You may have read stories about the Vatican announcing that Roman Catholics may earn time off purgatory by following Pope Francis on social media during World Youth Day. Many of the stories had serious problems. The main problem was getting the theology all wrong. For a sample of how the media messed up this story, let's look at the Telegraph:
Catholics to seek forgiveness for their sins via social media
Catholics will be able to seek forgiveness for their sins from afar next week when the Pope visits Brazil, simply by following the event on social media, the Vatican has decreed.
You don't even need to know that much about Catholicism to see where this Rome-based (!) reporter or his headline writer went south. As one reader put it:
Please, please, please, this is not “forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness is granted via absolution in the Sacrament of Confession (or, if you prefer, Penance or Reconciliation). An indulgence, whether partial or plenary, is remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.
There's actually much more wrong with the story. And practically every story I read on the matter just got the basics wrong. It was so bad that CNN's Belief Blog had the Rev. James Martin, SJ, write-up a blow-by-blow of the various mistakes. It's great and I encourage you to read it. Father Martin shows knowledge of newsrooms and church teaching in his account. A snippet from " Sorry, you can't get out of hell by retweeting the pope":
In other words: the original document, the “source” and Archbishop Celli all said the opposite of what the headlines said.
That is, it’s not enough simply to follow the pope on Twitter. It’s not even enough to check his Twitter feed frequently. You need to be (a) contrite, (b) trying to follow the events at World Youth Day live and (c) performing these acts with “due devotion.”
In other words, the Vatican is clearly referring to prayerful participation in these events by men and women who could not otherwise go, through the various “new means of social communication.”
The end was a bit rough but deservedly so:
The worst headline came from the normally careful Slate: Pope Francis is not offering indulgences “in exchange for Twitter followers.” He has plenty of Twitter followers. But he’d probably exchange a few hundred of them for headline writers who actually read the story.
OK. The second disappointment in this media coverage is one that I'm almost reticent to suggest. Let's just assume that we lived in an alternate universe where a Vatican announcement about indulgences was covered significantly better than what we saw this week. If that were the case, what I'd then like to see in that coverage is some airing of the theological debate about indulgences.
It's important not only to accurately describe indulgences from the Roman Catholic perspective but it would be nice also to see this used as a hook to discuss how indulgences themselves are an incredibly contentious issue among Christians (that link goes to how one Lutheran pastor responded to the news, but there are many other such reactions). Still, while many reporters could ably handle it, I'm not sure we have a general media establishment capable of responsibly wading into that territory in an edifying manner.
Remember, as much as you (or I!) might like to discuss the theology of indulgences, this is not the place for that discussion. We're just thinking about this topic from a media perspective.