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Who really cares what the Church thinks?

· The complex relationship between the Vatican and the international press ·

The idea for this book was sparked by a meeting held in the Vatican on 10 November 2011 to mark the 150th anniversary of L’Osservatore Romano . It addresses for the very first time the complicated and difficult relationship between the Catholic Church and the media. The book’s title — Incomprensionsi (Misunderstandings) — while certainly to the point, at first glance may seem simplistic. And yet the day itself escaped this danger, as these pages show. They were written by leading figures in the field of education and communications: two teachers of modern history, five non-Italian journalists, and a cardinal. Their voices differ, but are united in their desire to understand (without preconceived notions) an important subject that, although it is not confined to the recent past, includes topics extremely relevant today.

The subject addressed here is a difficult one. An American theologian creatively proposed the problem in 1994. In an article on the difficulties between the Church and the media, Avery Dulles introduced the matter with an entertaining story, which if not true certainly illustrates the point nicely. An aggressive reporter asked a European bishop, who had just arrived in the United States, if he would be visiting any nightclubs. The bishop, not wishing to give a full account of the matter, asked with mock naïveté: “Are there night clubs in New York?”. The next morning the bishop saw his name splashed across the newspaper, with the technically truthful headline, “Bishop’s first question: are there night clubs in New York?”.

In that same U.S. metropolis, Paul VI, speaking before the United Nations in 1965 (the first time a pope had spoken before this international assembly) called the Church an “expert in humanity”. Paraphrasing this expression, we may say without any exaggeration that the Christian tradition is also an expert in communication. Twenty centuries of history clearly demonstrate this, from the very widespread circulation of texts that previously characterized early Christians, to the avant-garde role the Holy See has assumed in this sphere over the last century and a half. L’Osservatore Romano was first published in 1861, while Vatican Radio, conceived by Gugliemo Marconi, began broadcasting 70 years later, in 1931. The Church’s leading role in the media became more evident between the 1930s and 1950s, during the pontificates of Achille Ratti (Pius xi) and Eugenio Pacelli (Pius XII), with the role continuing to develop under one of their successors, Giovanni Battista Montini (Paul VI). In addition to the creation of a radio station, Ratti gave strong impetus to various initiatives in the sphere of information and, during the sede vacante , after his death in 1939, an office was established at L’Osservatore Romano — the forerunner of the Holy See Press Office.

In 1950, Montini (who had served for 13 years at the head of the Secretariat of State as “Substitute”) confided to Jean Guitton during his first meeting with the French intellectual, a concern that would become one of his main concerns during the years of Vatican ii (1962-1965) and especially of his pontificate (1963-1978): “We need to know how to be ancient and modern, to speak in accordance with tradition but also with our own sensibilities. What good does it do to speak the truth, if men today do not understand us?”.

Why on earth do these misunderstandings with the media exist in an institution that is an expert in communication? In the first place, the historical problem is interwoven with the ambivalent problems of secularization and modernity. These are neither easy to understand nor to untie due to a long tradition such as the Christian one where, like a coin, continuity has two sides: vital force and slow deliberation. Some light may be shed on the issue by an examination of Papal interviews, a phenomenon now stretching back more than a century.

The first, in fact, was with Leo XIII on anti-Semitism. The interview was published on the front page of Le Figaro , on 4 August 1892 by Séverine, the pen name of Caroline Rémy. One of the most famous names in French journalism, who introduced herself to the Cardinal Secretary of State, Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, in a letter dated 9 July, as “a woman who had been a Christian and reminds herself of it, in order to love children and defend the weak”, and as “a socialist, who if she is not in the state of grace, has kept intact in her wounded heart a profound respect for the faith, and a veneration for august old age and sovereignty held captive”. The request was immediately granted, and the interview took place on Sunday, 31 July. Although it had been seen by the Secretary of State who had encountered it, it failed to meet with the Holy See’s approval and raised a media storm.

