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Monday, March 27, 2017
Text: The Pope and the Press - John Allen CCN lecture
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¬†John L. Allen Jnr gave the following CCN World Communications Day lecture in London on 24 May. This may seem a rather odd way to begin a lecture on "The Pope and the Press," but bear with me. In 1967, the Beatles released a song entitled: "Fool on the Hill." It opened as follows: "Day after day, alone on the hill, The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still. But nobody wants to know him, They can see that he's just a fool Well on the way, his head in a cloud The man of a thousand voices is talking perfectly loud But nobody ever hears him Or the sound he appears to make " As with so many works by the Lennon/McCartney duo, the reference of these lyrics was not immediately clear, and debate ensured as to what, or who, they were talking about. Among the theories that floated around, some music critics cited Pope Paul VI. Even before the release of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul struck many as an isolated, sad figure increasingly ignored by the world he so desperately wanted to engage. In 1967, it was possible to conceive of the pope as someone of whom it could be said that "nobody ever hears him, or the sound he appears to make." How much things can change in a mere forty years. Had "Fool on the Hill" been released in 2005 instead of 1967, I dare say it would not have occurred to many people to regard Pope John Paul II as the song's inspiration. Agree with him or not, few ignored this pope. Indeed, one would have to reach back to the High Middle Ages to find popes who had a comparable impact on the public affairs of his own day, and that was in the context of a handful of emerging monarchies in Western Europe and their attempt to reassert Christian power in the Holy Land. John Paul II, on the other hand, was a player on a truly global stage, who helped bring the Soviet system down in Eastern Europe, averted at least one war in Latin America, and contributed to suppressing a broader Christian/Muslim conflagration at the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Part of John Paul's capacity to act as the Prime Minister of the Human Conscience, the most important voice for human dignity in global affairs, was his instinctive genius for mass communications. One brief story will make the point. When Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, visited the pope for the first time in the Vatican, John Paul received him in the Sala Clementina. When he entered the room, Walesa departed from the script and fell impulsively at the pope's feet to kiss his ring. As it happened, the legendary Vatican photographer Arturo Mari was changing a roll of film at that instant and uncharacteristically missed the shot. John Paul caught what had happened out of the corner of his eye, and promptly told Walesa to get up and do it again. He wanted that picture to finish on the front page of every newspaper in the world, implicitly making the point that this was not a radical firebrand but a loyal son of the Church whom the pope embraced. That kind of papal savvy, as we now know, repeatedly changed history. Biographer Jonathan Kwitny once called John Paul II "The Man of the Century;" I suspect many of my colleagues in the press would join me in also dubbing him "The Story of the Century." It wasn't just that John Paul intuitively understood the power of the press. He reflected deeply on the spiritual dignity of communications. Speaking to a thousand journalists in January 1984, John Paul said the church must be "a 'house of glass' where all can see what is happening, and how it carries out its mission in faithfulness to Christ and the evangelical message." In that same year, John Paul appointed a professional lay journalist, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, at the time the Rome correspondent of the Madrid daily ABC, as the director of the Vatican Press Office, a revolutionary move within the world of the Vatican towards realising this vision. (To this day Navarro-Valls remains the only lay head of a Vatican office to whom clergy report). John Paul's appreciation of the dignity of journalism can be glimpsed from a 1979 address he gave to reporters covering his trip to the United Nations: "You are indeed servants of the truth; you are its tireless transmitters, diffusers, defenders," the pope said. "And I say to you, take it as my parting words to you - that the service of truth, the service of humanity through the medium of the truth, is something worthy of your best years, your finest talents, your most dedicated efforts." I confess that this affirmation of John Paul ≠ that this job, despite its frustrations and imperfections, is something worthy of my best years and my finest talents ≠ has often sustained me in difficult moments. At one level, then, we might suppose that the problem of the relationship of the Pope with the press has largely been solved. Follow the example of John Paul II, and all will be well. And yet. And yet there are obvious signs that things are not so simple. Though John Paul's charisma and dramatic personal biography captured the interest of the global media for a quarter-century, surprisingly little of that seems to have transferred over into improved comprehension of the institution he led. From the point of view of Catholic communications, 2005 will be remembered as a year of great irony. The death of Pope John Paul II provoked an outpouring of positive coverage of Roman Catholicism worldwide. At the same time, however, 2005 also witnessed the zenith of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, in which tens of millions of otherwise reasonable people pronounced themselves "intrigued" or