As soon as I saw the photograph, I knew. It had to be the front page.
It was one of the first times I picked the front-page story for the diocesan newspaper where, at the time, I served as editor. I wanted to call attention to a special annual Mass, celebrated for all immigrants.
The photo was of a woman receiving Communion while holding her toddler. I thought the tender moment would connect with all readers and would underscore the dignity of migrants. But I was also prepared for negative feedback—because anytime we covered immigration, we would get an earful.
Since the news of the pope’s criticism broke, the reaction from Catholic media professionals has surprised me.
The morning after the paper was distributed, a long voicemail was waiting for me on my office line. But the complaint was not what I expected. The woman, a religious sister who worked at one of our parishes, was outraged.
How dare we run a photo of a person receiving the Eucharist on the tongue? And on the cover? Is this what we can expect from the archbishop going forward? It’s like Vatican II never happened, she said. What’s next? Will he make priests celebrate all Masses in Latin?
I was baffled. The woman in the photograph clearly had her hands full, with her daughter in her arms; she was not kneeling or wearing a mantilla. The image was identified as being from the annual Mass for all immigrants. Like many Latinos, this woman may also have been in the habit of receiving Communion on the tongue. The picture was not intended as a harbinger (or rejection of) of liturgical reform.
No doubt, some criticism misses the mark. Still, done charitably, criticism can be transformational.
It was a quick and painful reminder for me of the fraught world of ecclesial commentary and perception, a world where an important factor in the reception of information or critique is the collection of filters one already possesses. What about that photo said anything about me or about the archbishop for whom I worked?
This all came to mind when I read Pope Francis’ recent comments singling out a Catholic television network he described as “having no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope.” Many have concluded that the network in question is EWTN, one of the largest religious media networks in the world.
“I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the church does not deserve them,” the pope said. “They are the work of the devil. I have also said this to some of them.”
In addition to its television network, EWTN operates Catholic News Agency and The National Catholic Register. The latter was one of two outlets that published letters by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò accusing Pope Francis and others of covering up sexual abuse by former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and demanding the pope resign. Raymond Arroyo, the host of EWTN’s “The World Over,” interviewed Archbishop Viganò on his program.
Pope Francis did not do much to dispel the accusations in the letter, at least not directly. On Aug. 26, 2018, aboard the papal plane from Dublin, journalists asked him about the letter, which had been released days earlier. “I will not say a single word about this,” Francis said. “I think this statement speaks for itself, and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to draw conclusions.” He expressed his preference that journalists use their “professional maturity” to carry out the task.
In addition to its coverage of the Viganò letter, EWTN and its other outlets published criticism of Francis’ motu proprio “Traditionis Custodes,” which restricted the celebration of the Tridentine Mass. As reported by America, Francis said EWTN should “stop speaking badly about me” on his trip from Rome to Baghdad in March.
Francis’ statements do not single out specific coverage, though they could refer to the Viganò letter as well as criticism from Cardinal Gerhard Múller, former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has been publicly critical of “Amoris Laetitia” and the pope’s approach to divorced and remarried Catholics. Cardinal Müller appeared on Mr. Arroyo’s program and his criticism can be found on the National Catholic Register website. Mr. Arroyo’s program has also featured Steve Bannon and other frequent papal critics—including, most recently, British journalist Damian Thompson and Catholic University of America professor Chad Pecknold, both of whom criticized the pope’s synodality initiatives on the air.
Since the news of the pope’s criticism broke, the reaction from Catholic media professionals has somewhat surprised me. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that the Vatican took issue with America. Repeated complaints from the Congregation from the Doctrine for the Faith under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratizinger, who was then elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, led to the resignation of Thomas J. Reese, S.J., as editor in chief.
Is it not naïve to assume popes are beyond reproach? Is it a good idea to try to protect Francis from his critics?
I did not work at America at the time, but many of us in Catholic media believed the removal of Father Reese to be an abuse of power. When the Vatican meddles in Catholic journalism, it undercuts our credibility. In general, it is bad form for international leaders to disparage their critics in the media. (See, for example, Donald J. Trump.)
That is why I was disturbed by Pope Francis’ recent comments about EWTN. To be sure, Francis does not seem to be interfering with the inner workings of a Catholic television network. But he is using his influence in an undeniable way. Are some of us letting the comments slide simply because we like this pope so much? As Father Reese recently observed, “Catholics who felt free to disagree with John Paul and Benedict are now condemning critics of Francis for not being loyal to the pope.” Many of my anti-authoritarian Catholic friends have been papists since 2013.
Church history books are replete with the mistakes of our bishops—including bishops of Rome. Is it not naïve to assume popes are beyond reproach? Is it a good idea to try to protect Francis from his critics?
The culture of encounter should not have altar rails. We’re called to go out and meet everyone, including our most vociferous critics. I take Francis at his word on that, and I think he should be held to the same standard. While criticism can go too far, veering into open partisanship and misinformation, simply calling criticism of the church—no matter how strident it may be—“the work of the devil” is not an avenue for dialogue.
The culture of encounter should not have altar rails. We’re called to go out and meet everyone, including our most vociferous critics.
I have covered Francis’ papal trips in three different countries and have seen him live out the culture of encounter first hand. During his visit to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, for example, I waited for hours with other photographers in a press area. A videographer with Al Jazeera was next to me. We knew Francis was near once we heard the crowd cheer down the block. When Francis and his popemobile were finally in view, the Holy Father picked up three babies right in front of us and kissed them. It was as if he had met all of these families before. The Vicar of Christ looked at those babies like my father looks at my sons.
After Francis was out of view, I looked over and saw the Al Jazeera journalist with tears in his eyes. “I’m not a Catholic,” he said. “But that man has helped me believe in God.”
I love that about Francis, and as a Catholic, it inspires me. But as a journalist, I cannot let my love of the church or my love of the pope prevent me from reporting the truth. And when it comes to criticism, the leaders of the church are not exempt.
With criticism, we all seem to think it is better to give than to receive. But those of us in the media need to hear from our critics as well. For the pope, of course, it can be complicated. Sometimes it can be hard to discern when criticism of the man himself can be an avenue for undermining the church itself. But as a journalist, I wish the pope found a more fruitful way to engage his critics than characterizing their work as coming “from the devil.”
After I heard the voicemail from the sister, I called her back and left a message. She didn’t get back to me, but I would have liked to know why she disliked the photo so passionately. Before publishing, I had consulted my staff and there was consensus that the image worked. Not for nothing, but the photograph won an award from the Catholic Press Association the following year. But who knows? Maybe she saw something we didn’t. Critics often do.
No doubt, some criticism misses the mark. And some critics seem hell bent on finding division. Still, done charitably, criticism can be transformational. The criticism I receive from my gifted colleagues makes my writing a lot better. The criticism I receive from my wife makes me a much better husband and father. I need to be open to criticism because I’m not perfect. And as he would be the first to tell you—neither is the pope.