Paul VI’s meeting with Alberto Cavallari more than 70 years later, on 24 September 1965, was quite different. Cavallari published their conversation in the 3 October edition of Corriere della Sera , thus opening a form of inquiry the following year in the book The Changing Vatican . The journalist wrote: “I saw into a relaxed man, a spontaneous man, a man very different from the gaunt, tense introspective diplomat Pope usually portrayed”. “You know, it’s a pleasure to talk about the Vatican,” the pope said immediately and with a congenial and witty expression on his face. “Many are studying us today, trying to understand us. Many books have come out on the Holy See and the Council; and some, you know, are even well done. But many claim that the Church thinks certain things, without ever having bothered to ask the Church what she really thinks. And, after all, our opinion should also count for something in matters of religion”. The pope paused here, to make an amused comment. Then his smile faded and he went on: ‘But we are aware that it’s not easy to understand what is done and discussed in the world of the Church. You know, even the Pope sometimes has a hard time understanding the world today’. After this informal and candidly human introduction, Paul VI turned to the most important topics of his pontificate.

After what may be considered ancient history in Vatican information — a period marked by names of truly the highest order (for anyone in Italy, suffice it to mention Silvio Negro, although the journalism of Ernesto Buonaiuti also must be remembered) — the time came for, shall we say, for the wedding feast and honeymoon; that is, the early years of the Golden Sixties : of John XXIII, whom the media immediately presented as “the good Pope”, and of the new season of the Council, with the Holy See’s information and media boom. Yet it was a time that had already darkened by the second half of the decade; in 1968 it was traumatically marked by the storm that arose against the encyclical Humanae vitae and against Pope Montini.

Though initially well received by the media, from that point Paul VI experienced persistent opposition, as would his second successor, John Paul II (1978-2005), the first non-Italian Pope in nearly half a millennium, almost throughout his pontificate. In order to attempt to speak to the modern world, the typically journalistic genre of the book-interview was used repeatedly by both the Polish Pope — with André Frossard shortly after the attempt on his life in 1981, and on two occasions in 1993, first with Vittorio Messori, and then with Józef Tischner and Krzysztof Michalski — and by Joseph Ratzinger four times — as Cardinal, in 1984, again with Messori, and then with Peter Seewald in 1996, 2000 and as Pope in 2010. It is a progression that shows how this new form has been fully accepted as one of the options of communication for the pope and prominent Church leader.

During Vatican ii, many “experts” were recruited to write for newspapers on topics never previously tackled by the media. Among them: clerics, or more often ex-clerics (who naturally were deeply involved in these issues), with women absent or almost totally absent from the scene. The very presence of these “experts” constitutes a first and unprecedented problem in interpretation and history that marked religious information in its early stages and during the decades that followed, as opposed to the current problem, when this phenomenon is less important. At the root of many of these misunderstandings, on the other hand, is secularization and, above all, a general cultural decline as well as a decline of information, in particular religious information.

The subtle yet unavoidable impression, however, is that today there is even less of a desire truly to understand the years of Vatican ii and the decades that followed. This happens for a variety of reasons, some of which emerge from the articles in this book, which took shape precisely in order to seek to gain a deeper understanding of the issue, by addressing a subject which, not by chance, after the pontificates of the second half of the 20th century, with that of Joseph Ratzinger seems to recur with greater clarity. Contributing to this increased clarity are questions such as those intelligently expressed by two French journalists — Bernard Lecomte, the biographer of John Paul II whom Marc Leboucher questioned in a book-interview entitled Perché il papa ha cattiva stampa , and Isabelle de Gaulmyn (finally, a woman), who drew a profile of Benedict XVI as described in the title: “misunderstood”.

It is no coincidence that we are wondering about these issues today. In his last interview with Peter Seewald, in fact, Benedict — who is extremely sensitive to matters of communication, precisely because he is a refined connoisseur of the Christian tradition and, with his crystal clear and non self-referential way of speaking, wants (and knows how) to make himself understood and not only by Catholics — said: “I think that God, in choosing a professor as Pope, wished to emphasize at this time of history a deepening and strengthening of the union between faith and reason”.

Without avoiding, as Cavallari wrote of Paul VI, even the most difficult and most critical topics, “as a man of our time — as one who doesn’t set out to evade anything, obviously speaking out of a sincerity that flatly refuses to take the easy way out”. With a single purpose clearly before him: to speak about God, the only truly necessary reality”.

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