wide interest and even enthusiasm for the new pope contradicts the premise upon which Maher has built a career. Yes, the world knows of the sins of the Vatican – but in spite of the Church’s past, billions of people see hope in a new papacy. That bothers Maher because it demonstrates that religion is not ridiculous as he has decreed. In the face of overwhelming public opinion that undermines his own anti-religious bias, Maher states the pope is not important enough to merit such attention. Instead he wants to “de-fame,” that is, take away the fame from Francis.
But if defamation from your enemies is bad, allowing yourself to be defined by your friends is even worse. Consider the case of George Weigel, author of an official biography of Pope John Paul II. Weigel had found the Polish pope a perfect model for wedding top-down papal leadership with Reaganite-Thatcherite politics from the 1980s. While that season was sunny, Weigel made hay, delivering insider missives on the why and wherefore of Vatican workings. However, all good things come to an end. After John Paul II died, Weigel, now working for the right-wing National Review, attempted to muffle the anti-Neo-Conservativism of Pope Benedict XVI. Commenting on Caritas in Veritate, Weigel invented the idea that some words in the encyclical were “golden” because they had come from the true thinking of the pope while the message of social justice had come from underlings and could be marked in red (not “Cardinal red” but “Communist red”).
I have it on good authority from my confidants in the Vatican that Weigel overstepped his role. He had moved beyond interpreting what the Vatican decreed to instead rewriting according to his own predilections. Accordingly, previously opened Vatican doors were shut.
Appearing on MSNBC in the hours after Pope Francis’ election as commentator, Weigel cast the new pontiff as a “John Paul II” guy. Certainly, Bergoglio was made a Cardinal by John Paul II; but Weigel was “spinning” the new pontificate as lock-step with the conservativism Weigel fosters in Church and secular politics. A misdirected mail package to the Archbishop with Weigel’s latest book became proof of a conspiracy in the Argentine government to persecute the Church. (Is ANY book by Weigel that important?) Jesuits generally allow provincials at the end of their term to choose their own next assignment. Apparently, Fr. Bergoglio chose an administration-light post as teacher in a Jesuit high school in Argentina. However, in Weigel’s world, the assignment was punishment by left-wing Jesuits. As with Maher, this stuff is more about the commentator’s agenda than about Pope Francis.
Instead of defaming and defining Pope Francis I, let’s just wait and see what the Holy Spirit has in store.
Dr. Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is a writer at the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog.