Benedict and the Media

Are Pope Benedict’s comments too bold for the mass media?

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 Christians.

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 American continent.”

Communications Skills

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 political expediency.

“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.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.