I know some of you are tired of reading about the Vatican, clergy sexual abuse and, of course, the mainstream coverage of all of that. However, please allow me offer an enthusiastic "Amen!" on behalf of the recent online commentary offered by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat about the Vatican and its ongoing difficulties relating to the mainstream press.
I do this, in part, as a way of saying, "Please read this," as opposed to suggesting that you wade through the "Why we did absolutely nothing wrong" opus published this weekend by the newspaper's public editor, Clark Hoyt. Look, if you must, for the headline, "Questioning the Pope."
But back to Douthat, one of the most articulate Catholics writing in the mainstream press today. Once again, the columnist did a wise thing -- which is draw on the work and wisdom of the omnipresent John L. Allen, Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter. Let's see, who has a deeper understanding of the past few painful and tragic decades in the life of the Church of Rome? Allen and Douthat or the latest public editor at the Times? Just asking.
The topic is how Rome handled those high-wire meetings in Malta between Pope Benedict XVI and a circle of abuse victims. First, here is Allen, as quoted by Douthat:
By insisting that these meetings occur only in private and without media coverage, the pope has also demonstrated a determination that they not become public spectacles -- in part, perhaps, to avoid impressions of exploiting the victims to score PR points. ...
(By) refusing to offer any other public comment on the crisis, including any sort of response to mounting criticism of his own record, Benedict's calculation appears to be that he's not going to seek to win over secular public opinion. That's a project, by the way, that a growing chorus of senior church officials regards as a losing proposition, since they believe the secular deck is stacked.
Ultimately, the gamble implied in this behind-the-scenes strategy is this: Over the long run, will the pope win points for his refusal to follow the spin-saturated crisis management strategies typically employed by politicians, sports stars and corporate CEOs? In other words, will his public reticence seem more like sincerity than denial?
Douthat then offers some analysis that I hope is read by reporters as well as clerics (in a wide variety of ecclesiastical settings in Rome and around the world, including many that are not Catholic). Here are two slices of that:
Nobody who cares about the Catholic Church should want to see Pope Benedict engage in a "spin-saturated crisis management strategy." But the "we can't win, so why respond?" approach to unfair press treatment has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, the media deck is stacked against Catholicism. Yes, there are reasons why this pope, in particular, is unlikely to get a fair shake from the secular commentariat. But the church is a missionary organization, the secular world is its missionary field, and influencing "secular public opinion" is one of its most important tasks. And that means finding effective ways to engage with the mass media, even -- or especially -- when you're facing a storm of criticism.
Later, there is this:
Again, the Catholic Church will always face particular difficulties in its dealings with the press. But the rules that apply to politicians also apply to popes. Responding swiftly is always better than responding slowly, and direct statements are better than oblique allusions. Attacks on the media tend to spur journalists to greater unfairness, whereas acknowledging legitimate critiques gives you more credibility, not less, when it comes time to rebut slanderous charges. If you think there's a story the media isn't covering, then you need to give them the story, in its most convincing and comprehensive form, instead of just complaining that they aren't telling it. And if you have a statement that deserves maximum visibility, you're better off having the pope deliver it himself, rather than punting it to a spokesman.