Can a Fox News Alumnus Reverse the Pope’s Decreasing Popularity?

By Betty Clermont | 23 January 2016
Daily Kos

Last April, 56% of Americans surveyed viewed Pope Francis “in a positive light … By contrast, only 44% of Americans viewed Barack Obama in a positive light.”  A Gallup poll published December 28 showed 17% of Americans named President Obama as their most admired man in the world; the pope and Donald Trump were tied for second with only 5% each.

Attendance in 2015 at the public audiences with Pope Francis at the Vatican was down almost by half compared to the previous year.

Although Pope Francis was prepared to intervene in the Paris Climate Change Conference in December, no one asked him to do so. No representative of the Vatican was in attendance.

Of greater consequence for this pontificate, after the Vatican indicted the authors of two books on November 21 for exposing financial corruption (Pope Francis: “I gave the judges the concrete charges because what is important to the defense is the formulation of the accusations”),  freedom-of-the-press organizations quickly criticized the Vatican and called for the criminal charges against the journalists to be withdrawn. Among them were the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Reporters Without Borders, Italy’s National Order of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Foreign Press Association in Rome, the association of reporters accredited to the Vatican (AIGAV), the International Press Institute (IPI), the National Federation of Press in Italy (FNSI) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFI).

As a result, other than the pope’s trip to Africa and the routine Christmas message, the last time Pope Francis received the usual widespread fawning news coverage by the mainstream media was before the indictment when the two books, Avarizia (“Avarice – the deadly sin as a parasite in the fiber of the Church”) by Emiliano Fittipaldi and Merchants in the Temple by Gianluigi Nuzzi, were released on November 5. The books documented Vatican fraud, theft, trade scams and withholding money donated for charity from the poor during this pontificate. Unanimously, it was reported that the books proved that the pope’s “enemies” were blocking his “reform” of the Vatican, and that he was bringing transparency and accountability to his “Church of the poor.”

A month after Fittipaldi and Nuzzi were indicted, Pope Francis promoted Greg Burke, a former ten-year Fox News correspondent, as vice director of the Vatican Press Office. Burke is expected to become the official Vatican spokesman. The pope also added his press office to the new Secretariat for Communications,  one of two major changes this pontiff has made in the Curia. The first was creating a Secretariat for the Economy.

New appointments in communications also signal another point: that the Holy See wants to pay ever greater attention to the way that secular media perceives it. [T]hese appointments show the Vatican’s perceived need to maintain good relations with the secular world, as if the judgment of the secular media were pivotal for the life of the Church … Vatican media attachés seek to put forward the best image possible for the benefit of secular media …

Burke has his work cut out for him. Francis’ first book as pope, The Name of God is Mercy, was presented January 12 with great fanfare by Italian Oscar-winning actor Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful)  but received little excitement in the secular media. The Vatican press office has released about a dozen news items this past month similarly under-reported compared to what had become customary for the super-star pope.

The Vatican has other ties to Fox News. Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, Fox News’ parent company, attended a January 17-18 conference along with Pope Francis’ secretary of state, foreign minister and president of the Vatican Bank. “The Global Foundation conference discussed a new governance model for the world economy.” The pope’s financial czar, Cardinal George Pell, was the headliner. “If we are to truly mobilize the global economy in a sustainable fashion, it will require business, not regulators, to take a leading role,” Pell told the assembled business leaders.

The week before he was called to Rome by Pope Francis to be one of his principle advisers, the Australian cardinal attended a “Gala Dinner” to honor Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corp. When the pope promoted Pell to head his new Secretariat for the Economy, Murdoch tweeted: “Pope Francis appoints brilliant Cardinal Pell from Sydney to be no.3 power in Vatican. Australia will miss him but world will benefit.”

Since “communication is one of the main concerns of this pontificate” and “Pope Francis is [already] using Twitter to amass global influence,”  the pope may have decided to lessen his dependence on the traditional media. On January 15, the pope received Eric Schmidt, executive chairman and former CEO of Google “in a strictly private audience.” Schmidt was joined by Jared Cohen, founder and director of Google Ideas. The two co-authored a book in 2013, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, an international bestseller. “The purpose of the meeting is apparently exclusively private,” the reporter reiterated.