even "persuaded" by a vision of Christian origins and Church history so replete with errors and misinterpretations as to be almost self-parodying. It is as if people were to take "Hogan's Heroes" as a guide to the reality of Nazi concentration camps, or "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as a credible lesson in the science of archaeology. If people can take The Da Vinci Code seriously, it clearly suggests the Catholic Church has a rather grave image problem. One could add the continuing fallout from sexual abuse scandals, or the basic misunderstandings of Church teachings across a wide variety of issues that continue to haunt most media coverage, as further examples of the point. The end of the John Paul era thus reveals a "Best of Times, Worst of Times" dynamic: The Church was led by a Great Communicator, but it doesn't seem to have great communications. My suggestion therefore would be, the Catholic Church cannot rely solely on charismatic popes to solve its communications problems. The tendency of the modern media to separate celebrities from the institutions they represent inevitably means that images of popes do not ipso facto become images of the Church. This was true of John Paul, and it will be even more true of Benedict XVI, who is a lucid and penetrating thinker but not a riveting media figure. Personalities come and go, but structures and habits of mind endure. There are structural reasons why the Catholic Church so often struggles to communicate effectively, both on the part of the Church and the part of the modern media, and we must analyse and challenge them if we are to make headway. My premise tonight is that there are powerful reasons why both Catholicism and the press should strive to understand one another better. From the point of view of the Church, prejudices about religion recycled endlessly in the press are a serious impediment to evangelisation. If the Church can express itself more effectively, it ought to do so. From the point of view of the media, in a post-9/11 world there is a growing realisation that religion remains a powerful motivating force in human affairs, whatever the biases about it may be in secular newsrooms, and we cannot pretend to cover current events adequately without understanding it. Church structures that Impede Communications (1) The Cultural Gap First of all, the Church often does not have a sufficient appreciation of the depth of the cultural gap separating the thought world of the Vatican and of Roman Catholicism from 21st century secular modernity. One telling example was revealed by the sexual abuse crisis, and the bitter debates it engendered over "accountability." Perhaps no aspect of the crisis so angered many observers as the perception that the bishops were "getting away with it," that very few of them lost their jobs. This reaction is drawn from modern corporate and political life, where poor performance or scandals are always followed by firings. Football coaches lose their jobs if their teams don't win; corporate CEOs are sacked if their companies don't perform. Of course, this generally doesn't happen in the Church. Yet it is a terrible misconception to believe that Church officials do not therefore regard themselves as accountable. Leadership in the Church, from the ecclesial point of view, is accountable primarily to the tradition, and ultimately to God. Most Church officials sincerely believe they will stand before the bar of judgement someday to answer for their decisions. The episcopacy is not a job where performance is judged by the bottom line, but a sacramental bond between bishop and diocese more akin to a marriage. For this reason, the bias is strongly in favour of a bishop remaining in place during times of crisis. To walk away would seem a failure in fidelity, and a kind of behaviour that is itself "unaccountable." It is precisely in such a moment when he must buckle down and repair the harm; that's what it means to be accountable. This model can, perhaps, leave the Church too reluctant to remove dysfunctional leaders. At the same time, it is also true that the secular West is a disposable society where relationships are too often, and too easily, discarded. The divorce rate is merely one example. We lack a sense of accountability to our commitments, and in that context the Church's insistence that bishops live up to theirs may be a salutary corrective. In any event, my point is that too often Church spokespersons leave all of this unsaid, forgetting that statements and actions absent the proper context are ripe for misunderstanding. It was never that Church leadership lacked appreciation for the value of accountability, but rather that they had a different understanding of what it implied. All this has to be spelled out in language that normal people can understand. (2) After-the Fact Communications The Church too often conceives of communications as an after-the-fact enterprise. First, decisions are made, policies are crafted, liturgical, doctrinal and disciplinary texts are prepared, and then we decide how to present them to the outside world. Communications personnel are thus reduced to waiting outside doors while the important conversations go on, then scurrying to the copy machine once deals have been struck. The cost of this approach is that decisions are reached without adequate consideration to how they will be received, reported and communicated. Instead, communications ought to be a constitutive element of policy-making, and the Church's communicators should be at the table while the sausage is being ground. An example may be useful. Last November, the Holy See issued its long-awaited document on the admission of homosexuals to the priesthood. That document had been in the works since 1994, and during that time it was the object of repeated leaks