Austen IvereighOctober 14, 2021
Pope Francis raises the monstrance during eucharistic adoration at the end of Mass in the chapel of his Vatican residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, May 5, 2020. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis raises the monstrance during eucharistic adoration at the end of Mass in the chapel of his Vatican residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, May 5, 2020. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

There is an apocryphal story about a journalism professor teaching a new class of would-be reporters. “Imagine you’re covering a story about the weather,” he tells them. “Half of those you talk to say it’s raining and the other half say it’s dry.”

“Your job,” he says, “is not to quote both of them. It’s to look out of the window.”

The story came to mind when I read J. D. Long-García’s discomfort with Pope Francis’ characterization of a certain large TV network’s incessant belittling of his pontificate as the “work of the devil.”

Over the past eight years, a powerful U.S.-based media conglomerate has used its formidable wealth and power to turn a large portion of the people of God against Rome. 

Mr. Long-García said he was surprised by the absence of critical reaction from “Catholic media professionals” to the remarks made by Francis in response to a question from the Jesuits in Slovakia. “Are some of us letting the comments slide simply because we like this pope so much?” he wondered.

He then reminded us that under Pope Benedict XVI the Vatican had caused the removal of the then editor in chief of America magazine, Thomas Reese, S.J. That was an abuse of power. True, Francis wasn’t doing that, Mr. Long-García wrote, but wasn’t he somehow “using his influence” to quell criticism?

But there was a reason many people—including Catholic journalists like me—did not share the same discomfort. We saw the pope looking out of the window and naming what most have long seen: that over the past eight years, a powerful U.S.-based media conglomerate has used its formidable wealth and power to turn a large portion of the people of God against Rome and its current occupant. And, for good measure, against key reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis doesn’t accuse people directly, because he knows that accusation is the weapon of the diabolos.

Because there is really only one network that neatly fits the description Francis gave—“a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope”—and because his description of the spiritual reality behind the attacks was so direct and clear (“the work of the devil”), most people recognized at once that he was talking about EWTN. And to dispel any lingering hesitation, Gerard O’Connell furnished vital extra clues.

But it is important that the network went unnamed by Francis, and he didn’t go into details. He never does. He doesn’t accuse people directly, because he knows that accusation is the weapon of the diabolos, triggering cycles of counter-accusation that drag everyone down. Instead he asks to consider their actions (in this case, the attacks on the papacy) and their fruits.

Indeed, he has written before—and more recently in our book Let Us Dream—of the importance of meeting accusation with self-accusation. That is why he said, in his answer to the Slovak Jesuits, that personally he deserved attacks and insults “because I am a sinner.”

Safeguarding the unity of the church is a “constitutive dimension” of the function of the papacy. 

When he hears about being belittled and scorned every week on Raymond Arroyo’s show, in other words, he sees it as an opportunity for self-abasement and humility, a healthy corrective to any leader’s temptation to hubris.

But of course, what is involved here is not just a question of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s response to attacks on his person, nor his own spiritual reading of them. Pope Francis is the successor of Peter named by Jesus, and like Peter anointed by the Holy Spirit to guide and unite the holy faithful people of God. As they say in Rome, safeguarding the unity of the church is a “constitutive dimension” of the function of the papacy. Or as Benedict XVI once put it, when schism rears up ahead, a pope has no choice but to act.

Schism is not an intellectual matter. It is not a matter of simple disagreement. Schism is not criticism. Schism is a spiritual attack on the unity of the church rooted in the action of the diabolos. It begins, usually, with appropriating the magisterium, appointing oneself as its guardian, and throwing into doubt the validity and legitimacy of the incumbent in Rome.

Is this what animates EWTN shows like Raymond Arroyo’s? Is this spirit of schism— known by its contempt, arrogance and disdain, but presenting itself as the defense of orthodoxy and tradition—evident in the ongoing hostility and contempt towards Francis?

Schism is not criticism. Schism is a spiritual attack on the unity of the church rooted in the action of the diabolos.

And if it is that spirit—if, when we look out of the window, that is what we see—why is the pope not free, indeed obliged, to do the same, to help us identify that spirit? And if it is the spirit of schism, then it is the diabolos; and calling it something else just puts lipstick on a pig.

It’s easy to understand why this language makes some squirm. Words like evil and devil get bandied about in our press and social media. They are used to cancel others, even demonize them.

But Pope Francis uses this language very carefully and very precisely, as befits a Jesuit who has spent his life immersed in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and who now acts as the guardian of the gift of unity of the global church. He has patiently endured years of attacks from EWTN and others like it; he has seen them feed the people of God a toxic diet of misinformation and propaganda, fencing them off from their pastor.

And now, finally—gently but firmly—he has decided to name what most of us have long seen out of the window. The attacks, he says—not the network; not any individual—are the work of the diabolos.

Pope Francis uses this language very carefully and very precisely, as befits a Jesuit who has spent his life immersed in the Spiritual Exercises.

Of course, we don’t have to agree. We can counter Francis’s discernment with one of our own. Perhaps the undermining of Francis’ authority is, in fact, God’s work. Perhaps we are not yet in position to discern and should apply the Gamaliel principle and see what happens.

But one thing is clear. If it were just criticism that EWTN was offering, Francis would not have described it as he did. He welcomes criticism, and has a healthy horror of adulation.

However, he makes a clear distinction. Well-intentioned criticism that helps build up the church should always be welcomed and engaged. But attacks that come from the bad spirit are of a different nature. An attack on the legitimacy and validity of the teaching office of the pope through a constant barrage of false accusations and casting suspicion and distrust is not just criticism. It is something else; or at least, the criticism contains something else. As Francis says: “You debate ideas, but discern situations.”

Using lies or half-truths wrenched from their necessary context, a bad-spirit attack sows division and suspicion. It discredits and divides. It pulls down and delegitimizes by scorn. The proper response to bad-spirit attacks is never to engage them directly, because dialogue with the devil only draws you in and down.

You don’t dialogue with the devil. But if you’re the pope, you might choose to call out the devil’s work.

You don’t dialogue with the devil. But if you’re the pope, you might choose to call out the devil’s work, to name it for what it is. But you don’t engage it. Which is why, for eight years the pope has never responded to those attacks, even as many people—not least, the nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre—have sought to engage EWTN in a thus-far fruitless dialogue.

Francis has been astonishingly indulgent with his attackers, far gentler and patient than most of us would be. It is inconceivable that he would ever seek to silence anyone or intervene to remove a Catholic magazine editor or TV presenter. But he does not flinch from naming what is going on.

Paradoxically, gently naming the true spiritual nature of the attacks now, after years of patient silence, might actually enable a dialogue. The pope has named what he says is the real issue of what lies behind EWTN’s toxicity. Is it true? Let the discussion begin.

But even if it doesn’t enable a dialogue, Francis has done a service to the people of God. As popes are enjoined to do, he has helped us discern where the Holy Spirit is at work—often disguised, in unlikely or scorned places and people—and conversely, where the bad spirit of schism and division is working to undermine it, often behind the mask of respectability and orthodoxy.

Is it a good idea to try to protect Francis from his critics? Of course not. That is not what he wants. Francis wasn’t seeking to suppress criticism, belittle his opponents or even to justify himself against those who oppose him. He simply answered a question, truthfully and simply, about how he read some of the attacks. He looked out of the window, named the truth he saw, and helped us to do the same.

Speaking as a Catholic and as a journalist, I was delighted.

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