Ian Boyne, Contributor
His name did not appear in the lists of papal contenders published in the leading electronic and print media globally, and even when one magazine got the country (Argentina) right, it was the wrong cardinal who had the bet. So when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires emerged as Pope Francis, successor to Pope Benedict XVI, many were stunned.
It was a fitting illustration of just how off-target religion reporting has become, how disconnected media have become to religious issues, and how poorly the beat is being covered. This was further amplified by references in American media to the new Pope being a 'reformer' to the 2,000-year-old church.
But what is beyond dispute is that the Latin American region, whose immigrants produced decisive demographic shifts which influenced United States presidential politics, and whose citizen now occupies the most prestigious office in the world, is no backwater region.
With all the attention that the papacy still commands - the election of a new Pope knocked everything else off the headlines all over the world - it is an anachronism in this modern world. It holds ideas and doctrines that are fiercely at odds with Western democratic, pluralistic society. In an age that glorifies democracy and the decentralisation of power, the Catholic Church is strictly hierarchical in structure, investing absolute authority in the Pope who has final authority over his 1.2 billion followers. Catholic congregations are not independent but must report to a command structure. Priests are not democratically elected, nor are bishops or archbishops. It's a men's club.
At a time when feminists and equal-rights advocates have won enormous gains, the Catholic Church still bars women from serving as priests and shows no sign of relenting. In an age that idolises sex, the Catholic Church still mandates celibacy for its priests, with no number of sex scandals and sex-abuse cases able to penetrate that centuries-old dogma.
Contraception, which used to be frowned on by almost all denominations but now is accepted by all, is still rejected by the Catholic Church as morally unacceptable, despite the fact that most of its members in Western countries disagree with the church's stand.
issue of homosexuality
Divorce and remarriage are still not officially accepted, with annulment being the only permissible route for Catholics in good standing. And then there is that now-raging issue of homosexuality, which has undergone seismic attitude change in the West over the past few decades, but to which the papacy remains firmly and resolutely opposed. No matter that a new poll released in America last week showed that American Catholics support same-sex marriage by an even greater percentage (54 per cent) than average Americans.
I put forward the view that a lot of the negative reporting about the Catholic Church and the emphasis on its despicable and abominable sex-abuse scandals, and the equally atrocious cover-up, is motivated by revulsion over its conservative teachings, particularly on homosexuality. Yes, the media are revolted by the sex scandals and the unforgivable cover-ups, sinful reassignments and colossal abuse of power by some bishops. The media would be hard on any institution that turned a blind eye to those abuses, which have cost the Catholic Church billions of dollars.
Corruption and criminality must be roundly condemned anywhere and everywhere, and the criminals in the Catholic Church walking around in frocks and passing themselves off as priests and shepherds of the flock should be severely punished. Instead, bishops shielded them. Lives have been destroyed while many bastards have gone on to further crimes in other congregations. My stomach is sick with such psychological and physical savagery. No condemnation is strong and severe enough for these perverts posing as priests.
But to focus almost exclusively on sex and financial scandals, as the media have been doing, is abominable. Since Pope Benedict announced his resignation, the Catholic Church has suffered one of the worst episodes of vulgar, sensational journalism the world has seen in recent decades. I have used strong terms to describe paedophile priests and the cover-up some bishops engaged in. It is inexcusable, monstrous and dastardly.
However, to reduce the Catholic Church to just that, to constantly show images of protesters against paedophile priests and to fill so much television time and media space with sex scandals and financial intrigue, while failing to give a thorough assessment of Pope Benedict's tenure and the multifarious role of the Catholic Church, is a great journalistic travesty.
I have been keenly following religion reporting since the 1970s and have been a religion writer and analyst since then, when I began writing for the now-defunct Jamaica Daily News (and I am the only Jamaican journalist to have won a national journalism award for distinguished religion writing - in 1981), but this is the worst religion reporting I have ever seen.
Part of it is economics and the downsizing of media; with the result that many of the specialist religion writers who were trained in philosophy and religion are gone. There is no more Kenneth Briggs, Richard Ostling, Russell Chandler. What you have are generalists covering religion and they are usually superficial and sensational. Religion reporting requires an acquaintance with ideas and a sophistication which many journalists find too burdensome.
