Vincent J. MillerJuly 17, 2010

I’ve been brooding since Ross Douthat named so well the anxiety that many have felt throughout the year: that the Catholic Church’s credibility has reached a historically significant tipping point. (See the discussion at Peter Steinfel's blog at Commonweal.)

As I watched the media storm regarding the latest European wave of clerical sexual abuse unfold, at first it seemed not serious news for the Church in the U.S. The Dallas conventions are very strong. In the dioceses that follow them they seem almost certain to eliminate the transfer of abusive clergy that enabled a perennial crime to become a historical failure and systematic crisis.

My response however, was that of an insider, one who pays close attention to magisterial statements, who can separate the substantive decisions from the PR gaffs.

Most people, and importantly most Catholics, are not insiders. They hear outrageous statements and PR gaffs as the whole presentation of authorities. This round of the crisis has had so many gaffs: overblown comparisons of Benedict’s sufferings with the crown of thorns, reference to the crisis as “petty gossip,” defensive claims of unfair media coverage. Benedict’s pointing toward the “enemy” the devil as involved in the timing of the crisis earned applause from the enthusiastic insiders gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Outside it could only sound like a parody of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” or Flip Wilson, depending on one’s generation. Regardless of pop culture resonance, it provided a sound bite that reduced a nuanced address to a cosmic denial of responsibility.

The release of the new guidelines on grave ecclesial crimes that combined the codification of new procedures regarding clerical sexual abuse with penalties for the ordination of women mark a new low point.

As a theologian, one of my day-to-day jobs is to explain the logic behind Vatican decisions. For my many progressive friends, I also struggle to retrieve aspects of Church documents that get overlooked by the media and marginalized by the conservative Catholic pundits that so effectively edits the Magisterium to serve the goals of American neoconservatism.

But the emails that come in on this are just unanswerable. “Vatican rules equate pedophilia and ordaining women,” read one. Certainly, one could offer a careful exegesis that notes the distinction between moral and sacramental violations. One could explain that this is the official codification of a number of changes that have been in the works. But none of that will repair the damage that could have been avoided by issuing two separate documents at two different times.

It shows that the Vatican is either profoundly clueless about the audience to which it speaks or it simply does not consider them important. Either way, this profoundly undermines its teaching authority. The damage goes far beyond this statement. Much of the Gospel wisdom stewarded by the Church is profoundly counter cultural; easily dismissed as cluelessness. The legitimacy of the whole teaching suffers with such astounding displays of real cluelessness.

This is not a shallow matter of PR. It matters profoundly for the Church. We live in a time of very shallow socialization, when cultural and religious memory is very thin. There were perhaps times when the church could conceive of its primary communications channels as internal. The modern secular press was something else, outside, a matter of relations to other publics. Now the media sphere is the primary place where believers encounter church leaders and form their opinions about the faith.

One of the most sobering studies I’ve read in the past decade was the 2007 Barna study of young peoples’ attitudes toward Christianity. The study documents high levels of skepticism regarding Christianity among those who are younger than 30. The vision of Christianity they have is largely that of the conservative culture warriors that have dominated the media during their lifetimes. The face of Christianity has been remade in the media sphere. The study documents an astounding decline among younger generations of those who identify themselves as Christian…even among those raised within church going families.

In his prime, John Paul II engaged the media with great facility. He was able to project the plausibility of the faith to a broad audience, even to those who disagreed with his particular policies and teachings. The great irony in all of this is that through the entire crisis, Benedict was much more attentive and active in addressing the problem of clerical sexual abuse. Unfortunately his failures as a communicator are swamping this.

 “Thinking in centuries” is one of the riches the Church brings to an ever changing world.  It can also be a handicap when it leads the it to act as if nothing has changed. For good or ill, media space has become one of the primary mediations of the Church. We can wish this were not the case, but we must face the reality.

Vincent Miller


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Jack Barry
11 years ago
Forget the term "PR"; it's tainted.  The over-arching problem you begin to address above is "public relations."  The "public" is you, me, and millions more, Catholic and non-.  The "relations" are communications - spoken, written, and symbolic (liturgy, cathedrals, incense, vestments, relics, etc.).     Communication fails whenever the recipients lack confidence in the reliability of the source.  Communication fails whenever the source and recipients do not share a minimal set of basic understandings about the area of interest.   
The current lack of trust and sense associated with the Vatican and hierarchy leaves them more isolated in the age of the Internet than stone walls did in the past.   Vatican officials could do worse than step outside and hire a few of the better reporters who hang  around waiting for the next "gaffe", to use your charitable terminology.  Their knowledge, skills, and experiences are germane, among others, if the Church is to rediscover what it's here for and communicate that to the public.  
ed gleason
11 years ago
Take A/B Weurl's statement. which had the effect of doubling down on the Vatican 'gaffe'. Who asked him to do an add on??. Would clumsy BP let a local manager do a minimizer annoucement that in effect magnified the gaffe after the CEO made his initial 'gaffes' ? No... and we all know how inept BP is.
One doubts that the Vatican 'public relations' asked Weurl to 'bail them out'..  but count on 'helpful Harrys ' to jump in.. I'm awaiting A/B Burke to toss in his two cents. .
11 years ago
"Much of the Gospel wisdom stewarded by the Church is profoundly counter cultural; easily dismissed as cluelessness.  The legitimacy of the whole teaching suffers with such astounding displays of real cluelessness."

