The recent media storm over Pope Benedict’s comments on condoms has exposed shortcomings in the way that the Vatican’s Press Office deals with the mainstream news media.
Let me be clear: I’m not second-guessing the character or the intentions of people who serve the Holy Father. And unlike dissidents who agitate the Church to change her teachings, I fully support Pope Benedict XVI and the Magisterium.
In fact, that’s exactly why I want a better media effort from the Vatican. While I personally have so much more to learn about the faith, as someone who deals with the media, I would like to humbly offer the following five ideas for helping the Church to better spread the Gospel in this Digital Age.
1. The Vatican Press Office has to become a 24/7 operation. While the office handling the canonization of saints is vitally important, it certainly doesn’t need to be open 24 hours a day. But those in charge of the media office can’t take nights and weekends off. The ‘condom’ story hit the news on a Saturday. In the age of Blackberrys and laptops, there’s no reason why the media office should wait until Sunday to issue a statement clarifying what the Pope really said. By not responding immediately, the Press office allowed the first few waves of stories to contain a misrepresentation of the Pope’s position.
The Press Office should also recognize the importance of immediately providing all documents online. Recently the Pope made comments about the importance of nations to provide health care access to all of its citizens. Some partisans jumped on the story suggesting that the Holy Father was endorsing the principles of President Obama’s health care plan. Not only is that a quite a stretch, it also presumes the Holy Father was speaking primary about our own country. Thankfully the Zenit news service provided a quick English translation of his talk to provide bloggers and commentators here with the ability to set the record straight. The Press Office could provide a great service to the Holy Father and his flock with a quicker turnaround time in getting his words disseminated via Twitter, Facebook and the web, instead of relying on select quotes from a New York Times story.
2. Assume the press is either hostile or ignorant (or both!) of Catholicism. I hope this doesn’t sound too cynical for good Catholics who want to serve the Holy Father. But it’s worth noting that pro-life and pro-marriage organizations here in the United States have long given up hope that the mainstream media will treat them even-handedly. And can we really expect the New York Times or the anchors on CNN to be experts on Church teaching? Let’s also remember that the percentage of reporters in the mainstream media that agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching on human sexuality is as close to zero as it can get. We simply cannot assume they will broadcast the Church’s words in the most positive light possible.
During the Church’s canonization process, one canon lawyer was known as the advocatus diaboli or “devil’s advocate.” This person was responsible for taking a skeptical view of the candidate’s character, ensuring that the Church wouldn’t make someone a saint by mistake. This practice was performed for centuries until Pope John Paul II abolished the position in 1983. Perhaps it should be revived in the media office. This person would be responsible for anticipating possible misinterpretations or distortions by the media and offering edits to a press statement before it is sent out to reporters.
3. It’s time to exercise quality control. The media often interviews a Cardinal or another member of the Roman Curia and then claims that these comments come from a “senior Vatican official” or, worse, just “the Vatican.” One of the primary responsibilities of the press office must be to establish who is eligible to speak definitively on any given subject. The Vatican’s astronomer (to pick an example) would be permitted to speak to the press authoritatively on the science of astronomy and could even elaborate on its interplay with theology. However, he couldn’t override or undermine Church teaching nor could he make statements that presume that the Church will eventually embrace his personal opinions or theories.
L’Osservatore Romano is a newspaper published by the Vatican itself. Therefore it’s easy to see why the mainstream press would assume that articles and editorials from this newspaper also represent the Catholic Church’s own thoughts on a given subject. But that’s often not the case. Recently this newspaper claimed “Homer J. Simpson is a Catholic.” This was a rather novel idea, considering that he is foul-mouthed cartoon character who is notorious for snoozing through sermons at church. He’s also the very definition of gluttony. If I were editor, I would not have published this article. But if it were to be published, at a very minimum both the newspaper and the Vatican Press Office should remind the media that this unique idea does not represent the Catholic Church’s opinion on the subject.
4. Be concise. It is perhaps unnatural for priests and Cardinals who are used to giving 30-minute sermons to distill Catholic teaching into small pearls of wisdom. After all, our Church’s teachings are often complex and require detailed explanations. Nonetheless, we must recognize the need for brevity in today’s soundbite world. Gone are the days when most people received news from their daily paper. People get news from TV or Twitter – so it’s essential to be brief and quick.
5. Be clear. When issuing a statement, the press office should tell the media: ‘This is what we are saying’ and ‘This is what we are not saying.’ When discussing a difficult or controversial topic like human sexuality, this becomes even more important. Imagine what damage could have been prevented if the Pope’s initial remarks on condoms would have also included a quick summary detailing that the Church was not reconsidering the immorality of contraception.
Pope Benedict XVI, himself understands the need for the Church to respond to the world of instant news. On World Communications Day this year, he said:
“The increased availability of the new technologies demands greater responsibility on the part of those called to proclaim the Word, but it also requires them to become more focused, efficient and compelling in their efforts.”
By implementing these reforms, I believe we would have a media operation worthy of our Holy Father as he leads his flock into the 21st century.