A month into his papacy, a campaign of venom lurks below the surface of media focus on Pope Francis. The lessons of history and psychology make it highly suspect.
I resist the occasional depiction of TSW as “a blog about falsely accused priests.” Though it might not seem so to readers, I actually only rarely write about my own plight. The last time I did was last January in “When the Caged Bird Just Can’t Sing: The Limits of Prison Writing.” Six of my last seven posts have been about the papal transition from Benedict to Francis, presenting what I hope is another view – an unusual view – of events in Rome through the eyes of a captive audience far removed from the heart of the Church. As I have written before, in the Solar System of Church life, I write from the Oort Cloud.
Sometimes life way out here on the margins lets me view a more panoramic scene. From out here, I have come to understand our need to capsulize our views of things. The news media has come to understand this, too, and modern sound bite news is the result. The problem with a news media that capsulizes everything in a sound bite is that it can be easily hijacked by people with an agenda to mobilize a smear campaign. The Wall Street Journal’s Latin America expert, columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady, recently described one in “Behind the Campaign to Smear the Pope” (WSJ, March 18, 2013).
The immense upswelling of pride in Argentina following the election of Pope Francis very much reminded me of the response in Poland when Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978. The pride of Poles, however, quickly became a threat to Soviet dominance of Poland, and Pope John Paul just as quickly became a target of the Soviet Union. I described this in “The Beatification of Pope John Paul II: When the Wall Fell.”
And as you will read in that post, when character assassination of John Paul proved insufficient propaganda to dissuade Catholic Poles, more direct means were attempted by the KGB. Pope John Paul was, after all, just a man, but it turned out that he was a man who could take four bullets at point blank range and survive to be the Soviet Union’s undoing. A decade after that assassination attempt, Pope John Paul and the Catholic Church still stood. The Soviet Union did not.
Just over two decades earlier, the Soviet KGB launched a similar campaign to smear Pope Pius XII. I wrote of it a few months ago in “Hitler’s Pope, Nazi Crimes, and The New York Times.” The idea that Pius XII was “Hitler’s Pope” was the result of a carefully orchestrated media campaign that never had any basis in reality. It was launched by the KGB for political reasons because Pius XII, like John Paul II after him, posed a clear and present danger to Soviet Communist domination of Eastern Europe.
Now out of Argentina, another up and coming repressive regime eyes with great fear and suspicion the world’s first pope from within its borders. As Mary Anastasia O’Grady pointed out, “Argentines who want their country to be the next Venezuela see Francis as an obstacle.” They have spread word without evidence that as a Jesuit Provincial in the 1970s, Cardinal Bergoglio had links to the military government, links he used to betray his own priests while he himself was complicit with the dictatorship. The story was an immediate and noisy splash in the news after the election of Francis, but it quickly died when faced with first-hand evidence – including a statement by Argentine Nobel Laureate, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who exposed the claim as sheer propaganda.
WHY SMEAR TACTICS WORK
A little over three years ago, I wrote an article for Catalyst, the Catholic League Journal, entitled “Due Process for Accused Priests.” The article was in part about a phenomenon called “Availability Bias” and how it influences justice when Catholic priests are falsely accused. The concept has crept into all aspects of the media, not just in the reporting of news, but in marketing and advertising as well. The science behind it was formulated and dissected by psychologist, Daniel Kahneman with amazing results.
In 2002 the Catholic priesthood sex abuse scandal was the focus of The Boston Globe Spotlight Team which then spread the “pedophile priest” scare and sound bite to virtually every diocese in the United States. Also in 2002, and ironically, Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on “Availability Bias.” It was described in a 2007 lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal (“The Science of Gore’s Nobel,” Dec. 5, 2007) as “the human propensity to judge the validity of a proposition by how easily it comes to mind.”
Kahneman’s research examined how marketing and the media have exploited human suggestibility through “Availability Bias” which he analyzed using two studied phenomena. The first he called “Availability Cascade,” described as “the way a proposition can become irresistible simply by the media repeating it.”
The best example is the smear, “Hitler’s Pope” which comes almost immediately to mind for many at the mere mention of the name of Pope Pius XII. As described in my post referenced above, the smear was widely believed, and still is despite massive evidence to the contrary, simply because the media has repeated it for decades. Its origin is not in the news media, however, but in the propaganda of a repressive Totalitarian regime. The news media was just its all-too-willing microphone.
