This past week there was another round of disingenuous misleading wave of fawning over Pope Francis. I would preface this post with a clarifying statement of my own. I am not opposed to positive coverage of the Pope any more than I am oppose to the Pope actually reforming the Catholic Church's approach to non-believers. That said, it has yet to be demonstrated that the Pope is actually making any effort to improve relations with non-believers. The media coverage of an open letter Pope Francis published through the Italian news paper la Repubblica has been blatantly skewed to reinforce the preferred story line that this Pope is a reformer and is making a concerted effort to reach out to atheists.
There are two things virtually every outlet has either glossed over or outright ignored. First, the only way Francis' "outreach" can be characterized as "friendly" is by redefining the term itself. It would be nice if it were true but it can only be true if "friendly" means not being overtly hostile. I've read and re-read two separate translations (I have included links below) of the letter in question and fail to see its tone as friendly. I would describe it as being neutral at best.
The more important detail that has been spun to the point that it seems like it should have its own gravity is the purpose of the letter. Most have portrayed it as another example of Francis offering a gesture of acceptance and/or friendship. Actually, if you read it it is clearly a theological response to a previously published open letter by an atheist. The piece has far more to do with answering criticisms. The Pope's main intent seems to be to make the Church seem reasonable and civil. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is a PR ploy.
There are, of course, other problems with the letter. If you read with any interest in critical thinking a variety of issues emerge. If it really was meant as a way to reach atheists it fails miserably. Virtually everything he comments on that could be interpreted as friendly is immediately justified by scripture/doctrine. This, to me, makes it feel impersonal and even authoritarian. I do not get a sense that he wants to play nice with atheist because it is the right thing to do but rather because it fits his interpretation of various religious doctrines (assuming his rhetoric is sincere in the first place).
A lot of what he writes also seems to refute the media portrayals of him. Telling atheists to "obey their conscience" seems to imply two things. The Pope seems to think we don't already do so. Really? What does he think we follow? Bronze age superstition laden mores don't mean shit to me. This also makes him seem far more arrogant than humble. As the head of the Catholic Church it makes some sense for him to tell Catholics what they should be doing. How does telling atheists how they should behave support the favored "humility" story line? If his idea of reaching out to atheists is constantly droning on about scripture and doctrine rather than the values that may be held in common Francis is going to fail no matter how sincere he might be. And, as I've pointed out before, rhetoric alone will not accomplish anything no matter how pleasant and welcome it may be.
The La Republica translation
Pope Francisco writes to La Repubblica: "An open dialogue with non-believers"
The Zenit translation
Pope Francis' Letter to the Founder of "La Repubblica" Italian Newspaper