A few weeks ago, there was a brief flurry of mindless enthusiasm in the Guardian, one of the Western world’s most pathologically biased atheist, socialistic, and anti-American newspapers, over the notion that Pope Francis was abandoning the traditional battlements of Roman Catholicism and fleeing into the theological tall grass, after his interview in August with the editor of the Jesuit publication Civiltà Cattolica. If such a thing happened, the Guardian would, as its premature ululations of self-satisfaction indicated, not even commend the Holy See on adopting a more contemporary view, but would gloat and prance and preen as only the British middlebrow Left can, because its regular announcements every year or so for most of the last century that the Roman Catholic Church was finally crashing to earth like a gigantic bumblebee were coming true. In such circumstances, the Guardian might even, because it understands by osmosis that to many this is the British way, have doffed its flat wool cap with a few condescending words of appreciation of Cardinal Newman, Evelyn Waugh, and one or two other elegant Catholic writers, befuddled stooges of unscientific superstition though they were.
Few scenarios could be more improbable than that the Guardian would have got such a story right, and the aroma of a journalistic rat was especially pungent because of the source of this breathlessly imparted aperçu, which seemed to have escaped other sections of the media, even those almost as unwaveringly antagonistic to Rome as the Guardian. There were no columns by the giggly twins of the New York Times, Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins, reciting for their readers, like rosaries, recollections of their exposure to medieval mental torment in their Catholic youth, nor specials from CNN’s Anderson Cooper (or even the inimitable Wolf Blitzer, the hirsute would-be Victor Hugo lookalike from Buffalo), on the decline and fall of the Roman Church.
If the most militantly outspoken of the Church’s critics had understood what Pope Francis was saying, they would be less (self-)satisfied. He said that the “Church is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people . . . a nest protecting our mediocrity. The Church needs most . . . the ability to heal wounds . . . nearness, proximity.” It is “sometimes locked up in small things, in small-minded rules . . . [and must be] merciful, and take responsibility for the people, like the Good Samaritan. . . . If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. . . . When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person, the mystery of the human being. God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, with mercy.”
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said. The precepts of “the Church are not all equivalent,” and we “cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.” The Guardian, since the decline of its aggressively secular social-Christian views a century ago, has essentially held that Christianity and all religion is bunk (other, perhaps, than those strains of it that became especially vigorous in their condemnation of Christian pre-eminence). And what its glib writers chose to see in Pope Francis’s comments and to float as a trial balloon over the partibus infidelium of its readership was a papal white flag — a preliminary to surrender, and to the admission that there were no faithful left and that Roman Catholicism was an antiquarian emporium of humbug and hypocrisy where an inordinate number of homosexuals and aged celibates invoked pious flimflam to misdirect the sexual mores of the thin ranks of the remaining credulous few. The jig was up, the cassock lifted, and there was nothing underneath it.
This interpretation did not hold water or air, and shriveled, like most Guardian opinions on most subjects, and dropped almost silently into the dustbin of opinionated British leftist nonsense, a vessel that has been overflowing since W. E. Gladstone was a backbencher.
What the pope was really saying was that the Roman Catholic Church must not allow its critics to continue to portray it successfully and falsely as obsessed with the vagaries of people’s sex lives, and as fanatically and principally preoccupied with such matters; that it must be clear that all human life is sacred, that all people are souls to be cared for and respected, and that it is a reasonable surmise that any plausible characterization of God would not be a deity who approved the creation of life that was condemned to be irredeemably evil from the start and would not be deserving of any consideration. At the same time, the Church must be seen by all, despite these efforts to smear it as a neurotic gaggle of prurient scolds and hypocrites, as really in the business of caring for and about everybody. This is not a new interpretation: It is a new counterattack on those who have said or implied that Roman Catholicism was incompatible with anything except the personal life of eunuchs, and eunuchs who kept their hands to themselves.
Shortly after Francis’s election, it was possible to believe that the cardinals had put the wagons in a circle and chosen a pontiff as bullet-proof and squeaky clean on questions of molestation in his archdiocese, material self-indulgence, and collusion with reprehensible secular governments as it was humanly possible to be, to conduct a final desperate defense of Catholic tradition in all sex-related matters. But it now appears that what really happened was that the cardinals chose a man more motivated and able than his recent predecessors to make the point that a counsel of perfection in these matters does not exclude any sincere person from the Church, and that such matters are less important than the faith itself and its application in a positive, merciful spirit of Christian tolerance and generosity. It is little wonder that the Western world’s atheistic media, after suspending their premature triumphal joy, puzzled out the plain, simple meaning of Francis’s words and realized that the pope was not surrendering; he was giving them notice, with exquisite courtesy, that they would be debunked in their effort to sustain their relentless defamation of Catholicism as a ghastly medieval moral torture chamber run by geriatric charlatans.
The disbelief of atheists is understandable and consistent, but their preemptive defamation of the world’s principal religious institution on false allegations of fetishistic bigotry is not.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].