Thursday, 7 March 2013

Challenges facing the Church/3: Transparency and the 'evil' media narrative

Source: Catholic Church Conservation blog
I've been looking over this week at the bigger picture problems facing the Church, rather than focusing in on who might be the next Pope. Today, in the light of the latest debacle on this front, the issue of Church engagement with the media, and the whole issue of transparency and openness.

Transparency while resisting the temptation to popularism

Let me say at the start that I'm an advocate of greater transparency and accountability: the costs of secrecy for the Church are all too evident in the collapse of practice in the West. The Church needs to mobilise its members if it is to realise its mission.  And that means engaging with them, and trying to build some coalitions of support around key issues.

There is a balance to be achieved though: at some point, having listened and engaged with what Catholics and others have to say, the hierarchy needs to make a decision that may often run counter to the popular consensus.

And in coming to those decisions, there may well be a good case for a frank and fearless discussion, including on the basis of some information that should not be disclosed publicly, happening behind closed doors.

That doesn't mean though, that there shouldn't be some public debate and discussion first.  We've heard a lot of late, about the dangers of 'media pressure' on the Cardinals.

But the challenge of any kind of leadership, but especially of that charged with defending the Apostolic Tradition, is surely willingness to make the hard decisions, regardless, at times, of the consequences in terms of public opinion.

More importantly, perhaps, when those tough decisions and stands are taken, Church leaders need to be up there defending them, not hiding away in fear.

The Church: yet another fail on the media management front!

The latest news from Rome on the Conclave is that there will be no news!

Instead, we will, presumably, revert to the time honoured system of the official Vatican spokesperson feeding us a few crumbs, while the Italian system of patronage continues to provide leaks to selected media 'mates'.

In essence, the Vatican Press Office has announced that Cardinals will no longer give interviews to the media, and the daily press backgrounders being given by two American Cardinals each day have been cancelled forthwith.

The decision is allegedly in response to reports in the Italian media that breach the secrecy rules of the proceedings, with reports specifying who said what for example.  As Mulier Fortis has pointed out, anyone doing this for the Conclave itself is now automatically excommunicated - presumably that doesn't apply to the General Congregations though, oath of secrecy notwithstanding (not to worry though, the niceties of excommunicated Cardinals potentially voting has already been teased out by Ed Peters).

Hard to see how the ban giving interviews will really fix the leak problem however.

But perhaps it is also an attempt to deal with the problem of certain other Cardinals repeatedly putting their foot in it!

How not to manage a papal resignation

It is certainly true that the last few weeks have been less than brilliantly managed PR-wise.

We should have seen a series of Vatican backgrounders reminding us of key facts on the Papal resignation, like the age restrictions on bishops exercising their office, and the young age at which most Popes have died; we should have seen reassurance that the stability of the Church does not depend on having the same Pope in Office forever; we should have seen a stream of backgrounders from the Vatican media office on the real achievements of Pope Benedict in tackling problems like child abuse, the wreckovation of the liturgy, promoting Church unity, and his advancement of genuine inter-faith engagement.  Above all, we should, perhaps have seen some transparency about the Pope's actual health status, instead of having to get the dribs and drabs story released of past accidents covered up, heart problems, and more.

Instead of a serious attempt at media management, the Vatican put out a stream of mostly contradictory information on Pope Benedict's future titles and mode of living (all of which could change with a new Pope anyway) and whether or not he would continue to wear his red (not Prada) shoes!

The problem is not just the handling of the resignation either.  When the Pope 'accepted' the resignation of Cardinal O'Brien, it should have been accompanied by a statement to the effect that the Church has a zero-tolerance policy, and cited examples of its application to other bishops.  Instead, the media uproar was allowed to gather continuing momentum.

The problem is not just the Curia!

This is not just a Vatican problem though.

Instead of trying to remedy this gap, all too many Cardinals and bishops, some of our own included, thought this was the ideal time to run their own agendas up the flagpole, feeding the media frenzy on so-called media 'gaffs', corruption, failed governance and more.

The last few weeks, as a result have seen an endless series of 'leaks' and outright campaigning by or on behalf of assorted seemingly-careerist Cardinals.

On the leaks front we've had more on the Vatileaks story; we've had an 'anonymous' Cardinal suggesting their was support for requiring the next Pope to undertake not to resign; we've had stories about various papal 'tickets', such as the alleged Italian support for Cardinal Scherer in return for the No 2 job in the Vatican.

