Pitch Perfect

How Pope Francis is selling the world on the Catholic Church
by Gordon Campbell

Among his other blessings, Pope Francis has been a gift to the world of marketing studies. There can be few other examples where a leader has transformed the perception of an enterprise so thoroughly, but without making any discernible change to its core principles. In business terms, Pope Francis has managed to rebrand the Catholic Church without changing its doctrines. It has been, shall we say, a miracle.

The need for change was being recognized in Vatican circles at least five years ago. As Salon noted in a well-researched article last year the approval ratings in the United States for Pope Benefict XVI had by 2010 hit a disturbing low of 40% in the wake of the scandals involving the systemic sexual abuse of children by priests. Greg Burke, a former Fox News correspondent at the Vatican and member of the Opus Dei movement, was hired to advise the Vatican Secretariat of State on communications strategy. It became evident that whatever the new message, Benedict was not the front man able to convey it convincingly. Even when he’d tried to launch a social critique of the evils of the unregulated free market – see para 36 of his 2010 encyclical Caritas in Veritate .

Benedict had framed it as a “guns don’t kill people, people do” kind of argument that blamed all of the bad stuff to do with income inequality on the moral failures of the individuals involved.

Furthermore, the Vatican’s new public relations campaign had got off to a decidedly rocky start. Old habits died hard. In 2012, there was (a) a Vatican –led drive to root out alleged ‘radical feminist’ elements within the largest US order of nuns and (b) a separate investigation into the alleged links between the Girl Scouts and groups that promote contraception. Both incidents were p.r. disasters for the Church, especially in the US market that is so crucial to the financial health of the global Church. The US bishops began calling for a more sophisticated approach to the Church’s messaging.

U.S. Catholic bishops announced plans on Thursday for an ambitious public relations drive to soften and shape their image and reach out to the younger generation using social media. In a lively session at their national conference in Atlanta, several bishops expressed dismay that they are slow to get their talking points across and are perceived as too confrontational……

“Our church, both in the States and at the Holy See, does not do a good job of communicating around controversial topics,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston ] said. “We need more help and more sophistication in our messaging.”

The real driver to correct the Catholic Church’s perception deficit has been economic. In sheer numbers, the Church’s future recruits may well be in the teeming congregations of the faithful in Central and South America, and in Africa. Yet the Vatican needs deep financial resources for the ongoing work of conversion, and in order to prevail over the strong competition it is now facing from well-funded Protestant evangelism in its Third World markets. Those funds come from one prime source : the United States.

On the whole, the views of US Catholic congregations on social issues are relatively liberal, certainly more so than those of many of the bishops appointed and promoted during the JP11/ Ratzinger era. The child abuse scandals are still a hot topic in the US, and are still claiming scalps among the US bishopric. It was Pope Benedict’s polling numbers in the US remember, that had rung the first alarm bells at the Vatican. The Catholic Church may be resource rich, but it is chronically cash poor, and particularly so at parish level. In 2012, the Economist magazine spelled out the Vatican’s financial dependence on US Catholic opinion and generosity:

The American church may account for as much as 60% of the global institution’s wealth. Little surprise, then, that it is the biggest contributor to head office (ahead of Germany, Italy and France). Everything from renovations to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to the Pontifical Gregorian University, the church’s version of West Point, is largely paid for with American money.

Where that money comes from is hard to say (the church does not release numbers on this either). Some of it is from the offerings of the faithful. Anecdotal evidence suggests that America’s Catholics give about $10 per week on average. Assuming that one-third attend church regularly, that would put the annual offertory income at around $13 billion.

In short, a liberal re-branding became seen as vital for keeping up the donations in the US that are essential to everything from the Church’s parish functions to its global mission. There may well have been other factors behind the startling resignation of Pope Benedict in February 2013, but it was – at the very least – a heavenly boon, and a happy co-incidence. The departure of the grimly intellectual German from the papal throne created an opportunity for a fresh figurehead, and for a tonal shift. With the election in 2013 of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, as Pope Francis, that change in tone has become the new norm. Tone and content though can be two quite different things.

