The papal encyclical: Challenging coverage and advancing the story

Remember Joseph Stalin's nasty and dismissive line, one version of which goes, "The pope? How many divisions does he have?”? Or maybe he actually said, “How many divisions does the pope of Rome have?”

Hard to say. Both versions are floating around the Internet.

No matter. The implication is clear in both instances. The Vatican long ago lost a considerable portion of its worldly power that once allowed it to impose its will not only on the preponderance of Roman Catholics, but on much of non-Catholic humanity.

This should be obvious to GetReligion readers. Should you require evidence, however, the recent vote legalizing same-sex marriage in once staunchly traditional, Catholic Ireland should serve as a clincher.

The Vatican's diminished influence is also obvious in much of the general media's coverage of Pope Francis' environmental encyclical, Laudato Si -- notwithstanding all the headlines it generated. 

Francis emphasized the moral challenge he believes is key to slowing human-influenced climate change and to furthering a sustainable global environmental policy that fosters economic justice. His moral argument -- a harsh critique of rapacious capitalist practices and unbridled consumerism -- warned of the negative consequences of current policies for all the world, but, in particular, for the poor and powerless. 

But get past the lede of most renditions of the story -- most prominently in the follow up coverage -- and you find that the Vatican's message was not the dominate theme. Rather, it was the contrary reactions of outside political and economic forces.

I'm sure this coverage was expected by the Vatican inner circle. Rome's media machine knows full well how contemporary journalism functions and what the world at large thinks.

Moreover, so-called "climate deniers" or "climate skeptics" -- media shorthand for those that oppose politicians forcing policy changes on the business world and society in general because of climate change fears -- pressed the Vatican ahead of the encyclical's release in a failed attempt to diminish its strong pro-environmental and communitarian message.

So, given the realities of the sphere within which we operate, how might religion journalists proceed? Charged as we are -- or should be -- with exploring religion's inherent moral clash with the larger society's contrary and often contradictory values, how might religion journalists advance the story?

I know that bucking the dominant culture is certainly not easy for journalists working for mainstream outlets dependent upon the existing culture's economic order for their very survival. The current economic state of the industry makes it even harder to rattle the cage when you're trying to keep a job in the shrinking marketplace for serious journalism.

Still, here's a few thoughts and perhaps a story idea of two.

We live in an inconsistent age, as perhaps is every age. Politicians, including Catholic politicians, invoke the Church's moral teachings when it serves them, say on opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage. But they have no problem dismissing teachings when they simply disagree or fear making voters uncomfortable because their lifestyle choices are being questioned.

Aha, some of you will say, I just singled out social conservatives. Well, I did. So let me say inconsistency is just as evident among liberal politicians, Catholic or otherwise, who contradict church teachings by supporting pro-choice abortion policies and pro-gay marriage legislation, but are happy to quote Francis when it comes to climate change and economic justice issues.

We're all inconsistent. We're all hypocrites in some way or another. Every parent and child can attest to that.

But doesn't the moral person seek to infuse their every moment with the righteous values they claim to align with when they voluntarily include themselves in a religious movement, in this case the Catholic Church? 

The journalistic question then becomes, how does a Catholic politician, businessperson, or run-of-the-mill parishioner understand the concept of Catholic morality and how does it apply to them? 

Do they admit to being inconsistent? Do the think it's morally permissible to stray from Church teachings just because they're of another mind, and still claim to be Roman Catholic? How do they handle a compartmentalized faith?

How do local bishops and priests explain this "Cafeteria Catholic" approach? Is it just another sign of the times? The human condition? Does this say something new or important about the church's role?

And what about us non-Catholics? Does the pope have any claim on our moral choices?

Surely, some will say altering deeply instilled societal codes takes considerable time, and they would be right. But what practical steps do your Catholic interviewees contemplate taking to start the process rolling in their individual sphere of influence -- that is if they think the process should get rolling?

In particular, how do they feel about the state of our free-market capitalism and consumer culture so criticized by Pope Francis? 

These will be tough questions for many to ask or answer. Convincing editors or producers that you should spend time pursuing this story line will also be difficult. It's always quicker and easier to speak with those who agree fully with some new policy recommendation.

But journalism should be about asking the tough questions. And too bad if those who choose to place themselves in the public eye for whatever reason squirm when trying to explain themselves.

Please respect our Commenting Policy