and counter-leaks in the press, each cycle sowing further confusion. Expectations were created on all sides that were destined to be unfulfilled. Had a communications expert been involved from the beginning, she or he could have explained that given a topic of such intense public interest, a decade of behind-the-scenes work would inevitably create a series of unauthorised accounts, many of them partial or misleading. It might have been better to follow the procedure employed by some bishops' conferences in drafting important documents, of forming a working group whose membership is made public, holding hearings, and releasing drafts of the document for comment from bishops and theologians along the way. This way there would be no mystery about its evolution, and everyone would understand the concerns it is attempting to address is by the time it appears. The traditional counter-argument is that one shouldn't create pressure on the Pope by anticipating his decision publicly, and there is much wisdom in that concern. The Pope should be as free as possible to render the judgement he believes is consistent with the teaching and tradition of the Church. Yet what a communications expert could explain is that in today's media environment, the notion that a topic this explosive could be studied for a decade without any public discussion is a fantasy. There will be disclosures along the way in any event; the only question is whether they will be on the Church's terms or someone else's. (3) Who speaks for the Church? Too often, we put the wrong face forward in presenting the Church's message. We accept the vestigial clericalism that identifies "the Church" with "the hierarchy," so our most important spokespersons are almost inevitably clerics. On a wide range of issues, however, it would be infinitely preferable for well-formed lay people to take the lead. To offer just one example, 2002 was the most intense year of the sexual abuse crisis in the United States in terms of media coverage. I was frequently baffled over the course of that year by the way in which negative news about the Church was reported without any sense of context. While the Church indeed failed to adequately protect hundreds of children from sexual abuse by clergy, it is also a fact that in the same year, 2.7 million children were educated in Catholic schools in the United States, many of them in urban and low-income areas; nearly 10 million persons were given assistance by Catholic Charities USA, most of them women and children; and Catholic hospitals spent $2.8 billion in providing uncompensated health care to millions of poor and low-income Americans, again a disproportionate percentage of them children. Any adequate reckoning of the Church's treatment of children should have brought all that activity into the picture. Why didn't it happen? I submit it's often because, in the first place, most of that activity is carried out by laity, and it's not instinctive for secular journalists to think of them as "the Church." (I can't tell you how often a secular colleague will call me for a recommendation of someone to interview on a given topic, and if I suggest a lay person, the response almost invariably is: "No, I mean someone from the Church.") Second, when clerics took to the microphones, any such rhetoric would have seemed defensive and self-interested. What we needed were poor mothers with children in Catholic schools, or Catholic children whose lives had been saved by charity care from Catholic hospitals, to make those arguments. We needed mothers and children to say they still loved and trusted the Church despite the disappointments and betrayals, and I am confident they could have been found in abundance. Cardinal Newman once famously said the Church would look silly without the laity; I would submit that during the sexual abuse crisis, we too often looked not just silly, but almost sinister. (4) We're Not Selling Soap There is a final structural reason why the Catholic Church is sometimes hamstrung in competing in the marketplace of ideas, one that has more to do with its inner nature than questions of strategy or cultural adjustment. There are simply some ways in which, to be true to itself, the Church must be a sign of contradiction, and that means not always doing the "saleable" thing from the point of view of PR. Recently I visited the University of Texas in Austin, where I lectured on the first year of Benedict XVI's pontificate. The next day, I sat down with a group of 20-something Catholics at the University Catholic Centre. Among other things, I asked them to identify their frustrations with the Church. Almost to a person, the responses focused on one concept: communications. These young Catholics watch TV and surf the Internet, so they see how highly motivated and well-organized interest groups compete effectively in the public square. For the life of them, they cannot understand why the Catholic Church, with its 2,000 years of wisdom and its tradition of faith and reason, can't show at least as much imagination as Federal Express or the National Pork Producers' Council in getting its message out. At one level, their question is eminently fair. Yet implicit in the desire that the Church act more like the Pork Council is that the Catholic Church is just another special interest group, a "lobby" with an agenda, and we should play the game of "spin" and PR as well as our best secular competitors. The risk is that beating secularity at its own game means that we play according to its rules. We can forget that the Church does not simply inhabit a culture, but, as Pope Benedict XVI continually reminds us, it is a culture ≠ there is a distinctively Catholic-Christian set of assumptions, values, and premises which are supposed to be our points of departure. Sometimes this point means