Media, Control, and Pope Francis

Are we faced with “A media exploiting every information gap to construct an image of the pontificate which goes far beyond anything that Francis has said or done”? I would say probably, but I am not sure. More importantly, is this a problem? I would say probably not.

These questions were raised in a post on Vatican Monday.  I am curious to know how the Pope is perceived in other countries, because I think all the evidence is that in the United States he has overwhelming “favorables”. This article’s author seems to be much more concerned that the Church not be perceived to be changing than I would be. She adamantly states that despite the expectations placed on this Pontificate for change that “In fact, the Church has not changed. The truths of the faith have remained the same. Perhaps, the only thing that has changed is the approach. And it is mostly a matter of style”. This seems to suggest that style doesn’t matter. I would disagree. Style does matter. But also, I think that there is more than “style” that has changed at the Vatican since Francis’ arrival.

Ms. Gagliarducci points out that “Pope Francis is practicing an informal Papacy”. She cites his frequent phone calls and unscheduled interviews and claims they should be “considered as the pastoral visits of a Pope who cannot leave the Vatican as often as he would like to”. I think that this pastoral focus (or approach) is a very significant change and far more than a matter of style.

In the author’s own words: “This pastoral approach is the model that Pope Francis wants to give to the Church. An inclusive approach, going to the encounter of everyone. Even lifting up the role of laymen and – why not – women in the ranks of the Church”. This emphasis, in my opinion, has been how he has so quickly turned the media to his favor. It is a change; not in the totality of the message; and certainly not in the core beliefs of the Church, but a significant change.

The author believes “making public the content of phone calls and meetings without proper oversight of the message in advance, or a heads-up to the Vatican communications offices, has its perils”, and that “the greatest risk is having Pope Francis’ words manipulated”. I disagree with both of these assertions. Tightly controlled messages don’t work in this era of media, and the greatest risk to not have the Church engaged in conversation with the world.

The media doesn’t believe tightly controlled messages and digs for dissenting truths. These many and varied conversations made public force the media into a position of interpreting and analyzing, rather than discrediting. The media must react to developing stories rather than act to create a story. The media becomes part of a conversation, where broad ideas and nuance both have a place. I would argue that it is exactly the opposite of having the media set the agenda.

One of the two central issues in the posting is that of divorce and remarriage highlighted by Pope Francis’ reported exchanges with a woman in Argentina who married a divorced man. What a great thing to make public! In the United States anyway, divorce is a HUGE problem. How should people relate to the Church in the face of it? Ms. Gagliarducci says that “Pope Francis wants to underline that the divorced and remarried, even if they cannot take Communion, must not be marginalized from life of the Church. To the contrary, they must be included”. If that isn’t a change, it is news to many inside and outside the Church- and that news ought to get out. In a tightly controlled messaging, it probably wouldn’t.

The Church isn’t alone in concerns about the ubiquity of information and not having control, but the reality is that there is no longer an ability to control information. What organizations need to do is influence the interpretation of information. Today we call this “engagement”.

I have seen this propensity to try to control information, hurt parish operation on a local level. Years ago, as part of a parish council, I received a financial report that blatantly ommitted lines in the P&L statement, so that it was obvious that the numbers didn’t add. Today, I can’t remember what the line items were hidden, I only recall that they didn’t trust us with the full story. Others will still wonder what they were hiding or what they did wrong that they didn’t want to let others know about. I am quite confident that nothing was inappropriate in the way the money was used, but because they didn’t trust the parishioners (or even the relatively small number of council members) they gave a tightly controlled message and we reacted negatively, fixated on the omissions, not their message.

I believe that all the faithful can take a lesson from the Holy Father, actually two, in dealing with information. 1.) Don’t be afraid. Let the information out. Let the discussion happen. Let the people come to the truth, guide them in the discernment. 2.) Focus on the Love as Law, not the law in its minutiae.

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