Rush Limbaugh versus Pope Francis.
The media couldn’t pass up this alleged brouhaha, playing up the “disagreement” between the leading conservative radio talker and the pontiff in Rome. For example, the Los Angeles Times commented that conservatives seemed flummoxed by the pope — a meme that somehow the left has more in common with the pope than the right. CNN’s Piers Morgan even called Mr. Limbaugh the “devil incarnate” for his criticism of Pope Francis.
After five years reporting about the Vatican, I remain amazed how little the Western media know about the Roman Catholic Church. Simply put, the pope and Mr. Limbaugh agree on just about everything, but the average reader wouldn’t know that from the reporting.
The “conflict” began last month when the radio host criticized part of a nearly 50,000-word apostolic exhortation — a list of suggestions from the top Catholic leader to the church’s followers that does not change doctrine — titled “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “Joy of the Gospel.”
Mr. Limbaugh pointed to some of the pope’s comments about economics, which the radio host called Marxist in their tendencies. I heard the broadcast that day and read the transcript of the apostolic exhortation later. I thought Mr. Limbaugh’s comments were harsh; I thought the pope’s economic analysis rather naive. (See the pope’s full statement at bit.ly/18YGBVZ.)
Last weekend, the pope, after being chosen Time’s “Person of the Year,” told an Italian newspaper, “Marxism is wrong.” However, the Argentinian added that he had met “many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”
The statement made headlines throughout the United States, usually interpreted as the pope chiding Mr. Limbaugh. Perhaps he was. But too many analysts and reporters failed to acknowledge just how closely the attitudes of the pope and the pundit align on many issues.
The 77-year-old pope may have shown the softer side of Catholicism in some of his statements. But he and Mr. Limbaugh oppose abortion and same-sex marriage. The Vatican has made it clear that women will not become priests. Nor is it likely that celibacy rules for priests will be relaxed.
Time’s selection of Pope Francis as the most important individual of 2013 seemed to me to be another example of the media’s misunderstanding of the pope. He has brought an engaging personality and a sense of the dramatic to the papacy. But it took two of the most important pontiffs in the history of the church — both of whom will be canonized as saints in April — a long time to gain the same recognition from Time. It took four years for Pope John XXIII and 16 years for Pope John Paul II, while Pope Francis has been on the job only since March.
The explanation of the choice from Time Managing Editor Nancy Gibbs seemed indicative of the motives of those publications that have joined the media parade behind this pope.
The fledgling pope was selected, she wrote, because “in a very short time, a vast, global, ecumenical audience has shown a hunger to follow him.” During his brief tenure, Francis was honored “for pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy.”
This week, Mr. Limbaugh said with a chuckle that he thinks the magazine picked the pope simply to tick off Rush Limbaugh.
“I’ve never seen the left come to the defense of a pope or the Catholic Church like I have seen them come to the defense of the pope and the Catholic Church this time,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “They name him ‘Man of the Year’ simply because he attacks capitalism and ticks me off. And in the process they’ve named, as ‘Man of the Year,’ the biggest pro-lifer in the world.”
Whatever the case, Mr. Limbaugh and the pope are likely to have the last laugh over this media kerfuffle.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @charper51.
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