And then there are the interviews by named Cardinals, and the campaigners working on their behalf.  Cardinal Pell's media blitz aside, consider the request apparently made to the Brasilian media to print favourable stories on Cardinal Scherer, reported over at Rorate Caeli!

This isn't the kind of behaviour we would hope for from our leaders.

Blame the media: Vatican II?

Unfortunately, the Vatican response, including by the former Pope, has generally been to blame the media rather than consider how best to feed the beast.

Pope Benedict recently claimed that the 'misinterpretation' of Vatican II, including the conservatives versus progressives narrative, was something fostered by the media.

Yet as Gellibrand over at Catholic Church Conservation has pointed out:

"It was not the media who asked for a Council to open up the Church to the modern world, but Pope John XXIII.

It was not the media who rejected the prepared schemata drafted the Preparatory Commission, but the Council Fathers.

It was not the media who cut the power to Cardinal Ottaviani's microphone when he protested, but the Council Fathers.

It was not the media who drove the progressive agenda of the Council, but the Council advisors, the periti, such as Hans Kung and Karl Rahner....

It was not the media who drafted documents that Benedict XVI himself describes as "dense " and "weak", but the Council Fathers...

It was not the media who promulgated a document that Benedict XVI said was "too naturalistic and unhistorical, took insufficient notice of sin and its consequences, and was too optimistic about human progress", but the Council Fathers...

It was not the media who called for a new Mass despite the fact that the Council never called for a New Mass, but the Church itself acting under a Commission of Bishops established by the Pope.

It was not the media who entrusted the creation of this New Mass to a man commonly believed to be a Freemason (Msgr Bugnini), but Pope Paul VI.

It was not the media who, in the words of Benedict XVI, "introduced a breach into the history of the liturgy whose consequences could only be tragic" with the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass, but Pope Paul VI (Milestones, pg. 146-149)...."

Do go and read the whole 'litany'.

Humanae Vitae

In fact for examples of the total failure of Vatican media management, it is hard to go past Humanae Vitae in my view.

Pope John XXIII set up a theological commission to examine the issue of contraception.  The majority view was to change Church teaching on the subject - and their views were leaked to the media.  Expectations were set.

They should have been countered in advance, ecclesial authorities duly warned, newspaper commentaries readied in defense so all were prepared to fight the good fight.

Instead, when Pope Paul VI subsequently issued Humanae Vitae it came as a bolt out of the blue.

And instead of coming out in support of it, many bishops, priests and others publicly attacked it, even signing full page attack ads in newspapers.

That should have provoked a swift and decisive response.  Instead, they were allowed to get away with it.

In my view, that even, coupled with the systematic disruption and corruption of the liturgy in this period, was what led to the collapse of the Church in the West.

So what should the Church do?

The Vatican response to the current media uproar has been to suggest that this is not a time for transparency and accountability.  According to the Vatican Information Service:

"Regarding the cancelling of the press conferences that some of the American cardinals were giving in these days, Fr. Lombardi observed that “the Congregations are not a synod or a congress in which we try to report the most information possible, but a path toward arriving at the decision of electing the Roman Pontiff. In this sense, the tradition of this path is one of reservation in order to safeguard the freedom of reflection on the part of each of the members of the College of Cardinals who has to make such an important decision.”

There is obviously something to this.  In the end there certainly are things that should be said only behind closed doors; if Cardinals must campaign, it would really be preferable for it to be done amongst the voters, not to all the world; and one would really hope that the Cardinals would be out defending the Church and its teachings, not adding fuel to the dissenting fire.

But at the same time, there is a reality about the world we live in.

Catholics around the world are feeling anxious and unsettled, and do want to be reassured that a serious process of reflection, a vigorous process of debate, and serious scrutiny of the candidates is being undertaken.

And with some 4,000 reporters camped out in Rome, not giving them anything to write just invites them to make it up, or pump their often garrulous sources behind closed doors!

I actually thought the American media conferences were a good idea - a controlled way of keeping the folks back home informed, without giving away anything too much.

It might have been better, surely to have encouraged other groups of (appropriately vetted for media savvyness) Cardinals to do similar things, or perhaps broaden out the selection of Cardinals involved by bringing the thing under a Vatican aegis, with a series of different media conferences based on regional and/or language groupings.

