When PR makes the Church
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.