On January 22, Pope Francis met Apple CEO, Thomas Cooke, in an “equally strictly private” meeting. (The New York Times named Google and Apple as two of “Tech’s ‘Frightful 5’ that will dominate digital life for the foreseeable future.”)

That information was appended to an announcement that the new Secretariat of Communications would have three departments: a “technological” department, a “theological-pastoral” department for the preparation of papal messages and an “editorial” department to coordinate all the Vatican media.

 “The honeymoon seems to be over for Pope Francis” is the lead sentence in a January 12 article in Politico’s Europe Edition, “Pope alienates base, sees numbers drop,” citing the decrease in attendance at papal events.

That the pope “may be turning off devout Catholics” was justified in the article by referencing a poll conducted the week after his U.S. visit showing “views on the Church” were more positive “among Democrats and liberals.” But Pope Francis’ “comparatively liberal views … is proving divisive among hard-core Catholics,” the reporter concluded.

The pope’s “base” is shrinking numerically. In a poll published in September, “Four-in-ten of all those raised Catholic” have left the Church, a trend unaffected by this pontificate.

Disaffection by “hard-core Catholics” alone, however, could not account for the “numbers drop” and any bump in ratings immediately after the pope’s visit was apparently temporary in view of the December Gallup poll.

More likely, Americans are gradually becoming aware that, regardless of all the nice stuff the pope says, he still leads the opposition on important issues.

“More than 99% of women aged 15–44 who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method” and 90% of Americans believe birth control is morally acceptable.

“Americans Choose ‘Pro-Choice’ for First Time in Seven Years” was a headline in May. That poll showed 78% of Americans approved legal abortion in at least a few circumstances.

As of July, “a majority of Americans (55%) support same-sex marriage.”  Also,  “a majority of Americans believe businesses should not be allowed to refuse services on the basis of religious beliefs” a poll found in April “in the wake of controversies in Indiana and Arkansas over gay rights and religious freedom.”

Even if they are unaware that Pope Francis has made dozens of speeches in opposition to the views held by our majority and that he has had many private meetings with even non-Catholics leaders actively engaged in denying women and LGBT persons their human rights, they do know their own Catholic bishops are still campaigning hard with seemingly unlimited funds on the above issues.

Additionally, the “‘nones,’ a category that includes people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular,’ now make up 23% of U.S. adults, up from 16% in 2007.”  So the percentage of Americans skeptical of any right wing Christian leader is growing.

Alarming news items in 2015 at the local level may also have affected the national drop in Pope Francis’ popularity.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was criminally charged for its role in failing to protect children and contributing to the “unspeakable harm” done to sexual abuse victims. Residents of Michigan were also distressed that Archbishop John Nienstedt, who led the Twin Cities archdiocese during this period, is working in a Catholic church in Battle Creek. “For him to be ordered to another parish is the same sad story that’s been playing out for 30 years,” attorney Jeff Anderson said.

“Church child abuse scandals ‘tip of iceberg’ say real-life stars of Oscar-tipped film,” Walter Robinson and Mike Rezendes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering how the Church had covered up the activities of pedophile priests, the subject of the movie Spotlight. “Thousands more have escaped justice in the United States alone,” they said, and “research showed between six and 10 percent of priests have abused children” while “experts believe between 0.5 and 1 percent of the general population are pedophiles.” Pope Francis stated only two percent of priests are pedophiles.

“All children will never be fully protected so long as the identities of predators are secret from the public,” warns Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who studies statutes of limitations. Perpetrators, like Boston’s Fr. John Geoghan, made more infamous by the movie Spotlight, “abuse into their elderly years. The 40-year-old who abused children 30 years ago may still be dangerous, and parents will not know who all of those priests, rabbis, teachers and family members are until the states’ statute-of-limitations stranglehold is released and victims can come forward in the safety of the court system,” Hamilton wrote. (A statute of limitations forbids prosecutors or plaintiffs from taking legal action after a certain number of years.)