the Church simply cannot engage in the thrust-and-parry of modern communications without compromising its identity. To take a concrete example, last week I broke the news of restrictions imposed by the Vatican on the ministry of Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, signalling a finding that at least some of the charges of sexual abuse lodged against Fr Maciel have substance. Many people wondered why the Vatican was not more forceful in its disciplinary action, which would have allowed the Pope to take greater credit for firm action. In part, there is a canonical motive ≠ without a trial, there can be no public finding of guilt. Yet there is also an appreciation within the Holy See that the totality of a person's life cannot be reduced to the worst moments in that life, and hence that mercy must always temper justice. If this were an institution concerned solely with public relations, a different logic would apply. But the Church faces a higher standard, which means it cannot always do what would be easiest to "sell" in a given moment. Media Structures that Impede Communications (1) Emphasis on Conflict Conflict is the stuff of drama. Hence stories of disagreement, of competing visions and high-stakes showdowns, will always attract press interest. This does not imply that journalists invent conflict, but that conflict plays a disproportionate role in shaping news judgements. As regards the Church, by an obsessive focus on a narrow canon of controversial issues, such as women priests or birth control, journalism ends up distorting what the Church is really saying and doing. Pope Benedict, for example, has to date spoken much more often about the plight of Africa than he has sexual ethics, yet it is the latter that inevitably grabs headlines because it generates controversy. Hence the media ends up promoting an image of the papacy as "sex-obsessed" that the pope's own record does not support. Basic fairness should require that journalists reconsider this filter. This does not mean ignoring controversial matters that are of great interest to a portion of our audience, but surely in covering any world leader we must also provide a basic sense of what his real concerns, his real priorities, actually are. A classic example of this disproportion in media attention came just this week. On Sunday, Benedict XVI issued a strong appeal on the issue of world hunger, and endorsed a United Nations-sponsored "Walk the World" initiative that day which was intended to raise consciousness. It's rare that the Pope would lend his name in this way to a specific advocacy campaign not sponsored by the Church. Even in the Roman papers, however, the story finished on the inside pages, in one case below a photo spread of an attractive 21-year-old Italian girl, infamous for killing her mother and little brother five years ago, who was released from jail for three hours on Sunday to take part in a volleyball game. Had the Pope chosen instead to condemn the gay rights movement, one can be sure that this would not have been the case. (2) Balance by Way of Caricature The "he said/she said" approach of many news stories, which seeks balance by quoting extremists on opposite sides of a question, tends to make celebrities out of ideologues while more centrist voices struggle to be heard. Tacitus once said of the Roman armies, "They made a desert and called it peace." We might sometimes say of modern journalism, "They made a caricature and called it balance." This insight implies that journalists should not seek just the most shrill or clamourous voices on issues, but also people who can speak from the "sane middle" of the Church, who likely represent the largest single constituency on any given issue. Reporters will have to work harder to find such people, because they rarely make headlines or appear on talk shows, but they can articulate what most in the Church are actually thinking. One's copy may not be quite as sexy, but it will better reflect the reality one is purporting to describe. (3) Religion Not Taken Seriously Many secular news outlets do not take religion seriously as a news beat. As one representative way of making the point, only within the last 12 months has CNN hired a single "Faith and Values" correspondent to cover the entire galaxy of religious phenomena. Inevitably, this means that the coverage of the Church is episodic, random, and often superficial ≠ not through any fault of the individual journalist, but rather the short attention spans in their organizations and limited resources. To some extent this situation reflects commercial assumptions about the interests of readers and viewers; to some extent, too, it reflects the biases of secular elites who call the shots in newsrooms, who often see religion as quaint at best, dangerous at worst. Ironically, it's usually those who think religion is terribly dangerous who give it more air time. (As an aside, I take no pleasure in observing that in my experience of giving interviews on Catholic matters to press outlets all over the globe, I have found the disdain for religion, and consequent ignorance of even basic religious realities, to be especially pronounced in the British press, though with notable exceptions. Why this should be so calls for a level of cultural analysis I'm not sure an outsider should dare attempt.) In any event, gross errors of fact, mischaracterizations, and misleading generalisations, which would never see the light of day in stories on politics or business, often sail through to the front page when it comes to religion. For example, in July 2003, during the peak period of the sexual abuse crisis in the United States, CBS Evening News opened its nightly news broadcast by asserting, "Now it turns out the orders for this cover-up were written in Rome at the highest levels of the