The Defamation of the Pope: A window into liberal intolerance of organized religion

J. Martin Rochester

By J. Martin Rochester

Recently I was at a friend’s house participating in a Passover seder and, in an effort to make conversation, I innocently remarked, “Well, there is a new Pope.”  One of the persons at the table, a very liberal-minded individual, instantly responded, “Yes, and he has some baggage,” referring to the alleged failure of Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires and newly christened Pope Francis, to do more to speak out against Argentina’s dictatorial government responsible for mass arrests, torture, and disappearances between 1976 and 1983. As the New York Times front-page headline of March 18 read, “Starting A Papacy, Amid Echoes of a ‘Dirty War.’” No doubt my seder companion was echoing  the barrage of criticism that the Times and other mainstream, liberal  media had leveled at not only the Pope but also the Catholic Church in general  soon after the white smoke wafted from the Vatican chimney signaling the selection of a new pontiff.

This anecdote offers some broader insight into the “liberal” view of organized religion, particularly orthodox denominations.  How so? Even if Pope Francis could have done more to combat the Dirty War, which itself is an arguable proposition backed by mixed evidence, why should we be surprised the Pope has “baggage”?  The supposed infallibility of the Holy Father notwithstanding, what human being among us is perfect and does not carry “baggage”? Yet that was the first response of my liberal friend and the mass media to the papal election. Never mind that Francis was a Jesuit (a member of a Catholic order known to be among the most reform-minded and progressive in the Church), that he had a strong reputation for serving the poor and doing good works in Argentina, that he lived a very modest life, and that he was very ecumenical in his treatment of Jews and other non-Catholics. No, the only thing that mattered, apparently, was he had “baggage,” along with the Church, which had been attacked constantly by the media for covering up child molestation by priests, financial scandals, and its stand against abortion and gay rights.

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I do not wish to defend child molestation or any other actions and positions of the Catholic Church — the Church has done much that is sinful and inexcusable — but surely one could find something positive to say about the Pope and his flock. Even when Pope Francis received praise, for example for washing the feet of two women and two Muslims among several other inmates at a juvenile detention center on Holy Thursday before Easter, the media drumbeat about clerical sex abuse continued unabated as the main storyline in Church coverage.  At least the new pope was spared the kind of skewering that David Letterman and late-night comedians had reserved for Pope Benedict. (Recall the Letterman joke, “The Pope was resigning to spend more time with his wife and kids.” Or, “The Pope is now on Twitter. The Church is trying to connect with young people – in a way that doesn’t involve hush money.”)  Irreverence  is a staple of comedy, but tastelessness and mean-spiritedness is something else.

I am convinced that what at least partly explains this anti-religion attitude displayed  by many liberals, including the liberal media,  is precisely their contemptfor what they view as “flock-like,” i.e., sheep-like, behavior by congregants who practice fundamentalist faiths. Liberals and others on the left take their cue from Karl Marx, who famously criticized religion as the “opium of the masses.” Such criticism extends not only to Roman Catholics but also Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox Jews as well as Evangelical Christians. Non-orthodox sects tend to be spared from attacks since their “flocks” are considered freer thinkers, especially since they tend to think along liberal lines on abortion and other issues. Interestingly, Islamic fundamentalists are also treated more gently than their Jewish and Christian orthodox brethren, since “Islamaphobia” is considered politically incorrect in a post-9/11 world; hence, the tendency of the mainstream media  (along with academia, another bastion of liberalism) to cut Egyptian President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood lots of slack, urging the West not to rush to judgment about the Arab Spring, despite Morsi and the bros threatening women’s rights, calling Jews “descendants of apes and pigs,” and behaving far worse than the Pope.

If you think I am wrong in my analysis of liberal bias against religion, then I challenge you to do a “content analysis” of the New York Times, Washington Post, and most other major newspapers (other than the Wall Street Journal) that are considered “agenda-setters,” as well as the TV and cable networks (other than Fox). That is, measure the amount of ink or airtime devoted to trashing religion as opposed to celebrating it. If one adds the Hollywood media, you can bet the house of worship that when the media are not savaging religion, they are mocking and ridiculing it. I am not saying that all media do this and that all liberals are religion-phobic, but there is a clear pattern that can be discerned.  For every article in the New York Times that presents a positive image of Catholics, Evangelicals, or ultra-orthodox Jews (e.g., David Brooks’ recent column applauding the values of Hasids who shop at Pomegranate in Brooklyn) there are a dozen or so that focus on Vatican secrecy, charlatan televangelists, sexism in Boro Park or Williamsburg, and the failings of  true believers.  

Perhaps liberals understandably are calling attention to the hypocrisy represented  by an institution that preaches one thing and often acts otherwise. I get that. However, what I don’t get is when the media criticize the Pope for his stand on abortion or celibacy or other core beliefs of the Church, suggesting that the Vatican should have selected a pontiff open to radical change, in other words open to no longer being Catholic! Likewise, when ultra-Orthodox Jews are criticized for not hiring female rabbis or not including mention of the matriarchs in their liturgical service, do the media expect these folks to abandon their theological principles and become Reform Jews?  As long as they do not impose their religion on others, why insist they surrender their faith?  What happened to the liberal commitment to “tolerance” and “diversity”? Has freedom of religion become freedom from religion?  I guess intolerance is in the eyes of the beholder.