Expect much wailing and gnashing of teeth from polite society, which had almost begun to believe that this was the good
Nevertheless, this seems to be another example of the recent trend towards a new style of politics – one that’s more relaxed, confident, unembarrassed about enjoying power and – yes – has a sense of humour… But which is also entirely unwilling to take any crap when it comes to the Red Lines.
So far, the only Western leader to come close to embracing the new style of doing politics has been Angela Merkel. Is this new belligerence a sign that Francis is following in her footsteps?
However much those outside his flock may wish otherwise, Pope Francis is not just a lovely old chap. The Spectator has an excellent piece about how the media has made a concerted effort to ignore Francis’ more orthodox views in order to create a more appealing character for their readership:
The most influential media outlets decided he was essentially a decent guy and judged him thereafter on his intentions rather than his achievements (…)
There’s only one case I can think of in which the media would turn on Francis: in the unlikely event that his private character were dramatically at odds with his public persona. He would have to be caught, say, building a death ray in the Vatican Gardens. (Even then some outlets would present it in the best possible light: ‘Pope Francis develops radical cure for human suffering.’)
Journalists also have a clear economic motive for sticking with the Fantasy Francis narrative: people will pay to read about it. After all, he was the most discussed person on the internet last year. Post a cute photo of him hugging a child, or posing for a ‘selfie’ with young admirers in the Vatican, and you’ll see a satisfying spike in page views. Francis has become one of the world’s most reliable online commodities. What sensible hack would want to threaten that?
This latest bit of outspoken opposition on the Charlie Hebdo issue seems like an attempt to reassert opinion leadership and show the world that he intends to actively direct the Church, rather than merely bringing it into line with mainstream opinion. Moreover, while the point view may not – on the surface of it – be a popular one in the midst of the Je Suis Charlie moment, it is in fact a very canny choice of an issue upon which to make a stand. It is far less emotive for non-Catholics than anything sex-related, and does not risk causing the theological divisions that any pronouncement on the nature of sin would be bound to provoke. Francis is effectively telling believers that he’s got their back, but in a way that will not greatly offend non-believers. (Qui plus est, France’s practicing Catholics have hated Charlie Hebdo for years. Even a metaphorical punch in its direction will bring them immense and entirely unchristian joy.)
In fact, this is not the first time that Francis – such an innocent, saintly old man – has displayed a thoroughly politic understanding of the currents of public opinion. His trip to Korea in 2014 contained all the ingredients for a Solidarność moment with regards to the DPRK. The option of his making some sort of impressive, regime-undermining gesture towards North Korea’s surprisingly large Catholic underground was skilfully left open throughout the trip. However, he appears to have realised that now was not the time (information filters into North Korea far too slowly for any one political declaration made outside to have any coherent effect), and – moreover – had the good sense to restrain himself from taking the risk. (Knowing when and how to do nothing: the most important skill in politics.)
This comment about punching people who insult Catholicism is effectively the mirror image of the strategy used during the Korea trip: Francis is picking the battles in which he knows he can win – or at least emerge ahead of the game. Where Benedict scrabbled around the edges of his domain, ineffectually trying to shore up the crumbling sea walls of Catholicism in a million different places (child abuse, contraception, marriage of clergy, confession…), Francis is effectively reinforcing both his own and the Church’s position where it is strongest. From this stable standpoint, and using his new popularity, he will – if he is lucky – be able to strengthen his hold over theological and geographical territories that are far less secure.