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Are Pope Benedict’s comments too bold for the mass media?
BY EDWARD PENTINREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
For some time, Vatican journalists and media savvy experts
have wondered whether Pope Benedict XVI could benefit from their advice on how
to deal with the mass media.
In particular, they draw attention to at least four
high-profile occasions when the Pope has ruffled feathers, usually prompting a
damage limitation exercise by the Vatican.
The first was during his visit last year to Auschwitz when,
despite high praise for his address, a minority of Jews felt offended by his
omission to ask for forgiveness for the faults of the German nation and to
denounce anti-Semitism. On that occasion, the Vatican let this small but vocal
criticism pass without comment.
Next came the much-reported anger felt by Muslims after
Benedict quoted a medieval emperor during his lecture last September at the
University of Regensburg. In successive public appearances after returning from
Germany, the Pope apologized for the offense his words might have caused,
explained the true substance of the lecture — a critique of the negative
consequences of the separation of faith and reason, particularly in
contemporary Western society — and, together with the Pontifical Council for
Interreligious Dialogue, held an unprecedented meeting with diplomats of Muslim
nations to the Holy See.
The Holy Father inadvertently stirred controversy again
during his trip to Brazil in May. In an impromptu press conference on the papal
plane, Benedict was asked if he agreed with Mexican bishops that Catholic
legislators who legalized abortion in Mexico City should be excommunicated.
“Yes, this excommunication is not something arbitrary,” the Pope replied.
In fact, the question was inaccurate, as no politicians had
been excommunicated by any Mexican bishop for their role in legalizing abortion
in the Mexican capital.
Papal spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi later
reminded journalists traveling with the Holy Father that he had actually said
nothing new, and that the politicians had excommunicated themselves. He also
distanced Benedict from the incident by removing the words “Yes” and “this”
from the official transcript of the conference.
Later in the trip, the Pope again came under fire when, to
the reported irritation of native Indian tribes, he failed to comment about
indigenous people who died at the hands of Latin America’s colonizing
In his weekly general audience a few days after his return
to Rome, the Holy Father felt obliged to acknowledge his omission, drawing
attention to “the shadows that accompanied the evangelization of the Latin
What these incidents show, say journalists such as National
Catholic Reporter correspondent John Allen, is that Benedict needs to work on
his communications skills. He must take into account cultural and political
sensitivities, Allen wrote in his May 18 “All Things Catholic” column, to avoid
having to issue expressions of regret later.
Allen’s view is shared by Yago de la Cierva, a professor of
crisis communications at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. The
Pope, he said, appears “isolated” from media advisers, and needs to call on
them for advice.
De la Cierva said prevention is better than a cure, because
no one can correct the Pope after he has spoken. He also saw a need for
Benedict and those close to him to realize that Catholics also are affected by
misrepresentations in the secular media.
“Often it’s the more intelligent Catholics who read the secular
rather than the Catholic press,” he says, “so the Holy Father must try to
minimize turbulence in that area.”
But would the Pope see a need to adopt such advice?
One of the Holy Father’s great strengths is to be completely
frank and truthful about what he thinks. The last thing he would want, say
those close to him, is to be forced into political correctness or pandering to
“When Benedict XVI talks about theology or other subjects
less concrete than history, he has always been remarkably daring,” said Patrick
Nold, professor of medieval history at the State University of New York-Albany.
“Other ‘well-advised’ public figures, both lay and ecclesiastical, just follow
that injunction in the Seamus Heaney poem — ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ —
in the hope of offending no one.”
Some of those close to the Pope said that problems can arise
in his relationship with the mass media because of his open and trusting
character, which inclines him to expect journalists to interpret his words
thoughtfully and fairly.
Speaking after the Holy Father’s trip to Brazil, Father
Lombardi said the reason for the appearance of these so-called “gaffes” is that
Benedict is simply “too kind.”
Nold recalled that as far back as the 13th century, Pope Boniface
VIII faced similar problems when his French political opponents turned a couple
of the medieval Pope’s jocular dinner-party remarks into charges of heresy.
“In the end, people can always find fault with what a pope
says or does not say, especially if they have ulterior motives,” said Nold.
“This has always been the case.”
writes from Rome.