The history of misunderstanding between the media and the Catholic Church
of the timeless
A convention in the Vatican organized by ‘L’Osservatore Romano’
L’Osservatore Romano decided to celebrate its 150th anniversary by taking the bull by the horns and looking it straight in the eye. With the study day dedicated to the misunderstandings between the Catholic Church and global media, it has chosen to explore one of today’s thorniest issues.
Yet far from being a glaringly contemporary topic, this misunderstanding can now claim to have existed for several decades. If it was born on 25 July 1968, then we can consider that its youth subsequently extended through the whole of the 1970s and that it reached adulthood with the election of 19 April 2005. And it has a somewhat unusual history. Indeed its beginnings were decidedly promising. Modern Church-media relations came into being with the Second Vatican Council, very popular with the press (in fact it was at this period that the specialized Vatican journalist first appeared). It was also a historic Council since it reached the world not only through the Church’s own voice, but also thanks to the role played by the media.
Since it has to do with history, two contemporary historians — Lucetta Scaraffia and Andrea Riccardi — were entrusted with the task of introducing the conference on: “Misunderstandings: the Catholic Church and the Media” which was held on Thursday, 10 November, in the Old Synod Hall at the Vatican.
The day was inaugurated by our Editor-in-Chief, in the presence of cardinals, including Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State, Cardinal Julián Herranz, Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (who made the closing speech in the evening); Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States; and bishops, as well as of Mons. Peter Bryan Wells, Assessor for General Affairs, and ambassadors, historians, politicians, journalists and various well-known figures. Addressing the media’s misunderstandings “of an institution expert in communication”, such as the Church, Giovanni Maria Vian noted that the long-existing problem is interwoven “first of all with the ambivalent knotty problems of secularization and modernity, hard to grasp and unravel in a tradition as old as that of Christianity in which continuity has two sides like a coin: vital strength and slowness”.
The Editor-in-Chief then gave the floor — so to speak — to Paul VI and John Paul II, two extremely different Popes but who were associated by the far from indifferent reactions that both inspired in public opinion. Indeed, both experienced moments of great consensus and also phases of deep unpopularity, but in opposite stages of their Pontificates. Pope Montini was beloved at his election but died in disgrace with the media, whereas Pope Wojtyła was unpopular at his election but died an undisputed media hero.
Lucetta Scaraffia started with Humanae Vitae, the Encyclical that marked the break in the media’s enthusiasm for Paul VI. Although he lacked the communication skills of his predecessor, in fact, from his election Montini appeared to the press to be a man open to newness, capable of reforming the Curia to bring the Church closer to the poverty of her origins as well as of fostering relations with other religions and peace in the world.
However in July 1968 everything changed radically. The media “spoke of a crisis in the Church”, Scaraffia said, “with abundant metaphors of a storm, calling the status of the Pontiff and the Pontificate into question. It was an unprecedented crisis of the Pope’s authority which even gave rise to rumours that he would resign”.
The storm involved the entire Church, both within her and in her relations with society. Among the first reactions the words most frequently used were of amazement, consternation and disappointment. Le Monde wrote “agreement or dismay, amazement dominates in the Vatican”. This was echoed by Die Zeit: “a bitter pill”. And in the meantime one of the cartoons in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung linked the condemnation of Galileo to that of the pill: two errors pregnant with the consequences of rejecting scientific progress. An English publication even wrote that Humanae Vitae was Paul VI’s “Vietnam”. “Rome seems to have lost in an instant what it had spent centuries building”, was the lapidary statement of Yves Congar.
Yet, Lucetta Scaraffia continued, 40 years later “we can legitimately ask ourselves whether, had Paul VI not saved the doctrine of the Church, that had remained a possible anchor of salvation from which to draw values and culture at the moment the sexual revolution failed, the only undisputed taboo of Western culture, so strong that no one even wanted to hear the reasons against it. Perhaps only today, when that revolution is fully revealing its failure, are we at last ready to understand better the reasons given by Humanae Vitae which had predicted this failure”. Moreover with its recourse to natural law, the encyclical was to prove a crucial model for relations between scientific progress and Catholic morals to which people could turn when dealing with the bioethical problems that were subsequently to emerge.
“In short, today, the opinions of all the commentators of that time have turned out to be fatally short-sighted, whereas Paul VI’s view appears to be prophetic”. And in answer to the historian Étienne Fouilloux who, 20 years later, asked himself “can the crisis triggered by the encyclical be reduced to a misunderstanding?”, Scaraffia replied “there was a misunderstanding, it was the determination not to understand and to reduce all the questions, that were far broader, to the contingent historical situation”.
The atmosphere unfavourable to the Church that had been created by the media continued in the months following Paul VI’s death and after 16 October 1978. It seems impossible but, as Andrea Riccardi said at first, “John Paul II was also an unpopular Pope”. Indeed, at the outset of a pontificate this mechanism is repeated almost every time. In comparison with the newly-elected Pope, the previous Pontiff tends to be reevaluated. “Paul VI, the Pope of complexity and of mediation, was compared, the formidable Polish Pope, who took his stand in clerical and preconciliar models”. The title of a piece written by Eugenio Scalfari is a good indication of this: “Not John Paul II, but Pius XIII”. It was the year 1979.
Formerly blamed for the stances he had taken on abortion, John Paul II’s position was aggravated by the double issue of condoms and aids (Riccardi mentioned a bbc documentary that accused him perfunctorily of being responsible for the spread of the pandemic).
Juan Arias, the Vatican journalist of El País, described him as a paradoxical figure “with an emotional approach to reality which arouses strong reactions”, explaining his hostility to liberation theology as his fear of the “subversion of the poor”.
The turning point came on 13 May 1981. The attack on his life gave rise to surprise and dismay in public opinion. Sympathy for this Pope, who until that moment had “appeared young, sportive and strong”, was immediate. The process of the reconsideration of John Paul II was detonated on that famous Wednesday (but it did not always run in a straight line). It culminated in the Fall of the Berlin Wall: “The figure of John Paul II is crowned with the hero’s wreath – something unheard of among contemporary Popes”. Yet it almost seemed that the press had wished to create its hero without really listening to him.
Riccardi was clear: “The definition of him as Pope-actor must be reviewed, when the Pontificate is carefully examined and it is noted that there were no weaknesses, no compromises”.
Indeed, “he lived the timeless character of the Church in opposition to banality and as an expression of a message that comes from afar. He felt that the antiquated aspects of his message were a prophecy; he claimed to be more modern than his opponents, even when he was seen as anti-modern. We should remember the whole of this difficult process, the better to understand that the sympathy which accompanied him in his last years was not a factor causally linked to his character but rather the fruit of a struggle and a difficult and complex construction”.
Consequently, even though misunderstandings have marked Church-media relations since the Council, this is because in these two great Pontiffs the press did not seek their message but rather what the logic and the fashion of the times impelled them to find. Listening to the Gospel and perceiving the signs of contradiction that are hard to understand and to digest: the ingredients for a rough and uneven path were certainly not lacking.
The word then passed from the historians to Vatican journalists and (again, if this may be said) to Benedict XVI. When he was still a cardinal, it was he himself who said that “the timelessness, in other words non-contemporaneity of the Church is on the one hand her weakness but on the other hand can be her strength”. Because, for the media obsessed with being up to date, nothing is more mysterious and threatening than what is timeless.
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