Bishops’ lobbying groups are fighting efforts to extend the statue of limitations in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Iowa. New York bishops since 2006 have been fighting a bill that would eliminate both civil and criminal statute of limitations for past cases of child sex abuse.”

Pregnant women in Michigan  and California – forced to go to a Catholic hospital due to its proximity with no other hospitals within easy driving distance – were denied appropriate medical treatment. Both lost their lawsuits based on the hospital’s “religious freedom.”

Fourteen Catholic Church employees lost their jobs for being gay in 2015 alone. Three incidents stand out because the religious media have often described Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich and Washington D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl similarly as “helping Francis shape the future of the American Church in a more pastoral and moderate mold.”

The Absence of Italian and International Visitors to the Vatican

The Politico article noted that Italians are ignoring Pope Francis:

In Italy, attendance at places of worship decreased in 2014 to 28.8 percent of the population compared to more than 30 percent during the years of Ratzinger [and] the Union of Rational Atheists and Agnostics in Italy reported last week that online applications to download a form allowing people to “de-baptize” themselves, meaning to formally request to be taken off the Church’s rolls as a member, reached an all-time high in 2015.

After 1700 years of Vatican history, Italians may be blasé about any pope, but they haven’t seen any substantive change for the better either.

Italians are familiar with decades and dozens of financial scandals proving the incredible wealth of the Church. An April 2015 article in the Italian business newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, that the Vatican’s assets – securities, real estate and bank accounts – “by a conservative estimate” could be around €15-17 billion and the extent of the assets of religious orders is “as unknown as it is great.” (1 euro = US 1.06 dollar). Pope Francis’ personal income was €428 Million in 2013. The Peter’s Pence collection totaled €378 million and the Vatican Bank’s annual profits of €50 million were also “offered the Holy Father in support of his apostolic and charitable ministry.”

With that kind of money, Romans would be unimpressed by renovations of public bathrooms just off St. Peter’s Square to include three showers and a barber shop. They know that, like almost all of the pope’s charities, it is collaborative work with comparatively little coming from the pope himself. Barbers and students from a hairdressing school are volunteering their services. A change of underwear and personal hygiene articles are “offered free of charge by various firms and private individuals.” The Office of Papal Charities purchases supplies as needed “using money raised from the selling of parchments with a Papal Blessing,” “300 umbrellas – left by tourists in the Vatican Museums – had been distributed to the homeless” and parishes contributed  to this project including “building the shower block beneath the colonnade.”

“Francis has made concern for migrants a centerpiece of his papacy.” Yet the pope just accepted only the second family to live in the Vatican.

It was Pope Benedict XVI who put his money where his mouth was on climate change. He approved “covering the Vatican’s Paul VI hall with solar panels, enough to power the lighting, heating, and cooling of a portion of the entire country (which covers a mere one-fifth of a square mile). He authorized the Vatican’s bank to purchase carbon credits that would make the Catholic city-state the only country fully carbon neutral. And several years later, he unveiled a new hybrid Popemobile that would be partially electric.”

Other nationalities also have reason to be displeased.

Pope Francis personally pulled his ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, out of the country just before a televised exposé would accuse the prelate of paying poor street boys to masturbate and perform oral sex with him while he took pictures. Refusing  Dominican requests for extradition, the pope allowed Wesolowski to remain a free man for 14 months during which time the archbishop accumulated more than 100,000 computer files of pornography with disturbing photos of children who were likely victims of human trafficking. Before his Vatican trial could begin in July which would have revealed this, Wesolowski became sick and died. His Vatican autopsy was supervised by the same “expert” who had performed the autopsy on a Swiss Guard killed by gun shot. His conclusion of “suicide” was disputed by a professor at the University of Lausanne’s Institute of Forensic Pathology.

