Pope Francis, Myanmar, and the Moral High Ground

Pope Francis is in Myanmar, meeting with political and religious leaders as part of a strategic PR tour of Asia. Asia offers the Catholic Church its most promising growth opportunities. The Church has lost most of its followers in Europe, and a large percentage in Latin America, which had become its stronghold. Without growth in Asia, the Catholic Church may become a shell of its former self.

Background

The Vatican scheduled Pope Francis’ Asian tour long before recent events in Myanmar. Myanmar is over 90% Buddhist. This summer its military supported pogroms against its Rohingya minority, which are Muslim. Between the casualties and expulsions, some have called this genocide. The political leader of Myanmar, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been largely silent about this atrocity.

What did Pope Francis say?

Pope Francis previously condemned the actions against the Rohingya, as did most other leaders and humanitarian groups: “Pope Francis, like the United Nations and a host of international leaders, has expressed support for the persecuted people, referring to them on two occasions as “our Rohingya brothers and sisters” (here). But now that he is in Myanmar he is faced with the choice of keeping the moral high ground or ruffling some feathers and possibly turning off some potential converts. Pope Francis abandoned the moral high ground, and failed to mention the Rohingya by name.

How did the press cover Pope Francis’ statements?

The mainstream media straightforwardly noted the pope’s failure to mention the Rohingya, and usually added some mitigating factors. For example, Reuters said “The pope avoided a diplomatic backlash by not using the highly charged term “Rohingya” in his addresses to officials, including leader Aung San Suu Kyi” (here).

What about the religious press? Not surprisingly, they were less than honest and straightforward. But the biggest surprise, at least to me, is that the Catholic press was more honest than the non-sectarian Religion News Service (RNS).

Thus the RNS headline declared, “Pope dives into Rohingya crisis upon arrival in Myanmar,” yet failed to mention that Pope Francis never mentioned the Rohingya by name. Evidently RNS believes that Francis immaculately dived into the crisis.

National Catholic Reporter (NCR), on the other hand, was straightforward: “Francis avoids word 'Rohingya' but asks Myanmar's leaders to respect all ethnic groups.” CRUX was less than straightforward, but better than RNS. The article by Inés San Martín, its Vatican correspondent and #2 person, declared: “On the ground in Myanmar, grays loom larger than black-and-white.” CRUX noted that Pope Francis waffled and ducked the issue, but said this was the right thing to do. However, I don’t think the Catholic press is more honest and reliable than the non-sectarian religious press. I suspect they just didn’t think they could get away with the kind of crap RNS pulled.

Conclusion

This is a kind of Rashomon story, except that the facts here are relatively clear. The religious press is a propaganda machine that is constrained only by the penalty for being caught lying.

About 75 years ago, when Pope Pius XII was told about Nazi persecution of Jews, he (privately) told his advisors, “Let the Jews take care of the Jews.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Pope Francis privately believes, “Let the Muslims take care of the Muslims.” He’s got a hard enough time covering up Church crimes and failures.

 

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