The medium and the message

Pope Benedict XVI raises his hands to the crowd before leaving Lisbon in Portugal

Pope Benedict XVI is on a visit to Portugal. As is his custom for trips outside the Vatican, he takes reporters' questions while in-flight. One of the responses has gotten quite a bit of media coverage. Here's how Reuters put it:

Pope Benedict said on Tuesday that the greatest threat to Catholicism came from "sin within the Church", one if (sic) his most forthright comments so far on a sexual abuse scandal that has created turmoil in the church.

The Church has "a very deep need" to recognize that it must do penitence for its sins and "accept purification", he said.

"Today we see in a truly terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from outside enemies but is born of sin within the Church," Benedict told reporters on the plane to Portugal, replying to a question about the scandal.

The first thing I find fascinating about this is the angle that all media outlets are taking. They're saying these are the first or most forthright comments pointing out the church's errors. I find it fascinating because back in mid-April a reader sent along a transcript of one of the Pope's homilies from that time. In very short order, he gave an emotional acknowledgment of the sins of the church, a call to Christian penance, hope and encouragement to a suffering church, a direct (albeit gentle) challenge to the West's current concept of freedom and to individualism absent a reverence for God, and a stunning indictment of the way news cycles are formed. And for the most part, the media barely acknowledged the homily -- much less the more interesting parts of it. The indictment of the media had to do with what Benedict called the dictatorship of conformist opinion. It was ironic, then, that the general lack of coverage of that important sermon only confirmed what he was saying. I can't find the full homily online but here is a summary from the Vatican Information Service.

Anyway, I find the chosen angle interesting because I actually found the Pope's mid-April homily to be just as forthright as his remarks to journalists. In fact, because they were in the context of a full homily, they packed much more punch than the Q&A session with reporters.

In the current scandal environment, we're seeing a lot of talking past each other. As veteran Godbeat scribe Kenneth Woodward said well in his "Church of the New York Times" piece, we're witnessing cultures that are completely at odds with each other. I realized, upon reading dozens of the comments left in a New York Times story about these latest remarks, that readers didn't really understand that the same act could be both a sin and a crime. This is startling to me, but a reminder of how secularized the media (in general, not just news media) has become.

In the opposite vein, it's also true that the Vatican moves in decades and centuries. Nothing could be more foreign to the modern media environment where on Tuesday we're supposed to be obsessed with a missing blonde American, on Wednesday with a Vatican sex scandal, and on Thursday with an oil spill. There are advantages to the fast information age, obviously, but considered decision-making is probably not one of them.

One of my favorite economics professors -- Tyler Cowen -- was profiled in the Washington Post today. An information hound, he's also skeptical of how the news media convey information. The reporter who profiled him at least engaged the issue. But it seems as if the only coverage we get of Benedict must relate to scandal or politics. If he speaks outside of those areas, it's like he becomes magically invisible.

There must be some deeper meaning in how the Pope's comments directly to reporters get more play than an actual homily. Or maybe it's just a shame that that particular homily, in which Benedict subtly critiqued the way in which instant global communications can lead more to a feeding frenzy echo chamber rather than considered action. Benedict is clearly someone who cares more about making systemic changes over time than being on top of a public relations wave. People will probably differ about whether that's good or bad. But I think he challenges the media and their silence and lack of response to the questions he raised says a great deal.

No one disagrees that the sexual "filth" as then-Cardinal Ratzinger called it, is a deep problem in the church and the culture. But I think some people are beginning to question the manner in which the media can assert its power to destroy reputations, organizations and lives with the publication of a few stories, editorials and cartoons. That is a story that the normally navel-gazing media would do well to consider.

Anyway, the New York Times story by Rachel Donadio is heavy on analysis but also on news and context. Her take on the remarks was that Benedict had been undercut by underlings who hurt the Vatican's public relations efforts. But also, I guess, that he was changing his tune:

Benedict's remarks on Tuesday appeared to show that the pope himself would now be dictating the message.

"Today we see in a really terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside, but is born from the sin in the church," the pope said.

"The church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice," he added.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, characteristically played down the idea that the pope's remarks on sexual abuse represented a change in his thinking. "I would insist on the fact that the pope didn't change gears," Father Lombardi said at a news conference late Tuesday.

He said that the pope had expressed his thoughts more deeply in his letter to Irish Catholics, but acknowledged that on Tuesday the pope expressed himself with more "density and clarity" than he had in recent days. The pope, he said, was "more clear and explicit in the way in which he lives and sees the spiritual meaning of this situation of the church with the scandal of pedophilia."

Maybe Lombardi is "characteristically" playing down the idea that the pope's remarks on sexual abuse represented a change because he's a lying spin machine. Or maybe he's "characteristically" doing that because, in fact, Benedict's remarks to do not represent a change of thinking. I wrote a post last week that included comments from quite a few people who suggest that Benedict did undergo a change -- but many years ago, not a few weeks ago. As in, back when he was given the task of rooting out pedophile priests and realized how big a problem it was. And they say that he's been their best advocate in working to make systemic changes to how the Vatican handles problem priests. In other words, perhaps it would be better to avoid the use of such words to describe Lombardi's views.

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