In 2015, there was “unprecedented fury” in Australia, partly because the man Pope Francis appointed as his financial tsar, Cardinal George Pell, refused to leave Rome to give evidence before the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, citing ill health.  Pell’s record is so egregious that Australia’s largest-selling daily newspaper, the Herald Sun, printed an op-ed: “Nothing less than the defrocking of Australia’s most senior Church member will indicate the Church is a fully reformed beast.”

Pope Francis fired the “Bishop of Bling,” Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, for marring the image of the Church he wished to project. In July, the pope decided that Tebartz-van Elst “would not have to pay damages for going about 25 million euros ($28 million) over budget despite a request from the Limburg [Germany] Diocese that he be held accountable. Tebartz-van Elst remains active in the Church and on its payroll, receiving about 10,300 euros a month – 7,296 euros of which is his pension from Limburg – and is currently serving on a papal evangelization council at the Vatican proper.”

Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne to his Council on the Economy. “Under Cipriani’s leadership, the Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, became an investor in the stocks of one of the most controversial mining companies which sparked the mobilization of large-scale environmental social movement in the country.” Cipriani has always sided with businesses, never mentioned their pollution and has never been on the side of indigenous peoples or farming communities.

The pope ordered the beatification of 522  “martyrs of the faith” killed by republican militias in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War resulting in the Fascist Franco victory. “More than 100 support groups for victims of Franco’s forces wrote an open letter to the pope calling on him to apologize for the Church’s role which they said helped to legitimize ‘the military uprising and the Franco dictatorship that claimed so many victims.’… Critics of the Catholic Church argue that while it is happy to honor those killed by republicans, it has failed to address the far higher number of republicans who were murdered by Franco’s forces.”

Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, will ask Pope Francis to apologize “to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools,”  as requested by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report published last June. The pope’s ambassador to Canada said, “We are trying to make the Holy Father be aware of these requests and to convey to him the deep meaning.” However, when Pope Francis met with the former prime minister, Stephen Harper, he reminded the pope of the letter sent by his Aboriginal Affairs minister regarding the TRC report issued earlier that month.

In January 2015, Pope Francis announced the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to Osorno, Chile. Approximately 1,300 lay faithful from Osorno, 51 of Chile’s 120 national lawmakers and some 30 priests from the diocese urged the pope to rescind the appointment. They accused Barros of covering up for the serial pedophile priest, Fernando Karadima, who had made national headlines during the past decade. (A criminal complaint against Karadima was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired, but the Chilean judge handling the case determined the abuse allegations were truthful.)

“At least 650 protesters” tried to stop Barro’s installation mass in March.

Francis has repeatedly defended the appointment, saying the accusations against Barros are unfounded. During one high-profile incident at the Vatican on May 6, Francis told a group of Chileans in St. Peter’s Square that the accusations were cooked up by ‘lefties.’

[On November 12] Chile’s high court took the unusual step of asking the Vatican to present documents supporting the pope’s assertion.

“Deliver a complete and accurate copy of all the reports that you have concerning the investigation,” the petition reads, specifically referring to the pope’s comments during the St. Peter’s incident.

Chile shares a 3,200 mile border with Argentina and the two ecclesial hierarchies have always been close. Next month, Pope Francis will go to Mexico, his eleventh trip outside Italy and fourth trip to Latin America. While Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI took victory laps to their native countries shortly after their ascension to the throne of St. Peter, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio still has not included Argentina on his foreign itineraries.

Pope Francis “faces accusations in his country on his attitude and complicit silence during the coup and the military dictatorship.” Including his time as cardinal primate, “the Argentina Church will not or can not admit mistakes and misdiagnoses of that dramatic period in the life of that country.”

“The possible cooperation of Bergoglio and other leaders of the Catholic Church might never be elucidated before the courts. The election of Bergoglio to become pope in 2013 placed a heavy tombstone on these investigations,” the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) stated in its 2015 annual report. “Human rights leaders – including CELS founder, Emilio Mignone – have accused Bergoglio of being linked to the kidnapping of two priests during the dictatorship, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics.”

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America (Clarity Press, 2009).

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