Soon after Pope Francis skyrocketed into media superstardom, some frustrated Catholics started playing an online game that could be called "Name that pope." Most of them were not upset with what their charismatic shepherd from Argentina was actually saying and doing. Instead, they were frustrated with the media storm portraying him as radically different -- in substance -- from his predecessors.
Frankly, this is one of the strangest stories I have seen during the many years -- 26 as of last week -- I have been writing this "On Religion" syndicated column.
Want to try this game? Start with this quotation: "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion."
Name that pope: That's Pope Francis, believe it or not.
Round two: "It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church's pastors wherever it occurs."
Name that pope: That's Pope Benedict XVI.
Round three: "If we refuse to share what we have with the hungry and the poor, we make of our possessions a false god. How many voices in our materialist society tell us that happiness is to be found by acquiring as many possessions and luxuries as we can! ... Instead of bringing life, they bring death."
Name that pope: Benedict, again.
Round four: "Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. ... Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church's effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. ... It is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life."
Name that pope: Francis, of course.
What's going on? Many progressives now shouting praises at Francis don't seem familiar with the doctrines he is supposedly modernizing, according to Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, a Catholic Republican in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
"This old wine of the Gospel has become new again in Pope Francis' way of expressing and living it. 'Bombshell' is the word that pundits attach to comments he makes that are nothing more nor less than what the Church has taught from the beginning," she wrote, at the Public Catholic website.
Another religion-beat veteran, someone who has read daily Vatican dispatches for 20 years, thinks it's "nonsense" say Francis has suddenly shifted Rome's concerns away from contraception, abortion and homosexuality to poverty, peace and environmentalism. If there has been a dominant theme under recent popes, it has been human rights.
"It was the media, some advocacy groups on both sides and perhaps some individual bishops -- but not the popes -- who were fixated on what is so wrongly mischaracterized as 'pelvic issues,' " said Ann Rodgers, who recently became communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh after several decades covering religion in the mainstream press.
So why is Pope Francis a media star and "Teflon" when it comes to criticism? Speaking at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Rodgers said the key is that famous Marshall McLuhan statement: "The medium is the message."
After his election, Francis declined a limo and rode a bus to dinner with other cardinals. The next day he famously paid his own bill at the international residence house, where he had often stayed in the past and knew the staff by name.
"The medium is the message," said Rodgers.
The list goes on and on. Last fall, the pope publicly embraced a man with a horribly disfigured face. He warned Mafiosi to repent or face hell. On his first Maundy Thursday, he washed the feet of inmates, including women and non-Christians.
"When he is washing the feet of a Muslim girl, he is not making a claim that she is a Christian or that Islam and Christianity are in any way interchangeable," said Rodgers. "He is saying, 'You are a Muslim girl. You are a prisoner and I love you, in the name of Jesus. I am here to serve you, in the name of Jesus.' ...
"He takes away her sense of shame, but in a way that may help her aspire to holiness. He's not just talking about mercy. He's not just talking about loving the stranger who is our neighbor. The medium is the message."