When the Vatican lit up St. Peter's Basilica with a colorful slideshow on the environment, reactions swelled like the rising oceans. And the Religion News Service aptly covered extremes of anger and delight, including various shades in between.
Up to a point, at least. RNS added a shade or two of commentary that was all its own.
The context was the opening of Pope Francis' Jubilee Year of Mercy, a time for the faithful to rededicate themselves to lives of charity, devotion and reconciliation. They can also gain "indulgences," for the forgiveness of sins, by passing through designated Holy Doors at all cathedrals worldwide -- including St. Peter's, which Francis opened on Tuesday.
That night also saw Fiat Lux: Illuminating Our Common Home, a dazzling light-and-sound show with landscapes and animals projected onto the façade of the Catholic Church's mother church. As RNS observes, the three-hour show was aimed also at publicizing, once again, Laudato Si', Francis' encyclical last June on caring for the environment, just as world leaders were meeting in Paris to discuss climate change.
But objections to Fiat Lux were often fierce, as RNS reports:
"This has gone beyond ridiculous," fumed a conservative blogger, the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, who called it "irreverent" to use a sacred space for a secular purpose. "Why not rent out the Sistine chapel too, while they’re at it?"
"The Vatican profaned," Antonio Socci wrote at the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli. "The symbolic significance of the event is a Church immersed in darkness, but illuminated by the world, by the new climatist-religion-ideology."
"Sickening" and "embarrassing" were among the reactions on a Twitter thread started by Raymond Arroyo, a popular host on the conservative Catholic cable network EWTN. "Someone should be fired for this. Actually, several people should be," wrote another.
RNS goes beyond mere slings and arrows, classifying the types of objections and looking up answers as well. Among those objections (the summaries are mine):
* Cutting industrial development will hurt the poor.
* The Church should shun secular issues like global warming.
* Timing was inappropriate, coinciding with a Marian festival. One blogger fumed over the "Neo-Pagan obscenity for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception!"
* Buddhists, animists and a woman in a burqa were shown, but clear Christian images were not.
About half the article is scrupulously devoted to the defense. Answers, too, are summarized, though more concisely:
But fans of the event argued that, for one thing, the images were projected onto the most famous Catholic Church in the world, and with the explicit approval of the pope.
They also noted that the title of the event was "Fiat Lux," or "Let there be light," the words God spoke in Genesis at the creation of the world. The link between faith and creation, they said, could hardly be clearer — and Francis has said care of the Earth is a concern of all humanity and the church should be working with everyone toward that goal.
Others pointed out that the Vatican has been illuminated before and many historic churches around the world have been used for projection displays; Catholic art and architecture — and spirituality, in fact — have often been based on these sorts of vivid displays.
RNS also acknowledges a few shades of gray, although it cites only one. "I’m not opposed to the message, but I thought it was tacky," a Holy Cross priest in Indiana says.
I'll bet there were other views, too; I'd have liked to read them.
Credit, too, for some vivid writing, as in: "Most of the pictures, by renowned photographers, were of animals — a virtual Noah’s Ark of jaguars and jellyfish, parrots and pandas, lions and lemurs moving across the centuries-old façade and cupola." I'm kind of a sucker for alliteration.
The complaints are reported non-scornfully. One example:
Others argued that the Catholic Church shouldn’t be lobbying on global warming policies, which they see as a secular agenda and not a religious concern. "This is the kind of thing ideological politicians do, like President Obama’s rainbow projection onto the White House after the Supreme Court approved gay marriage," Robert Royal, head of the Washington-based Faith and Reason Institute, told LifeSiteNews.
So why only a qualified thumbs-up for the RNS piece?
For one thing, it lapses into the familiar "conservative" caricaturing habit of mainstream media. I count at least six uses of the word, at one point making it synonymous with "traditionalist."
The defenders? They escape "liberal" or any such button-pushing label. This goes even further than the simplistic "two armies" approach that tmatt has criticized. It's more an assumption that liberals are the "normal" people, and conservatives are on the fringe.
And too often, the article uses the generalized "sources say" device, without attributing opinions to any person or group. This is often done to save time and space (the RNS story runs nearly 900 words). But if overused, it can exaggerate a position so much that no one individual actually holds it. It can also be used to camouflage the writer's own opinion.
Some of this may well have been avoided if RNS had actually interviewed anyone. I'm not sure they did. Looks to me like every quote was pulled from blogs, newspapers, Twitter posts, and activist sites like LifeSite. The result isn’t coverage as much as a media review.
Again, credit where it's due: Within the boundaries of a cut-and-paste piece, the story attempts to be fair to all sides. It even works in a little about theology and social issues.
Once again, RNS just needs to avoid grading or shading viewpoints, as would be the norm in commentary or editorial-page work. Otherwise, it ends up casting a projection of its own image.