Framing the Hijacked Pope

By Stephen Cataldo, 4 October, 2015


It appears that the Vatican Ambassador to the US, Carlo Maria Vigano, played sneaky politics with the Pope's visit, getting Kim Davis near enough to the Pope that her team could imply Papal support.

The allegation is he used the Pope as a pawn for his political views, using him to rally conservative-minded Catholics to place their religion in the service of politics.

What is the best way to frame to frame a conservative abuse of the Pope's political neutrality? How should progressives frame a compassionate Pope?

Groups such as Faithful America are going after him, aiming to gather thousands on the left to sign petitions to demand his resignation.

Conservatives and liberals have used mirror-image frames: the Pope is here to be a pawn in our politics.

I'm curious and a bit skeptical if having a left-oriented group yell at the right-wingers is actually productive or helpful in this case. Both the papal ambassador and internet-petitions for him to resign are playing games of politics, where everyone just lines up on their usual side, and no one learns much of anything. The ambassador's actions were manipulative of the church -- he didn't violate the trust of "the left," he hurt the trying-to-be-religious-not-political Pope and Vatican. But the more progressives join the circus and act like we are the aggrieved party, the more we let him off the hook he stuck himself on.

Conservatives are framing an us-them culture war. Do we frame it as them-us, or something else?

I think we've both mis-read and mis-framed this Pope: he's not being political and "taking our side," he's expressing a lot of the good parts of the Bible and Jesus' teaching. The right-wing wants to call it politics, the right wing wants the church to serve their politics, but it isn't politics and it's not healthy for it be politics. Politics and religion don't mix well, we should be trying to de-politicize religion, not suck it into the "he should resign" world of petitions. Progressive groups like Faithful America might want to make this visible so people simply see what actually happened, without us making it about us: the Ambassador played the Pope. Let them figure out if he should resign. We should be an echo-chamber for honest Catholics who did not want the Pope's visit politicized, not cheerleaders for our side of a political game.

Who are we trying to influence? What are our goals?

If you want Carlo Maria Vigano out of power, push that he abuses his power, not that he is conservative. Allow him to be removed from the center for betraying the Pope's trust. And when we have the microphone, let's get back to our values.

If our goal is to see a power-shift in the Catholic church hierarchy, then we should let conservatives overplay their hand: the effective frame is that they play politics with the church, not that this is an actual political left-vs-right issue where the church should seek the center.

If our goal is to influence average Catholics -- people who don't primarily identify as "red" or "blue" but "Catholic" or "Christian" -- to be more compassionate because this Pope is, then again we need to let the Pope's words speak for him, and every time we push liberal politics into a message of compassion, we politicize what should be not in dispute. We make it us-vs-them, where neutrality is between liberal and conservative. What if we joined and amplified, rather than led, other voices that want to keep the church clean of politics? Conservatives seem to think that their base would dwindle if the church message was not politicized, edgy and angry: would ours too?

Dumping the church into a world of where progressives are signing the same petitions we aim at Congress seems like a bad habit, a political instinct to turn everything into the same crappy politics we've gotten used to playing, even when we don't have to, even when it backfires.

Last thought: this isn't a call for being quiet and letting Kim Davis & her allies get away with dishonest political theater. The initial outrage was appropriate, and drew this into the public sphere where people would notice it. It's the switch from exposing a dirty trick, to demanding that a specific person be removed from office, to using political-style pressure tactics, that will force people to take our side in order to do what a politically-neutral person might do anyway. Humor and mocking of Vigano and Davis would be fine; lining up thousands of liberal signatures on a petition neutralizes the charge they they are playing politics where no one should.

What do you think? Cognitive Politics aims to to connect goals and frames: who do you want to influence, and what frame will help that happen?