Cambridge, MA. Once again, allow me to speak in an area where I am by no means expert: I am sure that many of you have already read Pope Benedict’s letter of March 10, “concerning the remission of the excommunication of the four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre.” In it, the Pope goes to great lengths, in a disarmingly candid and unpretentious way, to talk about the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the nearly simultaneous lifting of the excommunication of Bishop Williamson and the discovery and widespread notice of his denial of the Holocaust. The entire letter is worth reading and pondering in most* of its details, but one section prompts my reflection today, and I reproduce it here (with my emphases): “An unforeseen mishap for me was the fact that the Williamson case came on top of the remission of the excommunication. The discreet gesture of mercy towards four Bishops ordained validly but not legitimately suddenly appeared as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and thus as the reversal of what the Council had laid down in this regard to guide the Church’s path. A gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation thus turned into its very antithesis: an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council – steps which my own work as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and support. That this overlapping of two opposed processes took place and momentarily upset peace between Christians and Jews, as well as peace within the Church, is something which I can only deeply deplore.” The situation was out of hand, and information was making its way around the internet in a way that Vatican could not anticipate, rein in, or even fully remedy. The Pope adds, “I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.”
But the problem is probably much larger than the letter indicates. It is indeed a matter of checking the internet, and finding easily available information on such issues. But it is also, I think, a matter of recognizing that the dynamics of the dissemination of information, and the interpretation and reception of that information, have changed dramatically in our time. While I am definitely not the person to comment on the new age of communication in which we live — I have no cell phone, I do not spend any time at all on Facebook, I neither twitter nor really understand what it is — I do have a sense of how knowledge is available to us in new, breathtaking swift ways, that no single voice or authorial intention can control. What we know, it seems to be, comes flying at us from all directions, and no one among us gets to control the flow or reception of the information. This is a common enough insight, to be sure, but hits more heavily when it is applied to the quintessentially singular voice of the Magisterium. The issue is therefore not just that someone at the Vatican should be googling every day, but rather that in our age there will not be any purity or single-minded of message: everything comes at us, all at once, and so the “sudden,” “apparent,” and “overlapping of opposed processes” becomes the normal way of things.
Thus, the desire to seek reconciliation with bishops illicitly ordained arrives precisely alongside the discovery that one of the bishops denies the Holocaust and that, until very recently, the same St. Pius X Society had a problematic essay about Jews at its website. The embrace of the wayward bishops turns out to be at best a very mixed message. Or, to take another case that is still alive in the news. The flood of media reports on the tragic case of the 9 year old girl in Brazil who was raped by her step-father, and thus became pregnant with twins, has also made the Church look bad. The local archbishop’s decision to excommunicate the girl’s mother when she painfully opted for an abortion for her daughter, to save her life, has seemed to most observers cluelessly cruel, and this was only accentuated by reports of Vatican agreement that even this particular abortion was a greater crime than that of the seemingly loathsome man who repeatedly abused a girl he should have been protecting. Irregardless of the point being made about the sanctity of life, what everyone will remember is that the victim’s mother was excommunicated while no effort was made to excommunicate the stepfather; there are technicalities around excommunication, to be sure, but the juxtaposition on the internet has been compellingly awful, a mess attenuated a bit, today, when another bishop points out what everyone was thinking: this sad case was a special case, deserving more evident compassion. I can think of other cases where the speed and juxtapositions of the internet take the message out of the hands of the Vatican and the bishops in ways that are revealing or distorting or both, but I will list no more here.
I know — as my readers know — that any such examples can and ought to be sorted out, distinguished, considered separately, on the particular merits of particular cases. I agree, even in my capacity as a comparative theologian: easy analogies and lack of attention to details almost never gets us anywhere. But my point here is that in the age of the internet and incredibly swift and fluid communications, people will see and hear and ponder all these cases together. Perhaps the familiar medieval axiom gains new force here: “Quidquid recipitur per modum recipientis recipitur” — “Whatever is received, is received in the mode of the person receiving it;” we do not receive the news as we did even 10 or 20 years ago, much less centuries ago, and there is no absolute exception for statements from bishops or from the Vatican. In our age of incredibly fluid communications, we will receive many stories together, and we will find next to one another many accounts and events that in the old days might be considered slowly, patiently, separately. So what Rome says, will become fluid data for the internet, and stories will be mixed together, overlapping, compared and contrasted in the most unusual ways. Unless we face up to this, Church teachings and decisions will always be accompanied by counter-meanings and unexpected-effects that change rather dramatically what was imagined to be communicated in the first place. Such is the fate of teachers, and good teachers face up to the reality: as I have found in decades of teaching, I cannot get my message across unless I pay attention to what my students have noticed, to what their more immediate and urgent questions may, even inconveniently, happen to be. No single message can be stipulated to be the message, to the exclusion of everything else. The dizzying collage of the internet just makes awkward and inconvenient questions all the more likely and persistent, even when they are not supposed to be the questions.
I, non-expert on all things of the media, but for what it’s worth, my view is that the difficulties we have been facing in this new, amazingly swift and interconnected internet world are not going away. It is not just a matter of an error once in a while, or ill will on the part of others. While anti-Catholic bias is surely alive and well, and while there are any number of very stupid and ill-informed ways of receiving and judging the information the Church puts forth, nonetheless the issue goes deeper and has to do with what it means to teach — even to Teach — in our world today. The internet — a symbol of all the changes around us — prompts us to receive and interpret together, and swiftly, what was supposed to be neatly compartmentalized, cautiously read one item at a time. We will keep finding it almost impossible to separate out and explain lucidly excommunications for this but not for that, acts of harshness in one direction and patience in another, compassion for some but not evidently for others. For the Church to teach and govern successfully today, it will have to be much more careful, and much more nuanced, in any of its pronouncements, since whatever is said will be received in the mode of receiver, as Google and myriad internet connections make myriad unexpected interpretations possible, even likely.
*Note: Regarding the Pope’s letter as a whole, I cannot help but add one more opinion about the importance of anticipating — and not provoking unintentionally — debates that are not pertinent to the main topic at hand: It would have been good, in my view, to reserve for another letter what is really a separable issue, the Pope’s distinction of God and the God of Sinai from the “other gods:” “In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god [my emphasis] but the God who spoke on Sinai…” It is true, very true, that the world needs God, and we must do what we can to make the true God truly known, but it is not helpful or necessary, particularly in the midst of making another point, to insult Hindus, for instance, by seeming to refer in so offhand a way to their deities as “just any god.” Should Hindus — who often honor the divine as Many and as One — read the papal letter, I could imagine another unanticipated internet conflagration bursting into flame, unintentionally ignited by what was clearly not the Pope’s main point.