Vatican." The "smoking gun" in the CBS report, based on an earlier story in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, was a 1962 Vatican document titled Crimen Sollicitationis, which decreed that canonical investigations of some sorts of sexual abuse, especially abuse of the confessional to obtain sexual favours, were to be covered by perpetual secrecy. In fact, the CBS report was based on a basic misunderstanding of the difference between canon law and civil law. Crimen sollicitationis imposes secrecy on canonical procedures; it says absolutely nothing about the civil reporting of crimes. While there was certainly a mentality in the Church that discouraged airing its dirty laundry, sensationalistic stories about Crimen Sollicitationis amounted to a red herring that fuelled conspiracy theories about how the "cover-up" was engineered in the Vatican, when in reality the problem is a much more diffuse and widespread phenomenon of Catholic culture. (Indeed, if only it were as simple as flipping a switch in Rome!) Understanding that point required a grasp of canon law and Catholic life that few reporters possess, and certainly can't be expected to acquire under the pressure of near-instantaneous deadlines. Correcting this is not a matter of requesting special treatment for religion, but demanding the same treatment other serious news beats receive ≠ the same preparation, the same diligence, the same caution about sources, the same insistence upon context, and so on. Surely after 9/11, the 2004 elections in the United States, and the massive global reaction to the death of John Paul, even the most hard-bitten secularist can recognise that ignorance of religion is tantamount to ignorance of the world. (4) The Trouble with Specialists If the problem with general assignment reporters and editors is often religious illiteracy, those who specialise in it, and here I am thinking especially of the Catholic press, often suffer from the opposite malady: They know too much. Journalists drawn to covering the Church often have one of two motivations. Some are deeply convinced of the truth of the Catholic message, and see journalism as their way of defending the Church from her enemies. Others feel hurt or betrayed by the Church, and believe the Church needs to undergo significant reform, usually in a progressive direction ≠ greater democracy, women's rights, tolerance of theological dissent, and so on. Nothing is wrong per se with either of these instincts. In a secularised world often dogmatically hostile to institutional religion, the Church needs capable apologists. The Church is also semper reformanda, continually in need of reform, and it depends upon prophets who push it to realise the best version of itself. (This, of course, is not to suggest that every apologia currently in circulation is helpful, or that every version of "reform" has merit.) The point, however, is that while these instincts have value for the Church, they don't always make for good journalism. The news business needs editorialists and pundits, but the heart of the trade is reporting ≠ providing a serious, reasonably objective presentation of a set of facts, so that people may then have a rational debate about what the story means and what to do about the issues it raises. When journalists skip past fact-collection and objective analysis, and move directly into drawing conclusions, the risk is that they end up skewing the public debate. Conclusion What I have been trying to argue here is that in explaining the rather mixed record of the Church in communications, both the Church and the press must shoulder their share of the blame. Both need to grow in their understanding of the other. To drive this point home, let me tell a brief story set in rural Western Kansas in the United States, where I grew up. A Yankee lawyer went pheasant hunting one weekend. He shot and dropped a bird, but it fell into a farmer's field on the other side of a fence. As the lawyer climbed over the fence, an elderly gentleman asked him what he was doing. The lawyer responded, "I shot a pheasant and it fell in this field, so I'm going into retrieve it." The old farmer replied. "This is my property, so the pheasant belongs to me." The indignant lawyer said, "I am one of the best trial attorneys in the US and, if you don't let me get that bird, I'll sue you and take everything!" The old farmer smiled and said: "Apparently, you don't know how we do things here. We settle things like this with the Three-Kick Rule." The lawyer asked, "What's the Three-Kick Rule?" The Farmer replied. "Well, first I kick you three times, and then you kick me three times, and so on until someone gives up." The Yankee attorney quickly thought about the proposed contest and decided that he could easily take the old guy. He agreed. The old farmer slowly climbed down from the tractor and walked up to the city feller. His first kick planted the toe of his heavy work boot into the Yankee lawyer's shins and dropped him to his knees. His second kick nearly wiped the man's nose off his face. The lawyer was flat on his belly when the farmer's third kick to a kidney nearly caused him to give up. The Yankee lawyer summoned every bit of his will and managed to get to his feet and said: "Okay, you old coot, now it's my turn." The old farmer smiled and said, "Naw, I give up. You can have the bird." Too often, it seems to me, the relationship between the Church and the press is a version of the Three Kick Rule ≠ a search for cheap shots and manipulation of the other, rather than a relationship built on mutual comprehension and respect. One hopes we can grow beyond the "three-kick" dynamic, because we have much to learn from each other, and to a great extent the common good depends upon our doing so.
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