In his New Year’s Day homily, Pope Francis denounced violence against women as a “blasphemy against God, who was born of a woman.” CNN immediately tried to capitalize on this for sensationalistic purposes, by tying his speech to the incident the previous day, when he slapped the hand of a woman who yanked his arm violently in order to release himself from her grip.

I admit I was pleasantly surprised, not by the tweet, but by the responses it elicited. I thought this would be an occasion for the usual anti-Catholic crowd to pile on the Pope, as this was certainly the CNN headline-writer’s intention. However, that was not what happened. A staggering majority of people commenting on the tweet saw through the sensationalism and reacted in defense of the Holy Father, overwhelming the negative voices. I took screenshots of a selection of tweets that I believe is fairly representative of the responses.

Then I turned to Catholic twitter. It was an unbelievable sight. The tweet that started this controversy, by @CatholicSat, was worded in a less biased and misleading way than CNN’s. It said: “This evening after visiting the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis loses his cool after being grabbed by a pilgrim who wouldn’t let go of his hand. The Pope repeated slapped her hand and told her to let go of him

What were the replies to this tweet? Again, there was an overwhelming majority, but this time the responses were critical of the Pope. Again, I present you what I believe is a representative selection:

Once again, it seemed like I had been sucked into Bizarro world. The tweets I encountered on Catholic Twitter were full of the negativity that I was expecting to find from non-Catholics! They used the same rhetoric, tricks, recycled propaganda and judgmentalism that I defended Benedict against during his pontificate when the secular media launched smear campaigns against him!

This time, the comments from non-Catholics noted the pain in the Pope’s face, his age, his humanity, things that none of the supposedly faithful Catholics took time to notice. They were more filial towards the Holy Father than his flock.

This is a problem, no matter how you slice it. As Catholics, we should be ashamed of being in the shadow of those who we view as outsiders to our faith! The latter were able to show more Catholic piety towards the Vicar of Christ than Catholics who just follow the Pope when it suits them.

Francis’s critics will quickly absolve themselves by saying that this just shows that the pontiff caters to the world, not to Catholics–As if that justifies what they say! I made a point of including, in the first group of tweets above, the replies of non-Catholics who specifically said that they didn’t care for the Pope or Catholicism. It’s obvious that these non-Catholics are more objective than many Catholics, as the second series of tweets clearly shows.

I even included in the first series comments from non-Catholics who are overtly critical of the Pope and the Church. Yet, they didn’t simply take the bait that was served to them on a silver platter by CNN, while reactionary Catholics immediately used the incident as yet another opportunity to attack Francis. In this sense, non-Catholic critics show more restraint than the critics inside the visible borders of the Church.

As David Gee, an atheist, says in his Friendly Atheist blog:

“There are plenty of things the pope has done to warrant criticism, but this shouldn’t be on the list. Yes, he could’ve found a more patient way to deal with the woman, but he’s human (and hardly a conduit to God), he was possibly in pain, and he had no way to know why someone was hanging on to his hand beyond what he wanted. (Consent applies even when you’re the pope!) I suspect many of us would’ve done the same thing in his position.

Apologizing for failing to represent a higher morality is more than appropriate here. Those suggesting the pope’s actions were malicious, violent, or hypocritical seem to be looking for any reason to condemn him. There are plenty of valid reasons to be critical of the pope. This isn’t one of them.

Of all the controversies the Church has been embroiled in over the years, this may be the least offensive of them all.”

Let us not be mistaken: no matter how much a Catholic dislikes the Pope, he should at least be afforded the common decency that even non-Catholics are willing to extend to him. In fact, as Catholics, they should give it even more: firstly, because of our status as Catholics relative to the Pope; and secondly, because as Catholics we are invited to treat everyone humanely, even those we regard as our enemies. As Catholics, we should be the ones setting the moral bar.

But we failed at that. We have allowed ourselves to be schooled by non-Catholics and even non-Christians, including the Muslim Filipino celebrity Robin Padilla, who wrote (rough translation of a post from his Instagram account, done by my wife Claire Navarro):

“Even the Catholics are bashing him. Isn’t there any respect anymore for the people?  I watched the video and it is obvious in the video that the woman pulled the holy pope while in an uncomfortable position and at that age of the holy pope I am sure he got hurt and it is natural for him to react that way. I am a Muslim and I am defending him and I hope Catholics will do the same. May Allah have mercy on us”

I am fairly certain that many papal critics, self-assured of their position inside the Church, will simply view in these reprimands a confirmation of their self-righteousness. A Muslim, telling them how to be Catholic? If the Pope can’t teach them anything about what it means to be Catholic, how can that uppity Muslim do it?

However, these are not the ones I am concerned with. For some, only prayers, not arguments suffice.

Here, I am mostly directing my plea to  Catholics of good will–even those who may have concerns, doubts, or criticisms towards the Pope. I hope they may be able to acknowledge that there is a serious problem here, and that they need to begin addressing it. We need more forceful condemnations of the ever-more extreme rhetoric against the Holy Father, which has even been coming from allegedly “moderate” Catholic media outlets. We need Catholics who will call for charity and patience towards the pope, and who will speak out against manufactured scandals. Otherwise, the rot will just keep spreading and leading souls away.


Image: Adobe Stock.

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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