Daniel Kahneman’s second studied phenomenon in support of “Availability Bias” was what he called “Informational Cascade,” described as “the propensity of humans to abandon or replace their beliefs in favor of the crowd’s beliefs.” I used a famous example in my Holy Week post, “Pope Francis, the Pride of Mockery, and the Mockery of Pride.” One of the criminals crucified with Jesus adopted the mockery of Jesus from the very crowd that had placed that man on his cross. The ability of a crowd to modify our views and beliefs and positions is powerful. Pontius Pilate himself modified his stance about the innocence of Jesus simply through the force of a mob chanting, “Crucify him!”
For “Informational Cascade” to work – for beliefs to be abandoned or replaced in favor of the crowd’s beliefs – one ingredient is necessary: a crowd, shaken or stirred, or at least the appearance of one. Some readers may have noticed a campaign of vile comments about Pope Francis posted at some websites and blogs that are popular among traditional Catholics. Many of the comments were an effort to sow suspicion and discouragement. Naturally, tradition-minded Catholics hold out hopes for how any new pope will address their concerns. I share those hopes.
But when the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would offer the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper in a Rome juvenile prison instead of in Saint Peter’s Basilica or the Basilica of St. John Lateran, it stirred concern about the Pope’s sensitivities toward tradition. When the news media captured Pope Francis washing the feet of 12 prisoners – including two women, one of whom was Muslim – that concern for tradition took on a sort of frenzy.
Was he making a statement about his views toward Islam? Was he making a statement about the ordination of women? After all, the Apostles were all men, and Jesus washed their feet – and theirs alone – at the Last Supper. Theologically – and this is a perspective supported by the Church’s tradition – the washing of the feet is not a statement about the recipients of the action of Jesus, but about Jesus himself, and the humility he wished to convey in the model for spiritual leadership it implied. The identity of the recipients is immaterial. As the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis was well within theological tradition to make this statement of Christ-like humility. There is no evidence for believing it was anything else.
MANIPULATING THE MOB
Intermixed with the crowd’s already stirred concern, however, was some carefully choreographed mob manipulation. As Pope Francis washed the feet of twelve young offenders, some critics posted vile comments accusing the Holy Father of “grooming” behaviors suggestive of dark and nefarious agendas right before the world’s eyes.
I am not at all concerned for the many comments posted about the emotion regarding tradition that Pope Francis has stirred. These concerns are natural, and I believe they should be raised and will have answers that are clearer to us all in time. However, when tradition-minded blogs also post vile comments attacking without just cause the character and morals of the Holy Father, a line of justice and decency has been crossed, and those blogs and bloggers have diminished themselves and their credibility. You would never see such comments on These Stone Walls. Never! It is because we take very seriously the responsibility for justice and truth that are essential parts of the stewardship of a Catholic blog.
Over the last two years, someone I know who is adept at on-line media has been tracking the vile comments of SNAP members and other crusaders. They have attempted to stir the Church’s critics and use the Church’s crises for agendas having nothing to do with sexual abuse or with protecting children. I happen to know that many – very many – of the most vile and hateful comments posted about priests, bishops, and the pope on both secular news sites and Catholic blogs have actually been the work of just a few individuals. They use multiple screen names and multiple e-mail accounts to post their comments in an effort to give the appearance of a mob in order to steer and manipulate beliefs and reactions. It is a gross example of the abuse of the abuse crisis that I wrote of in “When the Gloves Come Off On Catholic Blogs.”
I, for one, detest being manipulated. I have the same concerns about tradition that many of you have, and they are legitimate concerns. However, we have a responsibility of deference to, and trust for, Pope Francis. I intend to honor that responsibility, and I ask you to join me in doing so. It is time to challenge our fellow Catholics and Catholic bloggers to take responsibility for moderating the tone, content, and quality of comments posted on their sites. Any comment that is the antithesis of truth, justice, and caritas should not see the light of day on any Catholic blog. It is not a matter of preventing free speech. Vile commenters are perfectly free to go open their own blogs. It is a matter of preventing mob justice which has no place in our faith.
Carlos Caso-Rosendi, who I am very proud to say is a reader of These Stone Walls and an occasional commenter, writes from Buenos Aires. In a recent issue of the National Catholic Register, Carlos has a terrific article about the person of Pope Francis entitled “He Walks with Mary and St. Francis” (NC Register, March 24 – April 6, 2013). I highly recommend it. I’m giving Carlos the last word on this Pope’s agenda for our Church:
“Another Francis comes to us today. He faces a colossal task, armed only with the simple habits that some in the Church forgot long ago: prayer, simplicity, charity, and a serene manliness. There is no doubt in my mind that he will know how to shepherd his flock in these turbulent times. Watch him do it, and learn.” (Carlos Caso-Rosendi, Buenos Aires)