Press Often Misrepresents Church Documents, Pope Says

VATICAN CITY — “Horrendous” was how Dominican Father Augustine DiNoia described the media criticism of the encyclical Dominus Iesus, a controversial declaration issued in 2000 that reasserted the lordship of Christ in the salvation of souls.

But as undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that produced the document, Father DiNoia believes it doesn't have to be that way.

Speaking just after the Feb. 3-6 biannual plenary meeting of the congregation, during which the role of the media and the magisterium was one of the major points discussed, Father DiNoia said although a certain “anti-Catholicism in the mass media” was taken into account and some opposition to Vatican documents was unavoidable, there was a “general recognition that documents have to made more understandable.”

There was an acknowledgement, he added, of “the need to communicate the fundamental elements of Christianity,” in particular Christology and soteriology (the branches of theology relating to Christ and salvation) and “their practical import.”

“There has been a surfeit of documents,” said Father DiNoia, a Dominican theologian, who served for eight years as the executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices for the U.S. bishops’ conference. “We need to bring their meaning to a more practical level.”

Pope John Paul II addressed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's meeting Feb. 6, giving his instructions on how the issuance of documents from the Holy See should be treated.

Focusing on the relation between the Holy See and the Catholic world, he noted that the Catholic faithful are often “disorientated more than informed by immediate reactions to, and interpretations by, the media.”

He urged that the reception of Church documents “must be seen above all as an ecclesial event of welcoming the magisterium” and emphasized that their publication represents “a propitious occasion of formation, catechesis and evangelization.”

“It is a question in fact of an authoritative word that shines light on a truth of faith or on several aspects of Catholic doctrine that are contested or distorted by particular currents of thought or action,” he said.

In this regard, John Paul asked the congregation to plan “opportune methods of transmission and diffusion of the document itself, which allows for full awareness, above all, by the bishops of the Church.”

This was a point welcomed by Father DiNoia and others at the meeting, many of whom are aware that most bishops “don't have a chance to assimilate documents” before they are discussed in the press.

But also considered was the Church's relationship with the media beyond the “Catholic world,” where there is clearly plenty of room for improvement.

A long-standing difficulty among journalists is the inability of the Vatican to be forthcoming in providing comments not so much concerning matters of a speculative nature than in merely clarifying matters of concrete importance.

“It would certainly be helpful if there were one person in every congregation or council who could deal with the press and talk on the record,” said Greg Burke, Rome correspondent for Fox News.

“Since there isn't anyone like that, and most of the people in the Vatican are scared to death of reporters, you end up with all these blind quotes from a ‘a Vatican source’ or ‘a senior Vatican official,’” Burke said. “A Vatican source could be just about anybody. Or it might be nobody — totally invented.”

Father DiNoia is one Vatican official who is well aware of the situation and is supportive of closer cooperation with the media.

“I'm a firm believer that a more positive relation with the press is essential,” he said. “There has to be an effective mediator between the institutional authority and the public.”

And he offered hope that a sea change might be on the way.

“I don't mean this to be patronizing, but I was surprised at the sophistication of some of the cardinals with regard to the media,” he said after the plenary meeting. “They don't want to respond with a knee-jerk reaction but rather approach the issues by asking themselves how they could help the press instead of treating it as an adversary.”

Also discussed at the biannual meeting was the natural moral law. The Holy Father asked the congregation “to promote opportune initiatives with the aim of contributing to a constructive renewal of the doctrine on the natural moral law, seeking convergence with representatives of different denominations, religions and cultures.”

John Paul also drew the congregation's attention to the “notable increase” in the number of disciplinarian cases referred to the congregation regarding sexual abuse by clerics.

He said that although there is a need for the just application of the canonical penal law, there must also be a “greater guarantee in the just and balanced formation of future priests.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.