Before he became Pope Francis – the kindly, twinkling advocate of compassion towards the poor, gays, and divorced Catholics, and the impassioned advocate for the environment – what public positions had Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio taken on these and other issues? To some extent, that is an unfair question. Bergoglio was after all, a faithful captain of the Church during two previous papacies under which many liberal theologians had been silenced, or – like Leonardo Boff – had left the Church entirely. Meanwhile, the episcopal sympathisers and supporters of liberation theology had been weeded out from high office. In that climate, duty and discretion would have advised Bergoglio to follow a path of caution.

None of which entirely excuses the tone and content of a pastoral letter written in 2010 by the-then Archbishop of Buenos Aires denouncing same-sex marriage as being – literally – the work of the Devil.

[Bergoglio] wrote: “In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family…At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”

Cardinal Bergoglio continued: “Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

Hard to reconcile that ‘father of lies “ stuff with the compassionate statement on gays – jokes even ! – that he made as Pope Francis in July 2013:

When reporters asked about rumors of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, the pope joked, “I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word ‘gay.'” Then the pope seized the moment to focus on mercy for the marginalized: “I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good…If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?” We shouldn’t marginalise people like this. They must be integrated into society,” Pope Francis said.

Above, I’ve deliberately linked this story to a newspaper in the US heartland of Cleveland, Ohio, which went on to gushingly exclaim :

What a contrast to Pope Benedict, who instituted a policy in 2005 to bar gay men from the priesthood, who said that men with “deep-rooted homosexual tendencies” shouldn’t be priests, who said, “Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation.” Some are saying that Pope Francis didn’t break any new ground, that the church has always maintained gay sex is sinful; being gay is not. What’s striking is that Pope Francis used the word “gay,” not “homosexual.” That’s huge. He added five gentle words of wisdom: “Who am I to judge?”

In the wake of all this, Elton John declared himself a fan.

Much praise has ensued over the Church’s newly expressed “compassion” and acceptance of the LGBT community.

Doctrinally though, nothing at all has changed. Being gay remains being in a state of sin. Compassion is to be extended towards the penitent, not validation. Presumably, same-sex marriage is still the work of the Great Satan. In a lengthy interview given only a couple of months after the statements praised so lavishly in the likes of Cleveland, Pope Francis made it very clear that being gay remained condemned by church law. Personally, he didn’t want to keep talking about such things and furthermore – in his view – a lot of the problems around the issue of homosexuality were being caused by the people who lobby for their rights. ( So shut up, already.)

Some key quotes from that interview:

The Pontiff said that he affirmed the views of the Church regarding the social issues, identifying himself as “a son of the Church.” “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” he said.

Francis said in the interview that the catechism, or the Roman Catholic Church’s official doctrine book, condemns homosexual acts, but he called on the Church to love gays and lesbians, who “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

And this, on lobbying :

Francis also denounced the gay lobby in the July conference [on the family] stating that the “problem is lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem.”

The interesting contrast with Benedict is not on Catholic doctrine – where they’re on exactly the same page – but in the spin that each Pope placed on the role of individual conscience. Benedict stressed that the blame for social evils ultimately lay, in his view, with the individual – and he therefore admonished them to abstain and repent. Francis too, thinks they’re sinners but celebrates the potential for salvation in each individual : that’s how, in the interview I linked to above, he could (a) endorse the authoritarian Church while still (b) urging it to embrace the potential for salvation in each of these sinful individuals in its midst. As Pope Francis put it, somewhat deceptively in that same interview :

“Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

To many Americans that sentence sounded – and was probably meant to sound – like a celebration of freedom. In fact, it really means : its your funeral, buddy. Ultimately, the Church can’t ‘interfere spiritually’ and make your choices for you. Its your own sinful choice to be gay, to have an abortion, to divorce and remarry, and to use contraception – and to then face the consequences, in divine judgement. Yes, this Pope (and his God ) will still feel compassion for you, even in your ungodly state. Hmmm. Is this progress…much ? At least with the steely German you knew where you stood : on a melting iceberg on the lip of Hell. Essentially, Pope Francis agrees with that assessment. He’s just got a few more warm fuzzies to offer, en route.

Here’s another example. Early this year, Pope Francis received a ton of positive press coverage for what certainly sounded like a more compassionate stance on contraception : which happens to be another hot button attitudinal issue for Catholics in the US, and elsewhere. The main soundbite from those press stories : Catholics don’t have to “breed like rabbits.” But did this actually herald a substantive change of stance by a Church whose own teachings that contraceptive use is sinful – a stance set out in the Humanae Vitae encyclical of Pope Paul VI – have contributed so much to the accuracy of the ‘breeding like rabbits’ analogy?

