The great Southern writer and Catholic Flannery O’Connor once said that Catholics are called upon to suffer ever so much more from the Church than for her. These words came back to mind after the latest papal interview.
Once again—do we not all know the drill by now?—the pope gives an interview, and the juiciest bits spread like wildfire, generating headlines such as “Pope Says 2% of Priests are Pedophiles” (Wall Street Journal) and “Pope Francis reportedly promises ‘solutions’ to priests’ celibacy” (CBS News). And once again the papal spokesman, the unenviable Jesuit Fr. Lombardi, had to “clarify” by saying “one cannot and one must not speak in any way of an interview in the usual sense of the word.” Lombardi could not publish a text of the interview as there was none, and the whole thing was apparently a jerry-rigged reconstruction by an atheist journalist of what he thought the pope said. Such a situation can only lead to disaster as the pope’s trust is wantonly exploited. Thus we may never know if the pope did or did not say the things attributed to him. Certainly Lombardi claimed as much, saying that “the individual remarks… cannot be confidently attributed to the Pope.”
What is one to do with this? How does one answer the pointed question of a friend of mine, who recently said: “I thought the Catholic Church was supposed to be in the business of worshipping the Word made flesh, and thus knowing something about using words properly. Why must every papal statement be ‘clarified’ by others? Why can’t the pope just get it right in the first place?”
These are important questions, and though I find it unseemly for a junior to offer gratuitous advice to a senior, especially to a pope, and though I have a horror of autobiography, let me nonetheless recount my own experience here as it illustrates only too well the problems of unguarded commentary in the popular press. It seems the pope—and his spokesman—have not learned the lessons I had to learn about the agendas of the press.
Nearly a decade ago now, I began indulging far too much my fondness for polemics and provoking outrage. I brandished as my motto the wonderful aphorism of the French Catholic writer Charles Péguy: “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been committed for fear of not looking sufficiently progressive.” Attacking “progressive” Catholic causes provided fat, fun targets (“Sr. Stretchpants” and other “weedy nuns” were two of my more uproarious phrases friends quoted back at me endlessly), and so, being woefully naive about how media operate with their own agendas, I penned a series of op-eds for major Canadian newspapers on the ever-controverted topics of the ordination of women and same-sex relations. I didn’t really expect to change many minds, but I was rather going on the offensive (in more ways than one) to push back against the constant nonsense one was forced to read in the press, which never missed an opportunity to slag the Church I love. I gleefully wrote slashing counter-attacks and used hyperbolic language, justifying myself by appealing once more to the acerbic Flannery O’Connor: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Since then, I’ve had a bit more experience in the media, including numerous TV and radio interviews in Canada, Europe, Asia, and the US, and as a result I have been wholly disabused of my naïve notion that journalists—whether in print, TV, radio, or on the Web—function purely as innocent deliverers of “facts” and can always be trusted to get it right. They have a whole agenda of their own, and if you are not careful you can get sucked into it. The agenda, of course, is that of generating juicy headlines, selling newspapers, and making money. Controversial statements from Catholics only help them to do that, in the process creating sometimes huge “debts” for the Church long after the journalists have pocketed their cheques.
As the largest religious body in the world, the Catholic Church naturally gets a lot of attention, which is doubled when you are talking about hot-button issues (almost always, invariably, having to do with sex), and doubled again when the person doing the talking is the pope. But the danger here, amply in evidence recently, is that papal utterances, especially in interviews, create unnecessary problems for the rest of us, sometimes for months or years afterwards.
I spend my days teaching undergraduates who often have an abysmal ignorance of Christianity, even for those who went to Catholic schools. They can’t tell me if there are seven sacraments or seventy, and they haven’t the slightest understanding of Catholic sexual morality, but you can bet they can throw in your face Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” line whenever discussing homosexuality.
This whole trend of papal interviews—which began with Saint John Paul II (if we count Crossing the Threshold of Hope) and the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, so I’m not singling out his successor—is not a development greatly to be encouraged; at the very least, it should be used with extreme caution. The pope already has many means for communication—homilies, encyclicals, letters, apostolic exhortations, and the Vatican website and radio and TV stations. The problem with hearing too much of the pope is that it reinforces the idea that if the pope hasn’t said something, it cannot be important. Conversely, people assume that if the pope has said something, it trumps every other thing ever said about the topic from the Bible, Fathers, and Catechism on down. Frequent papal utterances—even the best ones—often reinforce the cult of personality around his office that has been helpful to nobody for the better part of a century.
If, however, we are going to see high-profile papal interviews continue, then permit me to suggest three changes that could benefit the Church.
First, the popes should consider a bit of advice from the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of the journal, First Things: when it is not necessary to speak, it is necessary to not speak. I have started and abandoned many articles over the years and even an entire book because I felt that what I was trying to say was not good enough to publish, and might in fact cause skandalon in the Pauline sense of scandal: a stumbling block to someone seeking to draw near to Christ. So pace Freud, sometimes suppressing your thoughts is in fact a good thing. The greater your responsibility, the greater the impulse to suppress must be given the greater possibility for misunderstanding and scandal.
Second, popes need to learn the lesson I did: make your own audio and video recording of any interview (and store the copies in a safe!), insist on seeing the final text before publication, and keep copies of everything. That way if, invariably, the press tries to spin something one way, you have the documentary evidence to say “I never said that” or “that is ripped out of context.” If the press won’t print a retraction or correction, then throw the whole text or video up on the Vatican website for people to see for themselves that the media tried to play fast and loose.
Third, gimmicky though this sounds, perhaps the Vatican Press Office should take a cue from the US Department of Homeland Security and their color-coding of possible terrorist threats. Though this would not deter the most tendentious of journalists from trying to spin something as “papal” or “Catholic” teaching, it might help some Catholics climb down from the ledge whenever they are confronted with the dreaded opening line “In an interview today, the Pope said….”
Thus we might see on the Vatican website clearly differentiated categories of utterance. Since red—and not white—is the normal and historical color for popes, we begin with that, and then the rest of the scheme—to keep things simple—follows universally recognized traffic patterns and colors. Red means: stop and pay attention to this crucial matter. Yellow means “be cautious, look around, and see whether this affects you or not”. Green means “carry on as before, slowing down to pay attention only if you really want to but otherwise legitimately speeding past and minding your own business.”
This might be clumsy in its application, which is in fact a feature, not a bug. One side effect of this, hopefully, would be to force a flowing in the prodigious volume of materials coming out of Rome. Before anything could be published, it would have to be color-coded and ranked, and the audience(s) to whom it is relevant clearly indicated as well as the expected response(s), if any.
A final salutary feature—the most important—of putting everything through such a process would be that more than one person would review something before it is published. As editor of an academic revue (Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies) for well over a decade now, I can tell you that the more sets of eyes on an article the better because even the best editors miss things, and the help from others can be invaluable in saving you from embarrassing or costly mistakes. If Pope Francis wants to hire me, he only has to say the word.