Francis of the media and the millennials

RR Rañeses
Francis of the media and the millennials
The Pope Francis of the media is the one ready to disturb tradition and innovate without, however, unsettling the existing social order

When the current Roman Catholic Church Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis arrives this January, his shadow would have long preceded his first steps on the tropical soil of Catholic Philippines. 

And while the Francis who will eventually arrive is a singular body, the reception, interpretation, and representation of his words and deeds may be as multitudinous as the crowds he is expected to draw in public events. 

There are, however, at least, two shadows cast by the same body of Pope Francis. The first is the Francis the public loves and is the darling of the press. The second is the Francis the public and the media would rather not popularize so that only the first Francis is held as the definitive persona of Jesus Christ’s vicar on earth.

'MERCY, COMPASSION.' Pope Francis blesses a child as he visits Varginha favela ('shanty town') in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on July 25, 2013. File photo by Antonio Lacerda/EPA

Lest it be misunderstood, it is not being suggested here that there are actually two Francises or that the Catholic pontiff is schizophrenic. Far from it.  

What is intimated rather is the role played by the politics and practices of representation and their consequences to the lives not only of the institutional Church, but also of her faithful and those who interact with this ensemble. 

The dichotomy that never was: Bergoglio vs Ratzinger 

The first Francis is undeniably a creation of the press. Almost immediately after his election to the papacy in 2012, global opinion-makers were convinced that the new pope was a revolutionary or at least, non-traditional. 

The portrayal is not completely baseless. 

Indeed, Francis’ early actions, words, and personal demeanor satisfied the hopes of talking heads in the media who, with an equal conviction in 2005 decided, and in fact successfully portrayed, the papacy of Benedict XVI as a throwback to medieval Catholicism.

And when groupie- and selfie-indulging Bergoglio says something reminiscent of the Papa Ratzinger days, the media is quick to silence or refuse to give it press time or space. 

Take, for instance, the inordinate speculation among supposed progressive Catholics regarding the re-assignment of United States Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke from being the top judicial officer of the Holy See to a largely ceremonial post as chaplain of the Order of Malta. 

When the re-assignment was issued, the media characterized it as a demotion of Burke who is known for his attachment to the liturgical practices and traditions of the pre-Vatican II period which Benedict XVI sought to reclaim in his Benedictine “reform of the reform”. Incidentally, Burke was also known for his unequivocal stands on sexuality, marriage, and family life. 

But when Pope Francis himself expressly clarified in an interview that Burke’s re-assignment was NOT a demotion, mainstream media did not bother issuing an update. Neither were readers or listeners interested. The narrative of progressive Francis demoting a traditional conservativist Burke was too good an item. 

The Pope Francis of the media is the one ready to disturb tradition and innovate without, however, unsettling the existing social order. Left out of the popular narrative is the Francis in Evangelii Gaudium who problematized “(t)he process of secularization” which “tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal.”

AFP file photo

But while popular culture purveyors have greatly magnified Pope Francis’ gestures toward issues such as homosexuality, the same purveyors have seen to it not to popularize the same Francis who is disturbed by “a steady increase in relativism.”

This pope has also quoted in his celebrated apostolic exhortation, the statement of the US Catholic Bishops, which upheld the doctrinal position of the Church on homosexuality by situating claims for homosexual rights as one of those that appear to embody “a belief in the absolute rights of individuals” and which perceive the Church “as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom.”

The media’s construction of Pope Francis, the revolutionary, owes to the pope’s own highly nuanced (I hesitate to use the term, but at any rate, Jesuitic) language which “on the one hands” and “on the other hands” dialectics is susceptible to selective interpretation. 

Defending his commitment to tradition, however, Francis says: 

“Look, I wrote an encyclical, true enough, it was a big job, and an Apostolic Exhortation, I´m permanently making statements, giving homilies; that´s teaching. That´s what I think, not what the media say that I think. Check it out, it´s very clear. Evangelii Gaudium is very clear.”

True enough, Francis has not made any change in doctrinal teachings. And in this light, it may even be proper to claim that he is Ratzinger clothed in Latin American humor and Ignatian warmth, obviously minus the cold methodical German sensibility amplified by the Pope Emeritus’ academic composure. 

But by highlighting an aspect of Francis and his papacy and leaving out other aspects, what in fact is achieved?

What, ultimately, is at stake in the popularization of this Francis? 

What about popular culture and mainstream media’s silence on the other aspects of Francis, particularly those which aren’t as revolutionary or non-traditional?

Why keep these papal statements away from popularization?

Culture wars not papal wars 

Popular culture is only as strong as the culture of its consuming audience. And a large chunk of today’s knowledge and information consumers are youthful millennials whose sensibilities are less resilient, whose identities are more fluid, and whose attention spans are as fickle as their decisions. 

Millennials are also less interested in being taught doctrine or theory than in experimenting and arriving at their own conclusions following a subjective form of deductive reasoning rather than objectively drawing from inductive logic.

Notably, millennials are also drawn less to institutions than they are attracted to personalities. 

Francis of the media is undoubtedly a commodity, a personality, an exemplar who neatly falls within the categories that excite millennials. 

This portrayal of Francis may be doing an institution besieged by allegations of corruption and hypocrisy a huge PR boost. However, it also weakens the authority of the same institution that has proven itself capable of mobilizing its flock in the past against systematic forms of social injustice such as dictatorships, and corrupt governments. 

HANDSHAKE. Pope Francis reaches out to shake the hand of a young child on his arrival in St. Peter's Square on October 15, 2014 for the weekly Wednesday General Audience. Photo by Claudio Peri/EPA

Highlighting Bergoglio’s internal reforms in the Church such as accountability mechanisms for sexually abusive priests or mafiosi-linked clerics and religious groups, unquestionably do the Catholic Church a lot of good. Emphasizing his compassion and warmth to those who feel excluded by official doctrinal teachings undeniably reinvigorates the Church’s pastoral ministries. 

But by keeping silent on, or refusing to celebrate, statements that reflect doctrinal consistency and continuity, the PR boost also comes close to taming, assimilating, and co-opting the Church into the dominant culture the media sustains and helps propagate. 

In doing so, Francis of the media and the millennials emasculates rather than empowers the Church by making her less hostile to the widely-accepted cultural tendencies of today. 

Without the hostility of the Church to dominant cultures, a void in cultural and socio-political criticism emerges. A crucial resource for alternative democratic values is sapped. 

Ultimately, the status quo prevails. –

RR Rañeses is an Instructor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. On academic leave this semester, he is presently a Senior Research Analyst for an Asia-wide business intelligence and risk reduction company. He blogs at

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.