Plus, there is the arrogance and demagoguery of some secularists, particularly those favourable to the gay lobby. There is a new kind of atheist who has arisen who is fierce, feisty, belligerent, and hostile to religious perspectives and grossly under-read. Such atheists spew a combination of ignorance and arrogance that is pathetic.
A good example of this is the article on the Time magazine website titled 'Why the First Latin American Pope Inspires Less Hope Than we Hoped', written by Tim Padgett. He notes the fact that the former Cardinal Bergoglio was known for his advocacy of the poor and downtrodden, but said in 2010, "We found that Bergoglio's attitude towards other underdogs could be remarkably cruel." What cruelty was the cardinal guilty of? The cruelty of not accepting homosexuality as part of "God's plan"!
"When Argentina legalised homosexuality that summer ... it wasn't enough for Bergoglio to criticise the law; he felt compelled to demonise homosexuals in the process - calling gay unions 'a scheme to destroy God's plan'. In that sense, he was just echoing the homophobia of his boss." At least he was open in showing that his antipathy toward this cardinal-turned-Pope, and by extension to the Catholic Church, was because of their position on homosexuality. A lot of the narrow, sensational and biased reporting on the Catholic Church is driven by this hostility and intolerance to the Catholic Church as a result of its long history of opposition to homosexuality and its conservative stand on sexual ethics in this sexually libertine era.
Since when it is a 'cruelty' and 'homophobia' to express a view that homosexuality is against God's plan? That is the view of conservative Christians. But these arrogant, intolerant and anti-democratic supporters of gay rights want to use demagoguery and intimidation to oppose conservative Christians.
right to believe
You don't have to agree with conservative Christians about homosexuality. You might think it is madness for Catholics to believe in mandatory celibacy for priests, a male-only priesthood, and for them to condemn contraception and condoms, but give people their right to believe nonsense if they want to.
Don't use your power in media to violate journalistic standards of fairness, balance and truth. That the Catholic Church still opposes abortion is the democratic right of the Catholic Church. The last I checked, it was not against the law to hold that view. But there is an intolerant spirit among some of the New Secularists and New Atheists which I find galling and anti-intellectual.
Tim Padgett rails that "the Latin American (Catholic) church is one of the world's most reactionary. Its anti-gay crusade ... , in fact, is mild compared to its rigidity on women's issues". The average Western reporter is either secularist or Protestant, so it's hard for the Catholic Church to get fair treatment in media. Plus, Catholics have suffered from so much prejudice and stereotype over the years that's it's difficult to get even an understating of its theology.
There are the fundamentalist groups which have depicted them as anti-Christ, the Devil incarnate and which have cast them in all kinds of nefarious roles in prophecy. In Jamaica, they get blasted by Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Armstrongites, Church of Christ, Pentecostals and Rastafarians. Bunning fire pon Pope gets a lot of "pram-pram!" in the dancehall.
Fact is that the Catholic Church is far more than sex and financial scandals and an institution with medieval beliefs. The Catholic Church has been one of the most progressive voices for poor and oppressed peoples in the world. The papacy has been a potent voice for the world's marginalised and has spoken out strongly against imperialism and capitalist exploitation.
The Catholic Church has been an important voice for developing countries and one of the hopeful things with an election of an Argentinean Pope is that he will become a significant champion for a new global order and an inclusive development, counterbalancing neoliberal institutions like the International Monetary Fund.
We need a global champion of the poor. The Catholic Church has the history of robustness in theological and philosophical thought to carry out this advocacy in an age of neoliberal orthodoxy. When one thinks of the important and far-reaching work Catholic priests do all over the world with oppressed and marginalised peoples, and how Catholic priests have been at the forefront of the struggle for social justice and equality, it is painful to see almost all of them typecast as paedophiles.
Yes, it's a fact that there are wicked, abusive priests. But there is no evidence they are in the majority. It is a gross distortion to define a church by some errant members. That's not responsible journalism or fair comment. Its slander, intellectual indolence and old-fashioned prejudice.
The Catholic Church is swimming against both the secular and religious tide religiously. People are seeking an emotion-based, experiential, charismatic faith. Intellect and philosophy are de-emphasised. Catholicism does not thrive when philosophy is given short shrift.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.