I don't think people dimiss the church because its gospel message is too ciunter-cultural or clueless, they dismiss the church because the messages it's sending out,  and the church itself, seem more and more to have little to do with the gospel.
11 years ago
Sadly, I thought this piece was also a piece of PR - that the problem is with the clueless unlearned horde of Catholics who the hierarchy ineptly comunicates with.
The author assumes all is well with the caonical philosphical buttressing of basic faith matters and seems to say they are magisterial (what kind of magisterium -ordinary or extraordinary?) and immutable.
I thought tha John Allen's piece on these in NCR   reflected  the curial approach that the suthor here thinks is quite sacred; I think the analysis at NPR of the event underscores the historical context and how BXVI and the Vatican are determined to maintain against the evil secular world.
The dynamic of defense and retrogression to maintain "purity" informs the thinking here and fobbing it off as the clueless Catholics who don't really understand is not to understand the problem itself.
Brendan McGrath
11 years ago
I thought it might be good to draw attention to a post by Elizabeth Scalia on her Anchoress blog at First Things on this issue, in which she really rips the curia: 

It seems significant to me as an additional example of how more ''conservative'' (labels are so tricky) Catholics are finally beginning to criticize not simply the sexual abuse by priests, but the mishandling of all of this by the hierarchy (both in terms of cover-up and the insensitivity and refusal to hold bishops accountable, etc.). 

This would be the next item on a list I posted earlier of key moments we may (hopefully) look back on later as unnoticed signs that something new was starting.  For those interested, here's what I said before in a previous post:

We're sort of in the midst of night with lots of bad news recently, but I wonder if something else is starting without our noticing it; maybe it's only later that we'll be able to look back and trace it.  (I know I'm being optimistic here.)  But here's a few possible moments in this ''start of something'':

1) Peggy Noonan breaking the silence (at least what's always seemed to me as silence) among more conservative Catholics about accountability for bishops with her column several weeks ago, which culminated with the closing line that Cardinal Law should not be where he is, and should be ''neither mitred, nor ringed.''  Was this column the start of something?  Up until then, it always seemed to me (and I could be wrong) that more ''conservative'' Catholics - the EWTN, Knights-of-Columbus type crowd that the hierarchy cannot ignore as they can Voice of the Faithful, etc. - would only talk about addressing priestly sex abuse (which many linked to homosexuality), but never show any awareness about the need for bishops to be removed or resign, etc.  (Again, this is just my impression, and obviously there could be exceptions, but I haven't seen many high-profile ones.)

2) EWTN's Raymond Arroyo discussing the scandal with a guest on ''The World Over,'' and reading quotes from Peggy Noonan's column, including the final ''neither mitred, nor ringed'' bombshell.  I.e., Arroyo FINALLY talked about the need for bishops to be removed and held accountable - it was significant in that someone on EWTN was criticizing bishops for something other than taking liberal positions, etc.

3) The resignations of Irish bishops, Archbishop Martin saying and doing the right things (wasn't Brady also pretty good on this, or am I confusing him with someone else?), etc. - basically, the Irish bishops seemed much less tone-deaf and willfully obtuse than the American hierarchy.

4) Cardinal Schonborn's comments.

5) That piece over at First Things by Joseph Bottum saying that Cardinal Sodano needs to go.

6) The Belgian police raid - could this start to rattle Benedict and make him realize words aren't enough?

7) Bishop Dowling's comments.

Is something starting?  Or do these things seem more significant to me than they actually are?  I love the Church, believe in infallibility, etc., and it's precisely because I believe that the papacy and the episcopacy are divinely established that I am angry and frustrated at the pope and various members of the hierarchy whose actions or lack thereof have caused more and more people to reject the papacy, the episcopacy, and the Church as a whole.
11 years ago
Sexual abuse of children by priests and the ordination of women. What do they have in common? Sin and disobedience. Sin and disobedience lead where? To death. How do any of  us more easily fall prey? We absent ourselves from prayer and the Sacraments. Any one who is of the opinion that the Enemy is not involved in the violation of children by priests and the ordination of women, is simply not paying sufficent attention. A review of the Spiritual Exerices is in order. Pope Benedict has exhorted us to return to prayer and the Sacraments. He has directed us. We don't like the answer:

I now wish to propose to you some concrete initiatives to address the situation.

At the conclusion of my meeting with the Irish bishops, I asked that Lent this year be set aside as a time to pray for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church in your country. I NOW INVITE ALL OF YOU TO DEVOTE YOUR FRIDAY PENANCES, FOR A PERIOD OF ONE YEAR, BETWEEN NOW AND EASTER 2011, to this intention. I ask you to OFFER UP FASTING, YOUR PRAYER, YOUR READING OF SCRIPTURE AND YOUR WORKS OF MERCY  in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland. I ENCOURAGE YOU TO DISCVOER ANEW THE SACRAMENT OF RECONCILIATION and to avail yourselves more frequently of the transforming power of its grace.