One way or another, if you don't try and set the narrative, the media will do it for you.  In Australian politics, the Gillard Government's failure to come up with a coherent storyline has left it open to endless permutations of the leadership/crisis-mode story.  The Vatican has similarly left itself vulnerable, such that whoever does get chosen as Pope is going to be viewed through the lens of selected issues, viz cleaning up the Curia, the sex abuse scandal and so forth.

It would be much preferable, in my view, for the Cardinals to be a little more upfront about just what the range of views on some of these issues really is amongst their number, just what they are discussing and concluding. And to back those analyses up with some hard facts and background material to help the media write serious stories about the real issues for us, rather than leaving them to simply to default to the easy to understand ones.

Above all, it would be nice to personalise just who the Cardinals are for us, by letting us see them speak about these issues, but in a more controlled way.

Vatican II made a big play on the possibilities of using what is now the 'old media' to get out the Churches message; Pope Benedict XVI often spoke very positively about the possibilities of the new media to act as a force for the New Evangelization.

Shame that the Church still seems not to understand how to actually realise that potential.


hughosb said...

Hi Kate.

The knives seem to be out now for Benedict. His "claim" about the media and the Council is not playing the blame game on his part. It is identifying how a council that in its texts is orthodox and reasonable could have become the inspiration for revolution in the Church. What the Church had not bargained on was the power of the mass media, not least because it was a new phenomenon. It controlled the flow of information before anyone realised it, and so shaped the message of the council for the world, including Catholics who were using the same media. In the context of the Year of Faith Benedict seemed to be calling the Church to the fundamental task of re-appropriating the Council's texts to build an authentic understanding.

Thus Benedict's Twitter account takes on a new significance. It was never going to be a frequent means of communication on his part: magisterial teaching and reflection cannot be crammed into 140 characters! But it was symbolic, a signal and call to young Catholics especially, but us older ones too, to employ the tools of the new mass media to get the Church's message across. The new mass media is not subject to editorial policy and the junta of secularist journalists. It is truly free and independent, which has pitfalls but offers immense opportunities. Catholics can then tune into these for authentic teaching freely available and easily digestible. And non-Catholics. The new media of social communications will be at the heart of the New Evangelization.

And while I agree that shooting the messenger is rarely a wise move, the mainstream media are hardly merely messengers. They are setting the agenda, distorting reality and deliberately creating an atmosphere hostile to the Church. They can and should be blamed when they are to blame. Their own hypocrisy should be exposed - and it is there in shocking and diabolical form, as the BBC/Saville debacle revealed. Attack should not be the Church's first form of defence, but it can be used judiciously as and when appropriate, when error is holding the field.

I can see where you are coming from with your litany of suggestions as to what the Vatican should have done media-wise vis a vis the abdication, sede vacante and conclave preparations. But I am not sure the Church should rush headlong to embrace the mainstream media. It was precisely such a readiness to embrace the modern secular world that led to so many of the post-conciliar tribulations. In fact, the Vatican and others have been working hard to get information out. My Twitter feed constantly updates with information from, Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio etc - information about procedures, historical notes etc. Then there are the less official but orthodox media:,, Information and commentary is flooding out, and if we are to be serious about the role of the laity in the mission of the Church, we should not expect the Vatican to be doing all the work here. It is rightly a forum for the informed and educated laity to be making their contribution. It is just as much the work of the Church as the Vatican's efforts.

In fact, I am impressed with the cool and calm approach of the Vatican and its various media in diseemninating information and not rising to provocation and whipped up controversies. We are not electing a president, the media does not need to be recruited for the conclave to operate effectively. Complete transparency is not only impractical it is undesirable in this case. The Vatican offices are concentrating on their proper priorities. Let its media arm and the online laity/clergy do the rest. New Evangelization indeed!

Kate Edwards said...

It is certainly true that the various media outlets have built up their own culture and editorial biases - but they can be influenced at the margin and played off against each other, and I don't think the Church should simply abandon the field. I'm not talking about embracing the media so much as adopting a 'wise as serpents' strategy.

And I agree that the twitter account and other initiatives were a good start, but there is still a long way to go it seems to me.

Certainly we can all do our part, but it is a lot easier to do that if we have access to real information...