The time has surely come to catalogue the ham-fisted PR stunts which have characterized this pontificate and brought ridicule upon the Holy Father.
Aside from the stunts on aeroplanes (impromptu weddings and the like) and clumsy replies to personal questions (the Lutheran lady and the gay Chilean) they have largely comprised attempts to polish Bergoglio’s reputation as a deep thinker and a compassionate pastor.
Published by Elledici in 2015, the first shot was Il Vocabolario di Papa Francesco, which modestly attempted to elucidate ‘the way Francis talks’ – to systematise, that is, the pontifical disjecta membra.
At the behest of the Liturgical Press (Collegeville, Minnesota) this gave birth to an English Language version, A Pope Francis Lexicon, of which more later.
But these efforts were light-weight. At the behest of the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, there followed an altogether more grown-up project – the eleven (slender) volumes of The Theology of Pope Francis. The aim was clearly not only to celebrate the brilliance and originality of Bergoglio’s thinking, but to demonstrate that what appeared to be novelties or deviations in Francis’s theology were in fact legitimate developments, consistent with the teaching of the last two great Popes. To that end a gift set was despatched to the Pope Emeritus in the hope that he would commend them.
Benedict (in a private letter) pointedly refused to do so. At the press launch of the books the Libreria went ahead regardless and claimed that he had penned the requested puff. Only the subsequent publication of the private letter made clear what he had actually intended and why.
Readers will by now have reached their own conclusions as to the orthodoxy and profundity of Bergoglio’s thinking; but nothing in this short history is edifying. The essays in the two lexicons are, for the most part trivial and by the usual liberal suspects. The eleven volumes have done little (indeed less than nothing) to progress the PR project for which they were commissioned.
Now it appears that these ham-fisted attempts were preceded by one both more blatant and more self-defeating. Shortly after Pope Francis’s election, award winning film-maker Wim Wenders was commissioned to make a biopic of the pontiff. Variously described by critics as ‘religious pornography’ and ‘more like the work of Leni Riefenstahl than a serious biography’, this embarrassingly sycophantic production has now been released – no doubt to counter the more recent narrative of Bergoglio as a tyrant and a bully.
All these unprecedented attempts to present Francis as both learned and benign are proving singularly ineffective. A quotation from one of the entries in the Pope Francis Lexicon can adequately stand for the whole project. Towards the end of the entry on ’Women’, Astrid Lobo Gaijwala writes:
It would seem that much of Pope Francis’s understanding of women’s situation is intuitive and not drawn from any principles or ideology, and that perhaps is why he is unable to see the threads of patriarchy and sexism that run through so much of church teaching. It would also account for the contradictions and inconsistencies of his stand.
With friends like that, who needs ‘Marcantonio Colonna’?