Magazine article The Spectator

The Fantasy Francis Own Invention

Magazine article The Spectator

The Fantasy Francis Own Invention

Article excerpt

On the last day of 2013, one of the weirdest religious stories for ages appeared on the news wires. The Vatican had officially denied that Pope Francis intended to abolish sin. It sounded like a spoof, but wasn't.

Who had goaded the Vatican into commenting on something so improbable? It turned out to be one of Italy's most distinguished journalists: Eugenio Scalfari, co-founder of the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica , who had published an article entitled 'Francis's Revolution: he has abolished sin'.

Why would anyone, let alone a very highly regarded thinker and writer like Scalfari, believe the Pope had done away with such a basic tenet of Christian theology? Well, since he took charge last year, Francis has been made into a superstar of the liberal left. His humble background (he is a former bouncer), his dislike for the trappings of office (he cooks his own spaghetti) and his emphasis on the church's concern for the poor has made liberals, even atheists like Scalfari, suppose that he is as hostile to church dogma as they are. They assume, in other words, that the Pope isn't Catholic. Last year few left-leaning commentators could resist falling for the foot-washing Jesuit from Buenos Aires. In column after column they projected their deepest hopes on to Francis - he is, they think, the man who will finally bring enlightened liberal values to the Catholic church.

In November Guardian writer Jonathan Freedland argued that Francis was 'the obvious new hero of the left' and that portraits of the Supreme Pontiff should replace fading Obama posters on 'the walls of the world's student bedrooms'. Just days later Francis preached a homily denouncing what he called 'adolescent progressivism', but people see and hear what they want to, so no one took any notice of that.

That is how the Pope has come to be spun as a left-liberal idol. Whenever he proves himself loyal to Catholic teaching - denouncing abortion, for instance, or saying that same-sex marriage is an 'anthropological regression' - his liberal fan base turns a deaf ear. Last month America's oldest gay magazine, the Advocate, hailed Francis as its person of the year because of the compassion he had expressed towards homosexuals. It was hardly a revolution: Article 2358 of the Catholic church's catechism calls for gay people to be treated with 'respect, compassion and sensitivity'. In simply restating Catholic teaching, however, Francis was hailed as a hero. When a Maltese bishop said the Pope had told him he was 'shocked' by the idea of gay adoption, that barely made a splash. Time magazine, too, made Francis person of the year, hailing him for his 'rejection of Church dogma' - as if he had declared that from now on there would be two rather than three Persons of the Holy Trinity. But for cockeyed lionisation of Francis it would be hard to beat the editors of Esquire, who somehow managed to convince themselves that a figure who wears the same outfit every day was the best dressed man of 2013.

Some pundits have noticed the gulf between what you might call the Fantasy Francis - the figure conjured up by liberal imagination - and the actual occupant of the Chair of St Peter. James Bloodworth, editor of the political blog Left Foot Forward, recently urged his journalistic allies to show some restraint.

'Pope Francis's position on most issues should make the hair of every liberal curl,' he wrote. 'Instead we get article after article of saccharine from people who really should know better.'

Is Bloodworth's remark a sign of a coming secular backlash against the new Pope? For a while, it seemed inevitable that the new Pope's fans would come to realise he is not about to bless women bishops, condom use, gay marriage and abortion - and then they would turn on him. Now, that seems unlikely. Having invented the Fantasy Francis, his liberal well-wishers may never want to kill off their creation.

Consider the Obama analogy.

Like Francis, the US president was a telegenic figure who followed an unpopular predecessor with a promise of radical change. …

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