The Bishop of Rome has spoken. We are not interested. Why? We seem always to know better at America Magazine.
11 years ago
Maria- I guess it's always easy to take a few cheap shots at the Jesuits or the readers of this magazine/ blog - alas the focus here ( or as Mr McGrath clearly outlines, even at those other 'liberal' news outlets like EWTN, First Things, Peggy Noonan) was on the overall messages coming from Rome and the Vatican's various offices- not just the papal letter you reference from several months ago.

Actually IMO many Catholics of conservative - middle of the road and progressive stripes would welcome the continuing messages and actions the Bishop of Rome and his appointed staff be as consistent and focused as the letter to people of Ireland. 

The average person - catholic or non-catholic - does not for one second think that it was just cannon law legalize this week that resulted in a major announcement ( with lots of advance press leaks from Rome ) by the Vatican codifying new norms for the removal of priests and religious who rape children AND THEN EQUATING this to the attempt to ordain women priests. The idea that the blame for how this was reported belongs with the secular press in this situation is plain sophistry. ( I hate defending the MSM most of the time - but the response this time was not only predictable and expected- it was desired IMO) They wanted to water down the message and take a few digs at the 'liberals' - and in the process re-affirmed just how clueless they are that how the hierarchy has addressed this debacle has harmed the Church.

I am with Noonan- it is long past time that the former Archbishop of Boston get deposed of his fancy title in Rome based on his willful negligence in ignoring the USCOB processes for addressing sex abuse by priests and allowing child rape to go on and on under his watch. Perhaps Law can take a cue from BXVI's recent tour and follow the lead of St Celestine and go and live a life prayer in a hermitage. ( FYI Celestine lived the remainder of his life under house arrest) It would be a start.

Then we may begin to believe that the prayers and penance of Lent will be followed by a real commitment to truly change.
Jim McCrea
11 years ago
Vincent:  what you have posted as the Ross Douhat link is actually the same as the link to. the 2007 Barna study.

Tamzin Simmons
11 years ago
It doesn't make sense though, David. That's the problem. The credibility of the Church continues to be seriously undermined because of a failure on the part of the Vatican to recognise and anticipate the way things will be reported. And this is apart from its credibility being undermined because of the moral failures that have come to light. At least the 'PR gaffes' could be repaired easily enough

I actually think the secular press (at least online) are good at providing relevant information when they report a story to do with the Catholic world-links to documents that they refer to etc.

James Lindsay
11 years ago
The Cynics Proof of God is that people continue to find grace in the Sacraments, regardless of the folly of the Church and its hierarchy.  The current situation is no differrent.  What has changed, however, is the ability of the faithful to demand other arrangements and the likelihood that the Holy Father is working behind the scenes to make changes that the Curia would never let him make openly.  I have more faith in him than I do in them.
James Lindsay
11 years ago
Mary, w?????????hile there is room for devotion in this crisis, indeed there is always room for devotion for both personal contact with God and for group celebration of God's pressence and our common salvation, engaging in it does not relieve the people of God of its responsibilities to clean house - as we to?o are ??the? ????Church? ????????a?n?d? ?w?e? ?c?a?n?n?o?t? ?r?e?m?a?i?n? ?i?n? ?c?o?n?s?c?i?e?n?c?e? ?r?e?m?a?i?n? ?s?i?l?e?n?t?.? ? ??I?n?d?e?e?d?,? ?t?h?e? ?s?a?c?r?a?m?e?n?t?s?? ?s?u?s?t?a?i?n? ?u?s? ?i?n? ?o?u?r? ?t?a?s?k?. 
11 years ago
Michael: I think what is oft missed in a discussion of this sort is what the Pope so clearly understands: this is a spiritual crisis driven by faithlessness. We can ascribe the crisis to faulty PR or media problems or bad Bishops or politics. At the root of this "crisis" is  disobedience. Pride leads to the sin of disobedience Disobedience leads to death.  Spiritual death of priests and religious. The Enemy breeds division. This is, bye the bye, precisely where the Enemy wants us all.

Wether disobedience manifests as the sexual abuse of children by priests or women seeking ordination, we are talking about sin, the violation of the  commandments and a refusal to acknowelege the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. Papal primacy. Humility and obedience are borne of the Sacraments. Hence, the call to Confession and Adoration. Do we forget that the Holy Spirit moves and guides the Chuch? Me? I think the Pope can manage without my guidance. And I think that the "crisis" is solved on bended knee.
Vince Killoran
11 years ago
Maria's comment reminds me of the "moderate" white Southerner in the 1950s & early 1960s who chalked up the Jim Crow system to a few bad apples-and, they argued, it was not systematic factors embedded in the region's and nation's race relations.  No need for court decisions or messy legislation . . .

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