Not at all. As Pope Francis had said further down the page at the time of the ‘rabbits’ remark, the Church has always endorsed many forms of family planning that don’t involve the use of contraceptives. ( eg abstinence and the rhythm method, apparently. ) Days later, and to make his position even more clear, Pope Francis told Filipinos that all children come as a blessing, and that the problems of poverty are due to an unjust economic system in society, and not to over-population.

Similarly, does Pope Francis have any plans to revisit the ordination of women ? No, that’s a ‘closed door’, he said back in 2013.

The same tired reasons (it wasn’t in the Bible, no women in the apostles, its always been like this in the Church ) still hold sway. Pope Benedict’s suggested “ solution” to the question of women’s ordination – ie that we need to strive to attain a condition whereby what’s important between the genders isn’t defined in terms of power – always did ring a little hollow when one gender continues to hold all the power, and especially so within the Church hierarchy.

Is the marketing and communications drive being led by Pope Francis actually working ? If one judges this in terms of favourable press coverage, he’s proved to be a raging success. Everyone loves the guy. He’s become Catholicism’s equivalent to the Dalai Lama, a rock star Pope. In saying so, I don’t aim to suggest this has been an entirely cynical exercise.

After all, there has been a genuinely liberal stream of theological thought in the Catholic Church for a very long time, even through it went underground during the conservative reigns of John Paul II and his enforcer and eventual successor, Joseph Ratzinger. If the assassination attempt made on John Paul II had succeeded in 1982, it is almost certain that his successor at the time would have been the extremely liberal figure (in Church terms) Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan. Even in 2005 at an advanced age and while struggling with Parkinson’s Disease, Martini had reportedly led the first round of papal voting against Ratzinger. In the last interview that Martini gave before his death in 2012, he described the Catholic Church as being “ 200 years behind the times” and in dire need of embarking on a radical journey of change. Martini was a major opportunity lost. If he had been elected in the 1980s, his progressive views on the potential for liberation theology to renew the Church at its grassroots and on women’s ordination (he publicly advocated for women becoming deacons at least, as an initial step) would have held out the hope for a genuine transformation. Like Bergoglio, Martini was a Jesuit. In the papal conclave of 2005, Bergoglio briefly emerged as a possible papal compromise between the liberal faction (of which Martini was still the champion) and the forces of conservative continuity represented by Ratzinger. In many respects as Pope Francis, Bergoglio can be seen as following in Martini’s footsteps.

It should also be kept in mind that South America produced the key thinkers ( Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff ) in the liberation theology movement that had grown up beneath what had been – in parts of the continent at least, such as Brazil – a church hierarchy that was itself very liberal indeed. The celebrated Brazilian bishop Dom Helder Camara for instance, had fought against the Brazilian military junta, and had coined the memorable aphorism : “ When I fed the poor they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.” When the beloved Camara reached retirement age in 1985 and was pointedly replaced by an arch-conservative chosen by John Paul II, it was seen as a watershed moment in the history of the South American church. Belatedly, Pope Francis has re-awakened the tradition of Camara.

That part of the liberal brand is genuine, and its gestures are welcome. The encyclical on climate change too, is a brilliant and nuanced piece of analysis, clearly establishing a moral imperative for action. Would that the same clarity and courage could be turned inwards, onto those Church teachings that remain mired, as Cardinal Martini indicated, in social mores ( and in theological ‘signs of the times’) that belong more to the 19th century, than to the 21st century.

At some point, Pope Francis (or his successor ) will have to put some doctrinal substance behind the ‘feel good’ messages that are currently emanating from the Vatican. Over the course of history, other leaders have adopted the same approach – change the tone, but keep the content – as the current Pope. Years ago in his great novel The Leopard, the Italian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa summed up the plight ( and the tactics) of the embattled Sicilian aristocracy in the revolutionary Italy of the 1850s with a brilliant aphorism : ‘Everything must change, so that everything can remain the same.’ Near the end of the apartheid era, and before they went into talks with the ANC, all of the white negotiators were ordered by their leader, the mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer, to read The Leopard.

In the South Africa of today, everything has changed, and everything still does remain the same. Despite all of the personal charm of Pope Francis, it is much the same story at the Vatican.