Between the Church and the media, five errors to be avoided and five rules for convergence
We need to be both
ancient and modern
All of the most relevant “thorns” of communication between the world’s press and Benedict XVI
“The issue of communication with its embarrassments and misunderstandings is not a new issue but dates back to the Pauline correspondence. Referring to preconceptions, misinterpretations and misunderstandings Paul even used the verb “adulterate” (kapeleuein), a verb that unequivocally attests to fact: the main theme — on which today’s study day has focused very freely – already existed at that time”.
Using these words Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, with his characteristic intelligence, culture, balance and depth wound up the meeting on “Misunderstandings. The Catholic Church and the media”, organized by L’Osservatore Romano, on Thursday, 10 November, in the Vatican’s Old Synod Hall.
The Cardinal then added a precious and substantial addition: “Paul, however, did not limit himself to self-defence. Paul reacted, he found and inoculated vaccines”. These few words fully expressed the meaning, intentions and purpose of a conference, many of whose aspects will definitely leave their mark.
With the interventions of the Vatican journalists of some of the most important western newspapers, the sharpest “thorns” — as our Editor-in-Chief described them — of communication between the world press and Benedict XVI — were extracted, one after another. With almost philological care, keen perception and without the slightest awe, much, if not all, was closely examined.
The crass errors made over the years by the media, due to superficiality, slovenliness and incompetence as well as to the obsession with making “scoops” were analyzed. For example, Antonio Pelayo — who, among his other roles is a Vatican journalist of the Spanish “Antena 3 TV” — investigated what happened with the Regensburg Discourse, when, at six o’clock in the morning, on 12 September 2006, the text Fede, ragione e università. Ricordi e riflessioni — that is, the more than 3,200 words which sparked one of the harshest attacks on Joseph Ratzinger’s Pontificate — was consigned to journalists. Some of them immediately found “in the words of the Palaeologist the nugget with which to enrich their story”.
Well, “having done the necessary research in these years”, Pelayo was able to conclude that “it was the headlines in the Italian press that sounded the alarm in Muslim countries through their embassies in Rome and the few correspondents in that area who worked in the Italian capital. Neither the former nor the latter had read the integral text of the Discourse but they lost no time time, having leafed through the Italian papers of 13 September 2006, in informing their governments and their public of “the Pope’s attack on Islam”.
However this also held true in other cases. It applied to the “perfect storm” of the sex abuse scandal in the United States, analyzed by John L. Allen Jr, the Vatican journalist of the National Catholic Reporter (in his absence, his contribution was read out); and it applied to the “uproar” linked to what the Pope said about condoms on his flight to Africa, on 17 March 2009. As emerged in the report of John Hooper, the Vatican journalist of The Guardian, in this case the journalists’ errors also caused various politicians and the heads of important international bodies to err (even The Lancet went “too far”).
Thus, there is the problem of the preparation of Vatican journalists, and, more generally, of journalists who write on religious issues. Then there is the problem of the role of press agencies, of the laxity of those at the desk, of approximations, of the volatility of the media scene, of the minimization of success and the maximization of shortcomings.
John Allen spoke of “mythology, disinformation and prejudice”. And he reported “the absence of context”, saying media organizations “focus the text of a specific story, but they confuse the context” (for example, the 2002 media coverage of the United States padophilia crisis left many people with the impression that the Church could not care less about children).
Of course, errors were also made by and in the Church herself, and this admission has been one of the most interesting aspects of the day (only those who strongly adhere to the truth can admit their errors).
The worst of the lot was “the disaster of the media and of communication” in the Williamson case, analyzed by Paul Badde of Die Welt in a report with “metahistorical” features, Giovanni Maria Vian said. It was a unique case because, — with the Letter of 10 March 2009 (one of the most moving documents of this pontificate”, according to Badde), the Pope personally took responsibility for the disaster, defended his collaborators and put an end to all speculation”.
At times, moreover, the answers the Church has given have proved counterproductive. And John Allen, again referring to the scandal in America, made a brilliant analysis of the “media coverage which, although valuable in obliging the Church to admit the crisis and to act, was at times unbalanced, inaccurate and destructive. While some people made heroic efforts to give an honest and full response, all too often the reaction was defensive and tardy, strengthening the popular prejudice against the Church rather than correcting it”.
This is also because — paradox of paradoxes — Benedict XVI, “the great reformer with regard to the sex abuse crisis”, who has made “spiritual and structural recovery a badge of his pontificate”, has become for a badly informed public opinion, “the main symbol of the Church’s incapacity”. In extreme cases some have even clamoured for him to resign or to be put on trial for criminal charges in international courts. The challenge moreover knows no bounds. “Not only is the image of the Church at stake, but also that of the press”.
Jean-Marie Guénois of Le Figaro, starting with the German provenance of Benedict XVI — not at all a geographical connotation but a precise point of attack of which the media availed themselves — reconstructed in his analysis how the German Pontiff, media-shy and a former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a sort of explosive chemical reaction) who succeeded “the super-media Pope”, has slowly managed over the years to reverse the situation. This is thanks to his timidity and humility, his intellectual lucidity, his unswerving purpose, his capacity for distinguishing the essential from details and forfeiting his individuality to serve the common good.
The “frail helmsman” faced up to the media nightmare of the paedophilia crisis, gaining respect precisely because of the way he tackled this crisis: “not making a to do with great declarations but dealing with it in a very quiet, slow and in the end effective way”. Benedict XVI “the German Pope, came out of it even greater, because great inner strength was needed to get through that gigantic storm”, Jean-Marie Guénois concluded.
In the wake of what had emerged on Thursday morning in the truly historic reports, it was in any case evident that at the root of it all was the central and ever topical question of the relationship between the Church and the mindset of our time. Indeed, there was clearly a large gap between the prophetic outlook of the Church and the contingent spirit of our time. The Vatican’s inadequacy on the front of computer science also emerged.
Paul Badde recalled Benedict XVI’s words: “I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news”. However, it has also brought about the “quantitative” leap taken by the 1,000-year-old structure, “catapulted into the era of the internet” (to cite the words of the Vatican journalist of Die Welt).
Means to surmount the reciprocal misunderstanding can therefore be listed. If there is much to be done on the part of the media, concrete guidelines are also expected of the Church. The New Evangelization desired by Benedict XVI can overcome this obstacle too. “If there are steps the Church can take without betraying her identity or adopting cynical techniques of manipulation to foster a better understanding”, John Allen said, “then doing so is not only a good idea. It is a moral imperative”.
Here too Cardinal Ravasi was clear and to the point. Indeed he proposed transforming the five vices of the media, the five errors regularly made by journalists (trivialization, immediacy, sensationalism, approximation and prejudice) into virtues for the Church’s communication by learning essentiality; by being in touch with daily life (“the preaching of Christ starts with the feet); by incisiveness; by getting the better of self-reference; and by avoiding leaving gaps. Communication cannot be merely self-defensive “on principle”, but must necessarily have “a certain consistence” and strongly uphold one’s identity (there is a dialectic only if one preserves “the scandal of the message”, Ravasi affirmed). Yet the Church must take into account the fact that “the atmosphere, the air” in which man moves has changed (and man has therefore changed and his face has been reshaped by it).
As the Editor-in-Chief of L’Osservatore Romano recalled at the beginning of the meeting, “Montini, at his first meeting with Jean Guitton in 1950, confided to him one of his most important concerns: ‘It is necessary to be ancient and modern, to speak in accordance with Tradition, but also in conformity with our sensibility. What use is it saying what is true, if the people of our time do not understand us?’”.
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