Given that the previous two posts here have touched some raw nerves (not my intention), revealing in the process that there are still Catholics who implicitly believe that a pope is pretty much beyond any criticism, and bringing out the nasty side of some people (spared your delicate eyes), it seems opportune to re-orient things on a more positive line, without resiling from my stated position, accurately understood.
One aspect attending the current papacy, admittedly still in its early stages, is fairly clear. There is a communications problem, and it is far from being solved.
On the one hand Pope Francis is fond of the striking gesture and word. He can be a maverick speaker. Often he does not stick to his texts; more often he has not prepared text at all. He is given to short addresses, with pithy and attention-grabbing tag-lines, often employing homely or colloquial words or phrases. He will talk about almost any topic. He is not into long waffle, and tends not to offer lengthy development of arguments. He speaks like a boxer: a series of short sharp jabs in the course of a short bout. The Romans have taken to nicknaming him Papa chiacchierone – “Pope Chatterbox” – their irreverent but not ill-meant take on the new papal style.
On the other hand we have the Vatican media machine abetting this approach. Vatican Radio and the Vatican website especially publish frequent and regular summaries of almost every papal utterance, however impromptu such an utterance might be. Ironically they build the image of a chatterbox pope. Even more unweclome, by providing not full transcripts but only edited highlights, they appear to reduce papal rhetoric to the level of a series of soundbites, disconnected and de-contextualized but very attention-grabbing. Politicians are used to this method, and to a degree it suits them (though it does nothing to raise the standard of political discourse). Popes are not used to it, nor is the Church. Moreover, it is a tall order indeed to reduce Christian teaching to soundbites and slogans. Conclusions need their preceding arguments on which they are based to be fully comprehensible and clear. By providing too often just the concluding soundbites and too little of the arguments that give them their sense, their context, the Vatican media machine is helping the distortion and trivialization of the papal message. It does not mean to do so; it is playing a game of catch-up; it is trying to accommodate itself to a pope who is communicating in a way very different to his predecessors.
So one solution, and perhaps the easiest, would be for the Vatican media not to report the Pope’s every utterance, especially his impromptu ones; nor to offer only edited summaries seasoned with the occasional quotable quote. A good rule of thumb might be to determine what the proper audience is for a particular papal utterance. At his daily Mass, for example, his homilettes are for the congregation there present. He is not speaking ex cathedra, nor even as Supreme Pontiff, but as celebrant of the Mass. Perhaps his daily homilettes are best left secure in their proper context, his daily Mass. Likewise if he addresses a group in a private audience, maybe his words to them should remain in that context, the private audience. In such a case he is not speaking to the whole Church, nor even intending to I suspect; in which case, the whole Church need not hear him. (Of course, it seems highly unlikely that the Vatican media broke the story about his speech to CLAR the other day; it has however helped to create a climate in which such private audiences are made public property).
What the Vatican media could then focus on would be Pope Francis’ manifestly magisterial speeches and writings, more formal texts offering sustained argument leading to a developed and crafted conclusion. The impending encyclical on faith, the completion of Benedict’s initial labour, offers precisely such an opportunity, and I await it with great relish.
An advantage of this approach would be to take the wind from the sails of the secular media in their coverage of Pope Francis. They are imposing on his words and actions a set of hermeneutics that serve their own interests, not the Church’s. In so doing they are conditioning the world’s, and much of the Church’s understanding of the Pope and his ministry. First among them is the hermeneutic of humility, by which the secular media interprets even the smallest papal act as evidence of a new commitment to humility – one, we are to believe, which marks a new direction for a hitherto far-from-humble papacy.
Another is the hermeneutic of shock. The secular media love to portray Pope Francis as a maverick, impatient of tradition, the establishment and the conventional. This opportunity presented itself from the moment of Pope Francis’ election and the media have pushed it ever since: the novel papal name; Francis’ refusal to don the mozetta at his election; his washing of women’s (and some Muslim ones at that) feet at Maundy Thursday Mass; the Pope’s admonition to nuns not to be “old maids”; his admonition to clergy not to be “careerists”; his talk of a gay lobby in the Vatican, etc. The secular media shines the spotlight on these, building an image of a pope who is set to change everything, and do everything his own way. Conversely, when the Pope does something truly novel and remarkable, like join the March for Life in Rome, the secular media remains silent. It is not the sort of shock they want to promote.
No doubt there are more hermeneutics employed by the secular media, which serve the secular agenda. The Church, beginning with the Vatican media machine, needs to fight back and reclaim the ground lost to the secular media. There are many hermeneutics we should employ and promote, those of evil/the Devil; of personal integrity; of the value and dignity of human life; of continuity and orthodoxy; of open engagement with a hostile world. There could be many more. I have not really given it enough thought as yet. The essential thing is that by leading the interpretation of the words and actions of the Pope, the Church can counteract the secular agenda by replacing it with its own, and giving it as loud a voice as possible. Then the Pope would appear in far more authentic light. It is a process that could, and should, begin at a grassroots level, using the new media and mastering their use for the gospel.
The secular media are no friend of the papacy except when it suits their own agenda. They certainly cannot be trusted to construct the Pope’s image before the world or the Church. They would like to set Pope Francis in opposition to his predecessors, and to judge previous popes in the light of their own fabricated image of Pope Francis – and to bring Catholics to share their judgment. Let us not follow the secularist course. Rather let us, the Church, set the course, the pace and the destination. It is as good a service as we can offer the Pope at this point in his papacy, second only to our continued prayer for him.
God bless our Pope.